The Mike Toole Show
by Mike Toole,
Along with anime on video, I sometimes collect related ephemera like toys, cels, artbooks, and other zakka. (Translator's note: “zakka” is Japanese for “knick-knacks.”) I'm not big on some of the more contemporary goodies, like hug pillows and provocatively lumpy mousepads, and I never have figured out out how the whole ordering setup for those fancy high-detail figurines works. Near as I can tell, there's a preorder window that opens and closes months before retail sale, the street date is a little vague, and sometimes all of the preorders sell out early and the entire supply of the coveted item heads straight for collectors' shelves and the jacked-up prices of the secondary market.
I found myself in this particular predicament a while back, when I went to order a Chargeman Ken pass case. This one, in fact. It's not a particularly remarkable item, just a little single-pocket wallet for your transit card and maybe a favorite credit card that clips to your belt via a handy little reel. But this particular item has a slogan stamped on the side, proclaiming Chargeman Ken, a show that I worked on for Discotek, to be the ultimate in family entertainment. I can attest to the truth of this statement, because I wrote that slogan! (Cool industry tidbit: if you write copy for packaging, advertisements, or online campaigns, it gets spread out and can show up in some surprising places—I've stumbled across taglines I've written re-used in TV commercials years later.) Naturally, I wanted one of my own, but the preorder window's closed. Will this item show up in stores sometime later this month of March 2019, or have they all been sold? I'm a little antsy, because I got frozen out of getting an anime zakka item a couple of years back: a coffee cup, straight out of Uudo City.
It took some setup, but I've worked my way back around to Armored Trooper VOTOMS, which returns to home video in North America this month courtesy of our pals at Maiden Japan. I've mentioned VOTOMS in a few places before, most notably this broad survey of creator Ryosuke Takahashi's work, but I didn't really take the time to thoroughly explain why VOTOMS is so significant, or why it's had such longevity as a franchise. While beloved-in-their-time hits like Orguss and Slayers and Fushigi Yuugi and Fullmetal Alchemist have gotten sequels, spinoffs, and reboots, but then ultimately receded, VOTOMS kept on plugging steadily, straight from 1983 to 2011.
When writer/director Ryosuke Takahashi was applying the finishing touches to his sprawling series Fang of the Sun Dougram, he knew that a change in approach would be needed for his next project. Dougram's gritty, wartime formula, complete with realistic armor and infantry strategies, connected with the show's young audience, particularly a growing coterie of high school and college kids who snapped up model kits of the show's mecha. But the entirety of Dougram took place on the dusty desert planet of Deloyer, making the scenery monotonous. Takahashi's next series, which would be dropped right into Dougram's timeshot and would feature many of the show's star talent like scribe Soji Yoshikawa and mecha designer Kunio Okawara, would need to be a little more galactic, with a fresh perspective on combat in the emerging "real robots" genre.
What Takahashi and company gave us is a remarkable fusion of classic science fiction ideas, fresh imagery swiped from Hollywood, and cutting-edge, militarized mecha design from Okawara. The show's curtain raises in the Astragius Galaxy, at the conclusion of a one hundred-year-war between the massive Gilgamesh and Balarant interplanetary superpowers. The worst of the fighting may be over, but these fading empires haven't entered into a convivial armistice; both sides are simply exhausted, their supply lines depleted, the peoples' morale broken, so a cease-fire was something of an inevitability. A young Gilgamesh soldier named Chirico Cuvie is just trying to keep his head above water as the fighting dies down, but he finds himself an unwitting pawn in a secret mission against his own allies. When the recruit sees something he shouldn't have seen, his entire unit turns on him, and only luck carries him away from combat and to the sweaty, seedy underground metropolis called Uudo City. It's there that Chirico will have to regroup, find some allies, determine who betrayed him, and saddle up in his powerful and ubiquitous mecha suit, called BOTTOMS.
Well, Ryosuke Takahashi had wanted to call the series BOTTOMS. It all had something to do with an idea Takahashi had—instead of shining, overpowered heroes, the mecha and pilots of this story would be the absolute lowest on the military's totem pole, cannon fodder for the war machine. A trademark dispute meant that the title had to be tossed out, but there was an easy enough workaround—he just went with VOTOMS, which is pronounced more or less the same as BOTTOMS in Japanese. One dicey but workable acronym (Vertical One-man Tank for Offense and ManeuverS) later, and they had a title. The titular armored humanoid vehicles are far from the high-powered prototypes of Gundam and Dougram, or the convertible wonders of Macross and Orguss; in point of fact, VOTOMS kinda suck! Most of the story's Armored Troopers suffer from thin, brittle armor, weak joints, and a a liquid-polymer muscular system that occasionally explodes without warning when overloaded. The infantry suits have mobility problems (stylishly addressed with “roller dash” wheels on the feet), the amphibious suits leak constantly, and atmospheric and space flight are only possible with almost unworkably clunky accessories. If I had to make the comparison, I'd describe VOTOMS' armored troopers as the mecha version of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a common and somewhat capable U.S. Army weapons platform with serious design and durability problems. The Scopedog, the model that Chirico favors, is probably the best of a bad bunch—it can't handle being submerged, nor can it traverse particularly rough terrain, but its distinctive three-scope viewfinder assembly makes it notably more accurate than the other ATs. As the magazine articles and model kits started trickling out, Takahashi's treatment of the ATs earned another point—the fact that the gimmicky “VOTOMS” name wasn't applied to the individual robot models gave the show credibility among the “real robot” faithful.
