Movie: Science fiction in anime is one of the leading genres if you think about it, largely due to the manner in which so many titles incorporate various fantastic elements to tell what often amount to very human stories. One series from over twenty years ago is now being re-released by Central Park Media and that is the extensive universe of VOTOMS. The former version was satisfying for fans in that the entire 54 episodes were released in relatively untouched form but this new set of releases breaks the show down into four arcs with today's review of the first one, Armored Trooper VOTOMS: Stage 1: Uoodo City, here before you. There are some minor spoilers in the review but I've gone out of my way to limit them in order to facilitate the discussion but allow a whole new crop of fans to learn the reasons why the series has such a loyal following. Here's a quick look at the series with emphasis on the initial arc:
The show came out in Japan between 1983 and 1984, detailing the adventures of a young soldier named Chirico Cuvie at the end of the Hundred Years War. The setting was a futuristic universe where advances in technology were balanced out by the destruction any long term conflict would have on a multi planetary system would have; meaning the rich and powerful made out just fine and the poor suffered tremendously with little middle ground to speak of. The war was fought over something long forgotten between two sides; The Balalant and the Gilgamesh, each possessing similar armaments, most notably the AT's (Armored Troopers) that were small tanks. The term VOTOM stands for Vertical One-man Tank for Offense and Maneuvers, and they are much smaller in stature than the mech-robots that have become popular in the last few decades, also much more clumsy and generic, with few basic models to select from. For some unknown reason, the two sides call a truce and appear to be ready to end the conflict. The series begins with a military operation in which a group of elite soldiers raid an asteroid base for gold and a prototype weapon. The fact that the raid was conducted by a group on the same side as the soldiers was not disclosed until later, the faction positioning for more power and special status more than anything else (though not told to the relatively expendable soldiers).
One of the soldiers, Chirico Cuvie, escapes the battle after coming in contact with the prototype weapon. This makes him more than expendable, it makes him a target for both sides and after initially running into some difficulties thanks to the treachery of his peers, he finds refuge in a small criminal city called Uoodo City, where corruption and evil seem to go hand in hand. The initial 13 episode arc of episodes included on the two disc set details his adventures in the city after establishing the universe the times are set in. Along the way, Chirico runs into three principle characters that aid him, and in turn are aided by him, as he seeks to uncover the truth of his situation and the secret so many are willing to kill him over, even his former chain of command. The three people I'm speaking of are Bruze Gotho, Vanilla Vartla, and Coconna. Gotho runs a gladiator stable where ex-military pilots can fight in a highly illegal arena for pay. He senses Chirico's potential and tries to hire him, while bookie Vanilla is strictly a numbers man trying to profit off the young fighter by using whatever angle he can muster. Coconna is a young female that becomes infatuated with Chirico and seeks to protect him from the baser desires of the other two, although all of them seem to bond after a time.
Eventually, one of the criminal schemes of Gotho and Vanilla backfire, endangering all of them, which leads to the city being put under lockdown by the authorities who know about Chirico and company. The city itself comes under attack from the larger forces and the routine death of lead characters as everyone tries to salvage what they can from the collapse of the admittedly weak government drives the characters into the later arcs of episodes. Chirico's driving need differs from that of his associates in that he only wants the answers to life's basic questions (why and who being paramount to him) while the others have scraped for survival so long that they are far more commerce driven. Together, this leads them into a spiral of misadventures that show them slowly evolves; particularly Cho from a cold, emotionless military man to a guy caught up in a web of intrigue that he never imagined could take place.
The strength of the series, especially the initial arc, is how layered the story is, with lots of twists and turns as well as more depth than most anime at the time displayed. In some ways, this mirrored contemporary series Aura Battler Dunbine or the original Mobile Suit Gundam series over the majority of shows playing at the time. The soap opera nature of the material required fans to pay attention and not miss any episodes or they'd be lost in terms of understanding the motivations and secondary characters of the series. In that sense, I caution any of you to hold off reading the excellent viewer's guide on the first DVD since it contains a lot of spoilers. Once the four volumes come out, by all means take a look at the exhaustive 173 pages of material but why ruin it for yourselves like some of the other review sites seem intent on doing? Here's a list of the episodes from the two disc opening set of the Stage 1 Uoodo arc:
1) After the War
4) Battle Ring
5) The Trap
6) The Prototype
7) The Raid
8) The Deal
9) The Rescue
10) Red Shoulder
13) The Escape
There were a great many things going on in this nearly five and a half hour set of episodes so I'll leave it to you to decide if you want to check it out but the lack of an English language dub shouldn't put you off, nor should the fact that there are three more sets coming out afterwards. If you enjoy military anime, particularly classic military adventure stories, this should be on your must have list. As such, I'm rating it as Highly Recommended, especially considering how much better this version looks and sounds over the version that was cheaply available several years ago from NuTech. I'm not a big fan of double dips (you can read my comments about them in my reviews of Basic Instinct: Ultimate Edition and Blue Thunder: Special Edition) but some attention was paid this version and I hope the following three "Stages" are as good. In all, the series showed how anime was evolving in Japan to include far more sophistication in storylines and the quality of writing encouraged others to do likewise, just look at how many excellent series sprung forth from the show over the years in one form or another.
