In U.S. anime fandom, many point to Mobile Suit Gundam (whichever incarnation may be currently available) as the premiere series combining politics and mecha combat. However, for nearly as long, though not quite as popular, there has been a franchise in Japan that is very extensive and more focused on the ground aspects of mecha combat, while often telling pretty good stories to boot. That franchise is Armor Trooper Votoms, which originally started as a 52 episode TV series and has since spun off into several side stories. Although the primary focus of the Import Report section is meant to look at new shows not released in America, the current show in question is geared towards long-time followers, so we'll take a look at the original series which has been released here as a primer for the current installment.
Armored Trooper Votoms (Ammo Can Box Set)
The series takes place in the distant future, when humanity has spread to various parts of the galaxy. The story begins at the tail end of a hundred year-long war between the Gilgamesh and Balarant star systems which has devastated population and resources. The emergence of robotic suits called VOTOMs (Vertical One-man Tank for Offense and Maneuvers) changed the course of the war and an uneasy cease fire was eventually reached.
It is at this point we are shown a group of Gilgamesh soldiers in Votoms breaking into a military space station. One of them, Sgt. Chirico Cuvie, is following orders to the best of his ability having just transferred to this particular unit. Chirico is a bit horrified to discover the station belongs to HIS OWN army, but he continues to follow orders. When he asks about the true objective of the mission, the rest of the squad simply tells him to stand guard after the initial break-in, and cut off his frequency. Through a series of mishaps, Chirico winds up in an empty chamber where a single capsule is stored. The capsule opens to reveal a strange glow surrounding a nude female, who instantly turns to stare at Chirico. It's at this point the rest of the squad appears, saying the capsule is their true objective. Chirico is ordered back outside, but just as he leaves, one of the squad leaves a bomb in his path and the resulting explosion knocks him out.
Chirico wakes up in an interrogation chamber where he's being repeatedly tortured and asked about the break in, as well as something called "The Prototype." He tells all he knows about the squad's activities, but can't convince the inquisitor that he knows nothing more. The inquisitor, Captain Rochina, decides to take the prisoner back to his homeworld Melkia for further interrogation. Chirico is less than happy to be there since ¾ of the population has been wiped out and the dejected survivors have crowded in a place called Voodo City.
Chirico endures all manners of suspicion, betrayal, and recaptures over the course of this story arc. He eventually gains a small set of friends but not without emotional and physical cost, having to deal with enslavement in a labor camp, arena mech combat, and a large bounty offered for his capture or death, not to mention former squadron members who'd like to silence him forever.
This struggle is part of the reason I've grown to like Armored Trooper Votoms. They don't make mech shows like this anymore. Hell, they didn't even make them much in the 80's when this was made. Many of them followed the plot model of Mobile Suit Gundam, focusing on teens who were finding themselves and trying to get better or more powerful as the series progressed. Chirico though is an established soldier who demonstrates skill and resourcefulness right from the start. He's a bit fallible but fights through his troubles with conviction. As I experienced this story, I really wanted to see him get to the bottom of the conspiracy around him and get revenge. Chirico doesn't have time to do the angsty whining bit; he's too busy kicking ass. Casual viewers might dismiss Votoms as just another big robots anime, but focus and development of the main character instead of his weapons is what makes this a compelling show.
I also liked how the mech combat is done differently than many similar series of that decade. In works like Aura Battler Dunbine and Heavy Metal L-Gaim, pilots would battle each other and become practically invincible in their special suits, absorbing all kinds of damage with not much consequence. Votoms works completely the opposite way in that ground soldiers will simply see a mech as just one big target they can destroy with 3 or 4 well placed shots, and a suit's longevity will depend on the skill of its pilot. Outside of Mobile Police Patlabor, I can't think of any other anime which treats combat mecha in this way, as this adds an element of vulnerability to the harsh world series creator Ryosuke Takahashi (SPT Layzner, Gasaraki, Hi No Tori) put together here.
I got to reading a bit more about that world in the extras section of the disc, where PDF files on the DVD-ROM section were placed. Combined with the informative director's commentary on, I was satisfied with the background materials this set provided (Thank you, Tim Eldred!), though I would've liked to have seen clean opening and closing sequences on here such as other importers have placed on their classic anime collections. This is honestly a minor quibble though.
I also liked the video and subtitle quality of the episodes. It's especially nice when you consider the first time Central Park Media released Votoms
on DVD (with assistance from Image Entertainment), they placed 3-4 episodes per disc, the video quality (though decent) had no real enhancement, and the subtitles were larger and hard coded on the picture. This re-mastered version you are reading about places 13 episodes on 2 DVDs, but with bolder picture coloring and removable subs. The audio remains the same, but this is good in my view because of late, when audio has been redone on classic anime such as Mobile Suit Gundam
, the foley have been completely changed to weak-as-hell modern effects completely different from the 80's originals. So in terms of overall presentation, I have to say CPM did some pretty nice work with this set.