The Winter 2016 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Schwarzes Marken ?
What is this?
In an alternate universe where the fallout of World War II led to a global split that left East Germany and West Germany in charge of the entire left and right hemispheres of the earth, the real war is only just beginning. In 1967, the space race resulted in contact with the hostile BETA aliens hiding out on the moon, and their assault on a world too freshly divided turned the earth into a frozen hell. Now specialized squadrons from East Germany, otherwise known as the German Democratic Republic, are dispatched to try and clean up the battlefields with mech-driven heavy artillery. The 666th squadron, known as the Schwarzesmarken, are the strongest in the corp, but their integrity may be under threat of compromise thanks to infiltration by the Stasi, who want to turn the war into a vehicle for East Germany's supremacy. Captain Theodor Eberbach, fearful of such an outcome, begrudgingly enlists the help of West German transplant Katia Waldheim to turn the tide of this global disaster. Schwarzes Marken is based on a series of light novels taking place in the Muv-Luv universe and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Sundays at 1:35 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
In addition to reviewing first episodes for the preview guide, I've also been in charge of writing all the little plot summary paragraphs you see at the top of each show page. I bring this up now because Schwarzes Marken far and away wins the award for "most troublesome and time-consuming plot to decipher." I had to traipse through at least two wikis to make sure I had my facts straight on this show's continuity within the greater Muv-Luv universe (what a phrase), and I'm still pretty sure I got some minor details wrong. Mea culpa, Muv-Luv fanatics.
And while I'm at it, I'm sorry for everyone who's not a Muv-Luv fanatic too, because you are absolutely not invited to this party. While Schwarzes Marken can technically be understood by people new to the franchise (like me), enjoyment of the series is a whole other ballpark. Historically loaded imagery crossing over with military fetishism in anime is nothing new, but Schwarzes Marken's decidedly grimdark take on mech warfare, combined with lackluster to downright hideous visuals and enough pseudo-iron-crosses emblazoned on the good guys to make even more open-minded viewers sweat...look, I don't have a sensitive stomach when it comes to anime by any means, but watching this show is just kinda unpleasant. It's a too-convoluted story being played almost exclusively to prior fans through a frequently ugly and mean-spirited lens, so it's just hard to recommend this one to anyone outside of formerly initiated Muv-Lovers (who are bound to be curious enough that they don't need a recommendation).
The characters, action, animation, and plot aren't distinct enough to compensate for the show's obtrusive tone, and there's also a real subtle veneer of cruel slime coating that giant barrier of entry the series throws up. I gave Heavy Object some benefit of the doubt last season because it was purestrain STEM pandering with an open heart and an accommodating attitude, but watching Schwarzes Marken just feels like being an unwelcome presence in an unfriendly club. If this style of war fetishism is very much your thing, you don't need to be told to check this out, and it might very well be right up your alley. However, for curious casuals looking to try something new, this is neither a fun nor fulfilling way to spend half an hour.
I rarely find myself agreeing with the surly, brooding hero of any show (though most specifically mecha series), but Schwartzmarken is an exception – Theodor seems to be right on the money when he comments that a mentally unstable soldier has no place on the battlefield and in disagreeing with other decisions made by his superior officers. This was the major factor in my dropping this episode from a 3 to a 2.5, as it kept distracting me from the rest of the story, which, while a little lackluster, still feels like it has potential. After all, I watched its 2012 companion Muv Love Alternative: Total Eclipse in its entirety.
Apart from the aforementioned issue and the balloon boobs, Schwartzmarken's first episode handles covers some emotional territory fairly well. The death in the first ten minutes manages to be, if not outright sad, definitely depressing, and I suspect that we'll feel its effects for the rest of the season, not only because it will affect unstable pilot Anett, but also because it is the event which opens a space on the 666 squadron for Katia, the teenage pilot Theodor rescues from Poland. Katia, apart from her uncanny resemblance to Theodor's sister Lise (whom I suspect we catch a glimpse of in the post-credits scene), but she's also a “defector” to East Germany with the kind of optimistic, innocent outlook that makes you feel like her subtitles should be in sparkly pink and full of kitten emojis. How much of this is a government mandated act I'm not sure, though I definitely suspect that her search for the person she mentions at the end of the episode is something more than just a personal choice. She's simply too innocent to have lived the life she claims, and that in itself is highly suspicious.
