Gasaraki (1998– )
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Gasaraki is a blend of very realistic mecha warfare with Shinto mysticism, recent geopolitical history and Noh theater. If this sounds strange...well, it is. But it works, very well.
The series is organized sort of as an unfolding mystery, confusing at first, and as questions are answered, more questions pop up. We've got Yushiro Gawa, who is a crack mecha pilot, but (perhaps more importantly) a Noh Shite. The extended Gowa family run a weapons conglomerate, and are willing to manipulate politics to generate opportunities to show off their new TA mecha weapons platform. They're also conducting experiments on Yushiro as he Noh dances; his dance causes strange gravity anomolies.
...and some other organization seems to be developing very similar mecha systems and gravity effects. We're being set up for later conflict between these two groups.
The artwork of Gasaraki is wonderful; realistic hard edged military hardware juxtaposed against a delicate garden with koi swimming in a pool or traditional Japanese architecture. The Noh theater segments are otherworldly and haunting.
Check this one out.
Gasaraki is a show about politics, a family, spirituality, mechs, and more politics.
The show opens with a test of the Japanese Special Self Defense Forces' new Tactical Armor, a bipedal weapon with unprecedented mobility in an urban environment. The mechs are very well-designed, and look like the sort of thing that the US military might actually produce.
Then we are treated to a Noh dance, being performed by one of the pilots of the Tactical Armor. During the dance, bizarre phenomena occur, including gravity increases, and a girl appearing to him in a vision, begging him not to bring back "the terror."
And then we learn that the pilot/Noh dancer is Yushiro Gowa, one of the children of the Gowa family. The Gowa family also just happens to be developing the TA for the army.
And that's just the first episode.
Much of the show is produced in a style similar to the news coverage of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, further adding to the realism of the situation, which includes the US invading a (fictional) middle eastern nation which appears to have developed weapons of mass destruction.
The animation is uniformly high quality, fluid and clean. I've never seen a show produced for television that looked this good.
The show was written by people who actually understood politics, and that is a breath of fresh air. With a complex geopolitical scene as a backdrop, Gasaraki constantly has surprises for the viewer, as well as the constant sense of mystery surrounding the "terror" of a thousand years past.
Some have compared the show to Evangelion, but such a comparison is flawed. Gasaraki is much darker and more complex plot-wise. Where Evangelion is about Hideako Anno's personal views on spirituality, Gasaraki is about politics, with a dose of spirituality to add mystery. Beyond the obvious similarity of mecha and spiritual elements, there's really no comparison.
In summary: Gasaraki is not for those with short attention spans. Gasaraki will reward those who pay attention to detail. Gasaraki is a triumph of substance over style, a rarity in the world of anime these days.
As a mecha anime it's a bit prosaic and Yuushiro is your usual introverted, teenage, Shinji-esquire (though he seems to lack the introspection required to be repressed) cardboard cutout you find in many animes. The show is wonderfully contemporary though, even if its analysis of events in the Middle East is a little superficial. This is forgivable as the focus seems to be very much on Japan's ambiguous role in the world. Here you see the corrupting influence of the keiretsus on the government and the tempting influence of Japan's traditional, martial past. The presence of elements of traditional Japanese culture, such as Noh, family hierarchy (and its influence on the nature of powerful, family-owned conglomerates), and, yes, samurai, may satisfy western viewers who have noticed a lack of cultural introspection in anime (if you want to see more I recommend Samurai Champloo; not as good as Bebop, but Watanabe's style is recognisable).
Far from the knee-jerk moral dichotomies which are frequently inserted into politics in today's world, there is one very notable scene in particular where the commanding officer of Yuushiro's unit makes a poetic and beautifully articulate justification for where their duties lie after there is a political wind change in Japan, even as he wrestles with his own conscience. You rarely see such depictions of the warrior-poet in fiction anymore, presumably because it's not pc.
Drawbacks of the series include, depending on your degree of patience, a slowly plodding plot and a disappointing finale which summons the clichéd deus ex machina (which REALLY comes out of left field) one expects from the finales of such animes.