Spring 2013 Mecha Anime Retrospective (Majestic Prince, Gargantia, Valvrave)

Last spring marked an unusually robot-heavy season of anime where three mecha shows, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, Ginga Kikoutai Majestic Prince, and Valvrave the Liberator, took three different angles each of which had their own unique appeal. I originally wrote about them as a package, so now with all three shows finished (aside from the fact that Gargantia has another series on the horizon) I figure it’s best to look back on them all at once.

Ginga Kikoutai Majestic Prince, which had a strong tokusatsu or even 90s anime feel to it, ended up progressing almost as expected, but without it being tedious or losing something in the process. In shows like Majestic Prince, there’s usually some sort of humble beginnings, in this case the main heroes being the “losers” of their class, and comedy gives way to a more serious story as the narrative progresses until it ends up in a giant space battle. It’s par for the course, but while I can’t say Majestic Prince will change the way we think about giant robot anime, I do find that the show is a little bit of everything, nothing in particular that screams, “Wow, this is amazing!” but lots of minor things done well which make for an overall satisfying experience, and a more consistently forward-moving story compared to Gyrozetter. It’s a popcorn anime, something you might show to an anime club or a group of friends to relax, where you find yourself gradually more invested by the final string of episodes. Because of this, Majestic Prince is the show I simply have least to say about, though I do want to point out that it has one of the most memorable death lines ever. You’ll know it when you hear it.

Although Majestic Prince isn’t a show I can talk about too extensively in terms of conceptual or thematic depth (it skims the surface of topics like genetic engineering and human behavior at the very mosy), Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet is the strongest of the three shows in terms of both its ideas and how it presents them. Its initial format, where Ledo, a boy from another galaxy who knows only war, is exposed to the everyday lives of the Earth characters and their concept of family, acts as a part of the science fictional exploration of its world and which become the backdrop for the show to reveal its secrets was somewhat of a source of disagreement and controversy. As people wondered how the story would turn out, there were both complaints that Gargantia spent too much time focusing on the daily lives of characters and that it too much time on its narrative drama. Personally, I think it ended up striking a very nice balance, as we got to learn about the culture of Earth away from the galactic war which they were ignorant of (perhaps for the better), but when it came time to get “serious,” the show effectively used the context it established to make the circumstances and solution directly connected to the characters’ “everyday.”

Significantly, the series did not do the predictable thing and “bring the war to the people.” Instead, it brought the philosophy and ideas which came out of the eternal state of war in which mankind out there in space had become accustomed to, and challenged the people of the Earth (as well as the lead Ledo) to confront and address them. The everyday lives of the characters became the very “weapon” by which they could defy the way of thinking imposed by the world Ledo comes from, and I think there’s a lot to think about in that regard.

Out of the three anime, however, I suspect Valvrave the Liberator will, if not be the most memorable show, stick around the longest in the overall consciousness of anime fandom, though not necessarily for the best reasons. The rape scene in Valvrave is going to remain infamous, and it’s something which is impossible to ignore but also shouldn’t define the entire show. I really think the creators of the show wanted to use it for dramatic purposes but didn’t quite understand what they were getting themselves into, evidenced by the fact that they eventually just drop the subject after some questionable followups. Whether that’s better or worse than keeping at it, I’ll leave you to decide that, but one thing I will say is that having the victim still be in love with her attacker doesn’t inherently make for a bad or “harmful” story, as Watchmen manages to deftly incorporate something similar into its narrative and point out the difficulties associated with such a circumstance.

I was once asked why I kept up with Valvrave even though the show has a lot of odd and nonsensical twists to it, and I explained that the appeal of the show for me was about seeing if Valvrave was trying to celebrate the power of youth or criticize it. Even within the same episode it became difficult to tell if the show was saying, “Kids are the future, a source of new ideas and ideals,” or, “Kids are so damn stupid! Man, I can’t believe we let them touch anything!” I think by Season 2 it leaned more towards the former, but never entirely, and to its credit I think the second season was a huge improvement on the first, as its ridiculous qualities were focused down into a clearer direction while still remaining just as strange. Overall, I think the show turned out okay in the end even with the issues mentioned, if only because it managed to use its social media aspect to great effect, and shows a kind of tempered idealism. It also has a more satisfying conclusion than the Gundam 00 movie despite being fairly similar, but I’m not really sure why I feel that way.

It’s difficult to judge the effect of having so many mecha shows close together has had on anime, if any at all, but it is true that a number of new giant robot shows premiering in 2014, from Captain Earth to the bizarrely named Buddy Complex. I think what I liked most about having each of these shows is that even through their ups and downs, Majestic Prince, Gargantia, and Valvrave all manage to maintain their identities as shows, with developments, characters, endings, and themes which keep the mecha genre from feeling like “more of the same.” None of them are really similar in any way, and I hope this trend continues.

Gargantia and the Clash of Ideas

Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet is probably my favorite show of the spring season. It has a very strong science fictional feel without constantly, constantly delving into exposition, and it has some interesting narrative themes too, as well as ways of expressing those themes. It also has a strong cast of characters through whom the world is experienced, and the excellent design of the robot Chamber also doesn’t hurt. Episode 11 in particular caught my interest, so I’d like to discussi t.

