Broken Blade

Broken Blade (Anime)

Today’s post digs back into that favorite of topics: Giant Fighting Robot Anime. (Properly called “mecha,” but I much prefer the other.) I finally, two or three years after starting, wrapped up the six-part series Broken Blade and can bring my impressions to all. I was hipped to this back in my movie business days; it was a big new release from Bandai and they were eager to get it into heavy promotional rotation. Curious what I was pimping to my unsuspecting customers, I started watching fan subs online. More recently, the library happened to have the now-available-in-stores DVD set, so I was able to see this through to an officially sanctioned end. As always, I watch my anime subtitled, because the English dubs just never work for me.

Broken Blade started life as a manga than ran for a couple of years before being optioned as a movie series. In Japan, both are known by the more grammatically tortured name Break Blade (ブレック・ブレード). The manga appears to have been translated part way into English, but the publisher went out of business before finishing the series. The movies are backed by slightly more capital, so there was no risk of getting stranded part way. Despite being short, 50 minutes each, all six Broken Blade episodes saw limited theatrical release in Japan, making these “movies” rather than “OVA” (original video animation, I think). I haven’t seen the manga in either language and have no idea if the story has since carried on.

The world shown in Broken Blade is a mix of fantasy and SF, with a sheen of originality painted over a solid collection of tropes. (We will see this technique again later with plot and characters.) Most people in the world of Broken Blade are born with the ability to telepathically manipulate quartz. Our hero, Rygart, was not, and thus is a loser. He has to use actual hand tools to accomplish things, which really sucks when everyone else around him is waving their arms and causing quartz to fling itself through the air. The highest form of quartz manipulation is, naturally, the act of piloting colossal robots in combat. Most of the fantasy stems from the still feudal economies powering the castle towns that everyone lives in and a basic inability of certain rulers to understand trade. The former leads to the requisite kings, warriors, and peasants. The latter drives the conflict, as the Athens Commonwealth invades the Kingdom of Krisna in a bid to get at Krisna’s bountiful quartz mines. (See? We can tell that they’re being subversive because Athens is the bad guy! Get it?) Apparently nobody told Athens that they could just offer to buy some quartz, or maybe swap grain or chickens or something. Much more cost effective over the long haul.

Science fiction makes an appearance when Krisnans discover the “Delphine,” an ancient relic of a battle mech. We all learn what it is when, as is tradition, Rygart falls into the cockpit at a battle’s most desperate hour and miraculously activates it. For whatever reason, nobody but “unsorcerors,” the Special Ed kids of Krisna, can pilot the Delphine. There is no explanation given of whatever fallen nation created the Delphine, but it fills in admirably as the obligatory lost, high tech civilization. This is about the extent of the world building; it’s a bit of a ramshackle collection of cliché and plot convenience, but more or less holds together. I have to keep myself from thinking too hard about the economics of it all and instead just be grateful that the writer at least made an effort. (I realize that it’s not entirely fair to bring my Hard SF-appreciating, Policital Science-oriented brain to bear on what is basically just entertainment for adolescents, but somebody has to do it. Cue the plaintive voice pleading, “Who will think of the electoral systems?”)

Broken Blade is really about the characters though. Rygart, of course, is the focus of things, with his quartz handicap and affinity for a butt kicking giant robot. We are also treated to numerous flashbacks of “high school,” (thanks Japan!) when Rygart attends military school with three people who just happen to become the king of Krisna (Hodr), the queen of Krisna and head giant battle robot engineer (Sigyn), and a military leader in Athens (Zess). Rygart and Sigyn have an unacknowledged, unrequited Thing, Sigyn and Hodr are married, and I have no idea why Zess is even a part of this. In fact, he fades into the background in the second half of the series. Maybe he isn’t important after all. There is also a standard assortment of archetypes: the loyal troops and cannon fodder, the brilliant but unstable ally (or is he??), the do whatever atrocity it takes to win bad guy, the wise mentor, and others. The wise mentor, Baldr, is really the only one who matters, because he looks like this. I would bear Baldr’s children if, you know, he wasn’t animated and if I was a woman. That’s a couple of big ifs.

The love triangle bit has some teeth, though fortunately restrains itself from dripping all over the place. (Perhaps learned a lesson from Macross?) Some of the relationships and conflicts show a surprising depth for this sort of thing. On the whole though, we end up with a lot of angsty teenagers piloting huge and impractical bringers of death. It’s rather like the cast of Dawson’s Creek running an epic Battletech campaign. (Whoops! Just dated myself with that sentence! On the other hand, the thought of James Vanderbeek behind the controls of a battle mech is pretty funny.) The leaders seem totally shocked when the introduction of veteran troops swings the course of the war widely in one or another direction, though in this case, “veterans” means adults more or less in control of their hormones and having a passing knowledge of battlefield tactics, I will give some credit though: the movies are at least sufficiently self-aware to mock Rygart once in awhile for his clueless attempts at fighting.

I’m not being entirely fair I think. The war scenes are visceral and violent; like much of the anime in the Gundam tradition, this is an unflinching look at war. There is very little glory here, just death and pain. Broken Blade is a fairly dark series, with little fun or sunshine to ease the tension. On the other hand, I would prefer to not yell at the screen, “CAN YOU PLEASE JUST STOP FEELING FOR A SECOND? I’M GETTING A HEADACHE FROM THE EMOTING!” If I were fourteen, maybe this would be about right. Hard to say. At least people die here, even if the deaths are telegraphed pretty clearly. No Storm Troopers and their legendary blaster accuracy in this movie.

Speaking of being fourteen, I’m still trying to puzzle out the messages about women here. There are almost as many women in the robots as men. In fact, some of the strongest warriors are women. And then there is Sigyn, who is clearly the smartest person in the room and the only reason Krisna isn’t completely flattened by the more powerful Athens. At the same time, the women in this world have strangely massive and buoyant chests. All of them. Do I really need to say that the fan service is exceedingly awkward? I should hope that’s a given by now. And finally, a little bit of my soul died when one character said to another, “Even if you have giant boobs, you’re still only twelve, so stop acting so old!” Japan, just between me and you, I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish, but this whole pederasty thing just makes you look creepy. Also, breathe through your nose sometimes, too.

So, yeah. Two steps forward, one step back, ladies.

How to sum up? The production values here are fantastic – clearly they had a budget to work with. The art and music are both top notch, to my uneducated eye. (I wouldn’t buy the soundtrack necessarily, but it was very functional and professionally done.) If someone were to ask me where to start with Giant Fighting Robots, I probably wouldn’t start them here. I suspect that Broken Blade is better appreciated by those who will spot the tropes and enjoy the tweaks. Still, it’s a decent enough story, with just enough in the tank to give the appearance of being smart. The emotions are a bit overwrought and it certainly has its flaws, but everything holds together. While I doubt it will be remembered decades later as a masterpiece, neither is it an unworthy addition to the mecha canon.