Like its predecessor, Schwartzmarken uses CG for the BETA aliens (and may I just say that BETA is the most tortured acronym I've ever seen), though this is understandably smoother than in the first series. All of the BETA have a look that can be described as “off-putting,” with just enough humanity in their features to make them recognizably living beings while still being alien and gross. They aren't nearly as effective as Hajime Isaya's Titans, but it's the same basic concept. Otherwise the art and character designs are pretty basic, with the grim color scheme being the most remarkable feature of the show – even bright colors like Theodor's red hair are dulled and dirty, which works very well, especially since the episode doesn't shy away from horrible things. In the opening expository narration we see a wounded soldier left behind to be eaten by the BETA (which actually makes very little sense considering the later scene with Ingehild), and in Theodor's flashback he and his family are being pursued through the forest by soldiers, which was far too close to family history for me; it's less likely to disturb other viewers.
You don't have to have seen Total Eclipse to watch this episode, though if you've seen it you'll have a better idea of what you're likely to be in for. There are some issues that gave me pause (please tell me Anett won't be getting back in a mecha), but in terms of a darker mecha or military show, this looks like it has the potential to be worth keeping up with.
Schwarzes Marken is definitely hot garbage, a fact that is clear from its initial postwar-politics-meets-scifi-gibberish premise and absurd acronym-related contortions. Its writing and art direction continue to be garbage in a variety of ways, and the overall episode is pretty much terrible through and through. The only real question is, is it the fun kind of garbage? And when it comes to that question, feelings may vary.
Good trash often works because it's actually very good at one thing, even if it's very bad in other ways. For example, Monster Musume had ridiculous characters and got pretty repetitive in its harem antics, but it also had great animation, a strong sense of fun, and some actually witty jokes. In contrast, Schwarzes Marken isn't really good at anything - its narrative is a mix of absurd anime-isms and ridiculously self-serious war drama, and its battles against the alien BETA are all composed in ugly CG. However, there are elements of its badness on both the aesthetic and narrative sides that could prompt enjoyment. On the aesthetic side, all of the women's costumes in this show basically make their chests look like balloons, and despite the fact that this is allegedly a Stasi-controlled East Germany fighting an alien menace, everyone still looks pretty much like an anime high schooler. The contrast in Very Very Grim dramatic affectation and wincingly self-indulgent aesthetic choices does make for a couple solid laughs. Plus, the animation is jerky enough to actually be pretty funny.
On the narrative side, it's difficult to even know where to start. You don't really know what you're in for until one character grimly intones “Squadron 666, of the German Democratic Republic, will now begin laserjagd,” but that bewilderingly great line is just a taste of the absurd writing to come. Even outside of individually ridiculous lines, almost every plot turn of this first episode strains credulity. One character in the first half dies because the team leader apparently thought it was a good idea to put a PTSD-crippled soldier out on the front lines, where they narrative-predictably lose their cool and get a teammate killed. This leads to an oh-so-serious battlefield execution, and a moment where the captain chastises a different soldier for thinking that having the PTSD-afflicted soldier on the front lines was maybe a bad idea. The show seems to operate under some idea of logic where whatever philosophy will lead to the most Grimness and Serious Faces is the correct one, further explored later on when one character yells at another for thanking them for saving their life. “Do you plan on thanking everyone who saves you on the battlefield like that?” he asks, sneeringly. And out in the audience, I'm just thinking “yes? Maybe? Is that a weird thing to do?”
Schwarzes Marken is ugly, poorly produced, and terribly written, existing in those adolescent narrative doldrums where blood and grimness are inherent marks of importance and maturity. This first episode is actually pretty entertaining for its failings, but I get the feeling the joke would soon grow stale. An easy skip.
