Overman King Gainer is one of my favourite animated series despite its issues in terms of pacing and ultimate overreliance on exposition early in the series. Indeed, at times the series feels like it is doing the viewer a favour in explaining great swathes of the story to them, self-consciously adopting the cliches of science-fiction in a reliance on expository narration and awkward dialogue. Yet this I would say is most likely intentional; despite its over-the-top tone and colourful cast of characters giving it the impression of being a simple comedy series, it is a very self-aware piece of fiction that through mockery highlights the weaknesses of its genre.
At its heart, King Gainer is much like many other series from its writer, Yoshiyuki Tomino; it is a coming-of-age story in a colourful science-fiction setting, in which through saving the day by mastering how to pilot a fighting robot the protagonist matures. This metaplot is largely the same as Mobile Suit Gundam, Brain Powered, Aura Soldier Dunbine, Heavy Metal L-Gaim and Combat Robot Xabungle, which all featured the same man at the helm, and indeed is a common one of science-fiction anime in general since it is so readily relatable by the audience. Indeed, in creating a protagonist who is insular, naïve and often childish, parallels with Eureka Seven and similar seem inevitable yet King Gainer stands out in how it embraces this; it accepts how ridiculous the premise of using a military conflict for a coming-of-age story is, and then extends this absurd setting into an entirely unbelievable world populated nevertheless by relatable characters.
The main character, Gainer, is particularly reflective of the intended audience; he is an affable yet largely inept student who plays too many computer games, maintains long-distance friendships with his gaming rivals over an immediate social life, and has basically no interest in the world around him. His journey begins with his being wrongly arrested for being a terrorist, and following the mysterious Gain in order to escape – setting him up as part of the resistance movement he begins as eager to distance himself from for a quiet life. While the protagonist becoming accidentally embroiled in a larger conflict is a normal cliché of the genre, it is usually via an enemy attack, or their inherent interest in doing so for a reason such as vengeance. For Gainer, it is a simple error on the part of the police, and then his opportunism in looking for a way to escape from prison. From the way the first episode pans out, even this is shown to be largely immaterial; part of Gain’s plan as leader of the resistance is to reactivate the engines on the long-stationery mobile city where the story begins and move the whole thing somewhere else. This itself is a kind of parody of a genre staple – a key feature of many of Tomino’s series is that civilians and soldiers have to co-operate on an isolated ship, while King Gainer extends the idea to an entire mobile city and supply convoy.
When he eventually gets the series’ lead machine, or Overman, he names it for his online gaming username and effectively steals it from Gain, claiming his expertise at video games makes him the best pilot for it. Obviously, this proves untrue and so the inevitable story of his maturation as a pilot begins – yet the links to his success as a gamer remain. He is almost presented as eager to retain the illusion of war being a game since throughout the entire series he actively avoids killing – his desire to protect others extends to the enemy as well since he does not want to accept the responsibility of war and of wielding a weapon with lethal intent. While, for example, Amuro Ray in Mobile Suit Gundam came to accept the necessity of killing in a war, Gainer rejects it because the conflict he is fighting in is not one he particularly cares for, and not one that seems very well-defined. While there is ultimately an overarching plot, it is firmly in the background and for the viewer secondary to the humorous interludes that make up each episode and each individual conflict or crisis does not warrant lethal force. The enemies are too busy bumbling around trying to backstab each other and devise ever-sillier plans to win to be a credible threat for almost the entire series, and ultimately their motivations are as slight as possible. Until the very end, they have basically no grand plan except to retain a transport monopoly and the associated stranglehold on the economy, and see a mobile city as a threat to their financial performance. Meanwhile, the heroes are shown to be an amateurish militia whose main objective is keeping the city and convoy moving and securing supplies; rather than some great interplanetary war or ancient prophecy, it is simply a petty squabble between a giant corporation and a community trying to resist it.
Because of this ill-defined conflict, and the utter impossibility of truly opposing the heroes’ motivations (simply moving home in a society where travel is locked down), allegiances are very fluid and a villain’s redemption is ultimately just a comic aside in King Gainer. Even those villains who do not completely join the heroes in time end up giving up on villainy and starting their own journeys; the resistance movement is known as the Exodus, and ultimately is presented just as a mostly peaceful alternative to the government. The utter lack of a firm ideology or intent to undermine the entire authority makes the conflict side of the story largely irrelevant; instead it is about bureaucrats and career soldiers coming to realise there is more to life than the rail network they serve.
As I mentioned above, the main problem with King Gainer is its overreliance on characters explaining in a very dry fashion the details of the setting, or the latest plot developments. While one cannot fully excuse this poor execution, it can reasonably be argued to be in part intentional; the protagonist Gainer is presented as being apathetic and unwilling to inform himself about the world he inhabits, while other characters such as the inexperienced and nervous enemy officer Jaboli and the sheltered Princess Ana are presented as equally ignorant of the way the world works and in need of education; if the series as a whole is a coming-of-age narrative, then education is a focus of it and so presenting many of the central characters as equally ignorant of what is going on as the viewer can be seen as thematically appropriate. However, as mentioned above, the execution is somewhat lacking and the series feels both like nothing is made entirely clear at the right time, but also that much of the mystery is removed by matter-of-fact explanations.
In the second part of this article, some specific episodes from King Gainer will feature; while the overarching themes and plot are interesting as a kind of challenge via gentle parody of the coming-of-age science-fiction anime, it is in some of the incidental conflicts that the series’ true quality shows. It is not simply an affectionate look at an entire genre, but also a closer look at some of the ideas and themes of Tomino’s other series.