NOT EVEN JUSTICE, I WANT TO GET TRUTH!
Long-time friends, followers, and readers probably recall my strong affection for Armored Trooper Votoms, a fifty-two episode mecha anime from Sunrise studio directed and created by one Ryosuke Takahashi, the gentleman who directed most of Sunrise’s fondly remembered robot cartoons of the 1980s that weren’t directed by Gundam director Yoshiyuki Tomino. Takahashi’s Votoms is a gloomy, bitter robot cartoon full of shady characters and corruption, soaked in acid rain and blood. At least, that’s how it starts, opening with a dreary urban setting that reminds me of a more run down Blade Runner before moving to an equally miserable jungle planet that might as well be called Space Vietnam; clearly that’s the war that Takahashi and company are in a mood to evoke, as that stretch of the show opens with the most obvious Apocalypse Now homage imaginable. The show’s robots are fragile tools that may have a certain character, but they are not characters in the way that previous robot cartoons’ robots were. They’re disposable, interchangeable, and absent for episodes at a time. The true focus of the show is one man army Chirico Cuvie, a quiet, terse young man betrayed by his comrades, falsely accused by his government, and skilled only in the art of combat. He’s a different breed from the bright young heroes who came before him, a harder hero for a harder cosmos.
Where Votoms is a damaged butterfly of a show, Takahashi’s previous effort, 1981’s Fang of the Sun Dougram (co-directed with Takeyuki Kanda, who would also go on to direct his own Sunrise robot show in ’83, Round Vernian Vifam) appears to be the gauntlet-like chrysalis it emerged from. As of this writing I’ve watched eighteen of its seventy-five episodes (yes, seventy-five episodes) that aired from October 1981 to March of ’83, and I can see how it stands as an important evolutionary step between Tomino’s Gundam and both Votoms and even Zeta Gundam. It’s also enjoyable viewing, if a bit slow at times and also possessed of a lead character who spends a very long time being frustratingly naive.
Like Gundam before it, Dougram is the story of a colony in space fighting for its freedom. The colony in this instance is a planet called Deloyer, and for the longest time they’ve been content to gripe and complain about their treatment at the hands of the Earth Federation. However, during a government conference concerning this growing tension and resentment, Federation military commander Colonel Von Stein stages a coup, declaring Deloyer independent of the Federation and holding Governor Denon Cashim and the rest of the planet’s colonial government hostage. Federation forces, including Cashim’s high-spirited youngest son Crinn — a trainee pilot given a battlefield promotion — move in to rescue him and retake Deloyer’s capital city of Kardinal. What we discover during the operation, however, is that the whole coup is a scam run by Governor Cashim and Von Stein and that Cashim was never really in any danger. Quickly, Cashim exonerates Von Stein and points the blame for the coup at his fellow hostages, claiming that they put Von Stein up to it. This leaves Cashim, his advisor LeCoque, and Von Stein to remake the Deloyer government as a dictatorship. A side effect of the false coup, of course, is that it brings agitators and genuine rebels out of the woodwork, and fighting continues despite the movement’s figurehead’s betrayal. Crinn Cashim tries to talk his father into easing up, tries to explain to him that the people of Deloyer just want to be free to make their own way in the world, and ultimately joins with a band of Deloyer natives he’s befriended to take a stand against his father’s corrupt government.
So much of Dougram is a perfect midway point between Votoms and Gundam. Gundam is a fairly cynical show, but Dougram wears its cynicism on its sleeve; it’s mistrustful of both big business and government, though so far it hasn’t gone for the trifecta like Votoms and sunk its knife into religion as well. Its mechanical designs are a little more military industrial than Gundam‘s, but the title unit, the rebels’ top-secret prototype Dougram is still a one-of-a-kind powerhouse like the RX-78-2 Gundam, even if it has a more conventional cockpit area for a head and a drab color scheme. Crinn Cashim himself also seems an evolutionary midpoint between the two shows’ protagonists; he’s an academy student, not yet a soldier, so he has the hang-ups and freak-outs about killing that you hear from early Amuro Ray, but he does have military training so it’s not preposterous when he can pilot these battle machines and ultimately discuss tactics with his fellows in the rebel movement.
One area where Dougram so far trumps both its predecessor and successor is with how raw a deal it gives its lead characters. Where I’m at right now, it’s giving off quite the feeling of soul-crushing hopelessness. I’ve just sat through a miserable arc in the desert where Crinn nearly gave over the Dougram to the greedy, amoral mercenaries of the Garcia Platoon and was beaten severely in a way I usually associate with latter-day Gundam shows. Meanwhile the rest of our heroes, dying of thirst, suffered a series of relentless missile barrages all around them. Then, after they finally stood triumphant over Garcia, I watched one of the team die in a ridiculous and shocking accident. While they tried to move past that, they finished crossing the desert into the guerrilla-friendly city of Bonar, only to see that in the interim Bonar’s security chief has sold out the city government to business interests allied with the central government. Then they were betrayed by one of their own from earlier in the series, and then were told that another high-ranking guerrilla had defected to the Federation. Seriously, if I’d been introduced to this around the time I first watched Votoms, when I was in high school, I think this would be my favorite show ever. I thrived on grim, bleak stuff like this back in the day.
