The Mike Toole Show Touched By a Galaxy Angel
by Mike Toole,
Last week at Otakon, I somehow ended up in the audience at the Right Stuf's panel. There were some technical challenges, but we won't get into that—my big takeaway from the event was company head Shawne Kleckner extolling the virtues of a genre he simply referred to as space comedy. Right Stuf have been in the business of space comedy for quite some time; one of their foundational anime releases is classic space comedy Irresponsible Captain Tylor, and they've built on this show's momentum by bringing back fare like Lost Universe and Space Pirate Mito.
Shawne was talking up expanding his company's space comedy offerings in the coming year, announcing plans for bringing signature space comedy Martian Successor Nadesico to Blu-Ray, as well as bringing another space comedy back into print: Galaxy Angel.
Galaxy Angel is a series that is near and dear to my heart, and if you want a good rundown why, just watch this video that I made way back in 2009. I'll try my best not to spend the rest of the column repeating stuff from it. Actually, it should be pretty easy to avoid parroting my earlier examination of the TV series, because as a franchise, Galaxy Angel is a bit more far-reaching, and a lot more interesting. I'd go as far as saying that there's kinda two Galaxy Angels—one rooted in a manga and video game series, and the other custom-built by Madhouse and Morio Asaka for TV. It's a little tricky for me to examine the former, because the video games, released back in the early 2000s for PC and Playstation 2, were never released in the west. That's too bad, because the video games are really the foundation of Galaxy Angel as a whole. GA was one of those “media mix” deals, planned right from the start by its creators, character goods powerhouse Broccoli and artist Kanan, to be a multi-platform project with games, manga, anime, and anything else they could cram into the schedule. They even had a cool codename for the franchise, Project G.A., which launched with the release of the first video game in the summer of 2000.
So who remembers this guy?! He's one of the most prominent characters in the Galaxy Angel universe, and until I finally picked up the manga years after watching the TV series, I had no idea who he was. He's Tact Meyers (he's often referred to as “Takuto” but the series spells his name with katakana, so I'm going with “Tact.” Incidentally, I also refer to Naruto as “Nart”), legendary hero of the Transvaal Empire, a brilliant and unconventional fleet commander who put down a major rebellion and quashed a plot against the Transvaal royal family. If you've played Sakura Wars, Tact is basically the Ichiro Ogami of this series; he's in charge of the Angel Brigade, a team of five elite pilots, and in his role, the player of the video game gets to choose story routes, take tactical command of his troops, and most importantly, decide which member of the Angel Brigade to start dating.
It'd be easy to say that dating sims were a quaint artifact of the late 90s and early 2000s, with megahits like Sentimental Graffiti and the aforementioned Sakura Wars, but let's face it, even the Mass Effect games are dating sims at this point. The idea of romantically pursuing characters as a part of gameplay was introduced and refined by these older JRPGs, and has simply stuck around since then. But back in 2000, it was still kind of a novelty. The player could choose to romance the franchise's cover girl, happy-go-lucky ace Milfeulle Sakuraba, or go for one of her squadmates, Ranpha (hotheaded, but sharp), Forte (cool-headed and gun-crazy), Mint (the quirky one), or Vanilla (the awkward, mostly silent lolita).
As someone who came to Galaxy Angel by way of the anime, the manga's (and by extension, the video games') much more straightforward tone never really sold me. That isn't to say that it's deadly serious—there's actually plenty of comedy, but it tends to be dialogue-driven and incidental to the story. The game cutscenes are easy enough to find on YouTube, and they're something of a revelation, depicting the Angel Brigade pilots zipping around in massive space fleet engagements that feel more like Legend of the Galactic Heroes or Crest of the Stars. The churning, urgent opening song starts up, the singer hits a high note, and I realize I'm hearing the voice of Minmay from Macross, Mari Ijima. Most jarringly, the characters look exactly like they do in the anime, but they're much more serious; they have a war to win, after all.
The manga and games stand in stark, frankly ridiculous contrast to the anime, which ran just as long as the games and comics (five seasons) and completely tosses out the spacebound drama and romance angles in favor of more jokes. A lot more jokes. Mari Ijima's urgent hymns are replaced with giddy, pun-laden sing-a-longs by the Brigade themselves, and the characters, who are mostly named after food, star in episodes also named after food, occasionally engaging in longer story arcs that mostly involve food. Given the contrast in tone and content, it's incredible that Galaxy Angel TV works as well as it does. But it comes out of a pretty long tradition of space comedy. There's stuff like Tylor, but Galaxy Angel's ensemble and its themes of exploration also bring to mind Starship Sagittarius, a funny and surprisingly thoughtful space comedy from the 80s.
