The essential plot of Dragonar is by-the-numbers military science fiction – in the far future, a war is going on between rebels in space and the human empire trying to retain its colonies. Indeed, it wears its Gundam influence plainly on its sleeve in cleaving closely to this colonial uprising plot, and having the protagonists grab some experimental weapons to try and fight back against the enemy. Where it then differs quite significantly from its inspirations is in how it depicts military life; rather than the stock of a dispassionate, uncooperative army presented as a pseudo-parental figure (as the Federation are in Mobile Suit Gundam and definitely Zeta Gundam), against which the protagonist kicks out to maintain their independence, Dragonar presents military life as almost more desirable. The three heroes are pressed into formal service after their prowess in battle is shown, and used as figureheads for the Earth military’s counterattacks against the enemy (called Giganos).
What follows is a lighthearted take on life in the Navy, with inter-service rivalries between the space fleet, high seas fleet and air force. For a mecha anime to acknowledge the existence of all branches of the military as Dragonar does, and even consider to which branch combat robots would be assigned, is quite a departure from expectations. Indeed, while Gundam has the protagonists ride on a spacecraft in-atmosphere, a key plot point of an early arc of Dragonar is managing the handover of the protagonists from space to a waiting aircraft carrier. Rather than glossing over the dull points of military life, Dragonar uses them as a source of comedy – with the heroes running up against caricature drill sergeants, blockheaded officers and so on in true war film style. In a similar nod to credibility, many of the civilians on board the ship (refugees from a destroyed space station) are pressed into non-combat roles. This all adds up to creating a consistent tone that is lighthearted but ultimately high-stakes – while the comedy is a key part, it is well-integrated into the narrative and naturally-presented.
Dragonar further differentiates itself from its roots in Gundam plot points by introducing the “Dragoons” (mass-produced versions of the main “Dragonar” units piloted by the heroes) early on – and then justifying why these new forces aren’t widely used. The Dragoons are shown to have the best elements of all three Dragonar units combined, with heavier armour, superior agility and more firepower – but they are still defeated when the enemy bring in their own ace pilots, familiar with the theatre of war and equipped with superior machines still. Inexperienced pilots in good equipment are no match for superior enemies – and even the protagonists are defeated in short order, forced to use Dragoons while their own units are under repair. In the end it is the inability of the enemy to capitalise on their initial victory that proves the key plot point – not any great upgrade of the capabilities of the protagonists.
While the series does lose its way a little in this middle section, which arguably goes on a few episodes too long, it recovers well for the final arc – some of the enemies have staged a coup in an attempt to bring the war to a rapid close, at the point where the Earth forces have finally begun to regain ground. Each episode of this arc begins with a newsreel-like update on the progress of the war, a touch which neatly – and in a logical in-setting fashion provides exposition of events not depicted. The comedy is almost entirely gone, having served its purpose in introducing the characters and establishing the setting, and it is almost non-stop action as Giganos bring their newest flagship to bear on the Earth forces counterattack. The fight for this giant battleship dominates the final arc in a neat self-contained narrative beginning with the need to find its weakness, then a middle section where central character Kain is duped into betraying his allies by Giganos propaganda, and finally an uneasy alliance formed between Giganos defectors unhappy with their leaders and the Earth forces to bring down the ship.
What is more, Dragonar supports its strong narrative with strong action; the protagonists are fallible and vulnerable, and the combat is very physical. Machines are disabled and dismembered rather than neatly exploding and the technology level remains comparatively consistent throughout – something that many series fail at. Even when the enemy does introduce an experimental mech, the massive Gilgazamune, the plot follows its development from an unstable and ultimately malfunctioning prototype through mass production to a refined, second-generation version. Attention to technical detail like this (and other touches such as the clear visual links between Giganos mechanical designs, and the use of modular hulls for different situations) keeps up the military side of Dragonar – while it is at times silly, and quite over-the-top in tone, the setting is none the less consistent and so believable.
To conclude, despite visually being quite exaggerated, with highly advanced technology and superhero-like fighting styles, Dragonar nevertheless is one of the most “military SF” mecha anime I’ve seen. This is not because it has near-future technology, or grim seriousness, but because it takes the time to create a believable setting, populate it with human characters who mess around when they can but are serious when needed, and most of all acknowledges that the military in a piece of military SF should be something more than a vehicle for moving the protagonists from plot point to plot point and something for them to outshine. It reminds me of a sentiment held by a big name in the genre, Ryosuke Takahashi – that the best series are not mecha anime but science fiction anime which features war robots.