Gunparade March: Volume 1
Anime is a medium replete with a wide variety of genres. Admittedly the genres usually need a little translating before they become recognisable to Western audiences. Take the 'slice of life' show. This is closest to a soap opera I guess, although they aren't usually limited to the animated representation of Walford. Slice of life can even take place against the most bizarre of backgrounds, as long the central focus remains on the central characters' interpersonal relationships and day-to-day minutiae. This is one of my favourite anime genres, begetting shows like Shingu and Beck. Then there is the apocalyptic, doom laden, end of the world scenario, or the Summer Hollywood Blockbuster. Admittedly when anime does end of the world, it stays ended. There's no last minute reprieve with Will Smith racing to the rescue, and shows like Saikano and Texhnolyze do bleak very well. Then there is mecha… You know, I can't think of a suitable analogue for teenagers piloting giant robots into combat. I never thought that it would be possible to combine these three genres into one successfully, until now. MVM's latest summer acquisition, Gunparade March does just that, and it throws in a soupcon of Starship Troopers for good measure. It's a twelve-episode adaptation of a Playstation 2 game, but as I have been learning of late, anime has a far greater success rate at adapting console games into narrative than Hollywood has ever managed.
In 1945, as the second world war was drawing to a close, a strange alien species appeared on Earth, and started attacking humanity, poisoning the land with its very presence. Dubbed Genjyu, it began to overwhelm the land, spreading across the world, leaving nothing but death and destruction in its wake. Mankind was on the back foot, armed with ineffective weapons. But the alien's arrival was the impetus required to unite the world, as they fought against desperate odds to stay alive. Fifty years have passed, it's 1999, and Japan remains one of the few bastions left standing against the Genjyu menace, although the aliens have begun to encroach on Japanese soil. In such a war, an innocent childhood is a luxury, and the military recruits directly from high school, sending children into battle, piloting giant armoured robots called HWTs, Humanoid Walking Tanks.
The first four episodes of Gunparade March are presented on this disc from MVM.
1. Playback - The Visitor
It's July 1999, and we join a mission in progress, as a transport flies to one of the southern Japanese islands, currently infested with Genjyu. It unleashes four HWTs, with young pilots, ordered to clear the way so that an ultimate weapon called a PBE can be used to kill the local Brain and clear the island of the poison that has destroyed all life there. Except something goes wrong and the plane carrying the PBE is attacked, causing it to detonate prematurely. There will have to be a follow up mission the next day, and it falls to a special unit from Shoukei High School to carry it out. A young girl named Nonomi Higashihara will arm the PBE, and before it destabilises, four HWT pilots from Unit 5121 will have to stab it into the Brain and retreat to a safe distance. But when it comes to the mission, two HWT pilots, Atsushi Hayami and Mio Mibuya get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's only through the actions of an unknown HWT that they survive.
2. Do Whatever You Want - Going My Way
Hayami loses a bet again, and has to go out to the shops and get snacks. Typically it starts raining. Atypically, he's so distracted by a striking young woman with a red umbrella that he falls flat on his backside. They're getting a new exchange student in class, and as you would expect of a narrative it's that same young woman, Mai Shibamura, a name that raises a few eyebrows. The Shibamura group is the richest company in Japan, which means she's probably loaded. That's motivation, not that he needs it, for class lothario Takayuki Setoguchi to try some of his patented moves on the new girl. They don't work on the aloof and distant student, although you have to credit him for persistence. That persistence goes overboard during a simulator session, and in the heat of practice battle Mai snaps. But Hayami recognises that angry voice, it was the same voice that bellowed out of the HWT that saved his and Mibuya's lives on the previous mission. Now, how to thank her without offending her…
3. Summertime Blues - Fireworks
It's a bright sunny day, and the school is closed for the summer vacation. That's except the class of Unit 5121, who have to stay on standby alert for the duration, and can at the most take a day or two off. Mai requests a couple of days, but oddly enough, she isn't going home. It's also the 21st anniversary of the institution of the student draft, which required high school students to serve in the armed forces against the Genjyu. But rather than be depressed by the state of affairs, the class decide to have some fun instead, and the girls invite the boys up to the roof for an impromptu fireworks party. But it's hard to stay chipper when the next day is the Lantern festival, when loved ones and friends remember the dead, and it was exactly a year ago that a boy named Akane serving with Unit 5121 was killed in action.
