(26 episodes, 2007)
My previous exposure
None, besides the notion that it’s supposed to be a very depressing story. Well, they weren’t kidding…
What’s it about ?
15 children attending a summer camp get invited by a shady scientist dude to “play a game” that involves using a giant robot to fight similar-looking invaders. Except it’s not really a game at all, and the dude disappears right after the demo fight.
There’s a helpful little flying mascot called “Dung Beetle” who gives the kids some tips, if by “helpful” you mean “relentlessly abusing them verbally”, and by “tips”, “misdirection and outright lies”. Progressively, the ground rules become clearer : one kid at random (or is it ?) is selected for the next battle. If they lose, the Earth is destroyed. If they win, the kid dies because their mech used up their life energy. There are 15 enemies to fight in total, which makes it clear that the whole thing is a complete screwjob. (Oh, and that’s without counting several of the later plot twists that make it even more horrific.)
This being on the more deconstructive side of storytelling, the authorities do take notice of the events and move in to take matters in hand, with various degrees of helpfulness and usefulness.
What did I think of it ?
Finally this thread reaches a series I genuinely enjoyed watching throughout, with barely a few nitpicks here and there. (Although, technically, it’s the first one I finished watching – I saw it during my pause in the middle of Michiko e Hatchin.)
I like a lot of the visuals here, too. Particularly, the recurrent chair motif is very inspired indeed : it’s otherwordly, it offers quick insights into each kid’s character, and mostly it’s just darn creepy. The mecha fights are a lot of fun to watch too, as great care was put into showing the effect of the physics-defying mecha’s battles on the cityscapes they took place in. The scale and the absurdity of the conflict are sold very well, even before the stakes keep being raised.
The overarching plot may actually be the weakest part of the series. It’s well-paced and there are a lot of fun twists along the way, but the “political conspiracy” thread completely peters out after a point… to say nothing of the huge plot holes along the way. (To be blunt : despite the children being supervised by the military, they’re under ridiculously little oversight, especially after their handlers start going rogue.) But it doesn’t really matter, given than it’s a structural framework for what the series really is about : a set of character pieces about how kids from completely different backgrounds react to this blatantly absurd set up where they have to sacrifice themselves to save the world.
And on that level, it works perfectly. Oh, sure, it soon becomes obvious that when the focus fall on a particular kid, they’re doomed to die by the end of the episode : points to the writers for playing with it a bit, but mostly for making it the core of the show : it doesn’t matter when a kid is set to die, but how they cope with the advance knowledge of it. Do they go mad with the revelation ? Get overcome by denial ? Become plagued with apathy ? Try to do the “right” thing ? Make as much of their remaining time as possible ? Try and take advantage of their position ? Try to find a way to avoid their fate ? The whole gamut of possible reactions gets examined. It might strain disbelief a bit that nearly all the kids are crippled by personal and/or psychological issues, but then there are a few that seem mostly normal… and their own episodes are mostly opportunities to get the main plot moving.
This isn’t a happy series, and the ending is a pyrrhic victory as best (although cheers for what happens to Dung Beetle – that asshole deserved it), but I still got out of it with hope for mankind… And that’s key to why the series works so well.