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Review: “Gasaraki” Still Holds Up Over A Decade Later

by on October 11, 2012

I’ve said before on toonzone that I think that 1998 may be Sunrise animation’s finest single year. Whether it was it was the pair of wild west space adventures in Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star, or the unusually good ren-ai game adaptation in Sentimental Journey, Sunrise was simply on fire. Part of that amazing run was Gasaraki, a mecha anime set in the then-distant year of 2014. Does Gasaraki still hold up and respect the legacy of that year, or does it ultimately feel dated and derivative? Further still, does the Nozomi re-release merit a double dip, or merely a purchase for new otaku?

The details of the story can quickly pass into spoiler territory, but the general gist is that two factions–Gowa Industries and the mysterious organization SYMBOL–are both developing mecha using incomplete technology called Mile One that seems to be of demonic origin. However, the mechas (called Tactical Armors or TA for short) aren’t that mystical. They have wheels for faster movements, and specialized systems for climbing walls, providing a realism to the combat in the show. In the development of these weapons, proxy wars are fought as the respective factions discover each other’s existence. Caught up in the middle of this are the two people who seem to be natural TA pilots, Yuushiro and Miharu. Initially caught on opposing sides of the conflict, they seem to have a connection that defies natural explanation. From there, the intrigue, be it military, political or supernatural, only builds. Unraveling the mysteries of Yuushiro and Miharu and that of the TA and Mile One is a rollercoaster ride, yet it is so pensive and deliberate that you cannot help but be enthralled by what come next.

So, how well does that scenario play out? Lets begin with the setting. Gasaraki is a show formed from two sides: on one facet is a sense of realism in setting, strategy and raw mechanics. The mechs face the problems that real war machines do in different environments and combat settings, and it’s obvious that the staff has made a real effort to consider the actual role mechs would play on Earth in real-world conflicts. Even questions of effectiveness against different types of existing armaments are answered via visceral, thoughtfully constructed battles. The other facet of Gasaraki is an odd tale of reincarnation, spiritual destiny and humanity’s reason for existence. Some of the mystical elements can be chalked up to the era: Gasaraki is one of many mecha anime that came in the wake of Evangelion, and even aspects such as the intense instrumentation screens and usage of live-action footage seem like nods to Eva, let alone the very non-linear storytelling, psychological introspectiveness and its attitudes toward humanity’s destiny. The aspect of a massive power being approachable from the scientific or the spiritual direction seems oddly Eva-like as well. Yet, those callbacks become part of an original whole. Gasaraki uses traditional Japanese cultural elements such Shinto demons and spirits as its spiritual side, and what should seem like an incompatible mix of realism and mysticism fuses into one of the most unique mech series Sunrise has produced, and perhaps feels tighter than Eva in this blending, if over-derivative in its ultimate conclusion.

Gasaraki’s story definitely remains quite compelling. The nitty-gritty realism gives the viewer something to hang onto while the mystical side gradually unfurls. The contrast of those two elements should be a train wreck. On one side you have shot-for-shot references to late 1990s military operations and military footage that came out of the Gulf War. On the other you have shadowy men working for shady organizations to use ancient magic for their own cryptic and possibly malicious ends. You’re thrown blind into this weird setup, yet you can’t help but want to know where it’s headed. Making that work is an amazing feat of writing. The cast of characters only underline that accomplishment: the lead characters are cryptic and mixed up, while the even the most human characters–the regular enlisted soldiers–are mixed up in something that even they only have a limited understanding of, and are often just as perplexed as the viewer. Even the visuals throw the viewer for a loop as a first-person, from-the-mecha-perspective is often used during combat sequences, adding to the intensity of any scene. All things considered, how the story is told and the story itself just stand out as unique and fresh even a decade and half later, even with its various references.

