The Real Captain Planet: Brave Fighter of Legend Da Garn

The 1990s Brave franchise—most famously known for its swan song, King of Braves Gaogaigar—is a series of children’s anime centered on boy heroes and their heavily merchandisable giant robots. While the overall quality varies, each show indicates a push and pull between being half-hour toy commercials, displaying impressive mecha animation, telling stories that kids enjoy, and imparting important lessons for young viewers. Over the years, I’ve been told multiple times that one of the turning points is 1992’s Brave Fighter of Legend Da Garn: the third entry and first to attempt a more mature and long-form story. Having finally watched it, I can see a more serious yet also a scattershot approach that belies the competing forces dictating the direction of Da Garn.

Takashiro Seiji is a normal ten year old boy whose mother is a news anchor and whose father is a member of Earth’s Global Defense Force. When a mysterious robot attacks the city, he comes across a power lying within the Earth itself that manifests itself as a giant robot guardian known as Da Garn. As the masked commander, Seiji leads Da Garn, and eventually other robot allies who emerge, against ever greater threats—especially the enemy’s ongoing attempt to rob the Earth of its “planet energy.” There’s an ongoing environmentalism and world peace theme underlying everything, exemplified by a line from the opening theme: “This planet is our cherished ship.”

Due to this show’s opening, I once had a very mistaken impression of Seiji. The way he’s drawn and animated in it, there are times when he looks like an adult. It’s almost as if they either hadn’t decided his age, or figured that making him look 6 feet tall and muscular would make for a more exciting intro regardless of how odd it looks. Whatever the case, my expectations had to be modified, though Seiji’s quality voice acting from Matsumoto Rica (best known as Satoshi from Pokemon) helps keep him an endearing if somewhat typical protagonist.

The robots, in typical Brave fashion, are all about combining. Da Garn combines with a plane and a train to become Da Garn X. Later robots combine together and then get additional partners to combine together. However, they’re also kind of a thematic hodgepodge. Da Garn himself is a police car. He gets plane allies and motor vehicle allies. Then they start introducing robots based on animals, even making it seem like one is going take over as the star of the show, as if someone said, “The surveys say kids like lions!!”

There are so many mecha, and they’re given so few opportunities to show their personalities, that only a handful ever get highlighted, leaving many to be less memorable. In contrast, it’s hard to forget any of the robots in Brave Police J-Decker or Gaogaigar. Even compared to a series like Girls und Panzer (which also groups a gigantic cast into “squads” with collective personalities), Da Garn can feel sparse in terms of characterization. The main exception to this glut is an antagonistic robot named Seven Changer, who (of course) has seven different forms, and whose cool arrogance is delivered effectively by Koyasu Takehito (Dio in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure).

Speaking of villains, I’m not sure if I’d call them particularly strong, but they are definitely memorable, and they’re explored in great detail. Many of their identifies are initially a mystery, and they’re woven into the simultaneous small-town/global atmosphere in interesting ways. As the series progresses, their stories are increasingly a part of the narrative, and it allows Da Garn to touch upon ideas that would make less sense with Seiji or any of his friends. In fact, I’d argue that the anime doesn’t really find its footing until it starts to do more with its villains.

Brave Fighter of Legend Da Garn ends up being the kind of work that is best viewed as taking a step beyond its trappings and its immediate predecessors while still somewhat beholden to them. It’s polished in some areas like visual presentation and general momentum of its narrative, but it sometimes succumbs to the weight of all the different expectations placed upon it. But while it may be outdone by later Brave series, it’s still a joy to experience, quirks and all.

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Gattai Girls 9: “Mobile Police Patlabor” OVA 1 and Izumi Noa [Anime Secret Santa]

Introduction: For the second year in a row, I’m combining my Reverse Thieves’ Anime Secret Santa entry with my Gattai Girls review series—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, preferably the main giant robot of the series she’s in.

The year is 1988, and the long-standing image of giant robots in anime fluctuates between either fantastic heroes and gritty, expansive science fiction. In this environment, one multimedia franchise decides to ask a simple yet potential-laden question: how does a society police its citizens in a world where mecha are commonplace?