I initially approached Schwarzes Marken with trepidation. I've heard mixed reviews of its predecessor, Muv-Luv Alternative (of which Schwarzes Marken serves as a prequel), and its setting in East Germany raised red flags that this could easily be more conservative propaganda masquerading as a military otaku harem show. I can't confirm the latter isn't true based on the premiere episode alone, but the show's writing is laying the groundwork for “an enemy within” villain instead of a predictable “us vs. them” where “us” is Soviet-led East Germany.
I'd remain optimistically cautious. The show's cast are all members of a mobile suit unit fighting against man-eating swarms of aliens. The unit is where the anime takes its name which is the German word for “666.” This sort of “scary” Christian imagery will seem tired to Westerners where every B-level horror film about demon possession has invoked 666 at one point or another. That said, I can't help but associate military units and vague religious icons with Nazism, especially ones shown committing mass executions. Schwarzes Marken is just toeing the line between glorifying that aesthetic with tough-as-nails, sleekly dressed commanders and reviling it with monologues about mass paranoia. It could easily go in either direction.
In the middle of this conflict of ideas are the BETA aliens. The invaders appear to come in three types: fuzzy brains with legs and eyes; terrifying red humanoids that walk on all fours with large, hanging mouths; and white scorpion-looking giants. This is easily some of better creature design I've seen so far this season, next to the Bubuki in BBK/BRNK. Sci-fi has quickly become overloaded with giant bug-like aliens as the go-to for creating audience squeamishness. The BETA invoke that, but more subtly by having the carnivorous creatures quickly crawl about but forgoing wings, antennae, and bulbous eyes. I found the red ones effectively scary in a Silent Hill 2 way.
Exposition-wise, Schwarzes Marken does suffer from info-dumping, but regales it to initial opening narration and then leaves it. It's still an unnatural, lazy way to introduce a setting but I'll take a 3rd party narrator over the “as you know” character dialogue any day.
Schwarzes Marken is off to a bumpy start with the unbelievably naïve Katia amongst a band of brooding, angry soldiers. It has potential to both subvert the current trend of conservative military anime or line-up as a member of the ranks. I'll be testing out a few more episodes to see which way this boat is sailing.
Review: Although Schwarzes Marken is set in the same universe as 2012's Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse and is listed as a prequel for it, the first episode suggests that the latter designation is only to indicate where in the timeline it happens compared to Muv-Luv. Otherwise there is no clear narrative connection between the two so far, so no prior experience with the franchise is required.
Those familiar with the original will find that this first episode promises exactly what the original series delivered: lots of aliens-vs.-mecha action, a high level of graphic content, and a fair amount of fan service mixed with Cold War-influenced tensions. Like the first series, this one depicts a humanity which faces a clear and imminent threat from alien invaders but is far from united in opposing that threat. In fact, one of the prevalent themes of the first series – that mankind is its own worst enemy, to the point that even an intractable common foe will not tear down the divisions between people – also looks like it is going to be a major factor here, too. Particular emphasis is place on the Stasi, the notorious East German secret police, and the depiction of their activities (and the fear of them) actually probably isn't exaggerated; the historical Stasi is regarded as the most effective, repressive, and pervasive secret police force that has ever existed, with some estimates indicating that as many as 1 in every 6.5 East German citizens was at least a part-time informant for them and 1 in every 63 was an active collaborator. Of course, that's also a convenient way for the story to generate some human villains to complement the monster theat.
The look of the series is almost identical to that of the original; the monstrously creepy, CG-animated BETA designs are fully carried over, as are the sensibilities on mecha design and the skintight combat suits. The latter do, of course, seem specifically designed to highlight the ample chests of many of the female pilots, and that most of the pilots of Squadron 666, aside from the main protagonist, are female is a clear nod to the franchise's adult visual novel origins. The gore content is at the bloodbath level; while it does pull some punches on what it depicts, it is nonetheless pretty gruesome.
The season so far has been light on true mecha series, but this one definitely qualifies and looks like a decent bet. It is not spectacular at anything but is making a concerted effort to build story and setting elements beyond just the standard mecha content.
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