Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 1-7 Streaming
Aoba Watase lives a pretty normal life. Which of course means that things are about to get weird. And sure enough, a giant portal opens up offshore and out pops a giant robot. After a little initial confusion, it targets Aoba. Aoba is saved by his classmate Hina Yumihara, who oddly enough has a similar giant robot stowed away in a warehouse. Like his attacker, Hina has come from the future, apparently forewarned that she needs to save him from an enormous portal-mecha. In the ensuing battle, Aoba and Hina and Hina's robot get sucked through the portal. Hina ends up MIA and Aoba ends up in the cockpit of an experimental robot 70 years in the future, where a world war between autocratic Zogilia and an alliance of probably-free nations is fully underway.
Let's get the elephant out of the room. In the history of bad anime titles, "Buddy Complex" has to rank among the most terrible. And it's but the first link in a chain of eminently mock-able English terminology. The "buddy" of the title is the Liberty Treaty Confederation's Buddy System, an ill-defined mecha feature that allows two pilots ("buddies") to share their consciousness and thus boost their abilities exponentially. In a process called "Proposing" one pilot yells out "connective!" and the other replies "acception!" and their brains merge. If the pairing is promising, their mecha gives them a "nice coupling" rating. Honest. If you've an ounce of snark in your body, it'll come boiling out every time the Buddy System is engaged—probably in the form of an evil giggle, though “is this Godannar?" is another common response.
If it was Godannar, which is to say a preposterous super-robot homage, it wouldn't be so bad. But Buddy Complex takes its cues from the Gundam side of the mecha equation, not the Mazinger Z side. And in the tense wartime realism of the military robot genre, silliness like the Buddy System stands out like a circus clown at a Marine outpost. And it doesn't help that the show uses the System to bypass the need for actual military strategies whenever its heroes are cornered.
Saying that Buddy Complex takes its cues from Gundam is actually a gross understatement. The similarities between the two properties are a lot closer to wholesale plagiarism than anything as vague as "cues." Zogilia has the same fascist flavor as Gundam's Zeon, the Confederation the same bureaucratic militarism as Gundam's Federation. Aoba is a direct counterpart to Amuro Ray: the naturally gifted pilot who accidentally falls in with a crew of Con/federation soldiers running an experimental unit. The journey he goes on has the same broad outlines as Amuro's, falling quickly into "ship on the run" mode and even touching on some of the same specific plot points (any refuge the ship finds is totally doomed). Aoba's pursuers are a little more Gundam Seed than original Gundam—a variegated crew of scary teens run by an evil mastermind and built around an ex-comrade of sorts—and Aoba's Romeo and Juliet relationship with future-Hina has a definite 08th MS Team flavor, but just because the show has varied taste in Gundam series doesn't make it any less cannibalistic.
There are advantages to being a Gundam cannibal though. Surprises are of course impossible, but so too is incompetence. The show's progression is predictable but muscular, always shouldering forward, pushing Aoba and the Swan (his adopted ship) from one battle to the next, from crisis to crisis, Zogilia n mastermind (and Char stand-in) Alfried Gallant forever snapping—coolly and calculatedly—at their heels. The show also has good taste in borrowing, keeping refinements from later Gundam incarnations, particularly to its main character and balance of romantic drama, while maintaining the elemental run-and-chase simplicity of the original series.
And it's smart enough to develop its own flavor of the basic Gundam plot. For all its corniness, the Buddy System brings other pilots into the equation, which nicely complicates Aoba's role on the ship. And, of course, there's the time travel aspect, which the show uses as a sneaky form of foreshadowing. The temporal mess in the opening episode provides an intriguingly fragmentary look at Aoba's future, hinting that he and future-Hina will develop an allegiance-shattering relationship and acquire at least one psychotic friend-turned-enemy—foreknowledge that actually heightens anticipation for future developments rather than dampen it.
Of course it helps that we care about where Aoba and Hina are headed. They have excellent and immediate chemistry, this friendly, guileless boy and strong, driven girl, and both are easy to root for. (And to worry about; they're so fundamentally decent and their world so fundamentally treacherous that betrayal and broken hearts seem virtually unavoidable).
Indeed, character in general is one of the show's driving strengths. As brief as some of the characters' screen time is, virtually every member of the cast is bright and interesting and gifted with fun quirks and potentially involving relationships. With little more than a few short exchanges, and a bit of comic-relief silliness, the show manages to imply that the Swan's no-nonsense lieutenant has a (weird) thing for the ship's middle-aged slacker captain. It effortlessly sets up assistant engineer Mayuka as a rival for Aoba's affections, easily develops a touchingly adult romance for the ship's senior mecha pilot, and plays nicely with the tensions and camaraderie of Hina's Zogilian unit. And as for that slacker captain, he's a genial sack of lazy affectations wrapped around an ice-cold commander's soul—easily the show's most interesting character.
The cast's one misstep is Dio, Aoba's Buddy System partner. Ostensibly the show's costar, he's hard and sulky and just generally annoying from day one. He's the embodiment of all of the dark, angsty, irritating hero-traits that the show deliberately pared away from open, easy, likeable Aoba. Even so, he's a relatively minor flaw in an otherwise show-saving ensemble. It isn't the series' knockoff plot or its time-travel gimmicks that keep us glued down; it's their potential effects on this wartime assemblage of personalities.
Sunrise animates the series with their usual polish. The mecha combat is slick, practiced, and suitably spectacular when scale is called for. The mix of 2D and 3D techniques is pretty much seamless, and missiles stream, robots soar, and aircraft fall with the kind of offhand skill that can only come from long and laborious practice. Sunrise has been doing this kind of thing for something like forty years, and they can churn out robophilic mecha mayhem in their sleep. In fact, you kinda sense that that's exactly what they're doing here. For all its technical skill, there's something slack and generic about the mecha side of the show. The robots look pretty much like every other anime robot, the technology is indistinguishable from all other sci-fi tech, and the combat is wholly interchangeable.
The score is similarly generic. Again it's polished and pleasing, but too much like other big, bombastic mecha-scores to develop a musical personality.
Tellingly, the character animation is another matter altogether. The designs aren't exactly idiosyncratic, but the way, say, the Captain's slouchy mannerisms combine with his sharp decisions or Hina's startling violet eyes betray the soul beneath her military bearing creates characters who are.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Good leads, fine supporting cast, and interesting relational developments for them all; time-travel aspect works remarkably well as a foreshadowing narrative hook.
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