A new season of anime, and with it, as per usual, a new crop of mecha shows. Japanese boys have always loved giant humanoid robots going at each other with guns and swords, and with the continued unwarranted success of the Transformers movies, it’s clear that us Westerners love them too. But recent offerings of mecha shows from Japan have left me cold. Knights of Sidonia from last season had a bizarre 3D art style that looked clunky and had the additional problem of dressing everyone in the same clothes and hairstyles, making it impossible to tell if the hero was in a love triangle or if there was only one girl who kept getting cross and pouty for some reason. And Captain Earth started pretty well, but quickly degenerated into bland silliness.
The inherent problem with these shows is that it’s all down to the specs of the machines. The heroes somehow manage to build some new suped-up high tech gangly white knight bot and suddenly they’re kicking ass and we’re supposed to enjoy ourselves. Then the show introduces enemies with better bots, and the allies get nice bots too, and add-ons, probably a sword… there are some brash shouty heroes who charge in and the enemy doesn’t expect such speed, yadda yadda.
So it means something for me to say that these two new mecha shows have surprised and impressed me. They’ve got potential.
Shirogane no Ishi: Argevollen
The plot so far feels like it’s taken from a game of Advance Wars. Enemy attacks, the goodies retreat. We don’t know why they’re fighting, and it doesn’t seem to be important – all underlying plot seems to be stripped away in favor of in-the-field soldier reactions.
And it even has the suped-up high tech gangly white knight bot I despise, and the brash shouty hero to pilot it, but here’s the twist: he’s got no fighting skills. He charges in! – and fails, almost costing his team their lives by disobeying orders. It’s not a comedy – it’s life-or-death seriousness. The result is that the “heroes” are really the rest of his unit, in normal machines, with good military tactics, making difficult decisions with teamwork and limited resources, while the rookie has to figure out what he’s doing. It’s a slow mover, but could build to something very entertaining.
The show that’s really surprised me is Aldnoah.Zero. There’s an intriguing backstory – set in an alternate present day, 15 years after a war with (very human-looking, very racist) Martians, a Martian princess is assassinated and an all-out extermination of the hugely underpowered humans is underway. There are characters with mysterious pasts, the occasional empathetic villain, and a bunch of school kids in crappy old training mechas are, for good plot reasons, trying to defend against something on a whole other scale of powerful.
The first shock is how the show is getting me to genuinely like and root for a couple of characters, even with just 3 or 4 lines of dialogue. The timing is great, and there are even some laugh-out-loud quips in there, which are a rarity in a war anime. And the second is how fun the fights are. The enemies are so arrogant and smug that when the calm and rational strategies of the heroes work, (with smoke rounds, daggers and a shipping crane) it’s immensely satisfying. I have no idea what will happen next, and I can’t wait to find out.
And if this isn’t enough of a recommendation, I’ll happily watch these two half-polished gems to the end and let you know if they end well. My job is great.