Thursday, November 28, 2019

The Real Super Robot ~ A Review of Armored Trooper VOTOMs

As anyone who knows anime knows, there are two kinds of mecha series. First there were the originals, the super robots, then there were those created with Mobile Suit Gundam, the real robots. The former were pulp heroes that went on adventures to stop the villains while the latter were based on soldiers fighting in wars. Different approaches and aims allowed for very different legacies. The two never really crossed over since super robots relied on special, sometimes mystical, mecha, while real robots were just used as tools like a tank or a rocket launcher. With a distinction like that they never could really intersect despite their common origin.

The question was: how can you connect the heart of super robot series with real robot seriousness to create a unified whole? Can they ever connect? It turns out they can. The answer is Armored Trooper VOTOMS, spearheaded by the dream team at Sunrise, headed by Ryousuke Takahashi during the Golden Age of anime in the '80s.

Takahashi's career, like Yoshiyuki Tomino's, can be traced back to Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Productions. He worked on classic anime such as Princess Knight, Dororo, and Wandering Sun, and his proper directorial debut was in the 1979 Cyborg 009 anime. Needless to say, he knew how to make series with fantastical action.

In 1981, he was co-director with Takeyuki Kanda (Vifram, Metal Hunter Dragonar, Armor Hunter Mellowlink, Mobile Suit Gundam: 08th MS Team) on Fang of the Sun Dougram which was Sunrise's first big post-Gundam hit, running 75 episodes. Hopefully I can talk about Kanda in a future post seeing as how he died so young, but while he was alive he was up there with Tomino and Takahashi in talent. After Dougram, Takahashi had enough clout to create Armored Trooper VOTOMs in 1983, and it would prove to be his most enduring work.

Takahashi did this by turning the clock back on the genre and more or less created a super robot show in a real robot framework. While mecha was drifting away from heroes and villains, and mysticism and fantasy, towards more moral ambiguity of war, VOTOMs was about navigating a universe wrecked by villains and finding the truth in places ruled by falsities. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Since Dougram was based on guerrilla warfare and Gundam was based on WWII, Takahashi wanted to create a series based on Vietnam and the feelings such a war could inspire. But it doesn't work as you might think. It's not like any Vietnam you or I might know of aside from visual nods to popular works such as Apocalypse Now or soldiers fighting a war seemingly without end or a point. In fact, there is a point to this war, though it is not revealed late into the series. But there is more to it than superficial similarities.

The original name of the mecha were even called BOTTOMs, as the mecha were meant to be seen as the opposite of Gundams--they are trash, bottom of the barrel, just as the soldiers are treated. This isn't the only parallel to Vietnam, however.

Instead Takahashi also took the existential questions such a war could leave on someone caught in the middle of it. What were they fighting for? What's the point to it all? How can I make something of this? Is there more to me than this? And he translated it into a story about the quest for Truth.

This is a story about a different kind of war. This is a war for truth in a universe that has forgotten it.

The Opening

Two star systems, Gilgamesh and Balarant, have been at war for one hundred years. Chirico Cuvie is a grunt soldier piloting a scopedog mecha, a ramshackle piece of junk mostly used for cannon fodder. Those who pilot these mechs do not have long life expectancy. However, Chirico has lived long being smarter than smartest and tougher than the toughest. He is so good he was a member of the legendary Red Shoulder unit.

However, this has come at a cost. Chirico has no more home world, no family, and nothing tying him to this universe any longer. The only thing he has left is fighting, but it is slowly eating away at him. Chirico's blank slate nature of a perfect soldier is one that causes most of his internal strife in the series, and is one of the reasons he tries to go it alone so often. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Chirico is chosen for a special mission behind enemy lines to retrieve a special package. But the enemy turns out to be their own soldiers and the package appears to be a beautiful woman imprisoned in a tube. Before he can ask any questions, he is betrayed by his comrades and the base is blown to hell, sending him into his own.

He awakens a prisoner and is tortured as a traitor. His whole life is turned upside down. After a daring escape he ends up alone drifting in space with only one thought on his mind, and that is to find out the truth behind everything going on. He needs to find that woman and get the answers he needs to finally understand his purpose in all this.

The series is divided into four arcs across its 52 episodes. Each arc on Chirico's journey is designated by the planet he is on and runs 12-13 episodes, give or take an episode. The first is the cyberpunk dystopia of Woodo, then the depths of jungle world Kummen, followed by the desert chase of the dead planet Sunsa, and ending with the ancient God Planet Quent where the mysteries are unraveled. Going into each of them would entail spoilers, but the difference in mood and setting should be obvious to anyone.

Every one of the four arcs represents a different stage of his quest. Woodo represents his rock bottom fall, Kummen represents him facing his past self, Sunsa represents him shedding the weight holding him down, and Quent represents him finally embracing who Chirico Cuvie is.

But despite this, it never gets bogged down. VOTOMs remains an adventure series through and through.

VOTOMs is essentially a pulp story at heart and Chirico is the stoic lead you want for such a tale. He gets up when he's knocked down, his destiny is changed by the appearance of a mysterious woman, and he overcomes tremendous odds despite the losses he continually suffers. And suffer he does. Chirico is now Gary Stu: he has to earn every victory he gets.

