Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Valvrave the Liberator
Sub.Blu-Ray - Complete Collection
In the midst of interstellar war, the tiny, neutral country of JIOR sits stationed between the vast empire of Dorssia and the united ARUS nations. Classmates Haruto and Shoko enjoy a fragile peace on a JIOR space module, until a sudden attack by Dorssian forces ends their idyllic lifestyle. Thrust into a battle he doesn't understand, Haruto finds himself accidentally piloting the secret weapon Dorssia seeks - the mech Valvrave, a strange device that demands great sacrifices of its user. Will Haruto be able to save his classmates, and will the power to do so come at too high a price?
Valvrave the Liberator is a very silly show. You have to kind of accept this going in to get much out of it, but its relentless silliness never subsides, and never stops stifling any hopes for real emotional engagement. And it's not just that silliness is a complement to Valvrave's other variables, like in, say, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure (which, in spite of its silliness, also knows how to tell a story). No, silliness is actually the vehicle through which Valvrave operates - its atmosphere, its fuel. It's clear in the character work, clear in the wild tonal shifts, clear in the lunatic attempts to sandwich genres together, and especially, endlessly, overwhelmingly clear in the plotting.
Valvrave starts off with plenty of energy. After establishing the three relevant nations, the show moves quickly to introduce us to pacifist student Haruto, his upbeat childhood friend Shoko, and the deadly Dorssian spy L-elf. Peace lasts for all of three scenes before the Dorssians attack JIOR, leading to the reveal of the giant Valvrave mech and Shoko's apparent death. Enraged by this, Haruto jumps into the Valvrave, entering a strange contract with its AI and quickly defeating the Dorssians. After leaving the robot, he's confronted and killed himself by L-elf, before suddenly rising from the grave to strike back. That's all within the first episode, and the twists and action setpieces stay pretty consistent from there on out.
Watching Valvrave, it's impossible to miss that the show very badly wants to be Code Geass. This isn't surprising - the script and series composition are handled by Ichiro Okouchi, one of Geass's original creators, and Geass is frankly just a fine thing to want to be. Like Code Geass, Valvrave pits a single mastermind against a vast empire, with the Dorssian expat L-elf here playing the role of both chessmaster and ridiculous hand-to-hand fighter. Like Code Geass, Valvrave gives its heroes one mind control power to tip the scales - this time in the form of the Valvrave contract, the agreement Haruto must make in order to pilot his mech. The Valvrave contract requires you to “surrender your humanity,” but in return you become a space vampire - virtually unkillable, and with the power to take over others' bodies by biting their skin. After establishing the basic premise of “Haruto and his schoolmates want to protect their homes and families, L-elf wants to strike back at the Dorssians,” the show essentially enters a holding pattern, with the school's conditions shifting slowly as more Valvraves appear, the kids go through a lot of personal drama, and Dorssia sends new antagonists for them to fight one by one.
The larger strokes of Valvrave's plotting are pretty simple, and the almost Team Rocket-esque predictability of Dorssia's episodic attacks makes it clear that Valvrave's true interest lies in the small-scale drama of its high school cast. That drama is a pretty mixed bag, unfortunately - most of Valvrave's characters simply lack the complexity or nuance to really sell their emotional issues, and the show's heavily episodic nature, tonal disconnect between the high school and war drama material, and over-reliance on dramatic twists means there's just not much to feel invested in. In fact, it's basically impossible to describe “the problem with Valvrave” without discussing dramatic tension and plot twists specifically, so let's focus there.
One of the core appeals of a show like Code Geass or Valvrave is the idea of “what'll they think of next” - what crazy variable will shift your understanding of the plot, what dramatic scheme will Lelouch or L-elf invent to get out of some new catastrophe. The issue with Valvrave's plotting is that the writing is just never strong enough to make you believe in the world as it exists before something new comes along to change everything. Not only is the overt dialogue often too tonally silly for the material being established, but the ways conflicts resolve is generally based more in inventing new information than building solutions off what we already know. And so the show will take back earlier twists (“Shoko wasn't dead, she hid in a car somehow!”) or resolve drama through utter madness (L-elf escaping an interrogation by throwing a screw from his chair into the ceiling light, cutting himself free with the falling glass, and killing a dozen guards with their own weapons), or simply have characters make insane personal decisions or win through the power of heart and courage.
