From the start, Rose of Versailles has a menace hanging over it – that of the French Revolution, constantly alluded to by the narrator and gradually brought into the main plot by the exposure of its privileged protagonist to the injustice of the world she fights for. The shoujo aspects of it – Marie Antoinette as the privileged adolescent involved in social spats with her rivals at court playing out like schoolgirl bickering – fade away through a move towards genuine threat. It goes from two women arguing about talking to each other to attempted fraud, efforts to undermine the monarchy and even assassination plots before the story as a whole pulls away from Marie herself to the possible downfall of the French nobility as an institution. Oscar is a confidante in this story, the woman in which Marie can put her faith as a friend, and yet this is set against her growing revulsion at the injustice of the system itself.
For several episodes the secondary plot of Eureka Seven, the increasing disharmony among the Federation forces around Dewey’s increasingly extreme plans, has proved more interesting than the main plot of Renton and Eureka as the emissaries to an apparently uncaring alien intelligence. This is perhaps indicative of the series’ wider difficulties; it is a particularly existential story at its heart, an expansive narrative that plays its hand very cautiously. Renton and Eureka’s non-courtship, their development, has played out over the whole series so far and now they are left in limbo, the preparations by definition inadequate. A human story – the mad genius trying to destroy the world to prove a point – is understandable. It offers a conflict that can be comprehended and fought with guns, the sort of thing a mecha anime wants. A story of metaphysical self-discovery, of discussion of the nature of humanity and of the nature of an alien deity, is alien, conceptual science-fiction. That Eureka Seven discusses this, and gives it space to grow and develop at the pace of uneasy first love as an allegory for first contact is its virtue, and yet at the same time difficult to write about on an episode-by-episode basis.
One of the key drivers of dramatic conflict in shoujo anime tends to be the clash between the privileged and underprivileged; in Aim for the Ace you have the school’s “elite” versus the perceived talentless interloper (picked up in Gunbuster and mixed with the macho world of robot piloting), in Dear Brother these themes are further explored with its setting of a very exclusive school with its own student inner circle, membership of which encourages disdain for non-members. Even something like Glass Mask, set in the world of theatre, still builds core conflicts around two things – rebellion against, and then acceptance of, an apparently unreasonable authority figure and the distinction between the right sort and wrong sort of people. The protagonist of such stories is generally one of the out-group for some reason beyond their control – a lack of money, unsupportive parents, etcetera, and the story is about their overcoming adversity to earn the respect of the in-group. It is not always this simple – Dear Brother begins in this fashion and then questions whether the “in-group” should really exist by portraying it as destructive and unpleasant – but I feel it fair to say questions of class and privilege sit centrally within a number of popular shoujo anime.
Any finale for Rahxephon would, after the revelations of the ending arc, be a personal rather than action-filled one. There is no sense of a war any more; humanity is annihilated and forsaken, Ayato has had his chance to embody the machine, to become the saviour of humanity, and turned away from it. It is hard to say this is turning away from a duty, because what duty did he have at this point? He is a Mulian, he has been all but rejected and used by humanity, and so it is almost inevitable he would not seek to be their saviour. So, the conflict that remains is between what remains emotionally of Ayato, what human touch he picked up in his life on Earth, and the insecurities which fuelled his sudden abandonment of Haruka and Megumi. He took action, but it was action with unknown, uncertain consequence – and now almost limitless power is in the hands of someone who does not know where he belongs or what he should do with it.
In my first article about Steins;Gate I talked about how its protagonist, Okabe Rintaro, embodied the toxic, sociopathic social outcast and how the game’s unsympathetic depiction of him – and his ultimate exploitation and emotional (verging on physical) abuse of the woman in his life presented him as a monster of sorts, someone with the latent potential to do real harm and who is blind to how and why. His failings – human ones masked by his lack of social graces – are set against his very real power to influence others’ lives; the time-travel conceit central to the story is a fitting science-fictional one because it lets him be the master manipulator he always wanted to be. He can change lives with a suggestion, fulfilling his fantasies of being in control.
Note: This article discusses the endings of Steins;Gate in detail.
