I remember the olden days. When men were warriors for truth and goodness and mecha were simply vehicles to allow them to stand up to `badness'. No more, now mecha are super complex weapons that are merely expressions of power, while people are as much tools and victims of circumstance as anything else. And this show, while I've not finished it, takes this further than any other I've seen yet.
In old Japan an ancient family still wields a sizable amount of power. With members in the military, politics, and doing advanced weapons development they have money, connections and authority. And they're working on several things, including incredibly advanced combat mecha, to keep them in this position. However some of their research, and possibly the force at the root of all their activities, is stranger, older and more dangerous than anyone suspects. For this family has some ties to, albeit not control of, a power that goes far beyond science.
What they don't expect is that another force in the world, one perhaps even more powerful than they, has links to a possibly similar power. This shadowy group are able to manipulate the politics of the world, influence and use wars for their own ends and have science and artifacts to the same level. Clearly these two forces, once revealed, can not easily allow for the existence of the other. And then there are pressures within the houses themselves. And, underlying everything, is the mystery of the true nature of the power they so desperately seek.
Effectively the show consists of three plot elements deeply inter-twined. These generally focus around a young man, a member of the house, who has both a focal role and a unusual origin. He's the most deeply linked to the power, quite possibly the key to it, and thus is the focus of various experiments. He also happens to be a skilled mecha pilot, indeed supremely so, and as such when the mecha go into action he's there as well. Finally there is a rich background of politics, alliance and conflict although the young guy is the one following the orders rather than making the decisions.
We'll do the mecha first, because they're the simplest. Effectively Japan is developing bipedal robots standing 3-4 meters high. It is suggested that some `secret' technology is being used but the main thing is that the young guy can cause them to act beyond their own technical limits, something that even extends to his squad. While still in the research phase they find themselves forced into conflict when the united nations (led by the Americans) get trounced by a third world nation. It seems that, somehow, this small nation has mecha capable of destroying an entire American armoured division.
The mecha themselves are interesting. There's a positive wealth of technical detail embedded in them. Long and complex scenes of machinery at work, a lot of design in how they act, animation of the tactics they employ and even an incredible amount of detail in how they are controlled as a tactical unit. The design is both complex and believable, and the attention to detail extends to even small elements like how the mecha are stored, moved and the pilot enters them. The scenes of them fighting being as much demonstrations of the design in motion as anything else. Even the systems within the mecha, including lots of computer enhanced targeting and other data, is detailed, believable and a lot of fun for the mecha fetishist out there.
And then there's the politics and atmosphere. It's well handled too. From news reports suggesting the real world, secretive meetings at the top levels of power and even subtle discussions laced with sub-text and conflict. And underneath that the plot and counter-plot of powerful groups and beliefs in competition for dominance. The groups have great power, knowledge and ability but they don't have all the answers, so the maneuvering is quite thrilling to watch. And, in the meantime, the truth of the story is slowly revealed.
Sounds good? Well, yes, it is. I found myself feeding the tapes in one after another as I got caught up in the story. There are some problems however, which do somewhat mar your enjoyment of the experience. The first problem is that the show is `clunky' in a lot of ways. It's not the best description but bear with me. The mecha themselves are wonderful in detail and design, but in movement they are clunky and surprisingly unexciting. Likewise a lot of the action, and even the dialogue, seems oddly paced and marginally disconnected. There's a certain lack of style and coherence about it.
And then comes the kicker. One of the story elements is that the power is awakened through `Noh' dancing. Apparently this is a well respected and no doubt complex art form. Regardless I can say for certain that this anime fails to make it work. Obviously it means little to the average western fan, but it also looks very silly and the link to `super powers' stretches credibility. Even worse, and while I haven't finished the story, once the mystery is revealed much of the cool complexity is lost. And the ultimate secret ends up sounding more than a little corny and silly. It also takes an awful long time for this information to be revealed, perhaps the creators were a bit embarrassed about it.
In addition I must mention that the characters lack life and personality. Some of the `shadow' leaders are good fun. Talking in quiet but assured tones and using allegory and metaphor dripping with concealed meaning. Not the most exciting bunch however. The lead, clearly meant to be mysterious, enigmatic and holding hidden power, simply comes off as dreamy and inert. He gets moved around like a victim, a semi-willing pawn, while looking a little bit sullen. Meanwhile his mysterious nemesis ends up being, well, far more boring than she should be. The dialogue between them lacks any sort of energy or interest and is crashingly unsubtle. If there was meant to be some sort of romance or friendship then I must inform the creators that it didn't even come close to working.
The production itself is quite decent. It's interesting that I saw several dates and different opening and closing sequences so perhaps this was made in parts. In any case it is quite well designed, with the sides strongly characterised and the locales believable deep. This extends into the animation, with lots of good detail. The actual animation, especially action, is not quite as impressive but its quite watchable. There are some lovely `tech' sequences, such as a long fight with American tanks, that are very interesting. The color tends to be dark, as befits the frequent atmospheric scenes. The voices are decent, though I disliked the leads, the sound is somewhat unusual but actually quite atmospheric once you adapt to it.