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"STRAIN" Complete Collection: I'm Not Straining to Say This is Quality

Have you ever caught up with a friend you haven’t seen in ten years, only to discover that he or she acts a bit different, and not for the better? To bring up the classic rock documentary cliché: “You’ve changed, man.” Now imagine that scenario, except multiplied by 1,000 in evilness, and you have the situation that faces the protagonist in STRAIN, a 2007 mecha/sci-fi series recently released by FUNimation.

The story, which takes place in the far future, begins as a young Sara Werec watches her beloved older brother, Ralph, head off to war. Flash forward several years, to Sara in college, where she is training to be a Reasoner, a mecha pilot whose giant robot is called a Strain. She’s enjoying a good life, complete with a guy who has the hots for her. Suddenly, an attack from an enemy Strain ravages the campus. And who is the attacker? None other than her brother, Ralph! (Cue dramatic sting music)

At this point, Sara (now using a new last name for obvious reasons) joins the outer space crew that trains its pilots to ward off Tumors, enemy robots that look like deadly flying bolts, commanded by Ralph’s ship. Ralph’s attack changed Sara. Gone is the cheery persona; she is now taciturn, cold, and only focused on becoming the best pilot she can so she can learn why Ralph has become evil. Naturally, this sort of attitude doesn’t help her fit in with the other rookies, some of whom pick on her. She’s defended by a high-ranking Reasoner named Lottie, though that friendship is challenged when she discovers more about Sara—

All right, I have to restrain myself. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, as this is one show where revealing too much would be detrimental. And even if you know the book (A Little Princess) that the series is supposedly based on, you might be in for some good surprises. I’ve not read the original, but judging by the various synopses I found on the internet, the anime appears to be only a very loose adaptation. (For instance, a girl named Lavinia, who in the book hates Sara, in the anime is very much in love with her.) Such changes are not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it’s something to mention to those who know the book.

There are, as I say, lots of revelations, of the sort that make the show worthwhile. From characters’ backstories that explain why they have their current personalities, to secrets that are gradually revealed, to the big reason for Ralph’s defection, there’s a lot in 13 episodes to make the show a rewarding experience. This is especially true of the Lottie character, who sees part of herself in Sara, and this is arguably why she decides to take Sara under her wing.

The story is really carried by the fact that we gain sympathy for the characters, even the bad or short-sighted ones, because they are well-written. Ralph’s reason for defecting makes sense, in a twisted, incredibly misguided sort of way, and we feel sorry for him rather than think he’s a one-dimensional “Bwa ha ha!” villain. Sara is easy to pity for the way her self-centered personality gets in the way of her being a team player in her unit’s formation drills, but we can also see why she acts like this and don’t think she deserves to be beat up by the bully cadets. Not to mention, and it almost goes without saying, nobody should have to go through seeing their sibling turn to the dark side. Without her brother (as her parents are dead), she hardly has anybody left. And Lavinia’s plans to win Sara’s affections backfire, causing us to simultaneously think, “She didn’t mean any harm. Why do all her love plans fail? Poor gal” and “She should’ve known better than that”. Now, true, not all of the characters are fleshed-out, three-dimensional creatures. There are a couple of secondary pilots whose main traits are that one is a body-building meat eater and the other is a more classically feminine type. But the characters that do count succeed wonderfully.

Essentially, any series that gets me to care about the proceedings is obviously worthwhile. I kept asking myself why Ralph went bad. I kept waiting for people to discover Sara’s true identity, and grinning with anticipation for the moment the people who thought they knew her would understandably get up in arms about it. And most importantly, I wanted to see Sara dig herself out of the depression she’s been suffering ever since that traumatic incident, which wasn’t going to come easy.

Visually, most of the 2D animation (by Studio Fantasia) is par for the course for anime on TV. But the CG battle visuals are where things take a considerable upswing. The actual CG models aren’t anything special and look rather dated compared to, say, Pixar’s output, but the direction is where the battles shine. The Strains move at a fast pace as the Tumors chase them through space; that, combined with the frenetic camerawork (which luckily doesn’t over-rely on the dreaded “shaky cam”), should keep your eyes glued to the screen. The Strains’ designs are pretty cool; they are mantis-like in appearance instead of the bulky things we sometimes see in this genre.

As usual, FUNi’s dub succeeds. Caitlin Glass gives a fine performance as Sara; while usually playing low key in tune with the character’s somber personality, she also comes through in the moments when Sara needs to have intense emotions. It’s also interesting to hear the change in intonations when you compare her more friendly demeanor in the first episode to her change from episode two onwards.

Special features on the two-disc set include some production artwork, some clean openings/endings, and FUNi trailers. Pretty typical stuff. There is a commentary listed for episode 6, but I couldn’t seem to access it; I wonder if that was simply an error on the packaging or if it’s accessed in some fashion that I didn’t discover. Speaking of the DVD packaging, it leaves a bit to be desired. While not the worst cover I’ve ever seen, the decision to feature only the Strains on the front cover is a mistake, as the series is mostly about the human conflict; the battles are arguably secondary. I wish FUNi had used one of the Japanese covers instead, as they highlighted both the Strains and some characters. It’s nitpicking, I know, but hey, that’s what the internet is for, right?

Oh well. So-so cover art aside, STRAIN is an engaging sci-fi series with compelling character moments and a likable underdog character. And thankfully, the hard sci-fi jargon is kept to a pleasant minimum; even a key explanation about Ralph later in the series is explained well so those without PhDs in physics can understand it. I can recommend STRAIN to mecha and non-mecha fans alike.

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