The amount of impossible things Valvrave expects you to believe before breakfast (“we'll escape the Dorssians by cutting ourselves free from our only power source, the artificial sun!”) prevents any hope of taking the show's drama seriously on its own terms. Suspension of disbelief is always essentially a magic show - audiences know that what's going on on-screen isn't real, but the show/magician's stagecraft is strong enough to carry them along on a communal delusion. Valvrave the Magician has aces falling out of his sleeves and doves squawking from beneath his hat - there's no suspension of disbelief here, just straight disbelief that Valvrave expects you to buy into its choices. And the dialogue certainly doesn't help, either: "Shoko, this is no time to be playing hide-and-seek!" Haruto yells as he searches for his dead friend. "That's so like you, Cain, a man who puts results ahead of methods," L-elf grimly explains. Frankly, the dialogue and plot turns are often so bad that they unintentionally become one of the show's primary appeals - it feels strange to recommend a show for its failings, but I got more of a laugh out of exchanges like “This dial goes up to 666! What comes after 666?” “Possibility.” than I do out of most intentional comedies.
As I mentioned earlier, Valvrave's larger narrative is almost non-existent - the show generally just uses villain-of-the-week encounters to illustrate its teenage heroes' personal dramas. Unfortunately, most of Valvrave's core cast lack much personality beyond their initial broad definitions, and key variables like the motivation of L-elf himself are left obscure, apparently held in reserve as twists for the second season when they really should be front-and-center in order to build the audience's investment in his mission. The show constantly wants to introduce surprises, but you have to care about the material that's already being presented before surprises can truly engage, and Valvrave seems perpetually focused on the next thing at the expense of building investment in the current thing.
Beyond the characters, Valvrave's focus on the adolescent drama of its characters ends up feeling oddly reflective of the show's one core, fairly strange thematic thread - a deep-seated distrust of adults, and total embracing of the childishness and sincerity of youth. All of the adults in Valvrave are either incompetent or evil, most of them are liars ("I'm an adult. We lie." one helpfully explains), and the one time an adult performs a selfless action, it's to say that adults should die for the sake of the next generation. Shoko is lauded for her childish solutions to problems (“If the student council won't agree with me, I'll take my shirt off!”), while adults use unfair tricks to deceive the noble children. The show doesn't really go anywhere with this (though its inclusion of immortal vampires may mean this is a thread that gains more relevance in the second half), but it's interesting to see a show that's so manic and childish in its underlying plotting actually mirror that through an overt fetishizing of youth.
Unfortunately, by the end of this first season, Valvrave's total lack of investment in its own use of dramatic devices runs into a dramatic wall with the introduction of rape as a cheap plot turn. The show's vague space vampire urges cause one main character to actually assault another, and the show's handling of this moment and its fallout is as breezy and tactless as anything else the show does. Rape can certainly be used for poignant storytelling effect, but in a show with as little interest in truly engaging with human drama as Valvrave, it just comes off as one more tone-deaf black mark.
On the plus side, once you move away from the plot, characters, and dialogue, Valvrave's actual strengths become apparent. The show's visual aesthetics are terrific - the animation is sharp, robot designs unique, character designs distinctive and appealing. The shot framing isn't the most engaging, but the color work is phenomenal, filling the world with lush sunsets, bright daytime scenes, and some of the most beautiful starscapes I've seen in anime. The world is totally vibrant. And the show's use of CG is remarkable as well - its space fights look wonderful, with the mixture of CG mechs and beautifully animated 2D effects work (explosions, energy trails) integrating gracefully together. By the time four Valvraves have entered the story, each fight has become a beautiful canvas of neon energy beams, spinning CG mechs, and starlight. Valvrave's music is less impressive than its visual splendor, but it still possesses a fair variety of instrumentation, and the consistent hokiness of its wailing guitars and overwrought piano keys actually kind of works for the trashiness of the show's storytelling.
The show comes in an understated slipcase showing off the two male leads, and is split across three disks. On-disk extras are limited to trailers and commercials, but the case also includes show postcards and a small poster (about three times the dimensions of the box itself) by the original character designer. Overall, Valvrave is a bad but beautiful show, and even though its plotting is nonsense and dialogue wince-worthy, I can't say I didn't enjoy watching it. Popcorn doesn't have to be good to do its job, not as long as it still keeps momentum high. And in spite of Valvrave favoring undercooked human drama over actually plot progression, the show does have momentum. If you can get past the bad writing and cavalier use of rape as a plot device, and don't really mind turning your brain thoroughly off for a while, the show is a very pretty thing. Valvrave the Liberator: serves any number of anime fans who don't take themselves very seriously, best enjoyed with drinks and friends.
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C-
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Great overall visual design marked by strong character designs, color work, and robot CG.
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