4. Let's Have Tea Together - Duellist
There's a new mecha heading for the school, the latest in military hardware, a tandem unit with room for a pilot and a gunner, more proof against alien attack, and reputedly capable of handling medium sized Brains without having to use the destructive overkill of a PBE. The real question is, who will pilot it? In a classroom full of individualists and egos, it's hard to come up with a team, but the command staff decide that the best team will be the utterly average Atsushi Hayami, and the super skilled Mai Shibamura. It's a shame they can't get along then. He's spineless and eternally apologetic around her, while she is still cold as ice and aloof towards him. Still, as the training begins, and the simulator missions begin to take a toll on both their sanities, Hayami tries to improve his skill level, while Mai goes to the library and checks out a useful guidebook, "The ABCs of Human Relationships".
It's just a 4:3 regular image, which is something of a shame given the quality of the animation. The transfer itself is one of the higher end NTSC-PAL conversions, with an image that is clear, sharp, smoothly animated, and free of ghosting and judder. The only slight flaw is the intermittent aliasing that appears on some of the pans and scrolls.
Gunparade March would have been gorgeous in a widescreen aspect, but it's still a very high quality animation, indicative of a high budget and a lot of love and care from the animators. The character designs are detailed and individual, while the world and mecha designs are of similarly high quality. I love the alternate history feel to the story, it's very much a world that shows the signs of a decades long war. Military technology with constant investment and development looks quite futuristic and out of this world, particularly the mecha and the computers that run them. The rest of the world is a mishmash of old and present, as there certainly won't have been money spent on the trivialities of life, and certainly not pop culture. Clothing is old fashioned, old style shops live next door to newer buildings, and televisions may be colour, but they still have rabbit ears for aerials. It's a sign of the thought that has gone into the story, and it really helps paint the world and makes it more real. It's also a drab, morose world, painted in browns and greys, almost always overcast and raining. It proves for a striking contrast when the odd moment of colour does appear, such as the fireworks festival, or the rare sunny day.
It's a little disappointing then that the Japanese and English audio tracks are in vanilla DD 2.0 Stereo, but it does get the job done. The action is as meaty as you would expect, and the dialogue is always clear in both languages. There are some nice tunes book-ending the episodes, and the incidental music is suitably grand and orchestral in feel. The English dub is on the high end of the anime scale, certainly my ears didn't find it too offensive, but as always I opted for the original language track, which is accompanied by a translated English subtitle track, and a signs only track, although I did feel that too much of the onscreen text was left un-translated.
Most of the extras have been left behind in Region 1 land, but since they amount to a music video (in English), and a small sketch art gallery, it's nothing to go importing for. What the Region 2 disc does get is the usual animated menu and jacket picture screen. You also get the textless credit sequences, and trailers for Samurai Deeper Kyo and Disgaea.
Gunparade March is perhaps one of the prettiest, atmospheric, strongly animated shows that MVM have released in quite a while. The world design is stunning, the character designs all strong and memorable, and the show has a high budget feel akin to titles like Xam'd, Wolf's Rain and Cowboy Bebop. It's just a shame that the story isn't quite up to those high standards, and instead offers us something more mundane, and even a little overly reliant on cliché.
