Armored Trooper Votoms, ninety percent of the time, plays as a guileless action-focused mecha show modelled firmly after Sunrise’s other, better known series, Mobile Suit Gundam. There is the usual story of the reluctant hero struggling against a military conspiracy padded out with endless sequences of giant robots exploding. Votoms’ distinguishing feature (and this is before the much-hailed Zeta Gundam) is to smudge everything with an eerie anarchistic cynicism. So much of the story is simply about how life is cruel and bloody and horribly senseless, which is also why, ninety percent of the time, it is a lot of mindless fun.
We have a Byronic hero, Chirico Cuvie, whose experiences in a century-long intergalactic war have put an unimaginable burden on his conscience. Hunting after a military secret with the glacial single-mindedness of someone who has absolutely nothing else to live for, he only knows how to kill things that get in his way or else avoid being killed by the same. The people who oppose him are overwhelmingly egotistical and readily torture or sacrifice innocents. We get scenes, for instance, of a dystopia where motorbike gangs mow people down and kidnap the survivors to work as slaves in mining pits. Or of embittered war veterans abandoned by their employer and reduced to selling their lives for cheap as gladiators. Much of this simmering unrest in the grimy scowling milieu bubbles over into no-holds-barred melees with everything at stake and plenty of eye candy for the audience.
That brings to mind Votoms’ other strength, namely the atmosphere. Every new atrocity perpetrated in some dingy alley or dirty slave pit or in the sweltering sands of a dead desert evokes a unique sort of guttural horror. Not that achieving a potent atmosphere is harder or more important than solid characters and a meaty plot, but most mecha shows simply disregard it as a valuable part of the experience (even Zeta, the nearest equivalent in the mecha universe, is all cold action and generic backdrops). In the case of Votoms, the brooding environs could theoretically be accidental - after all, this is not a clever show - but there is enough thematic and visual focus on the brutality of Chirico’s experiences to make me suspect the setting is entirely deliberate.
But then Votoms spends the final ten percent trying to insert profound questions of the universe, god, war, life, and everything, which is precisely what a brutish blow-’em-up should never do. Make no mistake, this show was never going to be great - repetitive battles and corny antagonists swiftly put an end to that ambition - but it could still have been more than passable. For instance, at a time when it should be easing into the final fight, buoyed on wings of careful plotting, it instead rushes to catch up with a lot of untold clues. Suddenly, characters pause to give historical mini lectures and reveal baffling new knowledge that seem awfully convenient; groups at war light-years away from the main event know a vital piece of information that the heroes just discovered; and Chirico has a maddening ‘Lelouch’ moment. If everything ends up making sense, it only does so in that awkward, forced-with-a-ramrod-down-our-throats way that has become synonymous with anime endings.
The animators try some fun things with colour. One marvellous shot depicts sweltering air and red-hot sand dunes in which gutted station towers spike like black skeletons against the ochre sky. Chirico’s baby blue hair and blood red boiler suit constantly tease the eyes with their unique contrast. Match that against the muted khaki greens of the mecha or the generally sobering backgrounds, and Votoms offers a plausible minimalist sci-fi world with one or two surprising kinks.
Franchise composer Hiroki Inui brings the dramatic riffs and Tetsuro Oda fits his rousing vocals to them like bolts to nuts to create an excellent opening theme. The soundscape delivers realistic effects and theatrical melodies to enhance Votoms’ grim ambience.
Like all mecha shows of its ilk, Votoms is substantially about the hero’s personal journey as he (I’ve yet to come across one woman in this role) suffers the traumas of perpetrating violence on others. Stoic and self-centred, Chirico’s adherence to the stereotype is particularly convincing here because of the gruelling backdrop. After all, what else to expect from someone only used to daily survival? Moreover, Chirico is an adult rather than a hormonal teenager, which gives his stony-faced performance a refreshing glaze of hardened maturity. For making his deep scowling bearable in the long run, however, viewers will thank the comic counterweights: shrill little Coconna who tries to humanise him through boundless devotion, and Vanilla and Gotho, a couple of petty crooks whose underhanded skills rescue him on numerous occasions.
