The scent of flames: Armored Trooper Votoms

Welcome to Sunsa

To be honest, I doubt there is much I can say that will convince you to take a look at Armored Trooper Votoms. It’s an old series, with a heavy emphasis on war. Chirico is no Kamina. The characters are gritty and unrefined. When it can be hard to sit through just the 1 episode, 52 feels impossible, so I couldn’t blame anyone for not seeing in this series what I do, because it is most definitely an acquired taste; it’s just that I have acquired it.

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Lohengramm’s advantage; contrasting dictatorship and democracy

A statue of Rudolph Von Goldenbaum, Emperor of the Galactic Empire

Though Legend of the Galactic Heroes might seem like a Death Note style dual of fates fought between two talented leaders (Reinhard von Lohengramm of the Galactic Empire and Yang Wen-li of the Free Planets Alliance respectively) it is what they represent, as much as who they are and what they believe, which is just as riveting; a contrast of dictatorship and democracy and the ways in which both political systems are essentially imperfect and doomed to a rapid degeneration.

Political and military dictators are demonised in the modern world, but Legend of the Galactic Heroes dares to suggest that its own peerless commander, Reinhard, is not as much an ignorant, soulless monster as a power-hungry genius riddled with insecurity. Though his methods can be callous (allowing a massive nuclear strike against his own people to swing public support in a civil war wasn’t his finest moment) he has displayed fundamentally good intentions, galvinised his people under a united cause and rebuilt his corrupt government into an aggressive and forward thinking force. But for all his strengths, the dictator’s worst enemy isn’t the present day, but the future, as decadence, complacency and arrogance takes hold.

By its very nature, the quality of a dictatorship is transient, being as it is limited to the strength of one man and his subordinates. Because there is no freedom to vote for a new leader, that power to control millions passes to the privileged few; nobles, friends and family not necessarily ingrained with the quality to lead a nation. As the ideals of that original generation dilute through time, the dictatorship becomes a dynasty. Rather than earn it, people are born into power and become arrogant. They no longer represent, or even understand, the man on the street, they fight for their own petty and corrupt reasons; power for the sake of power. Eventually, the common majority will grow wary of being ruled by those with no understanding of them and, put simply, a revolution is inevitable. This is exactly what happens during the first season of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, as the impotent Goldenbaum dynasty, having grown weak and arrogant through generations of inbreeding, is completely shattered by Reinhard von Lohengramm‘s tactical nous. They have no answer to his genius because none in their privileged ranks can match his desire or intelligence to succeed. In such a situation, the death of a dictatorship is inevitable, but it remains a long and drawn out affair.

Ale Heinnesen, hero and saviour of the Free Planets Alliance

In these regards, democracy is the antithesis of the dictatorship’s long-term weaknesses. Most importantly, the populace has the right to remove the leaders they deem incompetent. Ethically, it’s a better system, but at times of war, democracy faces a distinct disadvantage against the likes of Lohengramm. While the Galactic Empire moves with the poise and clarity of its talented protector, the Free Planets Alliance is bogged down with bureaucracy; days, even weeks, can be wasted in discussions and votes searching for agreement.

While a dictatorship can condition (propaganda) its people into believing anything, a democratic government is tasked with offering an unbiased education system and, vitally, freedom of choice and speech. The Galactic Empire can conscript soldiers, but the Free Planets Alliance cannot; capitalism takes hold as the public, quite rightly, chase their own desires and become reluctant to fight a war that, for them, means little. Politically, the government is mired in corruption; money-grubbing politicians content to delay vital processes for the sake of their own gain. In Lohengramm‘s Empire, such hesitancy would be warmly greeted with execution, but in the Alliance, long inquiries, investigations and proof are required.

Where do I stand on all this? Though I believe a dictatorship like Lohengramm‘s can work, it still relies on the fundamental good nature and whims of one man. If the Empire triumphs, will Reinhard (with shades of Gurren Lagann) step aside and offer the people a chance to elect their own leader, or will the Empire have to live with another gradually failing dynasty? Democracy is a better system and offers a safer future for the human race. However, without the luck of discovering Yang Wen-li, I expect the Free Planets Alliance would have long ago fallen into Lohengramm‘s hands. Obviously, democracy is ill-suited in times of war, and though it has survived in Legend of the Galactic Heroes, I wonder if that’s merely an illusion conjured by Yang Wen-li’s talent? And if one man is so important, isn’t that an (albeit ambiguous) form of dictatorship any way?