It is too early in the third series of Aquarion, Aquarion LOGOS, to say if it will capitalise on its potential; the recurring issue with past seasons is that ambitious and entertaining concepts are unevenly explored. Genesis of Aquarion ran with the inherent absurdity of super-robot anime’s strangest attacks and gimmick episodes but was generally somewhat underwhelming in its execution; there are very funny and inventive episodes, yet the main plot is quite uninspired. Aquarion EVOL never quite hit the absurd heights of Genesis but was overall more consistent, its through-plot engaging and its oddities and strange gimmicks more closely tied to that story. It was an often absurd take on the super robot story as a coming-of-age story by tying it (through Genesis’ sexual redefinition of the term 合体, combine) to an obviously sexual metaphor. Mastering robot-piloting involved being able to combine with your friends without embarrassment (and the opening theme, Your Legend, made this obviously clear with its opening lines “I’ll keep embracing you again and again and again”, reminiscent of Brain Powerd‘s opening, with its chorus about a sexual dream mirroring – in a strange way – the almost romantic bonds pilot and machine form). The third series, Aquarion LOGOS, has taken a completely different approach yet one which is undeniably Aquarion in its grandiose, yet bizarre ambition.
The visual novel Stein’s;Gate, recently released in English translation, is an interesting and in-depth piece of science-fiction, with a believable and interesting take on a time-travel plot. Exploring the idea of being able to send messages to the past to try and convince people to act differently, it both avoids the usual cliches of time paradoxes by limiting the function of its time machine to very recent history and a very small scale, but also creates new questions that it seeks to answer; how can one be sure if a message had its intended effect? Yet aside from this, the real appeal of Stein’s;Gate is its central characters and how they, as people, are key to the plot unfolding as it does. It begins endearing, and rapidly turns dark without these characters particularly changing their behaviour and it is this exposure of the unpleasantness hiding within the protagonist that is more compelling than the conspiracies and science-fiction inventions he is involved with.
Note: This article contains discussion of the plot of Stein’s;Gate as well as discussion of scenes of emotional and physical abuse within the story.
Episode 25 of Rahxephon begins with Ayato having “become” the Rahxephon, its true form being a giant version of him with design elements of the machine itself attached. This is, one could argue, the “mid-season upgrade” of the machine, its point where its true power is unlocked for the final battle – and there is definitely a final battle at hand, with the Mu controlling earth, TERRA in ruins, Narai-Kanai destroyed and the moments of love-confession and resolution passed. Rahxephon has toyed with becoming a super-robot anime at times, but never committed; some combination of events has always subverted or prevented action catharsis. In a way this is the ultimate in the robot representing the pilot – Ayato has never been particularly comfortable in his identity or at home in this unusual world, and TERRA has never really understood what it is doing – and so the “message” being pressed home is that there cannot ever be proper catharsis. When he tries to be decisive, he misunderstands the situation. When he vacillates, people die.
This is, I guess, the conclusion to the “first two episodes of a mecha anime” story that these pieces – The Circus in the Sky, Time to Get Up and Get It By Your Hands – tell. The stories began with a young boy witnessing a mecha battle above his hometown, helping the downed pilot – written intentionally to evoke Ledo from Suisei no Gargantia and Bernie from War in the Pocket – and joining the military to help defend his hometown. Now, as this introductory-feeling story concludes and some greater plot begins, the phony war that has preoccupied the Pillar of Heaven Army comes to an end and the enemy’s main forces are revealed. This is the part where some catalyst for the development of the story – something like Renton’s fateful dive off a cliff to help the Nirvash in the opening episodes of Eureka Seven – marks the protagonist’s journey beginning for real.
I feel like I want to write more in this setting. The drawing above is the work of an artist I encountered on the online mecha anime community /m/, intended to be a design for the Armours that this story skirts about. It absolutely nails the aesthetic I was hoping for here – a mixture of Eureka Seven, Dragonar and Reconguista in G.
Although my initial impressions of The Heroic Legend of Arslan were highly positive, enthusiastically pointing to its depiction of the crises of confidence facing an exiled heir to the throne learning the injustices the house he represents has placed its people under, this enthusiasm has waned as the series has settled into its stride. Quite why was initially hard to describe; knowing that Arslan was from the same writer as the superlative Legend of the Galactic Heroes made initial criticisms about the style, narrative voice or aesthetics seem like they were based on placing this new, unrelated series in the shadow of something known to be a standout classic of its genre. Galactic Heroes is a 110 episode minimum OVA from some decades ago, meaning it was made under a very different release pattern and era of animation to a modern-day weekly broadcast television series. Making direct comparisons between things in fundamentally different media in this way is a common misconception among writing about anime, particularly in aesthetic terms; as a result, it took some time to settle into accepting Arslan for what it is, and then in turn discussing what works and does not work within that medium.