Muv-Luv Alternative: The Animation 14

October 13, 2022

One of my favorite Muv-Luv memories doesn’t really have anything to do with the game itself. It happened several years after Alternative came out, when series creator Kouki Yoshimune one day tweeted out:

“Hey, ever since the weekend started, people have been reaching out to me with stuff like ‘Marimo CHOMP’, what happened all of a sudden?”

Well, what happened was the 3rd episode of Madoka Magica had aired that Friday, and a lot of people were making comparisons between Madoka’s Mami and Muv-Luv’s Marimo. Yoshimune had mentioned before that he doesn’t really watch anime anymore, so he had no idea. I like the image of him scrolling through his Twitter feed, wondering why so many people seemed to have spontaneously decided to tag him about a game that came out years ago.

Anyway, this episode.

What always strikes me about that final scene is how shocking it is. Now, by that I don’t mean how sickeningly gruesome it is (although it is). And I don’t mean how it suddenly comes on without warning (although it does). What I mean is that it preys on the audience’s expectations about how a story is supposed to flow. We’ve all seen a ton of stories, and we get used to the typical ebb and flow of it. We get used to how a story transitions from a happy “high” point to a tragic “low” point, and then back again. The coup arc was, on the whole, a “low” point where the characters are put through the wringer. It’s then followed up by the events of the previous episode, where Takeru goes back to his world, gets the formulas that will save the world, and meets Sumika again. We’re definitely swinging back to a high point here. It’s followed up by the graduation, another happy high point for everybody, and it continues on with the XM3 trials, which Takeru and his team are crushing. So when the BETA attack, it’s a surprising twist, but it’s one we’re prepared for – we’ve spent enough time on a high point that we instinctively understand it’s about time for another low point.

And it is a low point. Takeru is brought down lower than he’s ever been before. This is, by a wide margin, the worst low point he’s had yet. So after he’s been put through such an ordeal, we understand Marimo’s speech to Takeru as the start of another high point, transitioning him past his failure during the last attack. That’s why Marimo’s death is so shocking: because it is very carefully targeted to take place at the exact moment when we least expect another low point. It betrays our instinctive understanding of how stories “should” work. And it works precisely because Takeru has just experienced his worst low point ever. He’s already been taken down lower than we thought possible, given how the story has worked up to this point, so we just can’t conceive of the idea that he could be taken down even lower so quickly.

This effect is, if anything, even more amplified in the anime, where we not only perceive highs and lows in terms of the overall story, but also in terms of individual episodes. Takeru failing in the XM3 attack is the “theme” of the episode; it’s what the episode is about. By the time Marimo is comforting Takeru, we already perceive the episode as over – even if we aren’t watching the clock specifically, we all have enough of a sense of how long an episode is that we know there’s no more time left to do anything else. And again, because Takeru has already been brought so low, we instinctively assume that the final minutes of the episode will be dedicated to wrapping that plot thread up.

There are a few points about the big scene that I find interesting in terms of the choices made. The first is the speed at which it happens. The game lingers on that fateful moment for quite a few lines. In the anime, the BETA comes in and does the deed almost instantly, and the whole thing is over before Takeru can even process what happened. I think that’s an intriguing choice that plays on the strengths of an anime – you really can’t convey that kind of speed in any other medium, be it game, manga, or novel. There’s something a little terrifying about that kind of speed, that a person can simply be alive one moment and dead the next. I’ve seen a number of people play through the game who stop at that moment, trying to understand what is happening before clicking onward – the game doesn’t move forward until the player chooses to. The anime, left alone, moves forward regardless of whether the viewer is ready to or not.

The second thing I want to mention is, somewhat ironically given my first point, how the anime stretches the moment out. The game acts like the BETA gives it one good chomp and it’s over. The anime actually depicts this fucker CHEWING on it for a while afterwards. That’s the part that really disturbed me, watching this episode.

The last thing I want to note is how Takeru witnesses the act. In the game, he hears it happening behind him, and when he turns around, it’s already in progress. In the anime, he turns around first, and sees the whole thing happen from beginning to end. From Takeru’s perspective, that just seems much more traumatizing – to see Marimo smiling, and then to watch the whole thing play out afterwards.

