Where does one begin to go in describing that episode? I can’t imagine the bulk of the viewership is going to be satisfied, not so much because of the content of the ep – which I thought was generally quite good – but because of the ending itself. There’s a lot that seems quite tragic and pointless, but what’s likely to be even more of a disappointment to some is that so much is left unexplained. There are a couple of real corkers in that department, which I’ll get to shortly.
It isn’t often (though by no means is this the first time) I say this, but I think if the final couple of minutes of the episode had been lopped off – basically everything from the ED credits crawl onwards – the whole ending would have held together better. In fact, in hindsight I think it would have been better without the timeskip altogether, because things got to a point where we had a memorable and well-done – if very sad – emotional climax, and the audience would have done just fine coming up with the rest in their imaginations. It’s that last bit – which those flash-forwards necessitated – that raises most of the continuity and character issues.
Things started out very well, with the aftermath of Amadeus’ being outed taking on an interesting turn. There was a nice Evangelion call-out – “The Magius are in their shadows, and all’s right with the world”. The Committee of 101’s plan to dismiss the whole incident as a hoax appears to be working well at first, although the ARUS President seems to be taking the opportunity to try and double-cross the Magius and consolidate all power around himself. Meanwhile the Royalists in Dorssia choose this moment to rise up (wisely, I would say) and a giant war of information and misinformation flares up, throwing the world into chaos. It’s good stuff.
I liked where things were going with Coffee and Sugar, too. Cain took to the air in Valvrave 002 – with Plue at its core – and it’s a nasty beast of a machine, proving more than a match for the fast-fading Haruto and Akira, and even the intervention of the remnants of the A-Drei squad less Q-Vier can’t turn the tide. X-Eins is the first to go, in an attempt at a suicide run to take Cain out in revenge for H-Neun, and it’s A-Drei himself who (at fucking last) takes out the irritating little homonculous Q-Vier (I know it’s not his fault he keeps getting cast in these roles, but no one can do annoying as hell like Kaji Yuuki). That leaves A-Drei himself as the last man standing – which is a good thing for the Royalists, as he’s also their leader.
The important point is that L-Elf finds Haruto after Cain blows him out of the sky, and suggests that the only way to beat Cain is with a body swap. I’d been more or less waiting for this moment, and I thought my wild guess about the flash-forwards might be coming to pass, but it seems Haruto’s runes are just as vulnerable even when he’s inside L-Elf’s body. The swap itself is a classic moment, especially when L-Elf emits a little “Erm!” when Haruto bites him – and Ryouhei Kimura turns in a terrific performance doing Ohsaka Ryouta’s voice during the several minutes Haruto is inside L-Elf’s body. I like the fact that it was only by combining their powers that these two could defeat Cain, and the reunion of Plue and Pino after Cain is finally put down in a spectacular clash of Valvraves is handled with real elegance.
It can’t be said that Haruto’s death (by my count every male in the series who piloted a Valvrave is dead) is in any way a surprise. It’s been hinted at in literally every episode, and all the more so in the second cour. If anything the only surprise is that it was so not unexpected that you thought they might just throw us a curve – but no, it went down exactly as the series has led us to believe. Truth in advertising, then – and it was a great moment, too, with Haruto waking up without any of his memories, even of his own name. L-Elf finally acknowledging Haruto’s courage and, more importantly, as a friend was something that needed to happen. It was a well-earned moment, the high-point of the episode and for me, the ending would have been better if the credits had started a silent roll after Haruto punched L-Elf’s shoulder and expired.
They didn’t, of course. Some would have complained if they had and no explanations were offered, but I don’t think the postscript really answered any questions anyway – in fact, it added new ones. Like the whopper – just why, exactly, is Shouko still alive? Not to mention just who did it with who to give birth to chibi L-Elf – there’s absolutely no indication that L-Elf himself paired up with anyone, and in fact he seems to be officiating at Takahi and Satomi’s wedding (A-Drei catches the bouquet). There’s also the question of how the relationship with the Valvraves – which now ask “Do you believe in human beings?” – has changed. Above and beyond all that, though, everyone just seems a bit too happy considering that Haruto has, you know, died for their sins and all. I know it’s hundreds of years later and you get on with life, but for us it’s only seconds – and it doesn’t feel right to me, somehow. And seeing a room full of busts commemorating the fallen heroes and Shouko wearing Haruto’s flight suit (is she Unit 1’s pilot now, too?) doesn’t change that feeling.
