Considered in the context of science-fiction anime, Big Wars is an entirely unremarkable, average example of the OVA; it has a simple story which it tells to completion in its 71 minute running time. It suffers from being rather over-compressed to tell its story in such a time – the introduction, which seems interesting in its own right, is a couple of minutes’ unvoiced expository subtitles to set the scene of a war of attrition on Mars between humans and aliens called The Gods. Yet as a whole it is a briskly-plotted and coherent film that does not outstay its welcome, ends satisfyingly rather than with some cliffhanger and is quite enjoyable to watch.
Big Wars is quite slight on action; it reserves it for a few flashbacks and an extended action setpiece at the end of the film which the remainder has built up to. Indeed, the actual conflict at the core of it is reduced down almost entirely to a quite philosophical personal one centred on the plot device of alien mind control and peoples’ capacity for self-determination and preserving their identity. It does not handle this science-fiction staple as ably as something like Ghost in the Shell might, but the effort is a worthy if slightly predictable one. The plot as it is focuses on a ship captain about to return to action, spending a last period of leave with a former lover as they try and rekindle their relationship. In so doing he comes to realise she has become a spy for the enemy and has to work out if she is in fact a double agent with good intentions. There is a strong focus on sex here, explained clumsily in a later scene as a result of the woman’s alien conditioning manifesting as nymphomania, but it is presented in an interestingly voyeuristic fashion often from the perspective of the secret agents tailing the protagonist. Thus although there are several sex scenes, there is little pleasure in them; the entire setting in fact is portrayed as unsettling and unwelcoming despite everyone’s attempts to act normal.
This is perhaps one of the most interesting things about Big Wars; it suggests its setting is more of a cold war than the grinding, inconclusive combat that is initially depicted. The aliens are being held off far from the home front, yet their infiltrators are made out to be the greater threat. It is quite obvious from the heavy foreshadowing that the captain’s former lover is a spy – the revelation that she was actually a double agent trying to undermine her new handlers’ orders and in so doing reveal alien infiltration of the security services themselves is the one which drives the story forward. With perhaps some more time spent on the buildup part, introducing the players in this conspiratorial plotline better, the interesting use of science-fiction tropes to discuss questions of identity and loyalty could have been made more of. It is hardly original or challenging within the genre as a whole, but what there is is executed well and gives the OVA somewhat more depth than might initially be expected. Downplaying the actual war and even the nature of the prototype warship at the story’s heart means there is little empty spectacle or contextless action, and much more emphasis on telling a focused story (if perhaps one which is over-compressed).
The symbolism implied in the created setting – calling the aliens Gods and having the hallmarks of their mind-control be pseudoreligious vision – unifies it yet feels like it could have been selected at random. While there are scenes where the characters discuss whether or not the war is some kind of judgement levelled at transgressors, that it is considered so unlikely even in the fiction makes finding any symbolic nature to the film difficult. Indeed this apparent contempt for the aliens’ intentions provides its own more intriguing slant to the setting – it is one where mankind may not be decisively winning the war but it is confident in its eventual victory and in its own strength. This kind of collaborative aggression – not specifically industrialist or nationalistic, but more a kind of unified humanity against a threat – is quite common with space opera anime, most notably in Space Battleship Yamato but also arguably in Macross, Gunbuster and similar. What is being celebrated, if anything, is militarism for its own sake; a just war against an enemy who do not fight fair. This festishisation of a quite anachronistic courage, pluck and martial skill really is the defining feature of so much mecha and SF anime in its obsession with ace pilots and renegade heroes but yet Big Wars presents it in a far more downcast form – it has turned into a lot of bluster, wasted lives and an unpleasant cold war fought spy versus spy.
Yet it all ends cheerfully with a decisive victory won on a personal level over the Gods; the battleships referred to and depicted throughout the film do little except provide cover for the protagonist and his comrades to face their demons by boarding the alien mothership, the Hell. Here the action is visceral and exciting – a classic action-film race against time with ticking bombs, last stands against hordes of robots and fighter craft and the moment of crisis as the Gods try to force the heroes to defuse the bombs with hallucinations. That the final battle that will apparently turn the war around is not an epic fleet action but one based entirely on finding ways to overcome the aliens’ mind-control weapons fits the more thoughtful tone Big Wars aims for. The hallucinations the characters are presented with are all people they claim to fight to avenge, and if anything the overall implication of the climax is that only by really working out why they fight can they win.
Thus is Big Wars – something of an oddity. A science-fiction OVA clearly aiming to be more philosophy than empty action, hampered by not quite fleshing out its setting enough to justify the sense of scale and conflict it wants to create yet not quite being intimate enough to work as a character piece. Much of its more interesting ideas – those of identity and reasons to fight – are touched on annoyingly lightly but in the end it remains enjoyable in its own way.