Director Asaka and his team achieve this by shelving the dating aspect and making the show an ensemble comedy; player-character cipher Tact is replaced by dumb-dad archetype Colonel Volcott, and the Brigade's personality quirks are writ hilariously large. We end up with situations like one where Milfeulle, the show's signature good-girl heroine, has her famous good luck turn bad, so the viewer gets to see her get set on fire, sucked into space, her clothes wrecked, her ship crashed, her cakes burnt. Ranpha isn't just hotheaded, she's boy-crazy. Mint doesn't rein in her odd hobbies (most prominently: dressing in huge, puffy mascot costumes), Forte carries more guns, and Vanilla is even quieter and meaner. Instead of fighting a war, the Brigade is tasked with finding Lost Technology, alien artifacts with bizarre and sometimes dangerous side effects. This is brilliant, because it allows the staff to place the characters into a new situation every episode, without resorting to rote bad guys or monsters of the week. In one episode, the Brigade discovers the Salt of invisibility, which Milfeulle promptly places in a salt shaker, so the team doesn't accidentally use it on themselves. This gag itself is a transparent callback to that Young Ones episode where Vyvian creates a homicidal-mania-inducing potion and puts it in a Coke can. When the rest of the Brigade inevitably uses the salt, Milfeulle keeps track of them by drawing silly faces on their now-invisible ones.
Vanilla gets an anime-only sidekick in NORMAD, a decommissioned artificially-intelligent missile that is a transparent reference to both the Star Trek episode “The Changeling” (which features NOMAD, a rogue satellite that developed its own “lost technology”) and foundational space comedy Dark Star, which has an extended scene where the characters argue with an AI-controlled bomb that has decided to commit suicide. This is one of the many aspects of Galaxy Angel that gets me arguing with other fans of the series (another one: should Angel Tai be translated as Angel Brigade, like Bandai's old DVD release does, or would something like Angel Wing or Angel Squadron be better?), because in the Japanese version, both Vanilla and NORMAD are voiced by Mika Kanai. This is admittedly pretty neat, because it allows the viewer to experience the actress playing two extremes; both the reserved Vanilla and the shouty, egotistical NORMAD. In the dubbed version, which I enjoy, NORMAD is played by Richard Ian Cox as sort of a spacebound Daffy Duck. I dig this approach, but some other fans I've talked to don't.
The TV series even has fun with those unavoidable “expansion” characters who come in to try and freshen things up. Season 2 introduces Kokomo and Malibu, twin boy geniuses who are ostensibly reinforcements for the Angel Brigade, but the TV series staff treats them more like Poochie from The Simpsons; after all, they were basically just cooked up for drama CDs. It gets even funnier when the pair realize they're gimmick characters, a gag that gets pushed even farther with the later introduction of Chitose, a new brigade member. She's also introduced in the games basically to goose sales and interest, but here, she's openly insecure and obsessed with being popular and well-liked; she seems all too aware that she's not really part of the team.
That kind of storytelling is what kept me coming back to Galaxy Angel throughout its run. The series is filled with bizarre sight gags, nonsense songs, science fiction jokes buried in character and planet names, and bold and hilarious visual references to the likes of Combattler V, The Third Man, Run Lola Run, and Tampopo. It even features some serious emerging talent – one of my favorite episodes, in which the Brigade are confronted by a stone-faced octopus sushi chef who can turn anything into sushi (he demonstrates this by turning Forte's Ruger into a tamago set), was key animated and co-directed by Sayo Yamamoto!
Then, there's Galaxy Angel II, which was adapted for anime as Galaxy Angel Rune. It doesn't have any of the staff from the earlier TV series, and it was animated at Satelight, rather than Madhouse. It's a completely new story with different, much simpler characters. They really experiment with the formula by taking out both the jokes and the story—the expectation is clearly that the viewer will like these new girls enough that they'll put up with them doing nothing much. Then, they cruelly have Milfeulle and the original Angel Brigade show up for just one episode, reminding us of how good things used to be. That's about all I have to say about Galaxy Angel Rune.
Beyond that, all that's left is the manga. It's funny, we got most of the Galaxy Angel manga in English, possibly because Broccoli were able to simply put it out through their Broccoli USA subsidiary. If you want to experience the stark contrast between the game and anime versions of Galaxy Angel, the manga is a good enough substitute – it covers most of the games' story beats, and was completely released in English. (Sadly, Galaxy Angel Party, which hews closer to the comic tone of the anime, was not finished.)
I do kinda wish it was easier to play the Galaxy Angel games, because the games are the only way to experience one of the franchise's best gimmick characters, Guinness Stout. He's Ranpha's rival in combat, a stereotypical super robot-type dude who screams all of his lines and is voiced by Noboyuki “screams all of his lines” Hiyama. As for the Galaxy Angel anime, I'm happy and a bit relieved that it's coming back into print. After all, it's not streaming online, and while I was fortunate enough to collect the whole thing when it was coming out, there's always a danger that my DVDs will somehow get damaged. Plus, part of the joy of watching anime is forcing your anime pals to watch your favorites, just to get their reaction, and that's easier to do when a show is in print and easy to get.
Ultimately, I just love space comedy, and would like to see more of it. Hey, ZZ Gundam counts as a space comedy, right? I'm hoping that Right Stuf continue their mission to release space comedy in the west, because I figure that sooner or later someone is basically going to have to subtitle and release all 75 episodes of YAT Anshin! Uchu Ryoko. What's your favorite space comedy, besides Star Wars: Episode II?
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