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.
After nearly 100 years of war between the nations Gilgamesh and Balarant, battle-weary soldier Chirico Cuvie finds his world utterly shattered when what seems to be a straightforward mission to infiltrate an enemy base turns out to be an attack on friendly forces. Furthermore, in the confusion that ensues, he stumbles upon a strange container with a beautiful woman sleeping inside. Unfortunately for him, he hasn’t just discovered any woman, but the key to a dark and complex political plot, and the perpetrators are determined not to let him live with their secret. Haunted by the memories of this mysterious woman and the betrayal of his superiors, Chirico must now fight to discover the twisted truths lurking behind the veil of war and gain new meaning to his bitter life.
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