Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Feb 28th 2012
Lagrange -The Flower of Rin-ne
Episodes 1-7 Streaming
Madoka Kyono loves helping people. She's the kind of girl who wears a swimsuit under her uniform on the off chance that she'll have to save a drowning kid. Which occasionally she does. She is the president and sole member of the Jersey Club, a club devoted entirely to helping other clubs out. So when a girl named Lan asks her if she'll help pilot a robot, well, what's a compulsively helpful girl to do? Thus Madoka finds herself aboard the Vox Aura, a transforming "Ovid" of untold power, practicing her wrestling moves on extraterrestrial invaders. It isn't long before more and nastier opponents start showing up. Luckily she has allies in fellow Ovid pilots Lan and Muginami. Or does she?
Lagrange is one of two series that Tatsuo Sato is currently directing. The other is Bodacious Space Pirates. To begin with, Lagrange was the "other" series. Pirates had the promise: the imagination, the winning premise, the lively sense of fun. Lagrange on the other hand was a familiar tale of robots, aliens, and accidental teen pilots—the kind of thing that Sato had done several times before and could basically sleepwalk through. It felt like an add-on. What a difference a couple of episodes can make. The two haven't switched places exactly, but while Pirates has proven a bumpy and sometimes variable ride, Lagrange has taken off—driving forward with unexpected force and at every turn revealing itself to be better-made and just plain better than was first apparent.
What is first apparent is pretty conventional. You have your girl, your mecha, your alien invaders, and they all relate to each other pretty much exactly how you think they would. The girl gets shanghaied into piloting the mecha against the invaders, who come calling one at a time in their own robots (black of course). The details are no less predictable: the suspicious government agency that shanghais Madoka, Madoka's mysterious childhood connection to Vox Aura, the "good" aliens cooperating with the agency. Pilots get added, the enemies get stronger... the series is working very much within the boundaries of its genre template. The restful seaside setting and persistently good-hearted cast make for an easier, sweeter take on the genre, but even that has its precedence—most markedly in Sato's own Shingu.
It's a good precedent to follow, though. Pleasant, to be sure, but also human. It offers characters the benefit of both a sympathetic eye and room to expand, which tends to enrich rather than defang the plot. The series refuses to let the conflict boil down to good guys vs. bad guys, making it amply clear that Madoka's opponents have their own pasts and motivations, however obscure they may be at this point. Her allies aren't always peaches either, especially Lan's manipulative butler Moid. The big bad guy shares different stages of what is obviously a complicated past with Lan and Muginami, as well as a boozy friendship with Madoka's uncle. The sense of betrayal when he turns on them is powerful and ugly, all the more so for how likeable he is otherwise. The leader of the suspicious government agency in the meantime proves totally beyond suspicion, while strong adult presences like Madoka's steely lady cousin, goofy but reliable uncle, and violently protective teacher alter the flow of the story in their own ways.
Naturally, Madoka is no exception. She's an unabashedly strong girl, ever ready to speak her mind or leap to someone's aid—whether they ask or not. She doesn't balk, doesn't run, doesn't mope (often), and is more or less impervious to fear when her friends or neighbors are in need. She's the main reason that the first three episodes are one long dash from fight to escalating fight. Just try dawdling or wallowing in angst with someone like that in the lead. The series actually does try the angst thing, but it lasts about five minutes before she rebounds. The moments when she does doubt herself have a worryingly didactic tone—worrying because preaching is a habit Sato has fallen into in the past—but are rare and brief. She is more often a brightening influence, deflecting potentially dark scenes with cheerful sangfroid and a joke. Her reaction to Lan's alien roots is a perfect example, a dramatic bombshell brushed aside with masterful comic timing.
She can't deflect them all of course, nor would we want her to. The second arc focuses in earnest on her relationship with Lan and Muginami, a cute exercise in clumsy waitressing, adorable jealousy, and tandem bathing that comes screeching to a halt in one savage emotional attack. As if drawn by a magnet, the sharp shards buried inside the previous episodes begin to emerge: Lan's deception of Madoka, the slimy maybe-villainy of Moid, Muginami's duplicitous airheadedness, Madoka's capacity for violence. What results is eye-opening in its intensity, if a little facile in its resolution.
The series isn't neglecting its less character-based elements as this plays out. There's plenty of mecha action to go around, even if the second arc is resolved more by heartfelt discussion than mechanical pummeling. The fights are somewhere in the middle range of cool, slick and well put-together but less than mind-blowing. The stakes are right and the sleek mecha are at a good midpoint between utility and semi-mystical aesthetic wankery, with a few imaginative touches that mecha fans will appreciate—such as the way the controls transform along with the robots. The Ovids' two forms—jet and humanoid—allow for both screaming aerial maneuvers and martial grappling, each handled with equally clean CG ease by Xebec.
More important, however, are the hints of context that slip into and around the fights. A flashback to Lan's childhood gives a glimpse of the war's scale. Mugi's remembrances hint at broken alliances, political punishments and frontier resistance movements. Portentous legends and cryptic comments speak to the importance of the Ovids, if not to the specifics of their role. Unfamiliar names and terminology speak to series mythology yet to be explored. You can always sense the clanking galactic machinery, of which Kamogawa is but a small part, forever churning just out of sight. Info-dumpers the world round would do well to take note; it's world-building the way it should be: incremental, natural, tantalizing.
Lagrange escapes the general stylistic deadening that afflicted Bodacious Space Pirates, remaining vibrant and vital throughout these episodes. Kamogawa is a truly beautiful place, blue and clear and worthy of Madoka's fierce love. Fights make full use of it, as do the series' more relaxed interludes. Characters are well-designed and well animated; fan-service is excellent yet tasteful, born mostly of the backless uniforms of the Ovid pilots. The color scheme—bright, sunny, never gaudy—is well-matched to the series' tone, and the excellent action score takes an appropriately electronic tack. There is nothing lazy or careless to be found here. No scene is anything less than well-executed, and some are downright unforgettable. There are sights in the second arc's pivotal scene that, simple as they are, will stick with you long after you wish they wouldn't. It's a straightforward scene, driven mostly by two unfolding monologues, and yet devastating in its impact. If the series can continue building such scenes, it won't be long before Pirates is Lagrange's add-on.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Coming-of-age mecha action with real momentum and a wicked emotional punch; great characters, good fights, interesting setting, superior direction.
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