The light of dawn always comes right after the deepest darkness

Reinhard von Lohengramm of the Galactic Empire

Writing an anime blog is frustrating. Either through lack of time or energy, I just haven’t felt the inclination to set aside an afternoon to write about something. I guess that’s more a reflection on my recent viewing habits than anything else, because since finishing with February’s Ookiku Furikabutte, I’ve not been able to immerse myself in a series to the point where I could contribute any kind of worthwhile, extended writing. Indeed, I was hoping to uncover some inspiration after catching up with two long time favourites, Naruto and One Piece, but to be honest, neither are firing on all cylinders at the moment. So, I’m sorry, dear reader, if things have seemed on the short side of late, but that I’m here now is as sure a sign as any that I’ve found something new to light the night; it’s an old flame I’ve been sheltering for too long, Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

Reinhard von Lohengramm enters the Royal Chamber

There’s no easy way to describe Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It is, in many ways, the crowning achievement for an entire generation of anime creators, a nigh-on ten year production that ran from 1988 to 1997 and stretches across 110 episodes. Quite remarkably, it contains the largest voice cast for any known animated production. All these artists, directors and actors, they lived through (and even worked on) such influential space operas as Mobile Suit Gundam, Macross and Space Battleship Yamato, and before retiring, they created this as a tribute to, or culmination of, their beloved star-fairing era. Essentially, Legend of the Galactic Heroes is that generation’s parting sentiment, their last, glorious hurrah, its opulent texture and poetic scope sweeping through distant stars to study man’s political, historical, romantic lust for power.

Reinhard's best friend, Kircheis, and his sister, Annerose

We have two protagonists at the heart of this story; ambitious aryan Reinhard von Lohengramm of the Galactic Empire (based on 19th century Prussia, hence the German names) and reluctant tactician Yang Wen-li of the Free Planets Alliance. By the time both men, notably younger than their peers, come into power, their sides have been fighting a war of attrition for over 100 years. Lohengramm’s lofty ambitions were set in stone when his beautiful older sister, Annerose, was bought (as in, with money) by the Kaiser to be his concubine. Reinhard rises through the ranks of the Empire’s military, gaining more and more power with each success, striving for the ostensible goal of winning back her freedom, though, with every passing victory; one wonders if he’s not planning to control the galaxy itself. Yang Wen-li is the exact opposite, in the sense that he isn’t driven by any lofty ambition, he doesn’t want to fight, and only does so out of loyalty to his comrades and for the sake of forging a peaceful future. Right from the start, there’s no real enemy to speak of, simply these two men on opposite sides of the fence, arch-rivals, geniuses, as fate would have it, striving for a better tomorrow.

Iserlohn about to fire the Thor Hammer

Their characterisation sets in motion this massive struggle for power engulfing man’s last frontier. So far, I’ve only seen up to episode 10, but during the first two episodes alone, over one million lives are sacrificed in battle. Much like Word War I, people are lost in their thousands, like pawns on a chess board at the hands of incompetent, pig-headed commanders too proud to quit. Also, there is a big Star Wars vibe, not least of all from the Empire’s gigantic fortress Iserlohn and it’s likeliness to the Death Star; the structure’s super-weapon, aptly named the “Thor Hammer”, can scythe through surrounding space-fleets with lightning force.

Yang Wen-li

I don’t want to write much more for fear of never ending; ultimately, this is a mere introduction to a series that’s all about social and political commentary, it’s so thought provoking that only a detailed, blow-by-blow study would suffice. Maybe that sounds intense? You’d be quite right; Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a concentrated, hard science fiction story heavy on philosophical dialogue (though not exactly at the level of Mamoru Oshii), military tactics and political manoeuvring. It has a wonderful, emotional score; rousing, soul-searching theatrical orchestra, utterly befitting for a story set within the Sea of Stars, where the whims of a select few carry the ideals and hopes of an entire generation.

You get the feeling that this is it, this is why I watch anime.

Black Lagoon – 13 – People call it spinal reflex

Madhouse Studios have an exceptional talent for adapting manga – BECK, Monster and now Black Lagoon, they clearly devote a lot of careful thought to developing a specific style for their works; almost inevitably, they craft absolutely unique anime. I feel safe in saying that Black Lagoon’s flair for attention grabbing will never fade, such is it’s commitment to ass kicking, it is a series willing to twist the boundaries of bad taste, adding layer after layer of extreme and unbelievable material, naturally showing a complete disregard of human life.

Consider incestuous, cannibalising, underage twins from Europe. They carry axes and have sweet little dolls tied to their massive machine guns. They are clearly insane. Cute, but insane. They commit depraved acts, but what is truly chilling is that they are simply kids – innocent by nature, they are none the less completely lost in and exploited by the darkness that surrounds them.

Balalaika and even Revy (as cool as they look) are obviously killers themselves, but would one consider them evil? They show an emotional restraint in their bloody and brutal work, but if they took on the same job as “the Twins”, of course they would eventually rub out their targets all the same. But because we have seen them with their feet up, drinking beer and joking with friends, we recognise a glint of their humanity, instinctively we know that deep down, they have feelings just like you and me. The twins offer no such empathy; show no emotion in context with their disgusting acts, so it’s them that are the monsters. Apparently. Body count is irrelevant.

Black Lagoon is still just as fun as ever – there is a loveable black humour and corny kitsch value to be found in such an over-top bunch of episodic villains, and despite the animation (particularly character designs) looking strangely inconsistent, you just can’t beat this show for a good ol’ fashioned shoot out.

