Ima, kore ga hoshiin da! - Military Maniaby Allen Divers, Mar 17th 2003
I want it now!
by: Allen Divers (boxie at animenewsnetwork.com)
When it comes to creating a story, a creative staff often begins with something that is quite familiar to their audience. From there, they are free to take the audience into unfamiliar lands or even strange new worlds. Often times, the story simply stays in its familiar settings, relying on the characters to create the drama, romance or comedy.
But why even bother with a familiar setting? After all, isn't it the job of fiction to take the audience to new worlds and show them things they've never seen before? It comes down to a simple axiom of writing, stick with what you know. A story gains more credibility if it begins with something familiar. While many times this is something as large as a setting or geographical location, it can actually move towards certain character types and even familiar plot lines.
Often what an audience knows comes straight from their culture. After all, a culture develops many events that are universal to all in that culture. In Japan, probably one of the largest universal events is their school system. It seems that in most Anime and Manga series, a Japanese school serves as the backdrop. For some series, a school is simply a place that some of the characters go to; other series are actually driven by the social aspects of the Japanese school system. The school setting is actually an effective common ground even for North American audiences. While many of the more subtle nuances may be missed, the overall school experience can still be related to, allowing the North American audience to concentrate on the characters and story.
This week I take a look at two new series that feature the familiar setting of a typical Japanese high school. Each of these shows have a lot in common, with both being set in the near future where the planet is in danger and young men and women must use technology to defeat that danger. While one series has the antagonists using giant robots to defend the world, the other focuses on the use of more familiar military machines to save the day. Both shows also carry very different tones in their presentations, with one seeming very dark and bleak and the other staying upbeat and bright. Despite those differences, they both rely on the setting of Japanese school life as the foundation for the rest of their stories.
In the year 1945, the Earth was overrun by the Genju. Since then, mankind has been fighting a never ending war, making small gains and suffering huge losses. Now, over 50 years later, the human race is still at war with the Genju. Forced to take dramatic steps, the nation of Japan has instituted a mandatory draft, reducing the age of military service to 16. Now, high school age children control giant robots to defeat the Genju and allow humanity to survive. Gunparade March is based on a video game released in the year 2000. The game gained quite a bit of popularity due in part to its unique game engine that gave players quite a bit of freedom. The Anime series stands in place of a sequel game in the series, continuing the story presented in the original game.
Focusing on the members of Unit 5121, Gunparade March shows a bleak view of a world torn apart by 50 years of war. Very dark in tone, Gunparade March concentrates on the participants showing more of their downtime as they wait to go into combat. With the reduced draft age, all of the combatants in Unit 5121 are under the age of 18, with the unit taking many of the standard features of a Japanese school, translating them into a military equivalent. Death is a constant companion as many of the characters focus on recent losses of friends and family. So far in the series, there is no indication of hope, and that the characters are fighting battle after battle to simply maintain their current position in the world.
While the storyline itself is very dark, the characters involved do create a bit of contrast, as despite the current situation, they continue to go about their lives. Despite being combatants, there is a strange sense of normality as they go about their daily school lives. In many ways, when they are called on missions, it's simply a field trip for them, and not actually combat. There's even a bit of romantic drama occurring between the two main characters. It starts off as hostile in the beginning, but there are hints that the hostility will work itself into romance.
There's a lot going on with Gunparade March that make it an outstanding series that could do quite well in the North American market. Staying on the more dramatic side of things, it presents itself as a strong military drama with a good mix of characters. The only downside is a lot of what is going on in terms of the background story are not explained all at once. Why the world is at war and how humanity has fared so far is explained, but the technology and why children are used in combat is explained much slower. Players of the game may have a better understanding of the series, but as the game hasn't reached North American shores, the Anime has to stand on its own.
In the near future, the world comes into danger as a large group of comets and meteoroids are set to bombard the Earth over a long period of time. To help protect the planet, a special organization is created to destroy the threats as they approach the planet. Built around more current technology, the UN creates two units to protect the planet, the Comet Busters positioned in space as the first line of defense and the Meteor Sweepers, the ground based forces primed to clean up after the first line. As the first line of defense, the Comet Busters are seen as the real heroes protecting the planet from the incoming comets. The Meteor Sweepers are lost in their shadow, relegated to standing by if the Comet Sweepers fail.
Stratos 4 focuses on a group of four girls who are cadets in the Meteor Sweepers. They all dream of eventually going into space and becoming a part of the Comet Busters. Most of the stories focus around Honjo Mikasi a young girl from a family of pilots. She finds herself at odds with her training as she struggles to decide if flying is her dream, or simply the expectations of her family. From there, the story follows the girls as they go about their training, as well as following them on their first few missions. There is a lot of white knuckle action, with strong detailed action sequences for the various groups as they go about their missions. While not as exciting as mecha battles, or full out dogfights, the drama builds nicely keeping things at an exciting level. The drama is also mixed with a strong level of humor as the show relies on the quirky personalities of many of the characters to keep things very relaxed. Unlike Gunparade March, Stratos 4 doesn't come across as oppressive or dark in tone. While the threat is real, there is hope that because of the Comet Busters and Meteor Sweepers, the Earth is safe.
Stratos 4 also has a good mix that will entertain a large audience. There's plenty of well detailed mecha action and a lot of strong character interaction to keep things interesting. The tone is very bright and very hopeful and the characters play up a wide range of emotions. Stratos 4 also does a good job of explaining the technology it uses and leaves plenty of room for a bright future. The humor plays well, and doesn't come across as over the top.
While the tones of these two shows are very different, they both share common ground by building their stories around a mix of school and military life. While it may seem insignificant, that small setting helps give the audience a bit of commonality with the characters. While much of the back story of either series remains hidden, at least the audience can sympathize with the characters as the story weaves its way around them.
Gunparade March has the potential to be a huge hit in North America, especially if the game is brought over as well. With the success of another video game anime series combo, .hack, Gunparade March could have a similar impact. With experience in these matters, Bandai would be an obvious choice for bringing over this series, as well as the original video game. Stratos 4 would also do well in North America, with its strong animation and storyline. This one I can see being picked up by Pioneer or even CPM. Both series have many of the elements that would make them desirable, so expect to hear something about them this year!