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.

Advertisements

Gattai Girls 8: “Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars” and Moriyama Nayuta [Anime Secret Santa]

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.

 Overview

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.

Moriyama Nayuta

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.

Overall

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.

Gattai Girls 7: Shinkon Gattai Godannar and Aoi Anna

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.


This Gattai Girls entry is a bit unusual because I’ve already posted a review of the series before. Moreover, with a series like Godannar, I’ve already written extensively about the the portrayal of female characters because it’s all but unavoidable. If the prevalent fanservice wasn’t enough, there’s the fact that over half of the cast is women. While I’ll inevitably retread some old territory, this time around I’m going to focus more heavily on the main heroine of the story, Aoi Anna.

Godannar follows 17-year-old Aoi Anna, who’s engaged to burly, veteran robot pilot Saruwatari Gou in a May-December romance. Years ago, he rescued her from a monster attack, and eventually their feelings blossomed into love. But while she’s no slouch herself when it comes to mecha—she’s a prodigy who’s dreamed of fighting in a robot since childhood—Gou forbids her from becoming a full-fledged defender of the Earth. The reason? That’s how he lost his previous lover and trusty co-pilot. Still, Anna and Gou are humanity’s greatest weapons, as their robots combine into the might robot, Godannar Twin Drive, the “marriage of god and soul.”

From a characterization and narrative perspective, Anna’s story stands out in a way capable of overshadowing even the infamous double decker cheesecake of Godannar. Romance traditionally takes a backseat in many giant robot series, and when it does show up, such as in Macross, the two sides are often from different worlds, either metaphorically or literally. In Godannar, however, not only are Anna and Gou equal partners, but they have to work together as a team both personally and professionally. The cockpit becomes a second home of sorts, as they iron out their differences and fight the enemy. The series literally has relationship plot and mecha action resolve simultaneously, as if the two sides are permanently fused together, and it’s glorious. In a way, this is the story about the power of love, but it’s less “love defeats everything automatically” and more “love opens them up to resolve problems they couldn’t otherwise.”

In a certain sense, this heavy emphasis on relationships plays into the stereotype of girls only caring about guys, and one might even feel that Anna’s character is directly tied to her connection with Gou. While I think there’s some truth to that, I also find that Godannar‘s direct focus on its main couple (as well as many other couples throughout the series) is a big part of its, and by extension Anna’s, appeal. It’s basically a story about newlyweds who are also co-workers, and having to navigate that tricky interpersonal landscape. Through it all, Anna’s inner strength stands out. When Gou first tells her to stop piloting for her own sake, her response is that they have a duty to take care of each other as husband and wife. At one point, she feels herself unable to fight as Gou’s equal, but is able to find the motivation within herself to not back down in the end. By the end, due to unfortunate circumstances, she’s actually the one having to do the lion’s share of the work, to make up for what Gou can no longer do. Her strength, perseverance, and caring make her one of my favorite characters ever.

I’ve already made mention of it a couple of times, but when it comes to how women are depicted in Godannar, the series heavily sexualizes on a level where few other series can compare. To say otherwise would be disingenuous. When the girls, including Anna, are piloting their robots, they’re in ultra-form-fitting suits that leave less than nothing to the imagination. During combat, their breasts jiggle to and fro as if made from some alien substance. Even when they’re in regular clothing, the fabric hugs every curve as if holding on for dear life. The camera angles can also be extremely voyeuristic. Even if I wanted to say, “You should really just ignore all this,” that’s pretty much impossible whether you’re into heavy fanservice or not. There’s an incredibly good series with some strong, well-written characters both male and female there, but it requires either an acceptance or tolerance of just a non-stop barrage of sexual imagery.

One last aspect of the series I want to talk about is the interesting way it addresses the topic of gender roles. In the second season of Godannar, the enemy monsters begin to utilize a different tactic. Instead of just trying to out-muscle Earth’s giant robot forces, they also evolve to spread a virus that specifically targets hot-blooded, macho men—the very people who are supposed to excel at being mecha pilots. As the men become increasingly unable to fight, the women, led by Anna, have to take a stand. On the one hand, this plays into the idea that men are supposed to be strong and tough (though it should be noted that a more masculine girl gets hit by the disease while a more effeminate playboy guy does not). On the other, it brings up the notion that hyper-masculinity can become a weakness to be exploited.