In the near future of Patlabor, humanoid robots are commonly used in various industries, the police have also decided to incorporate mecha known as Patrol Labors into their forces. Patlabor follows Special Vehicles Unit 2, a ragtag bunch of eccentrics who solve Labor-related crimes. While there are multiple iterations of Patlabor, including anime, TV series, OVAs, and films (all of which apparently have branching continuities), this review will be focused on the first OVA series, titled simply Mobile Police Patlabor, but also known as Patlabor: The Early Days.

At first, Patlabor presents itself as a fairly low-stakes works, with its eclectic cast of officers and mechanics trying to deal as much with each other as the crimes they’re supposed to prevent. However, it gradually reveals concerns that are deeper and broader than first expected—provided you peel back the curtain a little bit. Over the course of the seven episodes of the first OVA series, those “Labor crimes” (not sure if pun intended) often speak to underlying social issues in Japan such as the struggle between pacifism and militarism that has affected the nation since World War II.

Such themes are the wheelhouse of the OVA’s director, Oshii Mamoru, and he gets even more philosophical about the intersection between technology and society in his Patlabor films. Here in the first OVA, though, Oshii doesn’t go nearly as hard on his pet topics, and the result is a comparatively much more straightforward story. The OVA is much more willing to be a police drama with some underlying political messages, and thus more approachable for those who might feel the films to be too overbearing.

But it’s also impossible to shake the idea that Patlabor cares relatively little about what it presents on the surface, especially when it comes to the treatment of the ostensible protagonist, Izumi Noa. If one were to guess what Patlabor is about from just the opening alone, one would assume that Noa is the star of the show, as she relaxes with, takes care of, and fights in her beloved Patlabor, Alphonse. In fact, she’s the only character who appears in it at all! Yet, somehow, the clear poster child for Patlabor as a whole only ever has a semi-major part at best in any of the episodes.

It’s not as if Noa is portrayed as useless or incompetent or in need of big, strong man to rescue her, but her general character—tomboyish robot lover with a knack for piloting—seems to have the least connection to the series’s underlying focus on the intersection between politics and technology. In contrast, Shinohara Azuma is the son of the president of a Labor-manufacturing company, while Goto is the deceptively intelligent and wily chief whose past has him confront the militaristic elements of Japan. Even the other prominent female characters, Kanuka Clancy and Nagumo Shinobu, seem to get more screen time than Noa because they’re tied much more deeply with the police system. Ironically, the woman who was to be the heroine by virtue of her neutral and apolitical passion for mecha ends up feeling more like a side character.

Overall, Mobile Police Patlabor seems to embody much of the OVA spirit that permeated anime in the 80s and 90s by providing an opportunity for projects to go in unique and interesting directions. The result is a fascinating series, but also one that seems in conflict with itself at times.

Gaogaigar vs. Betterman Manga Chapter 1: Go Read It!

Us Gaogaigar fans had long waited for a new sequel, a call that was answered this past year through the Hakai-Oh: Gaogaigar vs. Betterman novel series. In more recent news, Sunrise announced a manga adaptation, and the first chapter has been available online for the past month or so.

Having read through the first novel, this manga seems to be adapting the contents pretty faithfully. This might go without saying, but the key advantage of the manga version is that it’s more visual—a welcome thing given that Gaogaigar as a whole thrives on visual spectacle.  It’s also a lot easier to follow if your Japanese language proficiency isn’t especially strong.

I’m not sure what the schedule is for this manga, but I’m hoping that having it so easily accessible means that Gaogaigar fans will be able to rally around it, and really give it the attention it deserves.

Beyond Expectations: Planet With

Imagine a long-running anime series that finally hits its climax, and winds down with an incredible conclusion. It seems like the perfect place to end the story, satisfying and complete yet somehow making you feel like you’d like to dive back into that world someday.

