By episodes 7-8 of Captain Earth, the return of action – the clashes of robots that the opening credits and past episodes have hinted at – is welcome. A more human focus must be balanced with action, and the further the balance tips away from the action the better the human stories must be. While Captain Earth has hinted at interesting, sufficiently developed human aspects to suit a more conceptual science-fiction series – with nods to traditional super-robot aesthetics that serve more as pop-cultural touchstones via Akari and Daichi than a defining concept – episodes such as 6, which spend significant time setting up a core conflict that must, necessarily, be fought with super-robots work strongly against this.
It is the uncertainty of theme – the unwillingness to properly commit to being a character-piece about robot pilots without necessarily the need for the machines to feature – that holds it back. The character moments all drive towards the core robot-based conflict, rather than having the room to explore a setting. A series such as Eureka Seven, which I feel epitomises how a series packed with action can nevertheless make its combat almost entirely secondary to its plot, finds plot reasons to avoid combat by putting its heroes in a position where they cannot possibly fight; thus when it happens, it comes from desperation or with a purpose. The Kiltgang in Captain Earth are an inevitable, regularly-occurring threat, organised and with a plan but at the same time single-minded. Thus episode 7 features Amarok and Malkin looking for revenge, bringing out their machines once again and fighting the now restored Earth Engine Impacter. This follows a personal “crisis” for the episode being laid out – if Teppei uses the Albion, he may regress to villainy and lose his free will – and in the end this defines the fight. Daichi is unable to beat both Kiltgang at once, and thus the Albion must enter the scene. In turn, the Albion is unable to prevail and it takes a moment of apparent self-sacrifice to defeat the threat. This stock plot is handled capably; it is an excitingly choreographed fight, and the machines are visibly impressive. But at the same time, it arguably marks where Captain Earth plays its hand in terms of what kind of super-robot series it wants to be. It will be a clever – within certain constraints – but ultimately formulaic series where the action drives the characters’ development rather than being an adjunct to it. This balance is a matter I have discussed with fellow enthusiasts of super-robot animé online frequently; it is about the subtle differentiation between what is held to be a robot animé and a science-fiction animé featuring robots. It is certainly not to be held against the series per se; it is better a series lay its cards on the table clearly than vacillate thematically. The natural comparison is Genesis of Aquarion, which had the same preoccupation with sexuality and robots, the same kind of humour and the same formulaic nature.
So if the action is the selling-point of the series, it is worth discussing in detail. Episodes 7 and 8 offer two very different fights, framed differently in visual terms and showing clearly how they are thematically different. Episode 7’s fight takes place in space, with the enjoyably gratituous combination of the Earth Engine, the exaggerated designs of the enemies and the heroic visual framing that defines space-based combat. Daichi is protecting Earth, thus he stands between it an the enemy in a physical sense. He is the hero, thus he has a uniform – a superhero-esque outfit that evokes the uniforms worn by other idealistic robot pilots in animé who save Earth from mysterious alien invaders – its white and red suit, with a strong arrow motif, is very similar to both Loran Cehak’s outfit in Turn-A Gundam, Amuro Ray’s uniform in Mobile Suit Gundam and also – as a later visual reference suggests – slightly evocative of the uniforms of the Yamato‘s crew in that animé. Loran is the ultimate idealistic robot-pilot, and one of the most successful (while you could argue Tomino’s later creation Gainer Sanger in Overman King Gainer is more pacifistic and relatable, he exists in a slapstick comedy world where Russian secret police become schoolteachers and robots summon illusory frogs). He is constantly appalled by the inhumanity of mechanised war – its nuclear weapons, its emphasis on the machine over the man, and the sheer power of its weaponry – and thus fights to preserve life on both sides. By constrast Amuro fights, often unwillingly, out of duty to his crew – but he has the same mix of determination and uncertainty as Daichi. The other visual reference, the white-and-red uniform of Yamato’s protagonist – a pulp sci-fi take on an idealised military history – is equally applicable, though. Super-robots, deriving from those early space opera animé, rely on blind, militaristic idealism. Daichi must fight to save Earth and is, figuratively, its only hope. Thus there are many visual changes to Daichi in the Earth Engine that serve as genre-specific symbolic shorthands, placing it as a series situated within its genre.
It is his third, technically, fight in the Earth Engine – and his first as a fully-fledged member of GLOBE. He has far more of an idea of how the machine fights, but at the same time this shows its limitations. The Kiltgang have almost limitless power and crucially no constraints on how they use it; their machines are remotely piloted, and they fight knowing this. The “ace”, the named recurring villain of a robot animé, traditionally fights for survival, their skills protecting them by letting them defeat their enemies. Amarok and Malkin do not care for their survival; their machines need to reach Earth for their plan, but ultimately if it happens this time or the next is immaterials. Daichi Manatsu can die, as his father did, fighting the enemy. The Earth Engine can lose limbs and need expensive and timely repairs, and needs resupplying and maintenance. If their machines are destroyed, they can come again at full strength as soon as repairs are complete. Thus they fight “unfairly” within the tacit rules of the setting – Malkin holds down Daichi so Amarok can shoot him, and even if Teppei tries to block the shot it will not matter because only the Earth Engine can catually be destroyed. This sense of invincibility quite changes the focus of a traditional two-versus-one fight, making Daichi’s efforts almost – but not quite – worthless. Daichi and Teppei fight very much according to the “rules;” Albion ultimately saves Daichi with a very stock maneuver, depicted with a visual device called the “Obari Punch” (named for Masami Obari, a notable figure in the history of robot animé), while the Earth Engine defeats its enemy with a similar attack – which has, figuratively, all the forces of Earth behind it as Daichi rides the shockwave of an explosion.
Episode 8 shows that this victory was slightly less hollow than those before it; it has damaged the remotes that the Kiltgang use so thoroughly that they cannot be used for a long time. Thus a new set of weapons must be found – the remaining Kiltgang, hidden around Earth. The episode’s climactic battle takes place between the Earth Engine Ordinary, the core unit around which the Impacter is constructed, and a light enemy unit similar to the one used in a previous episode, this time piloted by the new villain Zimbalt. When fighting on Earth, both machines are piloted and far less sizeable – and thus both sides adjust their fighting-styles slightly. Daichi switches to ranged combat, fighting with a gun against an enemy similarly armed, while Zimbalt relies far more on avoiding direct combat – because he must hold Daichi off for a period of time, but also because his life is directly at risk. In space, the action shifts far more between zoomed-out and close-in, with machines reduced to speed-lines and engine contrails, vast, pulled-out shots of explosions and beams, and a general sense of space and scale. Moving – being fast enough to throw immense punches – is power, while immobility and standoffs are weakness that give the enemy space to attack.
On Earth, to move is to be on the back foot – it is running away, trying to get space to prepare an attack. Being stationary – being confident enough to take a shot in the open – is power. Daichi and Zimbalt both attack generally from standoffs, the shots causing movement and evasion, The fight ends stationary – Daichi and Zimbalt both shoot simultaneously, and Daichi hits, posing as Zimbalt ejects behind him. It is a very satisfying fight, and the visuals are key to this. The Earth Engine dashes around, emerging from smoke to counter-attack with a theatricality to its movements against the stoicism of Zimbalt’s unit that comes from arrogance. It is only when the fight is decided – in the predictable, illusory uncertainty of a quick-draw Wild West-style shootout which the hero is bound to win – that the camera pulls right away from the fight and its effects. Thus in two fights, against two different villains, Captain Earth runs a wide gamut of visual references and techniques. The action has been a long time coming, but it is certainly worth it.