Introduction: The above title might seem like a confusing mess. The reason is that this post originally began as my annual review for the Reverse Thieves’ Anime Secret Santa, only for me to realize it also qualified for my ongoing Gattai Girls review series—posts dedicated to looking at giant robot anime featuring prominent female characters due to their relative rarity within that genre. So it’s a double special!
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, preferably the main giant robot of the series she’s in.
In the year 2070, middle school student and small-town resident Murata Hajime witnesses an extraterrestrial attack. To his surprise, Hajime’s neighbors in his town of Tenmo barely flinch, not even when a mysterious floating titan appears to stop the invader. It’s the beginning of a new life for Hajime, especially when he gets to know two of his classmates tied closely to the secrets of Tenmo: new transfer student Subaru Muryou and student vice-president Moriyama Nayuta.
2001’s Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars is an eclectic series. Also known as Gakuen Senki Muryou (“Record of School Wars Muryou”), Shingu combines science fiction mystery, small-town suspense, and everyday school life in a way that makes its continued enigmas consistently satisfying, even when it withholds answers. While the teasing of revelations and the subsequent disappointment of their reveals can often tank even the mightiest of works, Shingu always says just enough and encourages the use of imagination to fill in the blanks without feeling like a cop-out.
The deftness by which Shingu lays out it mysteries can be seen in one of the first scenes, when Muryou shows up for his first day of class in a school uniform. While this seems perfectly normal, it turns out that school uniforms haven’t been a thing for decades. Immediately, Muryou is shown to be unusual by placing him in an environment where what we perceive to be typical, i.e. school uniforms, simply isn’t. It’s an effect also used in the manga Coppelion to convey the uncanny quality of its main characters. The only explanation given is that Muryou got the uniform from his grandfather as a way to blend in, which puts Muryou potentially out of time, or at least sheltered from the world.
It’s actually difficult to pin down a true “main character” for the series. Based on the English title, it sounds like Nayuta is the central protagonist, due to the fact that she can transform into the titular Shingu. However, the Japanese title centers on Muryou, who is a major catalyst in the narrative. And while Hajime can come across as a generic audience stand-in, his seeming blandness actually plays an important role in the series, as his ability to go with the flow and keep and open mind are key to humanity’s development. Because this is a Gattai Girls entry, I’m going to focus more on Nayuta and how her role as the Shingu works in the anime.
Nayuta feels cut from the same tsundere cloth as Evangelion‘s Asuka, especially when contrasting her with another female character, the taciturn Mineo. Nayuta has a not-so-secret crush on Hajime and sports the signature hairstyle of the tsundere, the twintails, but she’s not solely defined by those traits. Bullheaded, hardworking, and always eager to do the right thing, Nayuta’s closer in kindred spirit to Sonoda Umi from Love Live!, at least if Umi had the ability to transform into an alien behemoth.
Incidentally, Nayuta is not voiced by the tsundere master, Kugimiya Rie. Instead, Kugimiya plays a different character, Hajime’s adorable little sister Futaba, with Nayuta being played by Park Romi. Shingu is one of many series where Park and Kugimiya work together, perhaps most famously Full Metal Alchemist.
The fact that each of the trio fulfills a very different role, with Hajime and Muryou generally providing support for Nayuta, also means that she is rarely ever overshadowed in battle. As for the Shingu itself, it’s is an unusual design—a hollow vessel resembling paper that is then “filled out” by taking control of a nearby energy source or element such as water. It feels more reminiscent of the monsters found in series like Evangelion and RahXephon, with a dash of Ultraman thrown in. Aesthetically, the Shingu comes across as a combination of the alien other and beings from Japanese folklore, like a science fictional shikigami or tsukumogami.
Director Satou Tatsuo is more well-known for the series Martian Successor Nadesico, and much of the humor and interaction there can be found in Shingu. However, its mix of SF and the everyday also results in something that feels like the anti-Evangelion. Both Shingu and Eva focus on a trio of middle school students who have varying access to special abilities and must fend off unknown alien-like attackers. Both can arguably fall into the sekai-kei genre—stories where the personal struggles of the individual manifest into global consequences and where often the fate of the world is tied to the relationship between a boy and a girl. But Shingu is also more than just “boys and girls”; it’s about community and history, and the ability for humanity to learn and grow. Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars nonchalantly moves from one unexpected place to another, varying in scale from local to cosmic, and believing in people along the way.