Picture: Armored Trooper VOTOMS: Stage 1: Uoodo City was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame aspect ratio it was made in back in 1983. I've seen several versions of the show over the years, recalling watching at least a couple of episodes on laserdisc in a small Houston store called Gametronix (that later became ADV Films) many years ago. This version has been remastered by the folks at Central Park Media and looks as good as I've ever seen it. There were some scratches on the print used and some slight grain to go along with the numerous minor variations in colors and frame rates the show incorporated long ago but it looked very good for being so old and I'd be willing to bet a pretty clean print was used for the transfer to DVD. Did it look as good as a modern, extremely high budget show like Samurai 7? Of course it didn't but it did look splendid compared to other shows that have been released lately from the same time period in question.
Sound: The audio was presented in a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo Japanese with English subtitles. I'll be honest in that I believe the stereo processing was added to a monaural track since I detected no separation between the channels and the dynamic range of a show made decades ago, but it did manage to impress me as sounding better than the NuTech version that came out years ago too. In all, the audio was probably the weakest aspect of the show though this was always the case and nothing new to this mix. There's only so much you can do with an audio track this old though it provided a slight sense of nostalgia too (keep in mind the audio wasn't bad, just that standards have changed over the years).
Extras: There were really only two extras worth mentioning this time, a director's commentary by the now famous Ryosuke Takahashi on the first three episodes of the set, and a Viewer's Guide to VOTOMS that can be accessed on your computer using the PDF format. The commentary was different than most I've listened to in that it was in Japanese though thankfully, it also had English subtitles. The basics of where the idea for the show started and how it was developed over time were of particular interest to me since I've come to appreciate his work on shows like Samurai 7 a great deal of late. The show has a very rich history that is not typically known outside of fandom so capturing this information makes a lot of sense, even if some of it has appeared in books and interviews in the past. The Viewer's Guide was different in that it looked more like a fan's guide (written by Tim Eldred back in 1986), complete with art work and lots of discussion about the show. My computer read that there was 173 pages of material and rather than risk spoiling too many aspects of the show that I wanted to relive as this newly remastered version comes out, I spot checked it. In all, it was an excellent extra and if Tim is out there anywhere, consider this fan appreciative of your efforts to completely cover the show in great, painstaking detail. There were some trailers and a PDF catalog for other CPM titles too if that matters to any of you as well.
Note: The book-like case also included a coupon for fans who buy all four volumes of the series to send in $15 and proofs of purchase to get a cool sounding (there were no pictures) collector ammo case and bonus disc jam-packed with great extras. I hope that the bonus disc comes with the almost inevitable set that gets released in the future, and the case sounds like a good idea too, but the "LIMITED SUPPLY! ORDER ASAP" language on the first coupon leads me to believe that won't be the case. Hopefully, CPM will want the material reviewed so I can tell you all about it in the near future but I wanted to let you know about it now.
Final Thoughts: Armored Trooper VOTOMS: Stage 1: Uoodo City was a remastered version of an anime classic that offered up one of the coolest anime extras I've had the privilege of checking out in the form of the Viewer's Guide to the show. I thought it looked better by a wide margin, sounded somewhat better, and provided the perfect opportunity to check out one of the best military anime shows ever to come out. I know it isn't as splashy as Macross, or as well loved as some of the dumbed down titles of the last 30 years but there was an awful lot to like and it comes across as more than just a dated time capsule like other shows seem to have become these days so my hat is off to the folks at Central Park Media for a job well done. If you continue the rest of the series in such a fashion, I you're your rewards are equivalent to the care you've put into the show so far.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, and Best of Anime 2005 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.