Saber Marionette J
This series was safely recommended to me as a fan favorite. It was one of the first series I watched, and reviewed, and it spent a great deal of time with a review far poorer than it deserved (something that will probably continue). Fortunately that reminded me to watch, and enjoy, it all over again.
The story begins on a planet way out on the galactic fringes. Mankind's effort to colonise the planet, fleeing a polluted and over-populated earth, ran into a couple of problems. These including the explosion of the colony ship and only six males surviving to reach the planet. As they observe, this could make survival challenging. Fortunately they're both bright and ambitious and manage to build a population through cloning, although attempts to create a female clone end in failure. Each of the original six, living on as a line of pure-bred clones claims a portion of Terra II to develop, and generally does this in the style of their own ancestry. The population itself is composed of mixed clones (using material from all 6 originals). They also develop marionettes, robots in the shape of earth females, who fill many roles in society...although the `social' aspects of this rather strange society are interesting to say the least.
The actual story we are going to follow takes place 600 years later. We get to follow a guy called Otaru as he goes through life in Japaness, a city state modelled after Japan. He's not the brightest guy in Japoness, he's certainly not the richest, but his past has made him independant and phyically skilled. He's also pretty empathic, and finds it hard to treat marionettes as simply menial robots to do all the work. Not that he can afford one anyway, but he actually seems to believe in the virtue of work itself. Thing get stranger however when he accidentally finds a marionette seemingly hidden away. She's strange in her manner, possessed of a sizable amount of power and, strangest of all, she laughs...something that the emotionless marionettes simply don't do. At this point Otaru's life becomes more interesting, including the eventual addition of two other marionettes who also share this unnatural degree of humanity. They're also attracted to him (something very unfamiliar to a man in a world with no women). And, finally, they're somewhat naieve about the world...they're plenty intelligent, but their life experiences are limited which keeps Otaru on the run.
Sounds like a romantic comedy with multiple attractive marionettes feuding for Otaru's attention doesn't it? With the additional element of them finding out about the world and expressing their very different personalities. Well, yes, this certainly is an element and it's a lot of fun. The marionettes are delightful with Lime's youthful innocence and insane exuberance (which Megumi Hayashibara does just way too well) contrasting with Cherry's reserved decorum (until she goes into daydream mode) and Bloodberry's physical, forthright and agressive style. There's no shortage of other interesting characters, including Otaru's want to be lover the super-camp Hanagata, who are introduced. At the same time the marionettes physical abilities mean that some lovely action is woven into the mix.
However it's not that simple at all. There's some quite touching moments woven into it all. And the sense that there's something deeper building in the background. Certainly the world keeps moving, with Faust, leader of the germanic and militaristic Gartland moving forward his plans for conquest of Terra II. He also seems to see Japoness, and it's ruler Ieyasu, as a serious obstacle to his plans. Even more interesting he also has three `special' marionettes under his command. They're more mature in many ways, certainly far more combative, but the relationship they have with Faust is dramatically different from the Otaru equivalent.
Indeed the show does not disappoint. At the back of this anime is a very strong story. It's interesting, novel and i'm not going to risk spoiling it in any way. What's even cooler is that it begins to develop during the `lighter' early portions and the transition to a deeper and more serious tone is brilliantly handled. Even better many of the events in the early episodes make more and more sense as the story evolves. Indeed this story is also deeply rooted in the history of Terra II itself. Finally, as if I haven't praised this awesome writing enough, the story is intrinsically bound up in the characters, so who they are and how they act is vitally important to the story. Which also means they get to grow as the story progresses. This is just masterful stuff, and I can't imagine anyone not wanting to experience the character, humor and depth of this cool title.
It's possible you could be put off by the early episodes though. Hanagata is pretty over the top and loud. Likewise it does take a little while for the character, writing and production to settle down a bit. Actually the production is interesting, while not new it's actually really good animation that's still very watchable today...and the marionette action is awfully good fun. But, what makes this so cool, is that the style is strong and novel. At first this looks very weird, the characters, environments and sense of movement are all more than a little unusual. Likewise it uses strange camera angles, ambient sounds (such as lime having a `walk' sound) and cuts in quite unusual ways. And, at first, it doesn't alway's work leading to some strange animation. However, once it settles in, it all comes together and looks both unusual and very, very, fine. There's simply some lovely and skilled work in this anime.
I also have to mention the show's strong sense of `world'. There's all sorts of background elements that suggest a complex world exists just outside the screen. And they mix both `familiar' and alien in an incredibly novel way. From some suggestions of politics, legends, seeing gartlands social structure...it's just intriguing stuff in its own right. And this extends to design, with things like Hanagata's moto-palanquin or combat marionette's in Kimono's showing a great attention to detail.
Get the point? This has a strong story, unbelievably cool characters, novel and skilled production...there's simply no reason not to watch it. And it gets better the longer it goes on. It is obvious that the creators believed in and really enjoyed producing this anime. And the conclusion is simply wonderfully satisfying.