Given what a relentlessly miserable run of episodes I’ve just witnessed, I wonder if it turns around any time soon. One of the things that I truly appreciated by the time I reached the end of Votoms was the fact that in the person of his female equal and opposite, Fyana, Chirico Cuvie found a kind of hope, and while later stories ultimately took that hope away, the original series ends with him and his love together drifting through the endless void of space in cryo-sleep. Dougram, however, opened with the image at top, a grim suggestion that things don’t turn out well for our heroes. I’m not even a quarter of the way through it, but I watched five episodes in a row Saturday night and in each one the walls seemed to close further and further in on Crinn’s merry little band of agitators. Certainly things have to turn around at least for a spell, but between the bleak opening moments and the bad luck they’re dealing with now, I don’t see a happy ending for this show, even if Deloyer is ultimately freed. After all, the enemy leader is the main hero’s dad. Situations like that never end well.
Remarkably, the show has gotten better as things have gotten worse for our heroes. As I said earlier, Crinn starts off hopelessly naive. He remains so well after he’s joined the rebels and acquired the title robot. Even with one member of the team totally sure he’d sell them all down the river to save his own skin, since he’s a privileged Earth man and they’re “just” Deloyerans, Crinn thinks it’s a good idea to go visit his dad to try one last time to ask him to stop being an asshole dictator with no regard for the wishes of the people of Deloyer. It’s this final encounter with the Governor that mercifully kills this outlook once and for all, but it caps off a run of reckless and naive acts running all the way back to the second episode, when he let a random dude into the airfield where his dad’s plane was taking off and the dude turned around, stole a Combat Armor, and tried to destroy his dad’s space plane on the runway. And yet, the thing I have to keep telling myself is that it makes sense for Crinn Cashim to be this naive. He’s the fairly isolated teenage son of a rich and powerful politician, the spoiled baby of the family — and most importantly of all, this naive outlook he starts with is what separates him from his father and siblings. Like so many (yet not enough) confused children of today wondering why people make a big deal about race, he sees no difference between Earthling and Deloyeran. When someone tells him something, he takes it at face value, not understanding why someone would lie to him. If he didn’t start off with this smiling naive worldview and recklessness he wouldn’t have the moral tools and determination that are ultimately forged into his drive to make things right on Deloyer at any cost, including his own life. And mercifully, as much as you might scream at the screen when he falls prey to an obvious trick, he learns from his mistakes.
There is also the matter of Crinn’s cloying, milquetoast girlfriend Daisy. In the flash-forward first episode, we meet her trying to follow Crinn into his next hellhole destination. When we jump back to see how did it get to this, oh god, the first real impact she has on the plot is that she lends him the money that gets him to Deloyer in the first place; he recklessly ran off to the spaceport with no money and no ID, the idiot. After that, unfortunately, she’s spent the rest of the show’s run so far pining for him, wondering what he’s doing, and looking shocked as she’s discovered that he’s been branded a traitor. I sort of admire her determination in finding and seeing him again, but on the other hand she’s kind of an uninteresting drip. Hopefully the show finds something interesting to do with her besides occasionally cut to her falling to her knees in the middle of hallways and weeping. The show does have another female lead, a member of the rebels named Canary, who it treats much better; she’s the one who keeps making snarky asides about how Crinn is a privileged Earthling and she still doesn’t fully trust him. She’s also sort of the girlfriend of the team’s de facto leader, Rocky, though she’s a member of the team first and his girlfriend second. I bring up Canary because I don’t think Daisy’s characterization is a matter of the show being clod-thumpingly sexist; it legitimately makes sense that this is the sort of person sheltered young Crinn grew up with, and I think the real problem is entirely structural. That is, it keeps cutting back to her without having anything interesting to say about her or anything interesting for her to do. Hopefully the next time I see her she’s actually embroiled in some subplot with that reporter guy she’s tagging along with or, hell, maybe they actually find Crinn.
Still, these are mere blemishes on what has been a reasonably engaging ride so far. As I’ve said, it’s a show with a slower, more deliberate pace, but when you’ve got seventy-five episodes to tell your story you can afford to do things like slowly transform the lead character’s worldview, tear people’s lives down so we can see them give in to the desperation that makes them rebel guerrillas, and then (flash-forward in episode one aside) not properly introduce the title robot until episode seven. This style of storytelling seems to be paying off so far; the additional context all this backstory provides makes the losses and the twists all the more emotionally resonant. Whether or not the final payoff fifty-seven episodes from now winds up being worth the ride, I’ll let you know in a couple of months.