Takahashi can make Tomino look like a chump when it comes to darkness. Many people die in just about every episode and sometimes out of nowhere. The themes of death, injustice, and alienation, are all over this series at almost every moment. Most people are out for themselves, at least at first, with little regard to what chaos their bad decisions may affect others. Trust is not given, it's earned. Even the mecha were so poorly designed and maintained for mass production that those piloting them can be easily killed and cause collateral damage with their destruction. By all accounts, this series should be a miserable and hopeless slog.

But it's not.

The universe Takahashi constructs is intriguing, Chirico is one of the most active protagonists you will ever see, and despite how dark things might feel things never feel hopeless. Good deeds are rewarded, and goodness is never lost in a sea of grey morality. Each distinct arc also keeps the story fresh and adds new characters to follow along with our mains, and we get to see them on journeys of their own. The characters he meets are all affected by his drive and honesty and also begin to change themselves, and not always for the worst.

However, the reason to watch this series is for Chirico Cuvie. His paranoia in a universe ravaged by war and corruption, his persistence in the face of despair, his constant attempts to do the right thing and seek the truth even when his experience tries to guide him otherwise, and his inner struggle, is what will keep you watching. It's a quest Chirico goes on to find meaning and hope in a universe that has given up on it that makes the series compelling. There is more to everything than you might think.

It also helps that the character and mecha designs, the voice acting, the direction, and music, are all top shelf, as well. Takahashi is nothing if not well aware of how to structure a 24 minute adventure series as he makes sure to end every episode after a climax that leaves the watcher with their mouth agape and the current problem solved (with exceptions) as Chirico's quest continues to the next stage. I'm not sure at what point anime directors forgot this sort of thing outside of those like Shinichiro Watanabe and Satoshi Nishimura, but it is invaluable for those of us who like our stories with less flab.

The main weakness of the series would be the actual animation. Just like Xabungle which I reviewed before, early '80s TV animation was not the best in fluidity. Maiden Japan's transfer is also more or less just the old DVDs dumped onto Bluray, so you won't see much improvement here. It's the designs and the direction that carry the animation to the finish line. The Bluray also has some ghosting in certain scenes, though it otherwise looks fine. There also is a recap episode after every arc, so if you're watching this all in a row it might get old.

Aside from that, there isn't much to complain about.

The difference between a super robot and real robot show isn't just in the way the mecha are treated, but in how the pilots are and how the conflicts work. In super robot the pilots are as valuable as the mecha and the reason they are able to perform the feats they are. As pulp heroes, it's about good and evil and two-fisted justice. Those powered by Justice are given the righteousness to succeed and conquer evil.

In real robot the drive of the pilot doesn't usually make a difference outside of their skill level. Chirico constantly surpasses his limits even when the odds are against him, because he has to. In situations where those like him will die, he somehow comes up on top, and that is only because he needs to.

VOTOMs is a series about a super robot pilot in a real robot universe. The only thing holding him back from being on the level of a Koji Kabuto or a Cyborg Guy is the lack of a super robot to house his skills and abilities. This tends to be the opposite of series such as Gundam where the Gundam pilots have all the edges. In VOTOMs there is even a subplot about super pilots, but nothing about super robots. Takahashi knew what he was doing.

This strange combination of existential dread and fighting for Justice in a universe gone mad is what makes VOTOMs so unique. The journey Chirico goes on is an adventure of high stakes and big action, but also of quiet moments in a universe torn to pieces by Real War. In other words VOTOMs is both super robot and real robot, and neither of them, at the same time. What it's about is an ex-soldier who becomes a hero and a wanderer who finds his place; a man who finds love, and a superman who becomes human.

In my opinion, this is what makes Ryosuke Takahashi's mecha series so different from most anyone else's. His adventure stories featuring much death and carnage in a world that should be bleak, and quite often are, but retain a small speck of pulp-sized hope that keeps you engaged in the journey up to the end. There is always hope.

He also could turn around and write Ronin Warriors and help produce GaoGaiGar, showing his love for heroes and the good. Moral ambiguity takes a backseat to Justice and love. At his heart he knows heroism and that's what he does best. If Blue Comet SPT Layzner is ever licensed (fingers crossed) then I will be sure to point out how he hit the mark there, too, but suffice to say that at his peak there was no one else like him. And for a lot of reasons, Armored Trooper VOTOMs is his iconic series and it is what he will always be known and remembered for. There is certainly no shame in that.

In a world where we have forgotten the important questions we should be asking and just what a hero really is, it is good to see a series that has its heart in the right place, and its reach meeting its grasp. You will never see another anime like VOTOMs.

In my humble opinion, Armored Trooper VOTOMs is a classic and should be seen by everyone with any interest in the genre, especially those who enjoy action adventure and mecha. There is nothing like it, and there never will be again. It is one of the best in the genre, and remains so decades after it has ended.

A classic will always be a classic.

The Ending

My own work is also action packed! You can't do much weirder than an Isekai with superheroes, lizard men, and sword fighting. I do it all in Gemini Warrior!

Find it Here!


  1. I remember watching Votoms in 2014, it was such a good show. The opening and ending themes are fantastic and Chirico is one hell of a protagonist. I also love the episode previews. One of my favorite mecha shows for sure.