Introduction: “Gattai Girls” is a series of posts dedicated to looking at giant robot anime featuring prominent female characters due to their relative rarity within that genre.
Here, “prominent” is primarily defined by two traits. First, the female character has to be either a main character (as opposed to a sidekick or support character), or she has to be in a role which distinguishes her. Second, the female character has to actually pilot a giant robot, preferrably the main giant robot of the series she’s in.
For example, Aim for the Top! would qualify because of Noriko (main character, pilots the most important mecha of her show), while Vision of Escaflowne would not, because Hitomi does not engage in any combat despite being a main character, nor would Full Metal Panic! because the most prominent robot pilot, Melissa Mao, is not prominent enough.
Juusou Kikou Dancouga Nova, the 2007 sequel to the 1980s anime series Choujuu Jishin Dancouga, can be considered in some ways the epitome of an “average” anime. A more accurate description, however, would be that it’s a show that is overall somehow fun and satisfying despite not living up to a lot of the ideas it presents, which is evident in not only its narrative but also its sense of characterization.
The basic premise of the anime is that four unrelated people in Japanese society are summoned to pilot the mighty super robot Dancouga Nova, which intervenes in battlefields around the world in order to aid the losing side. However, rather than simply aiding the weak, this mission of Dancouga Nova’s is quite literal, as it will defend a military force one day and attack it the next, depending on that force’s relative strength in any given scenario. It’s an interesting idea to be sure, and Dancouga Nova even takes some steps to explore its consequences (a journalist character actively questions whether or not Dancouga Nova’s actions are merely creating stalemates that perpetuate war, for instance), but given the obvious question of what this will all possibly lead to, the series responds by more or less dropping the issue like a hot potato and shouting, “aliens!!!” Then they fight the aliens and it’s fairly exciting, but it leaves one wondering where the rest of the story went. As an aside, for some reason I find this less disappointing than how Gundam 00 transitioned between similar plot points despite being a stronger work overall.
Given these issues, it would be reasonable to expect the show’s treatment of its characters to be equally inconsistent. This is indeed the case to a fair extent, as the members of the Dancouga Nova team are all defined by sets of traits that seem destined to lead jokes about their personalities that fall pretty flat, (though they don’t come across as unbearable). Dancouga Nova gunner Tachibana Kurara for instance does the Golgo-13-esque “Never approach me from behind” thing, but the fact that she says it every time the situation calls for it turns it from an interesting character trait to a catch phrase that wears out its welcome (like most of the quips in the series). Main character and team leader Hidaka Aoi has the fewest of these qualities, which makes her lead position more enjoyable than if anyone else had as much of a spotlight.
However, whatever weakness in plot and characterization that exists in the show, it’s worth nothing that its portrayal of the female pilots is for the most part neither putting them on a pedestal above men nor subordinating them to supportive roles. A number of series that focus on groups of female characters both inside and outside of the mecha genre have a tendency to be about how beautiful and wonderful the girls are, a setup which has its place, but here the team of four is divided between two men and two women, all of whom contribute in battle evenly.
(It’s also interesting that all of the pilots are adults, rather than teenagers).
An additional female character is added later, but is shown to be just as effective as the others (and for a while is even their rival). Aoi herself is more or less a solid if underdeveloped character in terms of her portrayal, and while one possible criticism might be that she lacks agency in that she’s thrown right into the thick of things with little say in the matter, that’s more a problem for all of the characters in the show regardless of gender. In fact, the only point of “inequality” might be that the female characters (Kurara is a narcotics officer, Aoi is a professional racer and model) are more glamorous than the guys’ (salaryman and hobo). However, beyond this, neither male or female characters are rendered useless, and even the sole situation that might be considered a “damsel-in-distress” situation is more a matter of a female character staying to fight knowing that she’s at a clear disadvantage due to a number of factors wholly unrelated to her gender.
This is not to say that this series is aiming for a strong sense of feminism. On some level, all of the girls in Dancouga Nova are clearly supposed to be attractive feminine ideals, albeit in different ways. Fanservice, or more broadly the overt sexualization of its female characters, is certainly present in the series in quite a noticeable way. However, while creatively positioned camera angles and bouncing breasts appear throughout the anime, at the same time they are also not so prominent that fanservice becomes raison d’être for Dancouga Nova unlike a number of other similar series. For the most part, the anime keeps the “cheesecake” separate from the fighting, so battles do not consistent of prominent T&A shots while the female characters are being tossed around in their cockpits. Some revealing shots do occur in the action scenes, but they’re usually brief and fairly mild, and instead the summoning of weapons and the destruction of enemy mecha comes across as powerful and mostly gender-neutral.
When it comes to Aoi in particular, I do find it notable that while she is a fairly hot-blooded type as befits a super robot protagonist, she still comes across as relatively subdued as far as passionate yelling pilots are concerned, especially when compared to the hero of the original Dancouga, Fujiwara Shinbou. In contrast, there is a similar character in Dancouga Nova, Kamon Sakuya (the homeless one), but his attempts at playing the role of the 70s super robot hero are, like Kouji from Godannar, mostly a source of comic relief. A part of me wonders if this is making some kind of statement, that the old school nekketsu inevitably makes way for a newer type to fit modern times. I must admit that my impression of Dancouga comes mainly from its appearance in Super Robot Wars and just a little bit of the actual show, but even from this partial view Dancouga is famous for its passionate yelling and a dynamic visual style that makes even standing still an exciting assault of flashing lights and colors and crazy exaggerated proportions courtesy of Obari Masami (animator on Dancouga, director of Dancouga Nova). Perhaps in light of this, the look of Dancouga Nova is not as exaggerated either. I would have chalked this up to “digital animation,” except Choujuushin Gravion, also directed by Obari, proves otherwise.
Dancouga Nova is a simple show that presents a female mecha lead who, while not exactly at the forefront of feminism, is strong, confident, narratively significant, and passionate enough that it’s easy to wonder why more characters aren’t like Aoi. It’s not so much that she’s a shining example of a great protagonist, but rather that she (or a character like her) should be the base line of what is minimally required for a heroine in this type of show. Aoi can be a bit simplistic, but in that way that defines a generation of male heroes in giant robot anime. Of course, as Dancouga Nova shows, being able to portray a female character well doesn’t necessarily mean a show itself is going to be amazing or that it won’t have its fair share of problems, but all the same Dancouga Nova is made better for having a lead like Aoi.