The Path to Adulthood

September 2, 2019

Muv-Luv can be a very difficult story to get a handle on while you’re in the process of playing it. You start the game, immediately you’re thrown into some crazy high school shenanigans. But wait, now you’re in a completely different world! Mechs, aliens, bwuh? Oh, now we have time loops too? It’s a crazy story and you’re just kind of hanging on for dear life as you go through it, so it can be hard to see how everything is supposed to fit together. But once you finish the story, you can step back and see how all the strange, disparate pieces come together in a very deliberate way. Once you strip away all the insane twists and turns and simply take in the story as a whole, it’s easy to recognize Muv-Luv as a very classic coming-of-age story. Literary types refer to this kind of story as a bildungsroman, a story focusing on showing the growth of the protagonist from a foolish child into a mature adult, often placing emphasis on the clash between the protagonist and society. Each chapter of Muv-Luv can be understood as representing a different stage in the process of growing up.

The first chapter, Extra, represents childhood. A bildungsroman usually starts with a very immature character, and Takeru is of course a deeply childish character in this chapter, lazy and carefree, generally not thinking about anything. But the world of Extra is also deeply childish as well. This is perfectly illustrated with the KimiNozo parody early in the game – even though KimiNozo and Extra technically take place in the same world, in KimiNozo Haruka is hit by a car and is sent into a coma for 3 years, while in Extra the same thing happens to Sumika (complete with KimiNozo music) and she just gets up and dusts herself off. In the world of Extra, bad things simply don’t happen.

The original Muv-Luv describes itself as a “super-cliched romance adventure”. In other words, it takes all the standard cliches of the genre and turns them up to 11. Where other games might have a rich girl with a mansion, Extra has a rich girl who levels an entire neighborhood in order to build a mansion so massive it literally changes the face of the map. A lot of Extra is simply about being able to play with the typical tropes of the genre and taking them to the next level without having to worry too much about keeping things grounded or realistic. That’s the kind of childish logic that the world of Extra is built on.

The second chapter, Unlimited, represents the transition from childhood to adolescence. In a typical coming-of-age story, a child one day comes to the powerful realization that the world extends far beyond his previously simplistic understanding of it. For the first time, he begins to grasp that the world can be a complicated and even dangerous place. In the real world, a child would come to this realization by seeing new aspects of the world he lives in, but through the power of science fiction and metaphor, Takeru is literally brought into a different world, where different rules apply. In this world, people are not allowed to sit back and enjoy life in innocence (like a child would) – they must work hard to earn their freedoms (like an adult would). Much of Unlimited, then, is devoted to Takeru coming to terms with the fact that this is the world he lives in now. He must discard any notion of returning to the days of his childhood, and devote himself to becoming an adult. This is the process of maturing that we would describe as adolescence, and by the end of this chapter, Takeru has fully completed this transition: he understands the nature of this world and accepts that he must work to contribute to it.

(I’ve often reflected on just how much the creators of Muv-Luv must love mecha shows, to cast their story this way: in this story, there are 2 worlds, one resembling the real world and one in which giant robots fight aliens. One of these worlds represents the world of childhood, and one represents the world of adulthood. It must take a special love of mechs to decide that it is our world that is the world of childhood, and the robot/alien world that is the world of adulthood.)

The first half of Alternative represents the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Takeru begins this chapter as an adolescent, aware of his responsibility to make a difference in this world, and ready to take his first steps in doing so. But although adolescents have the drive to change the world, they generally lack the experience and knowledge necessary to understand how to best do so. This lack of experience often leads them to believe that the solutions to the world’s problems are simpler than they really are. What’s more, once it becomes clear that society has not implemented these solutions they developed, they may come to the conclusion that this is because they have managed to come up with new solutions that society has not yet conceived of – in other worlds, they have greater insight into the world and its problems than society had up to this point. This is the reason adolescents are often known for questioning authority and clashing with authority figures. Adolescent fiction often targets this sentiment, by portraying teenage protagonists with special abilities that exceed those of their peers, who have special knowledge and insight that are lacking in the adults around them, and whose special talents are the key to saving the world.

