Thanks to certain series, as well as America’s preconceived notions when it comes to cartoons, it’s safe to say that most people consider Japanese animation to be mere kids stuff. In fact, I’m often loathe to talk about my love for animé, lest I have to put up with the endless Dragonball Z and Pokémon jokes. But on the other hand, if I were to show a series like Gasaraki to most people, they’d probably quickly get bored or disinterested with its complex web of political and military conspiracies, Japanese mysticism, and secret societies. And to be honest, I’m not sure if I’d blame them.
Gasaraki begins on a strong note, with Yushiro Gowa. First of all, he’s the best pilot in a top-secret military project testing new battlesuits (called “Tactical Armors”). He’s also the youngest son of the Gowa family, one of Japan’s most powerful families. But the Gowas seem to have their own agenda for Yushiro, which involve him participating in ancient Japanese rituals bent on tapping into some unknown power. At the height of the ceremony, Yushiro has a vision of a young woman warning him of impending doom, and then attacking him. Shaken by this, Yushiro ends the ceremony, breaking off contact with the power.
Before Yushiro can fully recover, however, his Tactical Armor (TA) unit is shipped off to the nation of Belgistan, supposedly under the auspices of investigating Belgistan’s tests of a new weapon. While getting mixed up in the political situation there, he encounters Miharu, the young woman in his vision. Miharu is a TA pilot for Symbol, a mysterious group working behind the scenes to control world events. Realizing that both he and Miharu have a common connection, Yushiro rescues her and returns to Japan.
Whilst in Japan, their connection becomes much more involved as they realize their history together, one that might stretch back centuries. But both Symbol and the Gowa family refuse to let their prizes go, and constantly hound the couple. Meanwhile, the world’s economies are growing far more unstable. A political faction in Japan begins to move, hoping to work Japan’s increasing unrest to their own goals (which are murky at best).
As the series goes along, it becomes increasingly complex — almost too much so. You can’t accuse Toru Nozaki of taking the easy way out, but at the same time, the conspiracies and political events grow so complex that it always feels like some crucial piece is missing. At times, whole stories are left behind (usually right when they’re getting interesting) for the latest Gowa plot or Symbol conspiracy. Also, the series seems to forget all about Yushiro and Miharu at times (even though they supposedly hold the key to everything). And it only hints at the powerful forces that lie behind the Gowa clan and its history.
On the other hand, this does introduce us to a wide cast of characters, from the other members of the Gowa family to Yushiro’s comrades in his TA group. Thankfully, many of these characters are fleshed out, with their own desires and motives. However, this is also a double-edged sword, making it harder to keep track of just what everyone is up to and where everyone’s allegiance lies. This is especially so in the second half of the series, where the focus suddenly shifts from Belgistan to Japan and its economic and political upheavals.
One thing, however, that the series does right is the animation. This is a highly-detailed series, from the character designs to the mecha combat. In fact, the first thing I ever saw of Gasaraki was a print ad in some gaming magazine featuring Yushiro and Miharu. I don’t remember anything that the ad said, but the lovely character designs stuck with me until I was finally able to track down more info about the series (and this was a few years ago).
In the mecha department, Gasaraki might disappoint those weaned on Gundam and its endless incarnations. Gasaraki takes a more realistic line, with TAs (or “Fakes”, as they’re called by Symbol) that look like they actually could roll off the assembly line in the near future. Then there’s the mecha combat. Compared to the insane battle of Evangelion and the graceful duels of Macross Plus, the mechas in Gasaraki look downright clumsy. And you won’t find the TAs in glorious battles defending Tokyo from the latest alien hordes. Rather, the series puts them in more “real world” scenarious, such as urban combat and riot control, trading nail-biting action for realism.
Actually, the series pursues realism nearly to a fault. The series’ creators include scenarios that feel like they were lifted right out of a CNN newscast (or a Tom Clancy novel); economic embargoes, worldwide grain shortages, etc. These do lend credence to what occurs in the animé, but it also leaves the animé feeling a bit, well, dry. Worse, it tends to trivialize the more obscure, mystical elements of Gasaraki, which are explored in the series’ early moments, only to be relegated to the back burner for much of the series.
After the true connection between Yushiro and Miharu is finally explained (and which feels like a rather big deal), it’s all but forgotten when the series turns back to the conspiracies, foreign policies, and trade sanctions. And when characters start talking about Japan’s plans to deal with her foreign troubles… well, I won’t give anything away, but I do wish I’d paid more attention in my macroeconomics class in college. And be prepared for exposition, lots of exposition, on topics ranging from Japan’s role in foreign events, Japan’s increasing social decay, and plenty of existential ponderings à la Neon Genesis Evangelion.
As the series rolls towards its conclusion, I had no idea how the creators were going to wrap things up. And believe me, they tried. However, due to the overwhelming abundance of plots and machinations, it feels rather anti-climactic. Especially concerning Yushiro and Miharu, whose closure seems to receive rather short shrift.
Still, it’s hard to fault the creators for trying to be ambitious. And in the field of “giant robot” series, it’s nice to see a series that tries hard to place giant robot combat within a real world context. But the results feel lacking. I can’t help but wondering if I somehow skipped an episode, one that had some crucial information I missed, info that would explain and enhance some of the series’ complexities.
I find myself wondering more about the Gowa family. About the connection that Yushiro and Miharu have with the kugai. About their roles as kai. About just what the heck Gasaraki means. I find myself wondering more about those things than all of the series’ other plots combined, regardless of how realistic they might be. I’m left wondering because the nice neat little explanation I got just doesn’t satisfy me. That sentiment goes for the whole series as well. Such a shame, because I wanted it to be so much more. It really could’ve been so much more.