Sunday, March 6, 2011

Blue Gender (1999-2000)

Diagnosed with an incurable genetic illness, teenager Yuji, together with a lot of other people suffering from the same illness, is put into hibernation, with the hope to get him out of his freezer again once a cure for his problem has been found.

Yuji probably didn't expect the state of things when he wakes up in 2031. Some anonymous soldiers and a mecha are trying to get Yuji's body out of the facility he has been sleeping in for more than twenty years, but are attacked by a horde of large, insectile creatures. During the course of the fight, the teenager's hibernation sarcophagus is damaged, leading to the boys awakening. It takes him some time to realize that the mecha is not another horrible monster, but is in fact trying to protect him from the creatures. It sure doesn't help that the robot's pilot Marlene is not much of a people person, and doesn't say a word to the shocked boy for quite some time.

Somehow, with the help of a whole squad of mecha and soldiers, Marlene manages to expedite Yuji out of the building. After a bit of back and forth and the second of Yuji's many hissy fits of the show, his rescuers finally bother to explain a bit of what's going on to him. Turns out that Earth has been overrun by these strange, frequently mutating bug things that were for some reason dubbed "Blue", most of humanity has been killed and a few chosen ones have been evacuated onto a space station named "Earth Two". The ruling cabal of the station has for some reason the soldier's don't know about (and, at least if you ask Marlene, don't care about) decided to bring as many of the hibernating "sleepers" into space. Yuji is the only sleeper the squad responsible for the sleepers of Japan has been able to free.

Things do not improve for the soldiers during the next few episodes of the show. Slowly but surely their numbers are whittled down by bug attacks until they even allow Yuji to learn how to pilot a mecha (here called "Attack Shrikes"). He turns out to get surprisingly good at it improbably fast. Various attempts to leave Earth - first via a facility on the open sea, then together with another rescue squad in Korea - fail, until the only choice left is to try to get Yuji somehow to the space port of Baikonur in what once was Russia. By that point, Yuji has learned that the inhabitants of the space station aren't exactly heroes: while they fled to space, they let the surviving humans on Earth to rot, and treat the survivors they meet when on a mission on the planet as completely expendable.

After Korea, what once was a military squad now consists only of Marlene and Yuji. Of course there's romance in the air. Yuji's whiny yet compassionate attitude whittles down the defences Marlene has built in long years of loneliness and trauma, and the boy is sixteen or seventeen. Obviously, the young, and unspoken, love will have to stand more than one test in the future, but its effects are rebuilding Marlene into a much more whole person.

After half of the show's episodes are over, the couple finally reaches Marlene's home, but there, things only become more difficult. The leaders of the place turn out to be space fascists planning to use Yuji and others with the same genetic problem for their own, not exactly humanitarian, purposes, and they don't look too kindly on Marlene's change into an ethical person, either.

On the surface, the anime show Blue Gender is nothing special. Looking at its single elements, one might suspect that the show is a rather artlessly fashioned grab-bag of ideas that were popular in SF/mecha anime at the time of its creation: there's the teenage male hero with hidden powers and an easily aroused libido; the gore-loving giant monsters; the mecha of the real robo variant (sub-genre demi-god Ryosuke Takahashi had a hand in the creation of the show). In the middle of the series, elements of academy shows begin appearing, but also a revolution and the mandatory ecological message. On paper, it's really too much, and too little of it is original, but the show's main script writer Katsumi Hasegawa (who must be one of the nerdiest men on the planet, seeing that he also writes light novels, draws manga and has experience as a suit actor for tokusatsu show as well as "special effects critic", whatever the latter may be) and its director Hiroshi Abe (not the actor) fuse the show's disparate elements so well that they fit quite organically.

There are only a few episodes that don't really work, usually when the middle aged men decide to write about sex as if they themselves were still sixteen, and not just their hero and their presumed audience. For most of the time, though, everything comes together into a coherent and fitting whole and doesn't betray its ideas and characters to the demands of fan service too much. Even when Blue Gender uses stock character types, it knows quite well when to stop using them.

Hasegawa does quite a few clever things in his scripts. While the way the show uses Marlene won't stand up to a strict feminist interpretation (but what does?), it's nice to see a show respect its female lead's competence even after its male lead has found the awesome mecha pilot in himself. It's also nice - and quite surprising - to find a show that doesn't pretend that a woman must give up on her competence to achieve emotional wholeness. In fact, once Marlene has begun to face her own feelings, the show changes from being told through Yuji's perspective to being told from Marlene's - not exactly the kind of narrative strategy you'll find very often in anime or elsewhere.

I also approve of the show's tendency to go into the nasty places (children dying, innocents dying, terrible changes in Yuji etc.) its world suggests without doing it just to be gritty and edgy. Everything unpleasant is a natural consequence of the show's backstory. The same goes for the show's at times melodramatic tone - it's simply appropriate for business like the end of humanity or desperate teenage love.

The only other negative I can find is the very variable quality of the animation. I wouldn't at all be surprised to hear that the show went over budget or over time in its final third, when episodes (especially the second to last one) begin to use the good old technique of using static drawings where they really don't belong.

Still, a bit of shoddiness in the later stages of animation are a price I'm willing to pay for a show that uses its clichés without becoming one.


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