In episode 11, Ledo’s superior officer Kugel returns. Initially disappearing in episode 1, Kugel turns out to have been on the other side of the  planet, where he has basically become the god of a people over there. Using the philosophy of the Galactic Alliance, Kugel moved their way of life away from a familial/religious structure and more towards a stratified meritocracy. This is, of course, quite different from Ledo’s own experiences.

Key to this difference is the reveal that, due to an endemic disease, Kugel cannot leave the sterile environment of his own cockpit. Although this decision is clearly practical in many ways, it also sets up the idea that the cockpit of his Machine Caliber is a bubble, not only physically but also ideologically. Because Kugel is unable/unwilling to leave the safety of his environment, he never had the chance to experience firsthand the way of life of the people who now worship him, nor for their philosophy to “contaminate” him. Even though he’s basically a good person (as can be seen when he saves Ledo in episode 1), Kugel continues to follow the hard line of the Galactic Alliance without flinching.

I think it’s a really nice piece of symbolism, and what I especially like about this development is that it’s sort of the “war comes to Earth” theme which seemed very likely from the start, but in a different sense. With Kugel, Gargantia, and then Ledo in the middle, it’s more of a clash of ideas and perhaps even a postcolonial criticism of the idea of bringing “civilization” to other cultures.

Spring 2013 Robot Variety Extravaganza!

Despite its iconic nature, mecha is often considered a dying genre of anime these days due to a number of different forces, from kids’ changing tastes in entertainment to a shifts in demographic. This is why this season of anime is quite a surprise, as three new giant robot anime have debuted for the Spring: Ginga Kikoutai Majestic Prince, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, and Valvrave the Liberator. That’s not even counting the still-running Chousoku Henkei Gyrozetter, and the Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny HD remake. All of them have been out for a few weeks now, and I’m enjoying all three, but what is especially impressive is the fact that all three shows are different enough from each other that they end up fitting rather different tastes to the extent that I can’t necessarily recommend all of them to every single person.

Ginga Kikoutai Majestic Prince is basically animated tokusatsu, a mostly silly show with some serious undertones akin to Magiranger or Kamen Rider Fourze. Featuring a group of five heroes (surprise) known as the “Failure Five” due to their repeated screwups, they’re given extremely powerful prototype robots to fight off a mysterious enemy that seems to have overwhelming numbers as one of its many advantages. The oil-and-water nature of the heroes’ personalities makes for some good albeit cheesy laughs, while on the mecha side each of the robot designs are so varied both in look and function that they each have their own unique flair. For example, the main character’s unit is specially designed to monitor the others, making it actually fit for someone in the lead position. Also, the character designs are by Hirai Hisashi of Gundam SEED fame, who is known for his tendency to draw very similar-looking characters, but who here has more variety than I’ve seen out of him in a long time.

Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet is the most robustly science fictional out of all of them, and probably the one that will appeal most to fans of older 80s mecha anime due to its world-building and clash of cultures. Featuring a setting where humanity has spread into the galaxy and is at constant war, the main character Ledo is a boy who like so many of his peers has been trained to fight from childhood. During a battle, he is flung far off course to another world, where both he and the strangers he meets must adapt to the others’ extremely alien mindsets. The central robot has a very slick yet conventional design, and its rounded look and artificial intelligence remind me of the titular robot from Blue Comet SPT Layzner. It also boasts some serious hard-hitters when it comes to production, with Urobuchi Gen (Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero) on writing and Murata Kazuya as director (Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos), as well as Naruco Hanaharu (Kamichu! manga) on character design, who is more famous for his less “mainstream” work. Urobuchi, who is generally criticized for being overly expository, seems to be tempered n this case, making it so far maybe his best writing in anime to date (though of course that remains to be seen).

Lastly, Valvrave the Liberator appears to be a textbook case of the modern giant robot anime, cut from the same cloth as Code Geass. Like the other two shows, Valvrave concerns a future of conflict, but the overtly dramatic personalities of its characters, as well as the focus on them amidst this war, gives it an appeal that the other two don’t quite approach in the same way. The similarities to Code Geass should come as no surprise as Sunrise is also responsible for Valvrave, and the character-centric motivations are capable of pulling in people who are more interested in that character drama. The mecha have some unique yet familiar designs, and the relationship between the main robot Valvrave and the protagonist looks to be an important factor in the story. Personally speaking, I also quite like the character designs in this show.

Given that I consider variety to be a valuable asset of the ever-changing entity that is the giant robot genre, I think this spread of shows is a very good thing. What’s even more important is that even though I compared and categorized the shows according to familiar examples, none of them seem to necessarily be absolute retreads of previous works. Majestic Prince, Gargantia, and Valvrave are not nostalgia grabs pining for a better mecha yesteryear, but are firmly contemporary anime that take their influences from different areas. I can’t say for now how any of these shows will turn out in the end, but the unique flavors of each leave me looking forward to continuing with all three of them.

I’m also still watching Gyrozetter.

SEED Destiny HD… we’ll see.