There are a lot of mecha anime out there, and while I haven’t seen too many of them, I tend to really enjoy the self-aware mecha shows that take unique takes on the implications of the genre; stuff like Dai-Guard, where the focus is a hot-blooded protagonist dealing with various impracticalities of the genre, or Fist Planet, where the mech pilot just clowns around to pass the time in his dull job, or Gad Guard, which is all about the downsides of having a robot minion that does whatever you want.
One day, I had heard a certain 90s mecha by the name of Gasaraki mentioned in this context enough times that I had to give it a look. Suffice to say it’s a lot less in the style of Ishikawa Ken (Getter Robo) and a lot more in the style of Kaiji Kawaguchi (Zipang, A Spirit of the Sun), a gripping political thriller.
Character Designs: Hardening edges show a toughening interior [Shukou Murase]
Aside from 2 or 3 faces, the character designs in Gasaraki ar every reminiscent of the art style of Naoki Urasawa; characters have small, thin eyes and thin, flat faces. This stab at realism works very naturally with the military/political themes of the show. If Kaiji Kawaguchi is the ceiling of character designs for political stories, this is 10 stories from the top of a 100 floor building.
1/1 (Ryuji Tsugihara is not a bad floor to have)
Soundtrack: Ominous style contributes to both political and supernatural tension [Kunizaki Haishima]
Gasaraki forces itself to play on a number of levels with a plot that incorporates desert warfare, political backrooms, feudal Japanese battlegrounds, and urban conflicts. The soundtrack rises to the occaision, substituting out warlike ceremonial pieces, more modern rock-ish tracks, dull ringing buzz, and pure silence all as necessary.
2/2 (Above-average soundtrack made great by proper timing and discretion)
Writing: A fairly interesting cast augmented by capital P Politics [Toru Nozaki]
A lot of people toss around the word “politics” to describe any anime government more complicated than a rural barter economy. Fairly often, though, the political systems of a given fictional world exist mainly to show off how amazing the main cast is as they overcome all obstacles. I’ve written previously as to how there’s nothing wrong with that approach at all, as it has its own benefits. However, such an approach does severely cap how relevant government and political systems can be; roadblocks in the path of an unstoppable cast can’t exactly seem imposing.
Such a cap is not placed upon the governments depicted in Gasaraki. Mechs exist in this world as instruments of projecting national power and influence. Though they are definitely shown to be far superior to tanks, they also oftentimes fall short in being able to influence large-scale events because of the limits involved in mass-production of the technology and the fact that they’re unable to jump fifty stories. So the true battle of power in the series is fought not between the main characters, who pilot mechs for opposing factions, but in proverbial smoke-filled backrooms, where power brokers plot to shift whole economies in the blink of an eye. The interplay between the two main factions is a fascinating thing to watch, and its culmination in one razor-tense phone call that damn near blew my mind.
Beyond politics, the other thing in the series that receives significant focus is the platoon of JSDF soldiers that operate the mechs. There’s a wealth of personality in that unit, albeit one being somewhat restrained due to military discipline. Though the male lead himself is a bit bland, the rest of the company makes up for it by offering a magnificent show of conflicted loyalties as international tensions flare and the moral nuances of the situation get grayer.
3/3 (This is definitely in the top tier of series to feature politics prominently.)
Direction: Makes the plot easy to follow, but lacks dynamism and can get stale [Ryousuke Takahashi]
The direction of the series is, in most cases, what makes the series fall short. There are moments where it plays a clever visual trick or two, but for the most part it mainly follows the script and does its best to avoid having the viewer lose track of what’s going on. That’s not a flawed approach, but the result is a show that, at times, lacks energy and prevents one from getting into a true marathon mood like the one that pushed me through 6 volumes of Zipang a few nights ago.
It also runs on a limited budget, something made fairly obvious from action scenes that, while not exactly botched, definitely made me yearn for the lazy-intense still-frame style of a Bento or a Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure.
2/4 (It’s not a killer flaw, but Gasaraki is not a show I would recommend for the visuals)
Overall: 8/10 (The politics are only slightly below the Tom Clancy level, and the mecha component is in there at just the right ratio to feel like an oasis in the desert.)