Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Apr 28th 2009
Str.A.In.: Strategic Armored Infantry
DVD Box Set
High-born Sara Werec is a Reasoner—a privileged pilot who flies one of the military's most advanced weapons: Strains. As a member of the elite she enjoys a comfortable life at a piloting academy, and her outgoing personality has won her a bevy of devoted friends. All of which she loses in one traumatic crush when her beloved brother Ralph betrays their nation and stages a genocidal attack on her school. Sara loses not only her friends, her position and her brother, but also her ability to pilot a Strain when Ralph destroys her mecha and her Mimic (the artificial brain that enables her to link with her machine). Skip forward a few years and Sara has changed her appearance and her name, infiltrating the military at its lowest levels in hopes of eventually gaining a position that will allow her to confront her homicidal brother. A little team-based military nonsense later and she catches the eye of Lottie, the diminutive “Queen” of their training ship's Reasoners. Left sullen and inexpressive by the ordeal she has endured, Sara naturally clashes with the hot-headed runt, which naturally leads to manly mutual respect and cringe-worthy nicknames (Gutsy Girl indeed). Unbeknownst to Sara, Lottie's brother was murdered by Ralph, which bodes ill for their continued friendship, and unbeknownst to them both, Ralph is lurking nearby with a fleet of enemy machines, waiting for a chance to seize Emily, a mysterious doll that Sara has taken a shine to, and willing to kill anyone who stands in his way—including his little sister.
Though based (loosely, oh so loosely) on the book A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Strain—with its mecha battles and yuri undertones—is very much the product of its animators at Studio Fantasia. In many ways, Studio Fantasia is an underrated studio. Though best known as indefatigable purveyors of the panty-shot, the studio has been honing a highly enjoyable fusion of light drama and fan-service silliness for years, arguably reaching its peak with the hilarious and occasionally touching Kirameki Project and the pleasantly-paced slice-of-life/action hybrid Stratos 4. At their best, Studio Fantasia series combine likable female leads with surprisingly interesting relationships (the pseudo-parental bonds of Kirameki, the abiding friendships of Stratos), plenty of oddball humor and, of course, piles of panty-flashing action. They're slickly animated fan-service adventures; well-drawn, rather lazily written and bursting with bouncy bishojo goodness.
But not Strain. No likeable lead, no interesting relationships, no laughs (that work—plenty that don't), and, aside from the scattered low-angle shot and an episode devoted to lusty lesbian hi-jinks, surprisingly little fan-service. This time the folks at Fantasia are more concerned with big emotions than with enjoying themselves or jamming in the panty shots until they shoot from the screen like undergarment shrapnel. That's a problem. Why? Because they simply can't pull it off. The series obviously wants to be a serious wartime drama (it borrows liberally from Gundam), but has zero grasp of what makes drama work. The middle half sags under the weight of the ham-fisted character-building, and the clumsy kill-em-all tragedies are downright insulting, the show setting up its characters like cardboard ninepins and expecting us to care when it knocks 'em down. Rather than touching or intense, it's sloppy and unfocused, and worst of all, seriously un-fun (the unintentional humor of Ralph's random contraction of the dreaded cough-up-blood-and-die anime disease notwithstanding). Faced with that, libido-driven stupidity is almost preferable.
Not that libido-driven stupidity would have worked anyway; not with the show's equally sloppy visuals. It has neither the stylish, coolly realistic look of Stratos nor the infectious Candyland energy of Kirameki, instead coming across as a dreary patchwork of clichéd space opera imagery. From Sara's stereotypical European homeland to the nondescript ship interiors, the settings are straight-up boring, and the mecha are glow-in-the-dark eyesores (Ralph's reptilian super-mecha excepted). But all of that pales in comparison to the series' single most unforgivable artistic shortcoming: the girls aren't hot. In part this is the fault of the bland designs and stiff 2-D animation, but the real culprit is the joyless, wooden fan-service, which isn't just reduced in quantity, but quality as well, drained of both the humor and carefree energy that Fantasia usually brings to its exploitations of cotton-clad butts. Even the naked lesbian episode feels rote—as if director Tetsuya Watanabe was browbeaten into halfheartedly pandering to the studio's licentious fan-base.
As flatly written and illustrated as they are, it should come as no surprise that the characters are also less than enthusiastically acted. Ayako Kawasumi sleepwalks through her role as Sara, seemingly unperturbed by the fact that she never once communicates whatever intangible quality it is that makes everyone, male and female, fall instantly in love with her. The supporting actors, particularly voice-acting stalwarts like Yukana and Ai Nonaka, do what they can with their underwritten roles, but it isn't much—a flash of emotional depth here, a jolt of humor there. Which is good news for the English cast. Caitlin Glass's Sara compares favorably with Kawasumi's, swinging convincingly from careless youth to hardass veteran to tragic heroine, and there are few missteps either in the casting or acting of the supporting characters (though Robert McCollum's Ralph isn't very convincingly evil). For good or bad (but mostly bad) the rewrite keeps close to the literal translation, even retaining Sara's terrible nickname.
The show isn't entirely without its strengths of course. Very few shows are (aside from Beet the Vandel Buster). Tetsuya Watanabe's experience directing the powerful Rumbling Hearts shows in his sensitive use of the oft pretty score, and the series is genuinely unpredictable, if only because so much of it springs fully formed from the asses of its writers. While the 2-D animation is quite bad, the 3-D animation, ugly mecha aside, is pretty impressive—though not quite up to Studio Fantasia's usual standards. And then there's the Lottie's discovery of Sara's true identity, a potent bit of melodramatic plot convergence that for the length of a single episode transforms the series into something that may actually jerk a few tears from the more tender-hearted. However, by the time the series drags itself to its muddled conclusion, all of the miserable attempts at pathos, head-scratching plot developments and maddeningly botched fan-service will have long erased any pleasant aftertaste that those precious bittersweet minutes might have left. And by the time the disc makes it from your player to its case, even those will have been forgotten—along with everything else about the series.
Aside from the usual production art/episode notes, clean opening and closing animation and company trailers, this set's one extra is a solitary episode's worth of audio commentary (once again filed away in the “episodes” menu) featuring ADR director Leah Clark and a cross section of the female supporting cast. It's a big chatty blast of energy that far exceeds the show itself in entertainment value, but will tell you very little that you don't already know.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C-
Animation : C+
Art : C-
Music : B
+ One effective emotional peak in the second half; more serious and less puerile than is the norm for Studio Fantasia.
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