Now imagine if this anime received a follow-up. You love this series, but feel trepidation. After all, sequels are notorious for often failing to live up to the original, and you want your memory to remain untainted. Still, you give it a chance…and it’s even better than the first one! How is this possible? While you’re reeling from having your faith rewarded, you find out that, once again, this isn’t the end. Another sequel has been announced! And another. And another. Each time, you worry that something might go wrong, but it never does. Before you know it, hundreds of episodes have passed, and you can’t help but feel that the world is a different place.

Except you realize it’s only been twelve episodes. All of those years you swore had passed you by were contained within three months. That feeling is essentially what it’s like to watch Planet With.

Based on a manga by Mizukami Satoshi (Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer, Spirit Circle), Planet With is rare among anime adaptations because the original author actually specifically created the storyboards for the animated version. While the anime and manga apparently do diverge, there’s a certain level of consistency that can only be achieved through such hands-on involvement. If it wasn’t clear from the opening paragraphs, the value this provides comes across in the final work in spades.

Initially, Planet With feels “unstable.” It’s difficult to establish a foothold as a viewer. What are these bizarre, giant totems flying through the air? Who is this seeming hodgepodge of people declaring that they’re here to defend the Earth? Where did they get their mysterious-looking armors from, and are they science or magic? Who is this kid who’s clearly supposed to be the main character, and why is he living with an overly cheerful maid who translates for an eerie bipedal cat that looks related to Chiyo’s Dad from Azumanga Daioh? Who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy?

The answers come, with time. As the story moves forward, the scope and the stakes expand exponentially, but Planet With never feels emotionless or distant. There’s something very personal about the series, but rather than fighting with the increasingly grandiose scale, those two sides feed off of each other. It’s a work that feels both impossibly large and unfathomably small, as if it took some of the best parts of Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars, Brigadoon, Gurren-Lagann, and (of course) Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer and mixed them all together.

The most pleasant surprise about Planet With is that while it seems to go to the ends of the universe and back both literally and metaphorically, it never stops being an uplifting piece of science fiction. Somehow, it takes even the wackiest possible moments and contextualizes them into gripping scenes that ignite both heart and mind and asks the two to harmonize. From beginning to end, it can practically feel like a lifetime, and I mean that in the best way possible.


The Big O and Loving Robots

Warning: Spoilers for The Big O.

Artificial intelligence is one of those staples of science fiction, a bridge between the mechanical and the biological. For if an AI can achieve true sentience, it entails a whole host of questions about the meaning of life. In anime, one recurring topic is how artificial intelligence intersects with love—whether AIs are capable of love, and whether it is morally right to love an AI.

While something like Chobits is more (in)famous in its approach to the subject of love and AI, my favorite example is actually the mecha anime The Big O. While not the central narrative, protagonist Roger Smith’s relationship with his robot assistant R. Dorothy Wayneright is an ongoing plot thread that grounds an otherwise stylishly obtuse series.

Throughout The Big O, Roger is often verbally dismissive of Dorothy, bringing up her android qualities as evidence of what makes her unable to compare to humans. However, this is portrayed as a kind of denial defense mechanism, as he gradually finds himself attracted to and more in love with Dorothy. The impression is that Roger believes he’s not supposed to love her, and that perhaps he’s only drawn by her created and manufactured traits. Yet Dorothy, despite exhibiting very “robotic” mannerisms, seems to have an all too human side of her. And while her characteristic monotone is a source of comedy, it also seems to be a defense mechanism of her own—a constant reminder for herself and Roger that there are supposedly limits to how close they can be.

In one episode, Roger and Dorothy are Christmas shopping, and Roger steps into an elevator. He beckons Dorothy to get in as well, and she initially hesitates. When she finally does join Roger, the elevator comes to an emergency stop. Dorothy, weighing many times more than any human, put it over the weight limit. A moment of awkwardness ensues between the two, at least visibly on Roger’s side. Whether or not Dorothy is bothered by it is difficult to discern due to her apparent nature. Still, Roger and Dorothy seem to share a special connection. Nothing says more about their relationship than the iconic shot of Dorothy inside the Big O, her hand over Roger’s as he readies for a fight against three enemy Megadeuses at the end of Season 1.