In Takeru’s case, his special talents come from his 2 extra years spent in the Unlimited world. This extra training gives him abilities far beyond his squadmates, and he largely carries his squad during his time as a cadet. The time he spent in the previous world also makes him far more knowledgeable about future events than anybody, and even an adult as smart and powerful as Yuuko has to rely on his knowledge. And his unique ability to return to the world of Extra becomes essential to implementing Alternative IV and saving the world. All of these traits fit that standard adolescent mindset, and they instill in Takeru a sense that he alone is uniquely qualified to serve as this world’s savior, a fact that he reiterates to himself throughout this section of the story with an increasingly casual and self-evident tone.

But Takeru was wrong. On his first day as an “adult” (he and his team having become commissioned officers), he discovers that all the special abilities that he believed made him so superior don’t actually allow him to succeed in the adult world. He ends up breaking down in his cockpit, helpless, and has to be saved by the adults that he was so sure he was more important than. And of course, he winds up experiencing his greatest loss to date, the death of Marimo, and is forced to face the truth that the world is far more harsh and unforgiving than he had believed, even after having learned the truth of the world and becoming an adolescent. And so, with the world demanding that he move on to becoming an adult, he instead wishes with all his heart to return to the world of childhood.

In the real world, the “world of childhood” would be a more innocent mindset that Takeru would try to return to, but again, through the power of science fiction and metaphor, the world of childhood here is literally another world that Takeru can travel back to. As I mentioned before, the world of Extra is governed by different rules than the world of Alternative. In the world of Extra, bad things simply do not happen. Only now they do. By returning to the world of childhood, Takeru has tainted it with knowledge of the world of adulthood, and this knowledge destroys the innocence of childhood. This is perhaps Muv-Luv’s greatest innovation: by setting the entire first chapter in the world of Extra, the game sets up the player to think of the world of Extra as a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end. So when Takeru destroys the world of Extra, he isn’t robbing the Extra characters of a hypothetical future happiness – he is actually robbing the Extra characters of a concrete future happiness, one that we have already seen and that we know would have come to them with 100% certainty. This is the reason why Extra is an essential chapter of the story and cannot be skipped: it is absolutely vital to the experience that the player conceives of Extra as a complete, standalone story in its own right, with its own set of rules governing just how dark the story is allowed to get. This is a story where Meiya can be forced to leave the others and return home without any hope of meeting again – the story is allowed to get that dark, but it is not allowed to get darker than that. So when Takeru returns, there is a real sense that he is breaking the rules of Extra, that he is destroying something that should have been set in stone.

This is the most crucial part of the story, because it is the most crucial part of any bildungsroman. At his lowest point, Takeru must find the strength to accept his limits and learn how to find his place in society. It is because of this that I strongly feel that Muv-Luv is not a story about despair – it is a story about hope. Bad things happen in this story, yes, but this is not a story about bad things happening, it is a story about finding the strength to overcome those bad things. For such a story to work, the bad things that happen have to be very bad indeed – they have to be so bad that we can really believe that Takeru might not be able to overcome them, because we can really believe that we might not be able to overcome them ourselves if they were to happen to us. That’s what makes it a true accomplishment when Takeru actually overcomes them. In the end, Takeru does indeed find the strength to accept his responsibilities as an adult and returns to the Alternative world, now as a full-fledged commissioned officer, signifying the end of the first half of Alternative and the beginning of the second half.

(One thing I find interesting is the symbolic importance of the clothing that Takeru wears. For the first part of Alternative, Takeru spends this part of the story in a commissioned officer’s fortified suit, as if signifying that he considers himself an adult already, even while serving in a cadet squadron. Of course, after the 207th Squadron is commissioned, the whole team switches to the officer’s fortified suit for the XM3 trials. However, after Takeru’s failure during the battle, Takeru and his team switch back to their trainee uniforms for the scene where Takeru tries to recover from Marimo’s death, suggesting how they still have one more step they have to take before they can truly become adults.)