For VOTOMS' setting, Takahashi and his team mix things up by splitting the narrative into four discrete arcs, each with their own worlds to explore. The first arc's Uudo City is transparently influenced by the previous summer's smash hit film Blade Runner, a corrupt and teeming metropolis where people from a wide array of backgrounds come together to try and murder each other. Chirico and his new surrogate family of a grumpy arms dealer, a fast-talking mercenary pilot, and a cabaret singer move on to the sweltering jungle world of Kummen, where they take up arms in a sovereignty dispute involving the planetary government. This arc's sense of simmering PTSD in the dense vegetation is meant to evoke Apocalypse Now. Then, it's on to the dead planet of Sunsa, where some awful occurrence silenced the world forever. As Chirico steels himself against enemies who move slowly and carefully in the darkness, the viewer is meant to look at his surroundings and think of Alien, or perhaps Silent Running. The big finale, on a mysterious planet that just might be the cradle of human civilization, carries the scope of Dune and the grandeur of 2001. These aren't exaggerations; VOTOMS really is that ambitious, and while its TV visuals don't always live up to that ambition, the writing and characterization never fall short of it.
Just start with the protagonist, Chirico Cuvie. Put aside your callow Amuro Rays and Cosmo Yukis, your impetuous Jiron Amoses and Crinn Cashims, and make way for almost certainly the least charismatic hero robot pilot ever in Chirico Cuvie. This is a character that Takahashi has said is modeled after both De Niro's Taxi Driver hero Travis Bickle and First Blood's haunted, resentful John Rambo. Seiyuu Hozumi Goda was instructed to model his performance after a young Ken Takakura, and Takahashi gave his unlikely hero a similar story to that of Gulliver Foyle, the aimless, violent protagonist of Al Bester's The Stars My Destination, a nobody who upsets the entire galactic order out of spite and vengeance. Chirico's resentfulness against the galaxy is only tempered by his new friends, and by his paramour Fyana, an AT pilot with a mysterious origin. He repeatedly clashes with Ypsilon, a dashing, eloquent, vat-grown supersoldier with an enormous superiority complex, the product of a sprawling galactic conspiracy that Chirico's old betrayers are caught up in. Needless to say, Ypsilon's mind is not ready to bear the stress when he comes upon Chirico, a battlefield opponent who can somehow always outfox him.
The show's most interesting character, however, is Jean Paul Rochina, a smart, cagey, and ambitious Gilgamesh officer who first encounters Chirico when it's his job to torture him for information about his botched mission. Through the series, Rochina gradually loses his grip on reality, as he repeatedly encounters Chirico on a long trip across the galaxy; through defections and betrayals, planet to planet, this one guy keeps showing up, wrecking Rochina's plans, and then disappearing. Rochina's performance is cemented by his seiyuu, a quietly seething Banjou Ginga, who doubles as the intense, histrionic series narrator. Is Rochina himself the narrator? It's never clear. But after episode 2, in which Chirico arrives in the futuristic Sodom of Uudo City, Ginga lets loose a storied quip during the next-episode preview. “Chirico tastes the coffee of Uudo City… and finds it bitter indeed!”
That's the cultural significance of VOTOMS, a series powerful enough to launch a funny coffee cup that sells out immediately. As I write this, the cup's actually been re-solicited a couple of times, and always seems to sell out. Given that, and the show's excellent pedigree, and its long line of sequels and spinoffs, going all the way to 2011's Armored Trooper VOTOMS: Alone Again, why isn't VOTOMS a bigger deal, like Space Battleship Yamato or Macross? I think it's because of its idiosyncrasies—its strengths, like its unusual characters and settings, kept it from the vanguard of 80s anime that spread all over the world. This series has a bright, lively color palette that sometimes seems at odds with the tone, particularly Chirico's electric blue hair. Musically, VOTOMS is also a little off-center; composer Hiroki Inui comments, in the soundtrack liner notes, that he made an effort to never use more than three instruments at once, giving the music a stripped-down feel. The show's theme songs also have an interesting story; they were performed by a rising star who did not want his name directly attached to the series, so he wore a mask for VOTOMS-related appearances and was billed as TETSU. Years later, he was revealed to be Tetsuro Oda, a 90s singer and hitmaker who'd composed the music for the eternal smash hit Chibi Maruko-chan theme song.