Godannar is a contradictory anime. Its unrestrained sexualization of the female body makes it seem like a series all about pure objectification of women, but at the same time its female characters, notably its main heroine Anna, are fully realized characters who have goals and dreams and a desire to stand on their own feet. They’re fleshed out as human beings, but also practically the embodiment of “temptation of the flesh.” But if marriage is a union of separate yet compatible beings, then Godannar is an unlikely marriage of disparate elements that somehow, some way, work to make something beautiful.

 

 

Gattai Girls 6: The Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Jeanne Fránçaix

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, preferably 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.

— 

The Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross might be a mere footnote in anime history if not a confluence of factors. In Japan, it gains some notoriety by being the follow-up to Peruse in the Super Dimension franchise. In the United States, it was heavily edited into the second arc in the influential Robotech TV show, its characters transformed into completely different identities so as to bridge continuity with the previous Macross saga. Another feature, arguably more important in this day and age, is that Southern Cross is an action series that prominently features  capable heroines in leading roles and does not diminish their strengths.

In the future year 2120, humanity has ventured out and colonized space. On the planet Gloire, its denizens enter into a war with a mysterious alien force known as the Zor. Central to this story is a feisty 17-year-old girl named Jeanne Fránçaix, member of the 15th Squad of the Southern Cross’s Alpha Tactics Armored Corps. As Jeanne and her allies fight (and break the rules) on a regular basis, they learn the truth of the Zor, as well as the beauty and ugliness of humankind.

Southern Cross is something of a meandering show, with the largest and most compelling narrative developments coming quite late into the series. Given its early cancellation (indicated by its unusual count of 23 episodes) and its consequential rushed ending, the series is certainly flawed. However, its portrayal of a young and energetic group of soldiers going through life try to enjoy it more than dread it—less Gundam and more Patlabor. No character embodies this environment more than Jeanne herself.

Jeanne Fránçaix, Main Heroine

Jeanne possesses many features that could be deemed stereotypically female—boy-crazy, obsessed with fashion and shopping, and generally ruled by her emotions. Southern Cross also isn’t afraid to give her more than a few shower scenes to flaunt her to the audience. However, it’s important to note that she’ never really portrayed as a “weak” girl. Jeanne a capable soldier who ends up being a clever and shrewd commanding officer. She pays attention to the feelings of her comrades. And when it comes to one the major criteria for Gattai Girls—the requirement that the heroine actually pilot a giant robot and fight with it—Jeanne is practically second to none.

Neither Jeanne nor the other two major female characters, Marie Angel and Lana Isavia, ever end up becoming damsels. When they go into battle, they do so with great skill and as equals to the men with little underestimating of their abilities. Lana is less talented in this respect, but that’s also because her position is less combat-oriented. When the show later introduces another major female character, the Zor girl Musica, the fact that she’s more meek and waif-like is just one possible example of a girl, rather than the sole portrayal.

Marie Angel

Lana Isavia

I’ve read that Dana Sterling, Jeanne’s counterpart in Robotech, has a significantly different personality. I’ve never watched the Robotech Masters portion of that series, so I can’t say how Dana fares as a Gattai Girl, but I imagine the basic core of a talented and tough heroine is still there. It would take some extreme cuts to make Jeanne/Dana anything but admirable.

Jeanne’s personality, and by extension the strengths of Southern Cross, can be best summed up by the following. In the film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, there is a scene towards the end where the female character Laureline urges the hero Valerian to choose love over duty. However, it comes across as a bit incongruous in that context, as we see plenty of Laureline essentially working by the book as she fulfills her assignments as a soldier/agent. If Jeanne were in Laureline’s position while giving the same exact speech, it would make complete sense. Jeanne is driven by her passion, whether she shirks responsibility or embraces it.