The second half of Alternative represents adulthood. This part of Alternative shows Takeru as a true adult, having transitioned from his adolescent mindset. In the first half of Alternative, Takeru was constantly talking about how he would save the world by himself. The actions he took – traveling to the Extra world and retrieving the formulas – were completely off the grid. Aside from Yuuko and Kasumi, nobody knew what he was up to – not his teammates, not the military, not anybody in the world of Alternative. But from this point on, Takeru operates as a standard member of the military. The vast majority of the story revolves around Takeru taking part in UN-sanctioned missions. Even his work with Sumika, while highly secretive, is an official part of the UN’s Alternative IV project, and many other people (like Lt. Pyatykh) are involved with it as well. A bildungsroman often deals with the conflict between the protagonist and society, and this conflict is often resolved with the protagonist coming to accept the values of the society. In this case, it is Takeru who has come to embrace the role that this society expects him to take.

Alternative places great emphasis on working in a group, instead of working as an individual. In Alternative military doctrine, the smallest valid military unit is the Element (a group of 2 TSFs) – individual action is not permitted. (Try not to pay too much attention to the numerous instances where pilots break their Elements for dramatic license.) But Alternative goes much further than that. Even a full TSF squadron is not enough – the Isumi Valkyries are talented pilots, but they are not overwhelmingly more powerful than any other squadron in the military. They cannot execute missions on their own; they must coordinate with other squadrons in order to accomplish anything. And even a whole fleet of TSFs is not enough – Alternative always makes sure to show that other types of military units, like ships, helicopters, or shuttles, are indispensable to the mission as well.

One of Alternative’s major messages is that the power of a single individual is extremely limited. To accomplish anything of importance requires the strength of an entire society, with each member of the society bringing their own unique strengths to bear on the problem at hand. Takeru winds up accomplishing great things, and can even be said to have saved the world, but he is only able to do so because he played his role in a vast operation involving every major society on the planet. And to emphasize this fact one last time, we learn at the end that even this effort didn’t result in a complete victory. Even after destroying the Superior and the Original Hive, there are still Hives left all over the world, and an unimaginable number of BETA left across the universe. Takeru and his team played their parts, and achieved a historic victory, but that is the limit of their strength. True victory will only come if the people that come afterwards play their part in achieving additional historic victories.

If the second half of Alternative represents the world of adulthood, then it can be said that after the final battle at the Original Hive, Takeru’s life in the world of adulthood comes to an end. But Takeru doesn’t really die – rather, like in the “fairy tale” of Muv-Luv’s tagline (“a fairy tale of love and courage”), Takeru vanishes into light and ascends directly into heaven. In the game’s Final Episode, Takeru is granted the wish he has been longing for the entire story – he has returned to the world of his childhood. But his wish wasn’t simply to return to this world. His experiences in Alternative prove beyond a doubt that “you can’t go home again” – what Takeru truly wishes for is not just to return to this world, but to return to the days of innocence that this world symbolizes, and he can’t do that with his knowledge of adulthood. That’s why the only way Takeru could even truly be happy here is to return to childhood completely. Alternative clearly shows the dangers of an adult trying to return to childhood – but now that he has fulfilled his responsibilities as an adult and has passed on, surely he has earned that reward?

The Final Episode of Alternative, then, represents the afterlife, a place in which Takeru is finally granted his greatest wish – to return to the carefree days of his youth, and spend his days with the people he loves in peace and innocence.

The Road to Muv-Luv Alternative

September 18, 2017

[Personal note: Unlike the Road to Muv-Luv, I was actually around to experience most of these events, so this time around, I’m going to add these personal notes to the timeline. I hope they provide a more in-depth view of what the long wait for Alternative was like.]

February 28 2003
Muv-Luv is released.

October 05 2003
The Kimi ga Nozomu Eien anime starts airing.