Will there be an OVA or even a third season somewhere down the line to clear some of this up? It’s certainly not impossible – Valvrave has been a decent if unspectacular seller on Blu-ray – but I’m operating under the assumption that what we see is what we’re going to get. I really wish there’d been another episode or two because I think that’s all it would have taken to “fix” the ending. Why? Because I don’t think the issues are with where we ended up, but how we got there – and unlike many two-cour shows, I don’t look back at Kakumeiki Valvrave and see a lot of time wasted on filler. The show has been busy and practically every episode has been plot-critical – they just needed one more to finish the job.
I guess, in the end, a mixed-bag of a finale is somehow appropriate for Valvrave the Liberator. I’m not going to look back on this series as a classic, but it sure was a hell of a lot of fun. The first cour succeeded mostly because of sheer bombast and an embrace of abject silliness, and the second mostly as a well-produced and tightly-scripted sci-fi thriller, though there were elements of each in both cours. For me the series had a very impressive growth curve, and as much as I enjoyed the first cour I wouldn’t have believed Valvrave could play it straight as often as it did in the second and still step up its overall game. This was Sunrise having fun with its own mythology and sensibility, yes, but in a way that was ultimately respectful of the body of work the studio has compiled in this genre over the last four decades.
Sci-fi and mecha are no different from most genres in that they mostly succeed or fail based on characters, and this was a real strong suit for Valvrave. Not only were the main cast more interesting and colorful that in most series, but the supporting cast was far more relevant and distinct. I’m not terribly happy with the way most of these character arcs were brought to a conclusion, but they were still a strength of the series. There were strong moments in the finale – the aforementioned L-Elf-Haurto farewell, and also Saki’s rather ghoulish admission that she was actually glad that Haruto was losing his memories, because it might have leveled the playing field between she and Shouko. Saki emerged as an appealingly morally ambiguous character early on, but she didn’t have nearly as much of a role in the second season – one of the few respects in which I’d say it trailed the first. Shouko might be argued to have fared poorly in the second season as well, but I don’t think I’d agree. She did disappear for a while but in the end she was actually more relevant than Saki, and while I didn’t find her behavior over the last few episodes with respect to Haruto and her decision-making especially admirable, in a way it made her more interesting as a character.
The big draw, of course, was L-Elf and Haruto, with Ryouhei Kimura especially delivering one of his best performances as the former. Together they formed a sort of mismatched buddy cop team, “Coffee and Sugar” indeed. Haruto certainly had the more thankless role, but he filled it admirably, never transcending his limitations but gaining a kind of nobility by fighting on despite them. L-Elf got most of the money shots and best lines – “Shut up and enjoy the scenery” and the like – and it was the fact that he and Haruto were so opposite that made the story of destiny tying the two of them together such an appealing one. Haruto never got the chance to set things right with Shouko (talk about a doomed romance from the start) but at least he had a final moment with L-Elf to give his journey a kind of apotheosis.
That, then, was Kakumeiki Valvrave. Alternately spectacular and bizarre, hilarious and absurd, and ultimately a little frustrating. I think what makes Valvrave work is that yes, it doesn’t take itself too seriously – but it takes itself seriously enough. That’s why all this matters in the end, because Valvrave recognizes that for all the gloriously cheesy dialogue and mash-up of Sunrise tropes a series like this has to have a certain scale and sense of grandiosity. Kakumeiki Valvrave may be a kind of deconstruction of both its studio and its genres, but it understands those things encyclopedically, and while having fun with them never makes fun of them. Both very modern and very old-fashioned, I think Valvrave is a series for people who really understand the history of science-fiction and anime and speak its language. Flaws and all, it’s a great ride and I’m glad I stayed on-board to enjoy it.