One of the most memorable things in ZZ Gundam is the character of Haman Karn, the series’ ultimate villain and a character who was introduced in its predecessor, Zeta Gundam. As the leader of the enemy forces of Axis, she is the orchestrator of all the conflict that takes place throughout the series, and her character serves as a distinctively threatening “true” villain in a series otherwise filled with minimally threatening comic figures. A key part of her presence on screen is the hugely entertaining energy with which voice actor Yoshiko Sakakibara plays the role – a theatrical, over-the-top performance that suits the often extremely silly action of ZZ as well as being a suitably menacing femme fatale when needed. Yet while Haman is a memorable character, and certainly one of the memories a viewer of ZZ will take away from the series, her role in the series itself is ultimately one of its weaker points.
I like ZZ Gundam, in many ways, for its faults – its slapstick, its meandering space adventure plot filled with odd characters who are frequently irritating. It is such a departure from Zeta‘s often unconvincing seriousness that it becomes its own entity – in many ways as much of a change from entry to entry as Zeta‘s efforts at dystopian science-fiction were from Mobile Suit Gundam‘s super-robot eccentricities. As a franchise, Gundam is continually being reinvented even within its core timeline to keep the formula different, if not always fresh or effective; 08th MS Team is more of a romance story, while Stardust Memory feels like a combination of every brash, macho action film of Hollywood with its story of stolen nuclear weapons, enemy extremists trying to bring down order with a politically hateable tyranny and so on. Thus it is hard to hate ZZ for trying to be a comedy, and it is indeed frequently very funny. That humour proceeds to be put aside for the series’ mid-section as the main plot – of a corrupt Earth Federation trying unsuccessfully to appease Haman’s empire while also seeking to profit economically from a tactically planned defeat – is brought to the foreground. Silliness in the main cast gives way to idealism – Judau and his crew are the only people, because of their immaturity, that want to do anything. This is pure Gundam – only children can look past the nonsense and bureaucracy of authority to do anything – and the joke becomes Bright Noa being the only adult to work this out (after two previous stories in which he has encountered exactly the same sequence of events). The stakes raise and raise as Haman becomes more important in the plot; Glemy and Mashmyre, the two joke villains who have been the antagonists so far, now have a leader to answer to who is a character beyond the woman whose house Judau breaks into in his madcap search for a kidnapped sister.
Haman is presented from the off as a villain leagues more powerful than any of her underlings; as the series explores the mysticism of the Newtype plot more, she is a psychic force that – when pitted against Judau’s similarly powerful psychic powers – can cause supernatural activity to occur. She is similarly an able pilot (as was also shown in Zeta Gundam), an able politician and generally a capable and powerful woman in a franchise which at times suffers from very poorly written women. If anything this is why she is so memorable; she is a villain with the skill and charisma of Char Aznable, the franchise’s poster child, and a woman – one who compares nothing but favourably in terms of writing-quality and agency to predecessors such as Scirocco’s harem in Zeta or Kycilia Zabi in Mobile Suit Gundam. Yet the comedy necessitates her underuse; a villain competent enough to succeed – as she does with the Dublin colony drop – despite having lackeys like Mashmyre is being depicted as a villain better suited to a more serious series. It is not, really, until the end of ZZ that Haman is given the chance to shine as a character. It is almost as if the writers seem unwilling to use her within the series – a “serious” character can work within a comedy by being the one staid one around whom humour happens. A good example of this is Miria Jenius in Macross 7; another case of an extraordinarily competent character in a previous work (SDF Macross / Do You Remember Love) being put within a slapstick comedy. Miria features as a key central character in M7, part of the comedy and equally able to be serious when needed. The humour comes in seeing her, the competent politician and ace pilot, having to deal with incongruous situations and marital strife; it is not hard to imagine how ZZ could have used Haman similarly. Indeed, scenes where she does participate in the comedy – such as episodes 39-41, where the action moves to the bizarre colony of Tigerbaum – are some of the best in the series. The unflappable leader of Axis setting up a masterful infiltration operation and subsequently ending up kidnapped by an inept, fat would-be evil genius with a shark tank and replica Forbidden City is funny but also – in how the arc resolves itself with a showdown between Judau and Haman – shows her competency.
Yet for the most part one could argue her character is too distant from the plot; there is some entertainment in how Judau is given more opportunities to meet and confront her than most and has no interest at first in her world-domination plot but the fact that her most important acts take place when the show is at its most serious really feel like a misuse of potential. Zeta was an entire series of political machinations and such; ZZ‘s efforts to recapture that with its Dublin arc and the opening of its Africa arc feel like incongruous imitations. Successfully destroying Dublin is a coup for Haman that cements her as a loathsome villain and would work well as an end to humour – but then the action once again becomes funny as the Argama leaves Earth, runs into Mashmyre with yet another sure-to-succeed secret weapon and ends up on Tigerbaum.
Ultimately it is hard not to admire the character of Haman Karn – she is a memorable, well-acted figure and one of the best-written women in the Gundam franchise (and I would argue up with Miria Jenius as one of the most memorable leading women in mecha animé more widely). But the way she is used in ZZ Gundam does not, I feel, do the best job of showing this. Keeping her as a distant threat would work in a serious series; in a series that is generally humourous, having such a stark contrast between the silliness of the action and the seriousness of the plot is something of a weakness. Indeed, for me, the most memorable moments in which Haman features in ZZ are when she does interact directly with the silly aspects – the first meeting with Judau in which both sides hardly care for each other, and the episodes surrounding Tigerbaum where – in true comedy style – competence butts heads with ineptitude. Those latter episodes even give her a chance to shine as a pilot – albeit in the amusing form of a duel between the obsolete amphibious machines Z’Gok and Acguy, rather than a serious, fated duel between Double Zeta and Qubeley.