[This is where I started. I watched this show as it was airing, and I was so impressed by it that I took the plunge and picked up the game before the anime even ended. I played through the main story in a single weekend and I was absolutely blown away by the power of the story. This was the first visual novel I had ever played and I was stunned by the storytelling possibilities of the medium. So when I looked up what else this company had done, and discovered that they had made a follow-up to this game – and what’s more, that it featured mechas, the great anime love of my life – I was all in.]

February 23 2004
Age finally updates their Muv-Luv website. Most notably, they announce that they will definitely release Alternative sometime in 2004.  They also announce that they will release a DVD-ROM version of Muv-Luv (the original release was on CD-ROM).

[This was around the time that I had finished up Muv-Luv, so my earliest memory of Alternative was knowing that they would release the game sometime later this year. This struck me as a very reasonable amount of time to wait. Of course, for Japanese fans, this was a far more frustrating announcement.  Keep in mind that an entire year has now passed since Muv-Luv was released, with almost no news whatsoever.]

April 10 2004
Age puts on a live event called “Songs From Age The Live”. During this event, JAM Project performs the Alternative theme song “Asu e no Houkou” and Hironobu Kageyama’s “Tsubasa” for the very first time.

[I still remember that awesome shock I felt when I first read that JAM Project would be doing the theme song to Alternative. I’m sure that nowadays it’s obvious that the two go together, but at the time it was almost unthinkable for an adult game to get a mainstream name like JAM Project. It was an amazing feeling of two of my favorite worlds colliding in a way that I absolutely would have sworn was impossible.]

April 30 2004
The DVD version of Muv-Luv is released.

[It’s been a very long time since I played that original CD version of Muv-Luv so I can’t remember specific details, but my general impression is that the DVD version didn’t make too many enhancements over the CD version.  I do recall that they recast the role of Kashiwagi, replacing the original actress with the one who has been playing her ever since.]

October 21 2004
The Age website announces 2 release dates: December 17 2004 for Muv-Luv Supplement, and April 28 2005 for Muv-Luv Alternative.

[Fans were, of course, enraged by such a massive delay from what they were promised. Personally, this was the first time I had experienced one of Muv-Luv’s patented delays, so while I was disappointed, I was willing to suck it up. Before this, I had more or less put Muv-Luv out of my mind, confident that I would be able to return to it by the end of the year. Knowing now how long it was going to be before I could actually play the game, this was the point when I started actively seeking out news about Alternative.]

November 25 2004
The Akane Maniax OVA begins its release.

[It’s pretty sad to look back now and realize that Akane Maniax was the closest that the Muv-Luv characters have gotten to being animated. I still like to come back to this OVA and watch the Muv-Luv scenes in particular, and imagine what might have been. Years afterward, Yoshimune confirmed what everybody had suspected – that Akane Maniax was indeed intended to lead into a full Muv-Luv anime, and the final handover scene of the OVA was written with that in mind. That’s why Bandai Visual took over distribution of the final episode of the OVA. However, stuff happened behind the scenes and the project never came together. Bandai Visual would eventually make the KimiNozo Next Season OVA in order to salvage something from the deal.]

December 17 2004
Muv-Luv Supplement is released.

[From the moment it was announced, it was obvious that Supplement was simply something Age threw together in a hurry as an apology to fans for breaking their promise about Alternative. As such, I tend to be rather easy on it, since I never expected much from it to begin with.  For me, and I imagine for many fans, the real draw of Supplement was the video of the Alternative OP included with the game. The OP included far more new images and video of Alternative than Age had released to this point. There was a time when I would watch the OP several times a day – it’s fair to say this is when I started getting very obsessed with Alternative. This version of the OP is so seared into my brain that, to this day, the 16:9 version of the OP that plays in the actual game still feels really weird to me.]