Ugh. I don’t feel so good. Can we talk about something else?

I mentioned before that Takeru is brought down to his lowest point during the attack during the XM3 trials. And he really is. In fact, in watching this episode, I started to feel like you don’t really see a lead character brought this low in anime anymore. Too much of anime nowadays is steeped in wish fulfillment – fans want to see themselves in the main character, and they definitely don’t want to see themselves taken down to this level. (I’m reminded of a tweet – which I sadly can’t find anymore – about someone who met Yoshimune at Anime Expo, and told him they loved the world of Alternative and wanted to be part of it, and his response was, “What are you, a masochist?”) Even when a lead is wrong or makes a mistake, they still retain a level of dignity that makes people want to be them. But Takeru has no dignity at the end of this – he’s reduced to curling up in his cockpit, wetting himself, screaming that he doesn’t want to die. It feels like something from another generation. And well, that’s because it is. But that never really occurred to me until today.

The hell of it is, Marimo is kind of right when she says he didn’t do too badly out there. Speaking solely about the results of his actions, he doesn’t have a lot to be sorry about. If he were just a regular newbie soldier, his performance would be pretty commendable. The problem Takeru has is, he got it into his head that he is much, much more than a regular soldier. His experience, both in his original world playing video games, and in the previous loop undergoing training, made him an exceptional surface pilot. His understanding of those video games allowed him to conceive of the XM3 operating system. His knowledge of the previous loop allowed him to predict the future. And his ability to travel between worlds allowed him to obtain the formulas that will help complete the 00 Unit.

And so he started thinking he was much better than just a normal soldier – he operated on a different level than them. He was even starting to throw around terms like “humanity’s savior” with a disturbing certainty. And all of that was building up to this moment, the moment when he first encounters the BETA in a real battle – and he discovers, far too late, that none of that shit really matters in a battle, and all of those normal soldiers he looked down on were far more experienced and useful than he was. It’s a terrifying thing to learn about yourself, after having spent so long believing your own bull.

Poor guy. Hard to believe that wasn’t even the worst thing that happened to him this episode.

As I mentioned before, I’m transitioning back to doing arc-based posts, because it’s easier for me to write about the themes of an entire arc – it’s hard for me to write about the theme of an individual episode while trying to avoid spoiling later episodes of the arc. I made an exception for this episode, since it’s, well, this episode, but starting next episode, I know the show is going to return to being difficult to write about in one-episode segments, so I’ll see you guys in a few weeks.

I started this post off with a tweet, so let’s close out with another tweet. I’ve been watching reactions to this episode all day (the phrase “Marimo-chan” actually entered the top 10 trending topics in Japan for a couple of hours!), and my vote goes to this guy:

“After finishing THAT scene in Muv-Luv, I put on the latest episode of Golden Kamuy, and at the start of the episode, this kid goes ‘You guys eat moss balls (Japanese word: Marimo)?’, and well, I just couldn’t help but laugh.”


Muv-Luv Alternative: The Animation 13

October 9, 2022

The new season of Muv-Luv Alternative is here, so it’s time to share a few thoughts on it. The actual episode is pretty straightforward, but let’s start by talking about the new theme songs, since there’s where a lot of the interest in the new season is coming from thus far.

The new opening theme is, of course, the topic that everybody’s excited about. It’s a collaboration between JAM Project and Minami Kuribayashi, the two main singers associated with the original Muv-Luv trilogy. Just the fact of their involvement is exciting enough for existing fans of the franchise, but it also helps that the song is, as expected, an absolute joy to listen to. The lyrics are written by Masami Okui, who is famous among Muv-Luv fans for having played through the entire trilogy back when she first got involved with the franchise. She’s a big fan of the franchise (she’s a particularly big Meiya fan), and she even showed up on the live stream where the opening theme was announced to help promote the new season. It was an especially nice moment for her since she was basically cheated twice – not only did JAM Project not get to work on Season 1, but Okui didn’t get to work on the Total Eclipse anime, despite doing the theme for that game as well.