As intriguing as that trivia is, it's not the most intriguing VOTOMS music trivia I have for you. I made mention of the dubbed pilot episode that Central Park Media commissioned in my Takahashi article. Doing the pilot made sense; with Gundam on the tube, why not try to cut a deal for the even grittier VOTOMS? The final production was interesting, but not great; Yu-gi-oh fan favorite Dan Green always sounded a little too old and heroic as Chirico, and Scottie Ray a little too grating as Rochina. The dub's director, Kip Kaplan, also seems to have missed that the voice of Rochina should also be doing the narration. But after the episode concludes, something amazing happens: the ending credits start, but they're set to a completely different song. This entirely new arrangement was apparently created by Kaplan, using Neil Nadelman's translated lyrics as a basis for a brand-new English ending song. Apparently, Kaplan did not tell anyone he had done this, leaving the song to be discovered by the team preparing the materials for release. You can listen to it here; brace yourself for 0:42, where you'll hear what can only be described as The Singing Kips.
As you can see from video's background image, a well-loved piece of fan art, Chirico has indeed tasted the tea of Sakuragaoka High School—and found it bitter indeed!
VOTOMS' cultural footprint extends beyond anime and the occasional internet meme. There were a few different VOTOMS manga adaptations published during the series run; by far the most fun was the above one, by Minoru Nonaka. This series ran in Comic Bonbon during the TV show's airing and was targeted towards junior high kids, so it's designs and dialogue are a few shades simpler than the TV series. I really like his take on the gritty, hard-boiled characters, though—they're so cute in this version! Nonaka was particularly talented at adapting TV material—he did a bunch of Ultraman manga, as well as comics based on other tokusatsu fare like Shaider and Cyber Cop, and he also did TV anime-to-comic adaptations of fare like Itadakiman and Mospeada.
More recently, VOTOMS fans could thrill to a different kind of VOTOMS adventure—one starring cutie-pie girls duking it out in the Battling Arena. Yuta Sugimura's VOTOMS: Crimson Eyes chronicles the adventures of Lecca Borough, an AT pilot who emerges from the planet Krabius's battlefields to compete in the Grand Duel, the ultimate armored trooper combat tournament. Lecca's goal? To kill the corrupt president of Krabius, her own brother! Crimson Eyes' character art style is at odds with the classic material, but it's a surprisingly solid little action story. There are also VOTOMS novels, and VOTOMS video games, though we haven't gotten one since the days of the Playstation 2. The best VOTOMS video game is Blue Sabre Knights, a PlayStation 3D arena fighter with a surprisingly rich story mode and so many menus and titles in English that I felt sure it would be released in North America. Sadly, it wasn't to be.
Nowadays, VOTOMS has established itself as a lifestyle brand for aging anime otaku. Maybe back in the mid-2000s, you sharpened your keyboard skills with the PC software VOTOMS: Typing Trooper. Got some home improvement projects? Make sure you keep your instruments of household creation and destruction in the handy VOTOMS-branded toolbox! And after a hard day's work, what could be better than pouring a nice, hot cup of sake with the Scopedog-themed sake kit? Goods like these are a bit crass and silly, and I love it. Naturally, there have also been VOTOMS pachinko machines.
As this article goes live, fans in the west can be VOTOMS fans in real time again, because for the first time, we're getting the Armored Trooper VOTOMS OVAs in English. Actually, we got a couple of the OVAs in English more than twenty years ago, but in an unconventional format—on paper. VOTOMS superfan Tim Endred adapted the Last Red Shoulder and Roots of Ambition stories as a color comic, under the title Supreme Survivor. It's a novel way to experience the material, for sure, but now we can bear witness to some of a mecha classic's most interesting stories for real. Let me leave you with one more amusing story. The Roots of Ambition OVA features a strident military march, a piece of music that seems at odds with the rest of the soundtrack. For years, fans speculated that this music wasn't created by composer Inui, but licensed from another source. That actually happens more often than you think in anime, especially when a snippet of commercial music (like, for a TV broadcast in the background) is needed. Eventually, music publisher King Records came back with an answer: the Red Shoulder march was a licensed piece of music called "Avanzata" by an Italian composer named M. Zalla. But nobody could find information about the song, its original use, or the composer Mr. Zalla… until someone discovered that Zalla was a pseudonym for well-regarded film and TV composer Piero Umiliani. That VOTOMS Red Shoulder theme was originally used in the movie War, Italian Style, which has the interesting distinction of being Buster Keaton's final film appearance. Check the soundtrack to that film, and sure enough, the Red Shoulder Theme is track 2, entitled 'Arriviano I Marines.' I'll listen happily to the song of Melkia's most feared military unit while I dream of more VOTOMS from Takahashi and his colleagues. After all, there might be more VOTOMS to be made. We're not scraping the VOTOMS of the barrel yet! Sorry, guess I just hit rock VOTOMS.
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