If anything, some of the pieces of Gasaraki hold up all too well. While the use of a fictional Middle Eastern country as a source of conflict and western intervention was meant to be a callback to the Gulf War and related conflicts in the 1990s, Gasaraki’s setting feel almost like a psychic look at western military intervention post 9/11, down to the term “weapons of mass destruction,” long before it had been battered around the media almost daily. More directly, the remark is made that a third-rate nation shot down one of the most advanced attack helicopters ever made, and well, one of the most advanced helicopters ever made was lost in the raid on Bin Laden. Better yet, only one episode later do we get this gem of a line: “What about the constitution? Do you plan on casting aside years of precedence and policy established on this on your own accord?!” Given that those almost precognitive moments are then paired with implications of media manipulation, misinformation and suppression, and it almost feels eerie to watch. It stands as a testament to life imitating art, or at least to history repeating itself. Perhaps this alone speaks to the continued value of Gasaraki as a series. Until a dramatic change in the world’s working occurs, Gasaraki remains compelling and thought-provoking.

From the technical standpoints, there are definitely pieces of Gasaraki that are a bit dated. 1998 was the year some of the first aspects of 3D-CG effects, cel-CG and digital video effects started to creep into TV animation, and while parts of it work decently, it’s not as clean some of its contemporaries from Sunrise in the same year. It’s never too jarring, yet it’s hard not to think that it might have been better served by going more all in like Sunrise did that year with Cowboy Bebop, or sticking with a straight cel approach like they did with Outlaw Star or Sentimental Journey. Still, if viewed as a mixed media animated work, it’s still very watchable, though I’d be curious to know what the younger generation of fans thinks. There are certainly some points where the cel animation feels off-model and clumsy. It’s the balance I suppose a studio must make when knocking out so many shows, but it again points to maybe doubling down on cel-techniques rather than what was likely spending up on 3D-CG. There are also some moments of reused animation and other cheats that suggest it might have been with wise to bring the scope in a bit. The dub is better than I’d remembered, given that it’s an ADV dub from before FUNimation started to bring something greater from their actors. Still, it’s not necessarily that great in some ways: the acting is a bit uneven, often in moments where you’d most like a good performance, and the mix seems too dry, as the voices sound like they are straight from the recording booth with no reverb to make them feel as if they are in a room. For the era though, it’s quite a solid dub, and the Japanese audio track is great.

However, when it’s on lock, Gasaraki is just great from the technical side. The soundtrack has certain callbacks that are quite late 1990s, but the raw composition and production hold up quite well, and you’ll definitely have the OP and ED stuck in your head once you’ve watched the show. The cel animation has a slight grit that that really serves the show itself quite well even when it is a little clunky or off-model. It feels more like a war film, and the detail on the mech animation and battle storyboarding has a sense of flair and subtly that few series today match. The mecha design and movement itself are really fantastic, as one would expect from Shinji Aramaki, who would go on to do mech design for Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex. The mecha just seem plausible in a way few other shows touch, both in design and utility. The fact that it pulls off that realism with the mystical elements rather than jarring the viewer out of the experience is just that much more impressive.

The DVD release itself is quite good, though there are a few nitpicks. The subtitles aren’t as rich as you’d expect from a Nozomi release: the on-screen text isn’t always laden with subtitles as I’d expect from them, though the key information does get subs. The Nozomi release is certainly nicer for spreading the show across 5 DVDs in one case rather than 8 DVDs in eight cases, and it doesn’t look like it has visually suffered at all from this layout in terms of video encoding, but reversible art would’ve been neat as such since so much of cover art from the old ADV releases gets dropped by being in single case. The discs also include all of the openings and closings without credits, which matters when the opening visuals change every few episodes. There is also some nice behind the scene footage in regards to how certain episodes were animated, which is an unexpected treat, even if the footage was clearly pulled off an old VHS or Betamax master. Still, the inclusion of that kind of behind-the-scenes info made me lament the lack of such things on many newer anime releases. Between the quality of the show, the quality of the discs and the price, it’s hard to not suggest picking up Gasaraki.

In fact, I have to say that Gasaraki is still an excellent addition to any mecha fan’s collection. It may be a product of its era, but it was an excellent era, and one that won’t ever quite be repeated. If you really enjoy mecha anime, or just want a unique slice of realistic military action and supernatural goings-on, Gasaraki is really one of a kind. For something that might have started as Sunrise’s answer to Eva, the path it takes is unlike anything else.

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