Pumpkin Scissors – 1 – Faith in humanity after all

I’m getting worried about the fall anime season; there is too much to watch. Putting aside the immediate favourites like Death Note and Black Lagoon (these two are unmissable in my eyes) the likes of Pumpkin Scissors and D.Gray-man have proved just as fun and action packed, so where does one (desperately trying to be a ‘casual’) anime fan draw the line? Because at this rate I’ll be signing pink papers down at the Akihabara mental asylum by the end of the month!

Paranoid rambling aside, Pumpkin Scissors cut an impressive debut. Set a few short years after a hard fought and debilitating war, civilisation is left in ruin. Law and order is spread thinly, and vicious soldiers turned sadistic bandits roam the land, exploiting the weak without a care in the world. Pumpkin Scissors follows the people willing to stand up and defend what good is left in their world.

Although I’m somewhat at odds with cliche teenage pretty boys and girls posing as our heroes, Pumpkin Scissors is evocatively set within a post-WW European landscape; crumbled buildings, muddy grass and depressed villagers fill the screen with their dank green hue. Running with this realistic tone, the brief skirmishes between soldiers and bandits are notable for their distinctly painful and violent aethetic.

Interactions between the characters are as interesting and natural as you would expect, there are no laugh out loud jokes but man mountain Randel Orlando has a face covered with scars and a chilling, excited look in his eyes when its time to take down a 3-manned tank; he is a bad ass. I’m interested to see how the budding relationship between he and the idealistic female lead (nick named Pumpkin Scissors no doubt due to her cute appearance) develops and whether they survive the mass of human darkness drowning them.

Sci-Fi Harry – Does exactly what it says on the tin

Uneducated and ignorant, my first taste of this most leafy of seasons is the earnestly dubbed “Sci-Fi Harry”. I knew absolutely nothing of this show before today and the only reason I figured I’d give it a try is because of the wonderfully unprentious name. It is literally what it says on the tin – a science fiction anime with a main character called Harry. Mirroring this complete lack of hype, there is nothing outright exciting or colourful about this show, between its typically bullied protagonist and a depressed colour scheme, this is an intentionally serious and down to earth stab at high school psychic horror.

I could describe Harry as frustrating and unpleasant – after all, he is a beaten, bullied and weak teenager and we take no pleasure in his treatment at the hands of his yobbish school mates. At the same time, he is an under dog worth supporting and provided he doesn’t collapse in a pool of [his own] piss, his development as a brave hero will rouse my heart.

Perhaps the best – or at least the most striking element of Sci-Fi Harry is its artistic approach. The surreal and completely unsettling opening theme aside (it truly is an abstract sight to behold), I was impressed by the angular facial features – the eyes are particularly detailed, beaming and jerking from side to side, and it’s been a while since I saw an anime character with a proper nose. No doubt imagining a view of life from the perspective of a jaded kid, Sci-Fi Harry evokes a lifeless and drab atmosphere just waiting to explode, and for this reason it won’t be for the excitable harem otaku.

Ultimately it’s hard to know which way this 20 episode series will eventually head – given the original manga series was scribed by the same author of Night Head Genesis, I’m half expecting an influx of gay bishounen, yet I can’t deny that this first episode of Sci-Fi Harry is striking and interesting, hardly chilling but edgy and moody, wollowing in dank modern suburbia with a curiously ambiguous and confused lead character.

Black Lagoon – 12 – BOOOOOM! HEAD SHOT!

So that’s it then, no more Black Lagoon for (at a guess) a couple of years. I really loved watching this series; after a hard day at work, when it’s a tough ask to even keep your eyes open let alone watch and read anime, Black Lagoon shone like a bloodied beacon of hope. I knew no matter how tired, or how jaded, I could enjoy watching this.

That’s what Black Lagoon meant to me. It didn’t carry much emotional weight, but it had episode titles like “Guerrillas in the Jungle” and “Rasta Blasta”. There is something so attractive about its zero pretension; it’s somewhat fun to see when a series is so honestly and passionately devoted to just thrilling the viewer from start till finish. It’s fan-service, but in a broader sense (not in the moe – killer loli – panty shot – harem sense) – taking it’s cues from the Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Van Damme era of 1980s action, Black Lagoon was a consistent, balls against the wall action series with little or no regard for human life. It’s great.

If I didn’t know a second season of Black Lagoon was coming, I would feel somewhat deflated by this final episode. Of course- it pays off with the now-expected-during-every-episode kick ass action; in particular, ninja woman throwing around her giant machete on a rope is a high point, but then it just ends. We don’t even get to see Dutch. Hints are made about the second season (American CIA agents talk to Revy as if she has trained with them in the past, the Japanese Guerrilla survives to fight another day), and basically it ends with the feeling of just another episode. So much so I waited for the next episode preview, but alas nothing appeared. My anticipation of the second season starts now.

I love a lot of anime and technically, so much of it is superior to Black Lagoon – but I just know that if I had to choose one anime series, over almost everything else I’ll happily watch Black Lagoon again and again. BOOOOOM! HEAD SHOT!