Movie: As a fan of shows dealing with war and the various aspects of it, I have long appreciated the outlook provided by one of the great war-like cultures of modern civilization, Japan. This small island nation had dominated a huge region of the globe based on sheer force of will and the culture surrounding it, even though they had few natural resources to provide an advantage. Even in WWII, they managed to provide superior tactics based on ages old philosophies, inflicting heavy casualties on vastly superior forces (numbers and technology) so it should come as no surprise that the lessons they have to teach us in their anime are also of interest (losing was not in their vocabulary until WWII). One of the best anime series dealing with the subject of war is Armored Trooper Votoms, a 54 episode series that centered on Chirico Cuvie, an incredibly talented combat expert. As detailed in my review of Uoodo City Arc, he fought impossible odds to survive, providing his next assignment as discussed in today's review of Armored Trooper VOTOMS: Kummen Jungle Wars.
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 Uoodo City Arc included on the two disc set detailed 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. As Chirico progresses on his journey of discovery, he finds that the group chasing him is very well connected and is not part of the city state in which he has found himself thrust into. Without spoiling it for you, he continues to search for the mysterious woman PS he saw at the beginning of the first volume and the end result of the arc is that he moves on to the jungles of Kummen months later.
Kummen is much like Vietnam was back during the war with the exception that the conflict was between the official government and a separatist faction, led by a member of the royal family. The local authorities are courting the larger interplanetary body to develop their country and the separatists want to return to the old ways, spurning such improvements. Seeing as that's all he knows, Chirico is recruited as a mercenary to work for the government thugs along with hundreds of other AT pilots, only to find that he has a tracer installed in his body. They suspect him of espionage and he barely manages to convince them he is not, and only then with the help of a friend from the previous arc, Gotho. Gotho supplies the government with weapons and makes a tidy profit so they acquiesce and release Chirico for the time being, with the caveat that the Captain will keep him under surveillance and under his brutal thumb.
The story progresses to the point where another Perfect Soldier is found working for the separatists. Initially, Chirico believes it to be Fyana and lets up during the fight, nearly to be killed. The story then moves forward to show both sides preparing for various operations, with two PS units on hand, one of them devoting himself to the destruction of Chirico. As with any conflict, the losses on both sides cause various issues and a significant bit of the two disc set deals with them as Vanilla and Coconna are on hand as well. Chirico, as the best human pilot alive, is the only means his side has of staying in the game and the Secret Society openly approaches him during the course of events. The secrets they unveil and what ultimately happens to Chirico and company are all reasons for you to enjoy this classic anime warfare story. Here's an episode guide to the 14 episodes on the double disc set, noting that they all seemed to be in order and uncut:
Kummen Jungle Wars
2) Assemble Ex-1
4) Clean Sweep
9) Contact Blast
13) Closing In
14) Dark Charge
As stated before, there were a great many things going on in this 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 two 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. The way that Chirico has to overcome moral dilemmas, superior firepower, and a host of internal struggles against members of his own team combined well with the terrors and horrors of warfare. People get blown up and there wasn't the usual whitewashing as is often the case with the kind of edited anime we tend to see on television, even today. Leaving the action intact provides this one with a better balanced view of war over the glorified recruitment ads so many other shows have become, making it all the more important to watch these days.
Picture: Armored Trooper VOTOMS: Kummen Jungle Wars 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. It might not look as good as a modern, extremely high budget show like Samurai 7, 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 some trailers and a PDF catalog for other CPM titles but nothing else in this value-priced boxed set. I wish the extras at least mimicked those found in the Votoms 1 Set.
Final Thoughts: Armored Trooper VOTOMS: Kummen Jungle Wars showed that older anime series of high quality can, and should, be remastered and released to modern audiences. If all companies provided as solid a value as Central Park Media has done with this series so far, I have a feeling that newer shows would be forced to provide better scripts, better direction, and generally better material over some of the fluff being released all too often. As one of the original anti-war shows of top notch quality, Armored Trooper Votoms, has stood the test of time and serves notice on future generations that not all anime is for kids.
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.