Beyond them, though, the cast feels half-baked. My usual complaint with political mecha shows (Gundam in particular) is that, in trying to assume an epic air, they crowd an already thin plot with too many people, only to end up forfeiting on those characters’ development. But that isn’t Votoms’ problem. It commendably sticks to the minimum number of characters needed to move events forward, meaning I can point to each one and sum up in a sentence his or her key contribution to the plot. But for all their significance they’re not very distinctive. Fyana, a genetically modified super soldier who partners with Chirico in the fight and is arguably the second most important character, mostly just defaults to the role of damsel in distress. By the end, the bulk of her dialogue degenerates into repetitive shouting of his name in a desperate, pleading voice.
What we end up with is a fundamentally interesting notion of messed up, vulnerable people that is well embodied in Chirico but not so much in everyone else.
Sometimes, anime should just stick to what they’re good at. They’ll have an easier reception that way. But Armored Trooper Votoms undermines its enjoyable bulk of straight-laced macho action with unnecessarily grandiose mumbo jumbo. Because it doesn’t have the intellectual or narrative pillars to support its weighty ambitions, everything collapses into a rubble of triteness at the end. My guess is that the sturdy bastion of mecha lovers and explosion addicts will nevertheless want a taste of this stonier Gundam.
Although Tomino’s Gundam franchise bridged the difference between the mecha and space opera genres a few years before this show, Takahashi Ryosuke took all that to the next level with his work. And the result was plain weird; Votoms is a very hard anime to criticize. On one hand it is the most “real” amongst all Real Robots anime, as the mecha in it have a highly realistic way of moving and fighting. On the other hand the entire show feels mechanical, to the point the emotions it inflicts to its viewers are of military nature only: Cold facts, raw anger and a nihilistic approach to life in general.
Seeing it from afar, the Votoms setting is one of a kind because of this combination. Practically all mecha are more about fancy entertainment, full of improbable super attacks and highly emotional unstable pilots. Votoms is to the most part far more down to earth, where the characters are opportunists and warfare is nothing but control of energy sources and political agendas. In a way this makes it a far more mature work. It also makes it a heartless one, hard to be liked by the majority of anime fans.
The animation and artwork are overall realistic and follow physics to a great extent. All deviation is mostly because of animation limitations of the era and lack of funds. Seeing past that you get a setting that in theory looks and works as plausible for most of the time. The characters look and act quite realistic, especially from a military point of view. The soundtrack on the other hand is completely mediocre and forgettable, while voice acting is so serious and militaristically realistic that to the most part feels dry and hard to like.
SCRIPT & CAST
The setting looks and works in a rather realistic manner where everything is about a power struggle for natural resources. It is not particularly detailed and basically all the arcs have close to no relation to one another. So don’t expect much of a world-building or any sort of variety.
The plot is rather straightforward and usually comes down to the protagonist doing some really improbable comebacks during the battles. He gets an epiphany to things he previously had no clue about, or just looks plain badass. He is also the only one who ends up being the only interesting and memorable. Chirico Cuvie is one mean GAR macho soldier, a pure man of the 80’s before gay became a trend in modern anime. He is great to look at his cocky attitude and constant comebacks, no matter the dangers he faces. He is an anti-hero, a cold mercenary, an opportunist who first kicks ass and then takes names. He is a great one and unfortunately the only one; all the rest are either ephemeral in the anime or hardly as bold in personality.
Plus, the show treats the entire human kind as expandable units and you are hardly made to care if they all suddenly die (sometimes they actually do in a few missions). This becomes even weirder in the last part of the series where everything becomes metaphysical and the whole thing jumps to weird religious and existansialistic topics. Now all of a sudden the GAR protagonist is some sort of uber deity and humanity are nothing but foolish dust drifting in the wind of selfishness. Yeah, it sort of makes it cool but it is also the thing which makes the whole thing so impersonal. Down to it you are supposed to be a distant and passive viewer of things that eventually are there just to make humanity look insignificant. It is very hit or miss and comes forward very late in the series.
Historically speaking, Votoms is one of the best military action anime with real robots and highly unique in its structure and atmosphere. Other than that, it is not a show for viewers who don’t fancy “too” realistic warfare and nihilistic expandable characters. For the average mainstream anime fan, this will feel dull and distant. I sure didn’t like it much despite being aware of its uniqueness. I still recommend it as something special but not entertaining.