What’s especially frustrating about the way JAM Project and Minami Kuribayashi have been treated is, Lantis (the label that they belong to) was involved in this anime since Season 1 – Stereo Dive Foundation, the project responsible for the first ending theme, is a Lantis project as well. Since Avex owns Anchor – meaning they essentially own Muv-Luv – I could understand if they wanted to use their own artists for the entire anime. But there’s no reason to bring Lantis into the mix unless they intended for the original artists like JAM and Kuribayashi to be part of the anime from the beginning. So it seems pretty clear to me that this was the plan from the start – use Season 1 to promote their newer acts, then bring on JAM and Kuribayashi for Season 2. And that’s disappointing, because Lantis is usually better than that about retaining the original singers, despite their age – JAM Project did the theme for Getter Robo Arc last year, while Minami Kuribayashi came back to do the theme to Season 2 of The Devil is a Part-Timer just last season.

…Look, I am not a purist by any stretch of the imagination – my track record clearly shows I like it when adaptations do new things. I was sad that Masami Okui didn’t get to do the Total Eclipse anime, but I was perfectly fine with Kumi Koda’s opening theme song. I feel like I gave Season 1’s theme songs a chance to win me over as well. Ultimately, what’s important is that the theme songs set the right tone. Somebody should be able to listen to the opening and ending themes and end up with a good sense of what sort of show they go with. And the theme songs for Season 1 completely fail to do that – they are far too light-hearted and upbeat. Watching them open and close the coup episodes was a painful experience in tonal whiplash.

Which is why I’m happy to report that Season 2’s ending theme is a winner as well. It’s done by V.W.P, the same group that did Season 1’s opening theme. But unlike that season’s chipper, bubblegum sound, their new song is an emotional ballad that’s perfect for closing out this season’s episodes. I wish they had put in a similar effort to match the show’s tone back in Season 1, but I’m glad they got a chance to redeem themselves.

Since we’re on the topic of V.W.P, we might as well talk about the Sadogashima girl, an original character who is voiced by one of their members. She showed up as a civilian in episode 1, the anime-original fall of Sadogashima, then reappeared at the end of Season 1, apparently as a member of the Isumi Valkyries. This so-far unnamed girl appears in both the opening and ending sequences this season, where her status as a member of the Valkyries is pretty much confirmed – she appears alongside the Valkyries in both sequences, and a shot of the full Valkyries team in their TSFs during the opening sequence depicts an extra unit that presumably belongs to her. Adding a new member to the Valkyries is an odd move, but this season is the time for the anime to show what they plan on doing with her. As I said, I enjoy when adaptations try new things, so I’m interested to see what kind of story they have planned with her.

The opening and ending themes are not the most important thing in an anime – plenty of really strong, top-tier shows have been burdened with lousy theme songs, and overcome them. But nevertheless, watching the new opening sequence illustrates just how good it feels when the theme song matches the show. It instantly puts you in a better mood, and makes you more receptive to the show itself.

OK, that was a lot of talk about a 90-second opening and 90-second ending. What about the other 20 minutes of the episode? Well, it’s a fairly slow first episode that covers two main plot threads – the first half shows Takeru returning to his original world to retrieve the theory that he asked Yuuko for on his last trip, while the second half shows Takeru’s unit graduating and becoming commissioned officers. What’s strange about the episode is, both plot threads were already shown in the final scenes of episode 12, which closed out Season 1. Although I thought it pretty unlikely, those scenes did make me worried that they might intend to skip over this episode entirely and start Season 2 with the events of the next episode.

It’s a good thing they didn’t go down that path, then, because this is a good episode that does a lot, both for the story in general, and for this anime in particular. For the story in general, this episode reiterates the stakes involved in a compelling manner. The first half shows Takeru interacting with his old world much more thoroughly than during his first visit, and emphasizes the difference between the two versions of his squad members, as well as clearly depicting his ultimate desire, to return to this world for good. The second half shows Takeru accomplishing the immediate goal he set for himself back in the beginning of Alternative, to graduate as soon as possible and make himself and his squad ready to contribute to the fight against the BETA. These are strong emotional beats for Takeru, and I’m glad the anime didn’t decide to skip over them.

