Reviews of Armored Trooper Votoms (1983) and related work

Armored Trooper Votoms (1983Moving picture, 20 hours)

Takahashi Ryōsuke (director).

Seen in 2013.

Two hundred-world polities in the Astragius galaxy are finally at peace. They have more deranged veterans and military hardware than they know what to do with. Their civil authorities seem badly corrupted by a century of short-termism and strife. A Special Forces pilot, tired of fighting, is transferred to a small unit planning a black op. It is only after the assault has begun that he realizes the target is a secret base on their own side. There he lays his eyes on another thing left over from the war: The next generation of pilots. For reasons this particular veteran cannot yet understand, it is a numinous sight. Soon tortured as a traitor, he must dig into the conspiracy, surviving by his wits with the help of some arms-dealing scum.

Mecha action. Created by Takahashi at Sunrise. The series represents a major step forward in the “real robot” subgenre of mecha action pioneered in Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) and Takahashi’s own Fang of the Sun Dougram (1981). Votoms is arguably hard SF, albeit without an understanding (in episode 52) that light travels faster than shock waves.

Hastily written, shoddily animated and obviously cashing in on the line of official toys, this cannot be mistaken for serious or original science fiction. Unarmoured heroes repeatedly escape unscathed from a stupidly intense hail of bullets, even in the tightest of spaces. Still it is remarkably mature and intelligent for its time, improving incrementally upon both Gundam and Dougram.

The mecha are reasonably sized, mass-produced models built to fight at range with projectile weapons, not lasers. They can only fly in zero-G, and then only with what appear to be simple nitrogen thrusters in a special backpack attachment. Even in space, direct-energy weapons are less popular than missiles. More than a dozen episodes go by before we even see the traditional opponents of the protagonist’s native Gilgamesh Federation, namely the Balarant Union. Everything up to that point is delicious internal backstabbing, secret societies and post-war economic doldrums.

Coming out at the far end, the conclusion of the series borrows heavily from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with a couple of takes inspired by the more visual denouement of Alien (1979). Along the way, there appears to be some lifting from Dune (1965): a race of mystically inclined, seemingly uncivilized super-warriors on a desert planet with deep secrets. These are all good places to steal from, if one must steal.

Most of the characters are morally grey. As in Gundam, the protagonist has good technical skills—compare his tinkering in episode 15 to the introduction of Amuro Ray—and verges on a mental breakdown. Here it’s done with a lot more style, watching a massacre on giant video screens in an almost empty space ship, martial music blaring (episodes 29-30). It is mainly the lesser—i.e. filler—plot arcs, poor animation (above-average composition notwithstanding; the opening of episode 50 is especially good), children’s-TV tropes and varied episode direction skills that bring it down to the level of a mostly engaging historical footnote.

Had it been condensed into a shorter run with better animation, this series should have been able to break into a wider market, like Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982).

References here: 2023-07-05/06, Altered Carbon: Resleeved (2020).

moving picture animation Japanese production mecha fiction series

Seen in 2014.

The plot takes place in roughly the same span of time as the original series. In June of 7213, a Gilgamesh platoon—of whom we see only one squad—is ordered to defend a patch of desert while the main force withdraws at the end of the war. Later, the only survivor resolves to uncover why the same platoon was framed for theft of military supplies. In the first episode, he goes to find the man he thinks was responsible for taking away his unit’s mecha and leaving them as infantry with heavy rifles, mines and rocket launchers against an overwhelming, mechanized enemy force. True to his habits, the avenger fights on foot and uses his own blood as war paint.

This is not another step toward realism in the military SF genre, but it’s a very interesting sign of the mecha subgenre’s maturity. The relative complexity, high area-to-volume ratio and high visibility of legs make them less practical than wheels or treads, opening up a natural vulnerability to infantry—equally mobile—with enough heavy weapons to knock out a knee, as Chico is constantly doing in Fang of the Sun Dougram (1981). Although Takahashi Ryōsuke did not direct Mellowlink, it’s exciting to see this spin-off tackling a weakness of the genre in more detail without lampshading it. Some of the fights are good Die Hard-like set pieces, particularly episode 4 (“Leaning Tower”). The infantry-on-infantry action retains the somewhat cartoonish style of the original. The premise of anti-mecha infantry would have been a good chance to interrogate the power fantasy central to the mecha motif, but because the action feels so fake, the one-against-all revenge fantasy against mecha pilots wears as thin as Mazinger’s power trip. The princess love interest exacerbates this.

References here: Dougram in brief.

moving picture spin-off animation Japanese production mecha fiction series