Reviewby Theron Martin,
BD+DVD - Complete Collection [Limited Edition]
33-year-old JSDF Lieutenant Yoji Itami openly professes that his job is only a means to support his otaku hobbies. However, he doesn't hesitate to act when a mysterious gate opens in the middle of Ginza and spews forth an army from a fantasy world. After the invaders are repelled, the newly-christened Hero of Ginza joins the expeditionary force into what the politicians call the Special Region beyond the gate. The JSDF easily gains a foothold in this world where a Roman-like Empire dominates, demi-human races and dragons are commonplace, and magic is real. Itami also has adventures with a succession of otaku fantasy girls, including the blond elf Tuka, the young wizard Lelei, the Goth loli demigoddess Rory, the Imperial Princess Pina, and the sexy dark elf Yao. Meanwhile, the government of Japan seeks to come to peaceful terms with the Empire, while being dogged by other Earth governments and opposed by more hawkish elements within the Empire.
In 2013 the anime series Outbreak Company presented a story about Japan discovering a gate to a fantasy world, establishing peaceful contact with an empire on the other side, using the JSDF to establish a base in that world, and employing an otaku as an ambassador to spread Japan's culture into their world. 2015's GATE is a variation on the same fundamental concept, except the initial contact is anything but peaceful, and the otaku main character is a professional soldier who volunteers to go to the other world rather than a hikkikimori who gets shanghaied into it. Those differences create a dramatically different show in story, characters, and execution, one aimed more firmly at military otaku while still pandering hard to anime-based tropes. As a result, it has a broader potential appeal than its more otaku-centric predecessor, though at the expense of being less pointed in its goals, though that's not to say it lacks in subtextual or unintentional messages.
Itami is ostensibly the main character, since he's involved to some degree in most of what transpires in the series, but it might be more accurate to call him just the most prominent character in a broad ensemble cast. Though his background suggests him to be a stage-stealing badass, he's actually a reluctant soldier who keeps getting himself in situations where others rely on him, the kind of person who makes things happen even if he's not the one getting dirty in the trenches. He also slickly disguises his crafty actions under the guise of less scrupulous motives; for example, he suspiciously chooses all the female prisoners to take back to their base after helping to fight off a bandit raid.
But the series isn't just the Itami Is Great Show; he barely appears at all in the last quarter of the series. Much of the series' promotional attention goes to the trio of fantasy girls who gather around him by the end of episode 3, with Rory “the Reaper” Mercury in particular being a scene-stealer with her sultry demeanor, playful attitude, and gleeful use of a giant axe in fights. However, the real co-star of the series is Princess Pina Co Lada (far from the only character in the series who's named after a drink), who is easily one of the most analytical, practical-minded, and responsible princesses in anime. She doesn't go googly-eyed over Itami either, though she does come to respect and trust him. Her focus rests entirely on trying to do what's best for both the Empire and its people by preventing a disastrous result from their interactions with the JSDF. The way she pushes forward despite her fears (or even because of them) turns her into the kind of character than an audience can root for through some moments of weakness and even though she's technically fighting for the opposite side.
By comparison, the stories of the other three main girls – whether it's Tuka's difficulty dealing with her father being killed in front of her by a dragon, Lelei's combative relationship with her elder sister, or Rory's sexual frustrations and dread of a goddess who wants to marry her – are nowhere near as compelling. More intriguing, though also far less savory, is the bunny girl sex slave Tyule, who pops up in the series' second half as a schemer trying to bring the Empire to ruin through her influence over Pina's elder brother. She's essentially the boss antagonist over the series' last third. Other recurring characters of importance include Itami's gung-ho female subordinate Kuribayashi, the manipulative JSDF Lieutenant Yanigada, the dark elf Yao Ha Ducy, and a slew of other politicians, soldiers, and Empire personnel who all get the spotlight to some degree.
For all the potential for hijinks here, this story takes itself seriously most of the time. It takes a practical look at how a modern military might interact with a fantasy world, complete with all of the politics that go with it. However, the political side is so graceless and heavy-handed that it's clearly not a specialty of source novelist Takumi Yanai, and the writing is not above portraying major world powers (especially the U.S.) as wholly unscrupulous or taking potshots at a real-life Japanese Diet member. One later negative portrayal of a reporter also falls into the same vein, without ever being followed up on.
