Muv-Luv Alternative: The Animation 14

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.”

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