As for how this episode benefits this anime in particular, one important aspect is that this is a slower, easily digestible episode that helps reestablish the world, the characters, and the current status quo for people who might not have thought about Muv-Luv since Season 1 ended last year. But perhaps even more importantly, this is a good focus episode that fleshes out some of the characters more. Obviously, in the original game, we would have spent a ton of time with these characters by now, and we would know and love them deeply. The anime has no chance of doing that, so rather than trying to judge the anime based on how well it replicates the feel of the game, it’s more useful to judge the anime based on its own merits.

From the perspective of the anime only, Takeru’s 207th squadmates all received a lot of welcome characterization during the previous coup arc, with each of them getting a distinct plotline to themselves. This episode does the same for the character of Sumika. Sumika hasn’t had much of a presence in the anime thus far, appearing in only small bursts of flashback, and an all-too-short appearance in the story itself during Takeru’s first trip to his old world. This episode is the most in-depth look we’ve gotten at her so far, and we get to see their relationship play out in a way that we’ve only heard Takeru describe before. I think it does a great job of illustrating why Takeru considers her such an important part of his life.

The episode also arguably does something similar for Marimo. We’ve seen a lot more of her in the anime, mostly as a hard-nosed instructor, but occasionally showing a softer side. The final scenes of this episode show clearly how much affection Takeru and his squadmates hold for her – and now that she is no longer responsible for training them, she’s allowed to show how much affection she holds for them as well. Even in the game, this is a very memorable scene that did a lot to transform Marimo into a highly-beloved character, and the anime does a good job of bringing that to the screen.

As I’ve said before, I think this anime adaptation’s great weakness is “faithfully” adapting the original game (and the manga) without putting much thought into how it plays for a new audience. So I actually think that much of what I described above is kind of “on accident” – that they didn’t put too much thought into how this episode works as the first episode of a new season, and they basically got lucky that this is a good point in the story to accomplish all of the things I mentioned. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is in fact a strong first episode for anime viewers. Indeed, it helps illustrate that, now that we’re past those first awkward setup episodes, “faithfully” adapting the game is more of a strength than a weakness, and we should be in for a second season that is significantly stronger than the first.

Muv-Luv Alternative: The Animation 09-12

October 4, 2022

In some ways, I hesitate to write a comprehensive piece about this arc, because it is fundamentally a piece about Japanese internal politics. It is an exploration about Japanese identity, targeted towards a Japanese audience. So I’m sure there is a lot about the themes of this arc that escape me – I simply lack the context of being a Japanese citizen necessary to understand them.

Luckily, the creator Kouki Yoshimune has offered up a few places to start our examination. In an interview included with the Muv-Luv Alternative Codex, he presents perhaps the most important piece of information necessary to understand this arc: in writing the story of Alternative, he positioned the Yokohama UN forces as being analogous to the modern-day Japan of our world, and the Japanese Empire as being analogous to the old Japan. The coup arc can thus be understood as a clash between modern-day values and traditional values. This arc is sometimes accused of being heavily right-wing, but that ignores the fact that the “right-wing” characters – the coup forces – are depicted as the enemy, who are then defeated by an allied force consisting of America and modern-day Japan (who those same right-wing forces accuse of having subjugated themselves so completely to the Americans that they are now little more than puppets of the US). The fact that it is our POV characters, the UN forces, who emerge triumphant in this arc shows that the story’s sympathies ultimately side with the more progressive, internationally-minded Japan.

Of course, while TSFs trashing each other is good entertainment, the meat of the arc is in the philosophical conflicts between the UN and the Empire – in other words, between modern Japanese values and traditional ones. Here, it’s not quite as simple as declaring modern values the winner simply because Sagiri died. The bulk of this arc is about our lead characters, particularly Takeru and Meiya, being confronted with the traditional values embodied by Sagiri and the coup forces, and seeing the end results of those values. Throughout the course of this arc, they come to understand and sympathize with the intent of those values, even as they reject the method of implementation chosen by the coup forces. I believe this is an attempt to ask a question of the Japanese audience: what should the modern Japanese citizen make of these old values? Which should we preserve, and which should we discard? Is there anything from the old ways that is worth taking with us into the 21st century? If Muv-Luv is at all “right-wing”, it is in the fact that it seems to believe that the answer to that question is “yes”. While it rejects Sagiri and the overall philosophy he embodies, it suggests that there may still be value in the patriotism, the love of country, that Takeru comes to learn about – that there may still be something there that is worth incorporating into the modern philosophy embodied by our heroes.