Gunparade March is all about teenage interpersonal relationships set against the background of a total and devastating war. It looks as if Japan is the sole bastion remaining against the alien invaders, so there is something incongruous about the sense of normality that pervades the members of Unit 5121, and the rest of the populace in Japan, when it seems that they are on the verge of being overwhelmed. Action junkies need not be disappointed though, as we get an episode of combat to begin with, showing us what the world is facing, as the staunch defenders fight off an attempt to encroach on one of the Japanese Islands. The comparison to Starship Troopers becomes apparent here, with the aliens essentially living weapons, guided by a central Brain creature, and it's the Brain that the soldiers have to destroy before the infestation can be cleared. These alien creatures are vast and numerous, emitting a lethal poison by their very presence, which is why they have to be fought by heavily armoured, and sealed HWTs. There's definitely eye candy to be had here, with well choreographed and animated action sequences, full of explosions and swift movement. Action fans aren't limited to this one episode either, although combat remains confined to the training simulator in the subsequent episodes.
If episode one is about showing the harsh reality of this world, the remainder of the disc sees the characters trying to deny that reality, striving to maintain some semblance of normality in the face of desperate odds. You can't get away from it that easily, with a society that is geared around the military, with the draft instituted for high school students, with a constant overcast look to the world, and the Genjyu forecasts and casualty reports on the television each morning. But despite this, the students of Unit 5121 appear as normal, unaffected high school students, and it's only the odd moment where a fallen comrade is recalled, or real life intrudes on their insulated high school world, that it seems that the characters realise what dire straits they are actually in.
As mentioned, this show is more of a combination of styles, and at this point in time, the more predominant is the slice of life aspect of the show, with a lot of time devoted to life in high school, training to be soldiers, and generally a group of diverse characters sharing space. It's a mixed class, with three boys standing out at this point, Hayami, the perennial wimpy loser, Setoguchi, the ladies man, and Takigawa the eager go-getter. On the girls side of things, Hara is the provocative vamp, Tanabe is the eternal klutz, Mibuya is uptight and proper, and Nonomi Higashihara the class mascot. As they live in separate dorms, we get equal amount of girly gossip and guy stuff, and it's very much everyday life revolving around training and the war.
Their happy medium is thrown off balance when exchange student Mai Shibamura arrives. The apparent fact that she is heir to the Shibamura fortune is shocking enough, but while she is the perfect soldier, her interpersonal skills are sorely lacking. As luck would have it, she encounters the perfect abrasive in meek and compliant Hayami, whose every statement to her begins with an apology. It's fun to watch Setoguchi repeatedly strike out with her, and it's interesting to see her gradually begin to warm to the other students, apparently despite her better judgement. It becomes clear that she and Hayami are destined to be together, and this is where most of my disappointment with the story lies. They are far too stereotypical characters, with Hayami so wimpy and wishy-washy that he may as well have Shinji Ikari tattooed across his forehead (although without the uber-angst). Mai on the other hand has cold, clinical ice queen as her character description, and you know that the cold heart will have to be thawed eventually. Actually, when I saw anime cliché #5091 trotted out, 'dead boyfriend in Mai's past' that I realised that these two characters could have been lifted directly out of sports anime Suzuka.
You can have the best looking anime in the world, and Gunparade March is up there with the best of them, but if your characters are lacklustre, then it doesn't mean a thing. Fortunately, while Gunparade March's characters do come from a cookie cutter, the writing has energy, wit and passion to it. The character relationships are worth watching in the show, and even if the main characters aren't quite up to carrying the show, the supporting cast more than makes up for it, in their japes and joshing around. Also, there is hope for Mai and Hayami yet, as at the end of episode four, the two of them are last seen arguing and yelling at each other. It may just be that the wimp and ice-queen don't stay with us for the duration, which would be fatal in a show as short as this. If the characters develop in the next volume, then this should be a show worth sticking with.
Gunparade March looks divine; it's one of the best anime shows in terms of visuals that I have seen in years. It's just that it's not quite as good as it looks. It's still better than a lot of anime out there right now, and that's all the more surprising in an adaptation of a console game. If you have a few pounds lying around, then you could do a lot worse then spend them on this.