Underlying all of this is the notion that love comes part and parcel with sentience. If Dorothy is nothing more then an android whose artificial intelligence is nothing more than a highly advanced computer, then that love feels “wrong” for Roger. But if it speaks toward a complexity beyond prediction, then Dorothy is an equal to Roger and therefore just as capable of love and being loved. In that situation, she must possess agency, and cannot be an object merely to be used. She must be her own being to the point that she can love or not love, and then make decisions of her own as to whether or not to follow along. In other words, it is morally right to love an AI if they can truly reciprocate, if human and robot stand on even footing.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

Otakon 2018 Interview: Kawamori Shoji

This interview was conducted at Otakon 2018 in Washington, DC.

In your anime, you often visit the theme of love as power, or the power of love, even in your mecha and science fiction settings such as Macross, Escaflowne, and Aquarion. What draws you to this subject?

I always wanted to be original, and not like others. In previous science fiction anime, having love in the main theme was unheard of. You’d have love among the sub-characters, but not with the principle ones. So it’s something I always wanted to incorporate.

My next question is about Macross 7. I find the characters of Basara and Sivil have a unique relationship or a special connection. How would you describe their relationship in the story?

If you look at the character of Nekki Basara himself, he is unique in all of the Macross series. I thought it would not be fitting for him to be engaged in just a normal love affair, and he should have something that transcends love—like a resonance or clash of souls. The director of Macross 7, Amino Tetsurou, is someone who values the idea of passion, over any sort of details. It would just be a story of souls clashing.

I noticed in your credits that you worked on Toushou Daimos as a mechanical designer. Did you have an opportunity to work with Director Nagahama directly, and if so, do you have any memories of him?

I didn’t have much opportunity to speak to Director Nagahama on Daimos. Of course, I met him, but most of the interaction was through reading and looking at the storyboards that he draw. I did the designs through that. I really got to talk to him more on Ulysses 31. He was quite the gentleman, and he had a real passion for incorporating and valuing drama in his stories.

You’ve designed many mecha for decades—for toy lines, for kids, for adults, and even for video games. What changes in your design process and thought process according to the type of project?

This is something I value so much that I would take an hour or two to talk about it in detail. I look at the worldview of the work, the setting, and the target audience—for example, if it’s a toy, what would be the age range? Those are all the important considerations: market, target, theme, and the worldview. Those are the principle elements that go into the design, and after I have that down, the rest comes more easily.

To pick a specific example, I really enjoy your designs in Eureka Seven. What particular concerns did you take into account for that project?

When I first received the order for Eureka Seven mecha design, the initial order was to have a transforming mecha from automobile form to humanoid. But since that was something I’ve done so many times, I didn’t think I could do anything new.

I held the world-building meeting with Director Kyoda and the principle writer, Sato Dai, and they told me that in the Eureka Seven world, they’re in a world saturated by trapar particles that allow ships to float, and that’s how travel is done. And I thought, if these particles allow large ships to float, I can easily envision them as waves, so you can have mecha that use the waves to float. Director Kyoda liked the idea, and once the concept of surfing was in, the actual design was easy.

While you’re better known for your accomplishments in science fiction and mecha, you also worked on a show called Anyamaru Tantei Kiruminzoo. It’s quite outside of your usual genres or wheelhouse. How did you come around to being on this project?

For me, since I’m known as a mecha designer, most clients tend to bring me that kind of work. But I always want to try out something new, and communication with animals is something I’ve always been interested in. So, in Anyamaru Tantei Kiruminzoo, we have a girl who would transform and communicate with animals. But in normal magical girl series, when you have a girl transform into a magical girl, she would become invincible. I didn’t want that. I wanted someone who would be more different from a human with human abilities. So I pitched the idea and fortunately, that’s how we got the show.

This is my last question. Traditionally, it hasn’t been common for non-Japanese artists to work on anime aside from the outsourcing done in South Korea, but Satelight has hired artists such as Thomas Romain and Stanislas Brunet. How did Satelight bring them aboard, and what is it like working with foreign artists?