We see Jeanne love. We see her lose. We see her lift friends up and take enemies down. For all the faults of Southern Cross, Jeanne transcends them. In many ways, she is far greater than the series from which she comes, but it’s also thanks to that world that we can see how strong she truly is.

 

Save

Gattai Girls 5: Juusou Kikou Dancouga Nova and Hidaka Aoi

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.

Gattai Girls 4: Aim for the Top! Gunbuster and Takaya Noriko

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.

It’s not uncommon for an anime to pay homage to its predecessors, but when the homage becomes a source of inspiration itself, then you have something special. That’s Aim for the Top! Gunbuster. The image of Gunbuster rising up from a ship with its arms crossed is especially famous, and for anyone to whom the phrase “female robot anime protagonist” is relevant, Takaya Noriko and the Gunbuster carry great significance. As I even use it in my introduction, it was only a matter of time before Gattai Girls got around to Aim for the Top!

In the future, mankind is under siege from massive alien creatures. In order to combat them, young cadets are recruited and trained so that they may travel through space and confront the aliens directly. One such pilot is Takaya Noriko, who appears to be lacking, but the school’s coach sees potential in her and makes her a candidate for mankind’s strongest weapon, the Gunbuster. As she trains alongside her “big sister,” a talented, beautiful, and hardworking upperclassman named Amano Kazumi, Noriko learns and matures. However, because battling the enemy requires faster-than-lightspeed travel, those who fight must live in a different time frame from those they care about.

First released in 1988, Aim for the Top! is in many ways an anime for anime fans, which should come as no surprise when considering that it’s an early Gainax production. Gainax is famous for being the anime studio created by fans, and when you look at this OVA series and even the fact that it bucks the trend by going for a fierce and powerful female protagonist in Noriko likely stems from these origins. The series fuses the melodramatic shoujo sports setting of the tennis manga Aim for the Ace! (of which the OVA is at first clearly a parody) with both the hot-blooded nature of the super robot genre and the devil-may-care atmosphere of Top Gun. One thing that strikes me about Aim for the Top! is that, even though it has its basis in shoujo, the character designs and overall art style are quite far-removed from Aim for the Ace! and really embodies that 80s look.

If I had to pick a more modern series with similar tendencies (aside from its sequel Aim for the Top 2!, of course), it would be Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha and the way it takes the magical girl concept traditionally aimed towards girls and combines it with an almost mecha-like aesthetic for the enjoyment of male fans. Same goes for the treatment of male characters: like in Nanoha, guys are clearly less important, even to the point of being more plot devices than anything else.

The reason why I bring all of this up is because I can’t say that Takaya Noriko is intentionally a progressive character. Giant robots and cute girls are two popular tastes among otaku, and Noriko is a notable example of that. It also should be noted that Aim for the Top! is notorious for popularizing in anime the concept of incredibly jiggly breasts, the girls’ outfits emphasize their legs like crazy, and casual nudity is somewhat common in the series. Nevertheless, in some ways I would argue that there are very clear benefits to the fact that Noriko is a very strong female protagonist regardless of feminist intentions. Aim for the Top! asks, why can’t the girl be the lead? Why can’t she save the day? And why can’t she be the one yelling with fury at the top of her lungs as her robot plants the spiked treads on the bottom of its foot on alien creatures ten times its size and tears straight through them?

It’s not like Noriko at her core is a very original character. She’s not much different from her predecessor Hiromi in Aim for the Ace! (and Kazumi is still clearly based on Ochoufuujin from the same series), but just by shifting the activity and context, it changes the responsibility given to the lead character away from the relative safety of “sports as a female activity.” Where Hiromi learns to utilize a more “masculine” style of tennis which better suits her, Noriko ends up exceling in the traditionally masculine role of super robot pilot. In that capacity, “preventing the extinction of the entire human race” is a pretty big accomplishment.

