Sunrise is probably the epicenter of the mecha universe as far as a plurality of anime fans are concerned. While some (me included) would argue Evangelion is the seminal mecha anime (and probably anime, period) of all-time, and some (me included) tend to prefer the stylistic flair of BONES, Sunrise is the old-school studio that’s built the empire on the backs of the mecha in their sci-fi canon. As such, it’s quite right that they should have an entry in this season, the most sci-fi and mecha heavy in many years.
It’s undeniably great to see so many old-school sci-fi shows this season and originals at that, and Valvrave the Liberator may just be the most old-school and traditional of the bunch. The first half of the ep, in fact, is about as traditional as any Gundam series could possibly be – well-made and entertaining but rather predictable. It’s when the series starts to spring some surprises in the second half that Valvrave gets really interesting, though. If Majestic Prince is playing like a satire of mecha anime, this show may just be a reimagining of the genre.
The pedigree here is an interesting one. Director Kuo Matsuo has strong mecha credentials (many Gundam credits, among others) but has also directed the likes of Natsuyuki Rendezvous and Kurenai. Writer Okouchi Ichiro has a somewhat eclectic resume too but is undoubtedly best known as the creator of Code Geass, and there are definitely elements of that series in the premiere of Valvrave. We also have another series where Ohsaka Ryouta is cast as the male lead – and doing a fine job – further cementing his status as the hottest rising star among male seiyuu. With Tomatsu Haruka set to play the female lead, we could hardly ask for a better scenario in terms of casting (hopefully the Kaji Yuuki role is as minor as it appeared to be this week).
The basic setup is that humans are mostly living in space thanks to the successful development of Dyson spheres (sci-fi geeks everywhere rejoice), and hero Haruto (Ohsaka) lives in the prosperous nation of JIOR, which exists as a neutral outside the conflict between galactic superpowers Dorssia – which has initiated the “Third Galactic Reich” – and ARUS (Atlantic Rim United States). Not too subtle, that – and while Sunrise has never shied away from dabbling in politics in its mecha shows, it’s pretty rare for an anime to so openly echo the fault lines of World War II as Valvrave does. Japan’s involvement in that war isn’t a topic proudly discussed among most, and it’s a sort of open secret that a large chunk of the political establishment (including the current Prime Minister) are still fighting that war the way some in the old Confederacy are still fighting the Civil War.
Haruto’s high-school life is as normal as can be. He’s well-liked but seen as a bit of a wuss who won’t commit to anything, and pines for his tomboyish pal Shouko (Seto Asami). Just when he’s about to confess his peaceful life – and that of JIOR – is shattered when JIOR is invaded by a Waffe unit from Dorssia, whose advance force is a group of kids posing as students who infiltrate Haruto’s school. Their leader is L-elf (Kimura Ryouhei), who has an all-star cast of supporters played by the likes of Kaji, Mamoru Miyano and Fukuyama Jun. The series takes its first shocking turn when Shouko is killed in the invasion, which prompts Haruto to climb into the cockpit of the mobile suit that was apparently the main target of the Dorssian attack. That’s when things start to get very weird, as Haruto must agree to “resign as a human” before the suit – “Valvrave” – will respond to his commands. Once he does, something is injected into his neck and he proceeds to kick the Waffe’s ass and foil the invasion, much to the delight of the online community that’s been following the invasion via live stream.
The storyline is pretty preposterous, really, but that’s not an issue in a Sunrise mecha show. It seems likely that Valvrave was JIOR’s secret contingency plan against their neutrality every being compromised – developed underneath the school Haruto attends – and somehow Dorssia got wind of it. As to why Haruto has to agree to resign as a human, given what happens at the end of the episode – which is one hell of a good plot twist – it seems likely he was injected with some sort of synthetically developed virus which has effectively made him some kind of vampire. Suffice to say I’m interested in seeing where the show goes from here – the first episode is quite well-done, and the contrast between the tone of the first half and the second is very effective. The look is fine – not as gorgeous as Gargantia, say, but pleasingly not oversaturated with CGI at the expense of very good drawn animation. It’s Sunrise so it’ll have a decent budget, and the talent involved – both staff and cast – make this a series to keep an eye on. I wasn’t blown away by this one, but all in all it was a very solid premiere.