These strong opinions also show up in the military side of the story, but that aspect is handled with vastly greater care and precision. Portrayals of troop tactics, helicopter gunship actions, Special Forces actions, and paradrops all get loving attention, though the Special Forces material gets laughably absurd in its over-the-top efforts to aggrandize the JSDF at the expense of Americans in particular. The JSDF always comes off so scrupulous and meticulous in action that it's eyeroll-worthy at times, not dissimilar from some American movies that beautify various military branches. At least the reportedly heavy nationalistic elements from the source novels have been dramatically toned down, allowing the focus to fall more on entertaining subjects like how to best combat a Flame Dragon whose scales are hard as tungsten steel armor plating.
The attention to detail on the military front also shows up in the series' technical aspects. A-1 Production's effort uses a separate director and designer for animating firearms (who also handled the GGO arc of Sword Art Online II), and the extra effort shows in the realistic depictions of all manner of military equipment. Great care is also taken with battles against the Flame Dragon, with choice scene framing showing that the dragon is anything but a mindless beast in a fight, and while the animation struggles a little to keep up with Rory's complex combat moves, weakening especially toward the end of the first season, it's still a step above many fantasy series out there. Character designs are also sharp and attractive, if also conforming to fairly common anime standards. The series notably tones down the graphic content seen in the manga version and employs a generally lighter and brighter color scheme to further alleviate the occasional grimness of the situation. That hardly makes this PG-level violence, but it's not one of the more extreme titles out there either. While the fanservice element is tame in most places and hardly omnipresent, there are decided spikes of more explicit sexual references and content.
Predictably, the musical score is scattered with military-themed pieces, and even when it opts for other numbers – like Wagner's “Ride of the Valkyries” in a scene where the soldiers are deliberately modeling their actions off Apocalypse Now – they often have a military connection. The soundtrack is at its best in the heaviest and most tense scenes but less memorable in more casual moments. The opener for each season is adequate but nothing too special, while the entirely forgettable first closer is replaced in the second season by “Itsudatte Communication,” which amusingly imagines Tuka, Rory, and Lelei as military cadets under Itami's command.
The English dub, provided by Sentai Filmworks, is a collection of hits sprinkled with an occasional miss. Positive highlights include David Wald being the ideal fit for Itami, Stephanie Wittels' dead-on rendition of Kuribayashi, and Brittney Karbowski and Rachel Landon as LeLei and Yao respectively. Jessica Boone doesn't pitch her voice as deep as Haruka Tomatsu's original performance as Princess Pina, but she gets the attitude and behavior down, while Molly Searcy registers only a partial success as Rory; she gets Rory's more playful and alluring aspects but struggles to find a consistent sound in normal conversation. (In fairness, this was by far the hardest role to deliver on.) The biggest disappointment is the relatively inexperienced Kregg Dailey's rendition of Prince Zorzal, which isn't awful but never sounds weighty enough, although Shelby Blocker also grates on the nerves in a more limited late role as Pina loyalist Shandy.
Likewise, the script is mostly solid but shows a couple of glaring flaws. The occasional introduction of swearing isn't a problem, especially for Kuribayashi's rather harsh way of speaking. However, the English script does seem to tone down other references; Pina's comment about possibly being raped repeatedly if the town is overrun gets entirely replaced, for instance. The script is also heedless of maintaining references to TV shows and movies; the most egregious example is changing the wording on a quote from Apocalypse Now, along with excising a reference to the “unfamiliar ceiling” line from Neon Genesis Evangelion. On the positive side, on-screen notes are added in a few places to alert viewers to Japanese literary, governmental, or anime references that viewers might not get.
Sentai Filmworks is giving this series the deluxe treatment, with the whole series in DVD, Blu-Ray, and Limited Edition options. All versions spread the episodes across five disks (for DVD) or three disks (for Blu-Ray), with the cases containing bonus interior art featuring military vehicles. On-disk Extras include clean opener and closers, Japanese promo videos, and an “Action Comic” which consists of a handful of shorts that parody certain scenes from throughout the series. The Limited Edition version, which is being released a month later, doubles the price but includes both DVD and Blu-Ray and several physical extras, all of which come in a case styled like an ammo box. Those extras include an Empire flag, a miniature model of Rory's axe, a set of six double-sided art cards, a Sergeant's rank insignia patch, and a 174-page hardback book of episode summaries and extensive character, equipment, and location profiles, as well as details on customs of the Special Region. Sadly, there aren't any director or writer comments to provide additional insight, but this is a nicely-produced book aside from having an incorrect heading on the character profile for the wizard Kato.
GATE has often been accused of having nationalistic undertones. While I agree that such things can be read into the series content, I would also argue that these elements are restrained enough to make the series more accessible regardless of its political leanings. The result is a fun romp with an entertaining mix of military, otaku, and fantasy elements, which comes to an ideal stopping point while still allowing plenty of room for more seasons.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Entertaining cast, impressive feats of military tech, some good fantasy battles and intrigue
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