I think the one thing which really captures Noriko’s appeal is her screaming. Noriko’s cry as she launches attacks is so distinct and memorable that, in terms of the ability to generate sheer excitement through her passion and intensity, she is possibly unmatched among female robot pilots in all of anime. By the end of the series, Noriko has more than proven herself as not only powerful in her own right, but a source of strength for others. Noriko’s strength is such that guys may not just want to be with her, but actually be her as well.

Gattai Girls 3: Rinne no Lagrange – Flower Declaration of Your Heart and Kyouno Madoka

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.

Rinne no Lagrange – Flower Declaration of Your Heart (2012) is one of the most recent titles to qualify for the Gattai Girls series. Comprised of a galaxy-spanning war affected by the portrayal of the everyday lives of a select few characters, the approach that Rinne no Lagrange takes is fairly indicative of contemporary non-franchise giant robot anime and the tendency for plot to revolve primarily around individuals and their emotions.

The main heroine is Kyouno Madoka, an endlessly energetic teenager living in the city of Kamogawa. Always seen helping around the city while clad in a track jersey, Madoka inadvertently becomes the pilot of the ancient robot Vox Aura, spoken of in legends of destruction, she also becomes involved in a war between the two faraway planets Le Garite and De Metrio.  Madoka manages to befriend a girl her age on each side of the conflict, Fin E Ld Si Laffinty (aka Lan), princess of Le Garite, and De Metrio representative Muginami, inspiring change in both alien girls to move towards peace for their peoples.

When I say that the daily lives of the characters affect the overarching story, what I mean is that Rinne no Lagrange literally spends episode after episode primarily focused on the three girls’ deepening bonds to the point that its pacing can come across as slow and uneven when one can argue that there’s development of the universe to be had. The show does make an effort to establish the science fictional aspects of the story and the origin of the conflict between the two planets, and the robots themselves have an interesting aesthetic that approaches to a small degree the same sense as the Motorheads from Five Star Stories, but a more prominent and fundamental theme of the anime is how Madoka the simple local girl can literally change the universe through a never-say-never attitude.

Madoka’s incredibly infectious spirit and a willingness to work hard for herself and others is probably the biggest draw of Rinne no Lagrange. Fueled by energy drinks, her philosophy in life is something along the lines of “If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, and if you teach to fish, he’ll eat forever, but if you do both then it’s perfect.” Madoka is perpetually strong, the sort of character who is not entirely without flaw, but who is practically designed to be a walking, talking inspiration generator. Madoka’s strength both physically and mentally are not because she’s a girl or in spite of being a girl, but more having to do with her love for her city, a topic removed from debates about the role of women. Also, in the first episode she uses her robot to German suplex the enemy into submission.

In looking at the other girls, Lan and Muginami (who are both pilots of legendary machines themselves), their place in the story is clearly an active and important one, though they’re also designed strongly along popular character stereotypes. Lan is a mostly stoic blue-haired noble girl clad in a skintight suit who’s clumsy and easily embarrassed, while Muginami is clearly the ditzy big-boobed blonde type. The two manage to flip some of these conventions to a certain degree, such as the fact that Muginami’s airhead personality is clearly just an act, but they also show a great deal of loyalty to their “big brothers” while their friendship with Madoka provides a prominent yuri subtext for the series. While the show isn’t absolutely about yuri, it’s also obvious that Rinne no Lagrange encourages the viewer to read into it that way if they should so choose, provided plenty of reasons to do so. This isn’t an indictment of any of the elements discussed, but rather a reminder that this show is indeed about the closeness of its main heroines before it’s about giant robots.

I know it sounds a little strange to be saying this about an anime that came out just last year, but Rinne no Lagrange really feels like a product of its time. The way it de-emphasizes some of the more traditional elements of a giant robot anime of favor of “possibly yuri friendship adventure” is also suggestive of the heavy character-as-icon and moe styles of anime that have been a big trend for the last ten years or so. However, while its female characters cater to the viewers a good deal, the three heroines also establish themselves strongly, with Madoka herself and her boundless attitude creating the strongest impression.

(Last note: the show has a fantastically addictive opening .)