In the absence of new Doctor Who to write about, I’ve decided to write up some short bits on whatever anime and cartoons I’ve watched throughout the week. Mind you, this past week I’ve mostly been working and trying to catch up on my sleep (and I’ve got one more episode of Robotech to get caught up on as of this writing), but I’ve made the time to catch a couple of things worth talking about: two 2011 efforts spinning out of robot animation of the 1980’s that start with the letter V. One’s the first episode of a kids’ show airing on NickToons, and the other is a direct-to-video one-shot bit of nostalgia that’s never gonna see the light of day here in the States. More’s the pity in the latter case, but given poor sales of the original TV series three times over in the U.S., I understand why.
Voltron Force episode 1: New School Defenders The latest attempt to recapture the magic of 1984’s Voltron: Defender of the Universe is pretty rough around the edges and suffers from some of the poorest character design I’ve seen in some time, but I have to admit, the story has me somewhat intrigued. In the wake of Prince Lotor’s utter defeat at the end of the original Lion Force Voltron, the Lions malfunction during a victory celebration, allowing one Sky Marshall Wade of the Galaxy Garrison to have them retired. It’s clearly part of an attempt to consolidate power, and while keeping up appearances as good, upstanding soldiers, Lance, Hunk, and Pidge work to discover what Wade’s really up to. Meanwhile, team leader Keith has willingly turned fugitive to take on the dirtiest parts of the mission, breaking into installations and gathering intelligence. The first episode is told largely from the perspective of Daniel, a cadet who still idolizes the Voltron Force in a world where even mentioning the Defender of the Universe’s name is a punishable offense. He and a like-minded cadet named Vince are recruited by Lance as junior members of their underground rebel force. It’s simple, fast-paced, and moves from peril to peril — Keith battles Galaxy Garrison forces and breaks into a top-secret installation, while the boys have a simulator joyride and are put up to stealing something from Wade’s office. There’s a lot going on, and I’m surprised at the amount of ground covered in twenty-two-or-so minutes. I find it interesting that Keith’s flight suit resembles a sleeker version of the lion-helmeted suits from Voltron: The Third Dimension — a show that’s obviously not in continuity anymore given that Lotor’s not a ridiculous looking cyborg in this show — while the robot mouse that tags along with Keith is straight from the pages of the Devil’s Due Voltron comic book. Part of me honestly wonders if this is more designed to follow the latter given the way Keith and Lance are written and the characters’ looks. We get a bit of Voltron himself in the first few minutes, giving us a taste of what we’re really here for, and one of the lions turns up before the end of the half hour; the CG Voltron and Robeasts are a highlight, well designed and slickly animated. I still don’t understand, however, why the character designs and animation are so below par. The original Go Lion character designs may be dated now, thirty years on, but for their time they were cutting edge, slick and modern in a way that few of their contemporaries were. This doesn’t hold up to that legacy. These designs are pug-nosed and awkward and are constantly wearing inane grins on their faces. In a world where the new Thundercats has a sharp modern anime style, why couldn’t a show that has genuine anime roots look like that? At least the acting is reasonably good — good ol’ Garry “Optimus Primal” Chalk plays Wade; he’s always a welcome voice to hear, even if he’s not on the side of the angels this time — and while Daniel’s “ultimate Voltron fanboy” thing is a bit over the top, he could have been so much more annoying. Overall, better than I feared it would be, but the look of it isn’t doing the show any favors.
Armored Trooper Votoms: Alone Again The last of 2011’s three Armored Trooper Votoms one-shot OVAs (after the half-baked side-story Case;Irvine and the alternate universe story Votoms Finder), this is the one that actually features the regular cast of the series; it takes place between 1994’s five-episode Shining Heresy and last year’s six-episode Phantom Arc, and seems to exist mostly to write out Teitania, the cyborg “Nextant” from the former series, and to reunite Chirico with some old friends properly prior to the latter series. For the uninitiated, Votoms began in 1983 as a fifty-two episode television series. Its lead character, Chirico Cuvie, was a soldier brought in on a mission the details of which were not divulged to him; it was a mission to steal, from his own side, a top-secret weapon called a Perfect Soldier, a genetically-engineered fighting machine in the form of a beautiful woman. Chirico was the first to discover the P.S., but she was taken away and he was left to be discovered by his superiors, who thought he was in on it. Chirico escaped into the seedy city of Uoodo, and would wind up traveling the galaxy, moving from battlefield to battlefield, and ultimately reuniting with the Perfect Soldier; the two would fall in love, and he would give her the name Fyana. Chirico would discover that he himself was a kind of naturally-occurring Perfect Soldier, groomed by fate to ascend to a kind of computer-driven godhood. He, naturally, rejected this fate. Shining Heresy would see him battling a war-worshiping church pursuing its own P.S.-like experiments in order to kill him in revenge for the destruction of their god. As Alone Again opens, Chirico is still wandering the Astragius Galaxy, still pursued by the military for all the chaos he’s left in his wake. He crosses paths with his dearest friends from the TV series, Vanilla and Coconna, who’ve married and are raising six children while running a shipping business out of a free port desert world. One of their sons, unfortunately, has fallen in with a branch of the church Chirico took down, and is using the family business to secure a cache of Armored Troopers. The planet is coming under the heel of one of the major military powers, and the church plans to strike back. Vanilla discovers the shipment and hides it, hoping to dismantle the A.T.s before his son finds them. Given that this is a mecha anime, what do you think the chances are that he’s successful? What do you think the chances are that Chirico finds his way into one of the A.T.s and winds up battling both the corrupt church again and the oppressive military bastards? Just as Chirico’s friends see him and think back nostalgically on lives filled with danger and adventure, so does this OVA recreate nostalgically, with touches of modern flair, the world of a TV series almost thirty years old. The colors may be a bit more muted and the mecha may be rendered in modern 3D CG, but the character designs and voice actors remain mostly the same, and numerous cuts from Hiroki Inui’s original jazzy TV series score are used to great effect. Sunrise has created what feels like one more extra-long episode of a show that’s been getting a few more episodes here and there for a surprisingly long time. I’m not sure what a newcomer would think of this particular one-shot, but it includes all the ingredients that a dyed-in-the-wool fan would want: political drama, sci-fi settings that recall real world hot-spots, Armored Troopers rolling around on dash-wheels and blowing up spectacularly, and at the center of it all, stoic Chirico taking on impossible odds and doing what he does best. The intrigue is a bit lightweight, especially compared to something like Shining Heresy, but the action and character drama fire on all cylinders. Certainly I would have preferred a follow-up to the dangling threads of Phantom Arc, but I wasn’t disappointed.