Takeru is an intriguing character to place in the middle of this conflict. As pointed out numerous times in the story, he is not a citizen of this Japan, and he lacks that love of country that every other Japanese character in the story exhibits. That makes it difficult for him to understand the others at first, but it also makes him the only truly neutral character in the arc. Even a character like Yuuko, who is ostensibly working to save all of humanity, is still a member of this Japanese society, and when the chips are down, there is still a part of her that is loyal to the Japanese Empire and wants it to come out on top. Takeru is the only person who has no such loyalty – he is the only person who can say he cares only about humanity defeating the BETA, and truly mean it. That puts him in a position where he can judge the claims of each side without preexisting bias. That makes it particularly interesting when Takeru states that he finds himself very sympathetic to Walken’s American insistence that this entire conflict is a complete waste of time.

Walken himself occupies a very interesting position as well. Yoshimune states in the same Codex interview that the original writer, Hayato Tashiro, had a very difficult time writing Walken’s character – he kept coming off as an arrogant foreigner blowhard who talked big, then died when it was time to put up. This is one of the reasons why Yoshimune himself took over writing much of Alternative (the original idea was that he would develop the story itself, while other writers like Tashiro would write the actual text – this is largely how KimiNozo and the original Muv-Luv were written). In the final version, Walken comes across as a surprisingly sympathetic character, which is how Takeru can find himself agreeing with him. His inclusion in the story helps to illustrate the divide between the more relatable, likeable American soldiers, and the more shadowy American faction that is revealed to be driving the coup d’etat from behind the scenes.

One of the most shocking elements of this world, I find, is the way this American faction is depicted. I’ve given a lot of thought to how fans use the word “dark” to describe certain shows. What I’ve come to realize is that a show is not necessarily “dark” just because it depicts bad things happening – I judge the darkness of a show based on the overall morality it depicts in its world. So a show that includes bad things happening may still be a fairly light show overall, if the morality it depicts is one in which the good guys win in the end, and in which evil can be defeated. I find Alternative, then, to be a brutally dark work, because the “evil” represented by this American faction is not depicted as one that should be defeated. None of our characters – not Takeru, not the other members of the 207th, not Yuuko, not Yuuhi – come out of this arc feeling that the Americans who orchestrated this whole thing need to be dealt with in some way in order to make the world better. Rather, the existence of this American faction is treated as a truth of this world, an irrefutable fact that must simply be accepted.

Yuuhi, the major character that we meet in this arc, helps lay out this story’s view of morality. As she tells Takeru, there is not always a “correct” choice, so people cannot be simply divided into good and evil depending on whether or not they make the correct choice. That, she emphasizes, is why it is so important that the people who have been given the authority to make those choices must also take responsibility for the results of those choices. And so we come to understand that even the American faction pulling the strings are not “evil” in a storytelling sense – they are fellow human beings who have made different choices about how best to deal with the situation humanity finds itself in. The same is true of the Japanese coup forces themselves, the American soldiers who were caught up in the battle, and even forces like the Japanese traditions that keep Yuuhi and Meiya apart. That’s why this arc does not end with our lead characters vowing to take down or change any of these organizations or values, as a more traditional good-vs-evil story might. Rather, it ends with them understanding that the things they have seen and learned throughout this arc are simply a part of this world, and all they can do is accept that and move forward.

Let’s end by talking a little about the anime adaptation for this arc. It’s clear to me now that this anime, like many anime adaptations these days, intends to stick closely to its source material (both the game and the manga adaptation), for better or worse. In the early episodes, it was most definitely “for worse”, as it utterly failed to account for how the anime audience will experience the story differently. But this arc illustrated this approach “for better” – since it has almost no ties to events from earlier chapters, it requires almost no alteration to be accessible to a new audience. And the end result is a very strong series of episodes. If there’s a weak spot by that metric, then it’s the inclusion of the Valkyries in episode 10. Although it’s a huge crowd-pleasing moment for existing fans, for new fans it’s an entire new group of characters taking a major role at a moment when the show is finally fleshing out its main characters. But otherwise the arc is a great showcase for the anime’s direction in staging its major fight scenes – something the anime has lacked until now – while pairing them with strong character drama. The end of episode 9 is a good showcase for that, using strong direction (along with its special insert song) to create a memorable moment out of a scene that, to be honest, was not all that special in the original. For me, I’ll always think of the anime version now whenever I revisit that scene in the game.

