For the moment, SSSS Gridman is coasting high on raw adrenaline and exhilaration; it offers, every week, exciting and good-looking giant monster fights with a scope for destruction and spectacle its roots in live-action superhero shows cannot match. Freed from constraints of what can be done with modelwork, stunts and costuming on a TV budget, there is a full-on sense of scale. In episode 3, the characters comment that twice now the city has been destroyed and twice it has been rebuilt overnight. This is plot-relevant, but it is also a nudge at the transiency of collateral damage in disaster-focused action series that I quite appreciate.
Planet With starts unusually. It looks unusual, it feels unusual, and this elevates its quite usual premise. It plays with visual language in ways that feel smart and slick, and explores more interesting than usual themes than a lot of alien invasion stories; my first impression, from the opening episode, was that it was taking a similar angle to Fafner in its handling of an unusual, incomprehensible alien entity. I liked many aspects of Fafner, primarily its depictions of broken families and the pressures of social achievement overlaid on military service, but something that did stand out was the weird, cloying aesthetic of the Festum, its alien enemies. While the relatively early CGI was ugly and turned their unusual angelic designs into amorphous gold blobs, their whole motif, unnatural movement and particularly their catchphrase – Are you there? – was very unsettling.
Full Metal Panic: Invisible Victory had a very strong opening arc that, while it played with quite stock action-film scenarios, did so in a way that was a good payoff for viewers who had come to like its cast. It ended on a strong cliffhanger for the second arc’s setup, introduced a strong villain with a commanding personality and generally was pacy and thematic. The second arc goes a long way in two episodes to undermining that goodwill by taking the themes of the first and presenting them in a significantly less interesting setting and in a fashion that seems predictably reductive.
It took three series and countless Super Robot Wars games before I really came to like Full Metal Panic; it was always a series where the core conceit, a sort of high school anime Kindergarten Cop story about a super-genius schoolgirl being protected varyingly competently by a team of commandos never really gelled with me, where the mech combat didn’t quite work and the juxtaposition of humour and serious action was a little disorienting. Yet there was enough there – the all-comedic second series Fumoffu, with its excellent film parodies including The A-Team, Full Metal Jacket and more, fights like the city fight against the invincible yet unstable Behemoth and the climax of series 1, with charismatic and utterly monstrous villain Gauron apparently having won – to make me convinced it was not a bad series, just an uneven one.
Or, Virtue Rewarded, How I Stopped Worrying & Learned To Love the Bomb,
At Least It Isn’t Cross Ange
It is not accurate to say Buddy Complex is a series that deserves defending, because it is plainly not particularly good, interesting or new. The parts that are good are not new, and the parts that are new are not good. On the other hand, I am finding it a series worth watching because it is so unashamedly unimaginative it ends up the sort of show that epitomises every cliché possible with earnest sincerity. Within five minutes of episode one starting, once you know the jargon being thrown about, any viewer who has seen at least one other military robot anime will be able to predict everything that will happen for at least the first two and a half episodes – and that will happen without any attempt to do anything different.
There is a good setting, and indeed a good story, hiding in the back third of Horizon Zero Dawn. The first two-thirds make reaching that excellent payoff perhaps a little too frustrating, but at the same time I am not entirely sure how I would have presented it differently. The game spends hours presenting a hostile, superstitious and often annoying world which genuinely feels like the sort of tribalistic society that would emerge in a post-apocalyptic world, but at the same time it plays so heavily on how regressive the world is it becomes difficult – from perspective of the protagonist, and by extension the player – to forgive them enough to save them.
Note: This review also talks about the plot of Turn-A Gundam, as well as discussing details of the story of Horizon: Zero Dawn.
Is it useful to talk about privilege in the sense of superhero narratives? Is the “us-and-them” fear of the unpowered of an apparently unelected and unaccountable elite a useful thematic line of enquiry? The idea of a majority being forced to recognise the existence of a marginalised group is a strong allegory, and using fear of the unknown and the different to highlight society’s irrational prejudices. Doubly so if the source of the power is random genetic chance. The argument perhaps becomes inverted when one is talking about self-made heroes like Batman or Iron Man; there, there is a very real case to be made for the idea of the superhero as a rich person setting themselves up as an extrajudicial force. Indeed, the arguments behind whether or not superhumans should be regulated and registered drive many narratives in interesting directions; ideas of registration as a means of control and oppression versus the opportunity to create an organisation that can work together to help each other and be supportive.
It is relatively uncommon for a mecha anime to focus too strongly on the process of robot design and testing; test pilots are a common archetype (most iconically, perhaps, Isamu Dyson in Macross Plus), and the process of thrashing a new unit through its paces is usually a good framework for its sudden deployment in combat. This is why it is particularly interesting that 2017 saw two series ostensibly focused on robot designers, rather than professional robot pilots. I have written at some length about Atom the Beginning‘s interesting slow burn to a disarming revelation about society’s relationship with AI from the perspective of two students of engineering who build a sentient machine. It focused, in its own way, on the minutiae of being a research student. The difficulties in getting funding. The importance of always moving forward and iterating.
The ending of Atom: The Beginning is left so that further adaptation of its ongoing source material can be made; this is not the complete conclusion of the story, and knowing this context now rather sets my initial observations about the series in context (that it was taking a very laid-back and almost uninterested approach to its worldbuilding and the ethical questions raised). It is an adaptation of a small part of a longer, ongoing work. Of course it will not provide all the answers. Before moving into the meat of this consideration of the series, it is worth considering something else. I was initially perturbed, or at least surprised, to see that the series was raising and ignoring questions about machine sentience and robot ethics. It felt like a failure of science-fiction to studiously avoid taking a stand while raising allegorical and philosophical questions.
There are no shortage of anime which put a mecha genre spin on the “modern-day character ends up in fantasy/alien world” (isekai) theme. From Aura Battler Dunbine through arguably series like Orguss into ones like Magic Knight Rayearth or The Visions of Escaflowne it has strong precedent, and it is a genre that brings a few additional interesting themes to the traditional science-fiction and fantasy ones. I am personally very interested in stories of culture shock, or outsiders to a society trying to fit in; it is for this reason I was quite disappointed in the TV adaptation of Crest of the Stars because it hinted at being a story of a human living as the ward of aliens and learning their culture, and then did not really deliver so much on that. One could almost consider, actually, a story like Crest of the Stars as the pure science-fiction equivalent to the isekai story – a human living among aliens.