That goes back to me and Macross with the concept of “deculture.” I’m very fond of the differences in cultures, because we all grew up in different backgrounds. We might be fond of the same things, but we might have different ideas and concepts about those same things. That’s great inspiration for myself, and it’s very enjoyable working with foreign artists at Satelight.

Satelight’s parent company is an IT company. As such, it’s always had a corporate culture that’s open to working with foreign employees. So, our current president, Sato Michiaki, never had any issues employing non-Japanese artists.

Thank you!

Gattai Girls 9: Darling in the Franxx and Zero Two

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.

— 

Darling in the Franxx is a mysteriously divisive anime, ripe for viewers of all stripes to interpret according to their personal values. Given a series whose messages appear to change depending on who you ask, it’s perhaps not so surprising that the main heroine of Darling in the Franxx, Zero Two, is just as much a whirlwind of contradictions.

Darling in the Franxx is a high-key sexually charged anime. If the doggy-style male-female combination cockpits weren’t enough, the series actively draws attention to the fact that the anime’s teen heroes live in a bizarre dystopia where their sexual energies are channeled into piloting giant mecha called Franxx. Covering subjects like love, sex, and marriage through both overt and relatively subtle metaphors, the anime is loved and hated in seemingly equal amounts on ways that contradict one another.

In Darling in the Franxx, Zero Two is the pilot of the robot Strelitzia. Far and away the most powerful weapon in humanity’s fight against the monstrous Klaxosaurs, Strelitzia would be their most reliable advantage if it didn’t come at a price: Any man who pilots with Zero Two inevitably ends up critically injured or dead. The protagonist, Hiro, ends up being the only guy who can survive Zero Two, and their combination becomes the key to turning the tide of battle. However, their connection ends up going back much further than either realize.

Is Zero Two an inspiring firebrand who lives by her own rules, or is she a fetishized sex object whose mere presence fulfills men’s fantasies? Is she an ideal girlfriend or a femme fatale? The answer is “yes.” She’s all these things and more, despite Zero Two being a difficult character to project one’s assumptions onto. She doesn’t have the appearance of an emotionless doll like an Ayanami Rei (Evangelion) or the “dishonest,” tsundere-esque feelings of a Souryuu/Shikinami Asuka Langley (Evangelion). She’s not an Asuna (Sword Art Online) either, who’s kindness and strength make her practically “good wife, wise mother” personified.

Zero Two is rebellious towards rules and authority, loyal to those she loves, and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve her goals. She can’t be pegged down or held back, and the only times she’s willing to show weakness are around people whom she truly trusts. She’s more than willing to take matters into her own hands, and has even rescued Hiro from being taken over by the enemy. Zero Two herself has never been damseled herself, and the only time Hiro had to reach out to bring her back was more in the metaphorical sense—diving deep into her mind and their shared past to keep Zero Two from going berserk.

Strelitzia itself is a fascinating piece of the puzzle that is Zero Two. The main mecha of Darling in the Franxx are feminine-looking, which goes against the tradition of primarily masculine designs. Those with a more feminine appearance tend to have attacks that draw attention to their “womanly” aesthetic as well, like how Aphrodite A in Mazinger Z shoots “Breast Missiles.” The Franxx are, aside from cute faces and a general feminine silhouette, not as overtly sexual on the outside. That being said, the workings of the cockpit mentioned above make it impossible to ignore sexual connotations, especially because the female pilots “become” their Franxx. Like the others, Zero Two’s facial expressions become Strelitzia’s, and when she talks to Hiro in fights, her display shows that robotic appearance instead of her own. Eventually, this integration of girl and machine gets taken further, driving home the theme of love in a way that both reinforces and defies the conventional cockpit setup.

Zero Two is strong and weak, cruel and compassionate, loving and spiteful. She’s a complete character in a certain sense, and a caricature in another. She is as much of what you want of her as you want, which means that on some level, she reflects the desires and/or anxieties of the viewer and their relationship with the world.