One of the greatest strengths of the original Muv-Luv trilogy is that it “feels” like a real novel – it has a concrete beginning, middle, and end, and it builds its story and its themes throughout its runtime, so that once you reach the end you can look back and see how all of the different pieces come together to form a coherent whole. But it’s also one of the great weaknesses of the anime adaptation, both because the decision to start at Alternative took away those opening chapters, and because the decision to split Alternative into different seasons means it’s impossible to finish Season 1 and understand how the pieces are supposed to fit together. So I’m looking forward to seeing how Season 2 handles these challenges – if it’s learned to make its references to earlier chapters more accessible, and if the direction is able to introduce and bring together more of the pieces of the story.

Muv-Luv Alternative Season 2 and Blog Schedule

October 4, 2022

The 2nd season of the Muv-Luv Alternative anime is almost upon us, so I guess it’s time for me to dust off this blog and get back into things. Sadly, I’ve been very busy with work and personal matters for the past year, and haven’t had time to write about the many Muv-Luv topics I would like to. To be honest, I’m still very busy, and I don’t really have time to write about Muv-Luv even now. But Season 2 waits for no man, so I’ll make the time.

So, the plan:

Number one, on Tuesday I’ll put up a combined blog post for the coup d’etat arc from Season 1, which I never got around to doing last year. I’ve generally written about the various Muv-Luv anime in arcs, allowing me to explore that arc’s entire story rather than having to address the story piecemeal, episode by episode. It’s extremely difficult for me to write posts for individual episodes, as it’s only in examining the purpose and themes of an entire arc that I find topics interesting to write about. I made an exception for the early episodes of Alternative Season 1, as I found each individual episode fascinating in the decisions made for the adaptation, their strengths and their flaws. But after the show settled in, I regret not switching back sooner to posting by arc rather than by episode. The coup arc simply made the problem I have with writing posts about individual episodes more obvious. I already have the post for those episodes ready, and I found it much easier to slip back into covering an entire arc, rather than attempting to write a post for each episode as I attempted to do last year.

Number two, once Season 2 starts, I’ll continue to write arc-centered posts for the season. I’ll likely have a separate post for the first episode of the season, episode 13, so that we can talk about the new season in general. They’ve already released the preview and summary for episode 13, so I can be confident that it’s a generally self-contained episode. I’ll probably make another post for the episode after that, episode 14, since that will likely also be a major episode with lots to discuss. But after that, my plan is to switch entirely to arc-centered posts, likely covering 3-4 episodes at a time.

Number three, after Season 2 ends, I’ll hopefully have time then to write some posts about Total Eclipse, which came out on Steam earlier this year. I’ve been very open that Total Eclipse is my favorite of the Muv-Luv spinoffs, and I’ve waited a very long time to be able to discuss the game with people who have also played it (almost 10 years!). I’m so sad that I don’t have the time to talk about it right now, but hopefully that just means more people will have had the time to finish the game by then.

In the meantime, to kick things off on that front, I highly recommend reading this post I made back when the game first came out. In it, I lay out what the story of Total Eclipse means, and how its three leads each contribute to the themes of the story. It is by far the longest, most detailed post I’ve ever made, and it’s the one I’m proudest of. At the time I wrote it, the visual novel industry was in a very different place, and there was essentially no hope of the Total Eclipse game ever being translated into English. I wrote the post knowing that almost no one would ever have the correct context to understand it – so I wrote it largely for myself, and for the few people who would also have been able to read the game in Japanese and yet would read an English blog afterwards. It is now 8 years since I wrote it, and with Total Eclipse now officially available in English, I hope many more people will be able to get something out of it.

If I have time, I’d also like to maybe write some things about The Day After, which I’ve also never really written about in detail since it was released. Maybe even Photonflowers/Photonmelodies as well. But that will definitely be in the future. Right now I’ll be keeping my eyes on Season 2.