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.
Granbelm is a series that feels both modern and retro at the same time. The cute all-female cast is standard for current anime. Its premise, which pits these girls against each other in a Highlander-esque scenario to inherit the Earth’s magic, screams “early 2010s anime.” The story is straight-up early 2000s sekai-kei, a genre where the relationship between two characters determines the fate of the world. The mecha designs come straight out of a tradition of cutely proportioned robots from the late 1980s to early 1990s. Yet, while Granbelm isn’t shy about making its influences known, it’s also not ruled by them.
Female mecha protagonists are uncommon, which is why the lack of men in the series stands out all the more. That being said, this is not all that unusual, as there was an industry realization at some point in the industry that the total or near-total absence of male figures in anime could be a selling point to male and female audiences alike. In this sense, Granbelm follows in the footsteps of franchises like Love Live! and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, with the general mood of the show being more towards the darkness of the latter.
While having a predominantly female cast and thus passing the Bechdel test practically by default is by no means a mark of inherent feminism, these characters are varied in their personalities, motivations, strengths, and flaws in ways that emphasize their sheer presence on the screen. Whether it’s Anna (above) and her obsession with living up to her family reputation or Shingetsu and her guilt over her own power, the characters are convincing in their convictions. All the more impressive is the portrayal of the heroine, Kohinata Mangetsu (below). Although she comes across initially as a very generic protagonist, the series takes her naivete and exuberance and juxtaposes them against the others so as to highlight essential truths about her character in a manner most reminiscent of Selector Infected Wixoss.
Moreover, it’s Mangetsu’s relationship with Shingetsu—their names meaning “full moon” and “new moon,” respectively—that is central to Granbelm. The way it plays out, similar yet profoundly different to Madoka and Homura’s in Madoka Magica, could only work with such strongly defined characters.
Given the general angle of Granbelm, the mecha might initially seem like an afterthought, but the series’s staff have worked hard to make them a vital part of the show in ways I appreciate a lot. Not only does the series wear its influences on its sleeve, with visual references to Gundam and even Space Runaway Ideon, but the way that characters argue with each other over heated personal and philosophical issues is right out of the playbook of Tomino Yoshiyuki, director of the original Mobile Suit Gundam and Ideon. Each robot—or “ARMANOX” in the anime’s parlance—reflects in form and function the personalities and fighting styles of each contestant. Whether it’s stealth, agility, or even emotional manipulation, you can sense through how they fight just what kinds of individuals they are. Mangetsu’s unit, White Lily, is fueled by her enthusiasm at the notion that she can be special in ways that elude her self-perception of mediocrity, and it comes across in the limit-shattering power and energy White Lily can generate.
Aesthetically, the ARMANOX draw from a very specific genre of giant robots: the chibi-fied robot tradition that began with SD Gundam and came into prominence in the 1980s to early 1990s anime thanks to titles like Mashin Hero Wataru, Mado King Granzort, and NG Knight & Lamune 40. Currently, the only modern anime that shares this look is the current 20th anniversary sequel to Wataru, which actively draws upon that visual nostalgia and carries a more straightforward good vs. evil story common to its original’s peers. The use of these mecha, with their squat and rounded appearances not only makes the visuals of Granbelm memorable against the backdrop of current anime, but also helps contribute to the cute yet foreboding feel of the anime as a whole.
Granbelm takes cues from many anime trends over many decades, but it ends up synthesizing them all in an emotionally satisfying and thought-provoking manner. Vital to this success is the series’s portrayal of both its female characters and the giant robots they use to fight as reflections of each other and of the world they occupy.