February 02 2005
Muv-Luv Alternative is delayed 1 month to May 27. Age would eventually claim that this was due to the events of the 2004 Chuuetsu earthquake and the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake which had taken place over the past several months. Originally, the end of Operation 21st would have depicted a large tsunami devastating Honshu at Niigata. However, Age felt that this event needed to be changed in light of the real-life devastation of Niigata, followed closely by the real-life tsunami rampaging across the Indian Ocean. Changing this event, and in particular Kashiwagi’s original role in it, required changing many other sections of the story that originally referred to it as well. Remnants of the originally scripted tsunami remain in the final story, but its effects are largely glossed over.

[Of course, Age wasn’t going to spoil their own story by explaining this when announcing the delay, so from our perspective it just looked like Age can’t release their game on time once again. By this point, I was so invested in Alternative that even a month’s delay was painful.]

April 19 2005
Muv-Luv Alternative is delayed 2 months to July 29. Age would eventually claim that this was due to the anti-Japanese demonstrations that had broken out in China and across East Asia earlier this month. This required changes to the depiction of Imperial Japan in the game in order to downplay elements that could be misconstrued as promoting Japanese nationalism.  One thing that has come up several times in interviews is Age’s fear that the game will be perceived as a right-wing, nationalistic work. They particularly fear that, as an adult game, they won’t be cut any slack or be allowed to argue about the larger artistic themes being portrayed. They’ve consistently cited it as one of the major factors that scares potential partners away from working on an anime adaptation of Alternative.

[You’ll note that this is a new 2-month delay announced only a month before release. Up to this point I had been trying to cut Age some slack, but this latest delay pushed the game out to 7 months past the “end of 2004” date I had originally heard about, so I was definitely starting to match the anger that the Japanese fans were feeling. Keep in mind that this was around the time that Alternative was supposed to be released according to their announcement back in October, which just made this latest delay even more difficult to swallow.]

May 21 2005
The gaming magazine Tech Gian includes a major feature on Alternative, including an official demo. The demo starts with a sneak peek at the attack during the XM3 Trials, before moving into Chapter 1 of the game, finishing when Takeru officially joins the 207th. The demo also shows off the games’ major new features, such as the 16:9 aspect ratio, talking/blinking animations, and the removal of the textbox. The game’s official website is also updated.

[For me, this demo was a big, big deal. The story being teased was so promising, but I was especially taken with the sneak peek included at the beginning of the demo, which depicted an actual battle between our heroes and the BETA. Much like the 4:3 version of the OP included with Supplement, I played through this section so many times over the next 9 months that it is burned into my brain – to this day, I can’t play through this section of the game without thinking of the old demo.  Nowadays, things like the 16:9 aspect ratio and the talking/blinking animations are pretty standard, so it’s hard to describe how amazing this game looked at the time. I think Alternative was one of the very first visual novels, if not the very first, to do 16:9. This game looked like a BIG FUCKING DEAL – it felt far more advanced and important than anything else on the market.]

May 25 2005
JAM Project’s “Muv-Luv Alternative Insertion Song Collection” is released. This mini-album includes JAM Project’s “Asu e no Houkou”, Hironobu Kageyama’s “Tsubasa”, and Masaaki Endoh’s “Carry on”.

[Finally, after 5 months of endlessly playing the OP video from Supplement, I could finally listen to JAM Project’s new song on its own. I listened to these songs constantly over the next 9 months, and pored over the lyrics sheet trying to figure out how they fit into the game. “Tsubasa”, in particular, was clearly written to reference a specific storyline in the game, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how the story would develop. I failed, of course.]

July 11 2005
Muv-Luv Alternative is delayed indefinitely. Age would eventually claim that this was due to the 2005 London bombings, which brought terrorism back to the front page. This necessitated another round of changes, particularly to the 12/5 Incident, in order to avoid accusations that they may be portraying terrorism in a sympathetic light. Due to this, scenes showing the events from the viewpoint of the rebels were cut – in the final game, the entire incident is shown pretty much exclusively from Takeru’s point of view. Age may also have wanted to simply put distance between the London attack and the release of their game, hence the indefinite delay until they felt the political atmosphere had cleared.

[The game was scheduled to be released July 29, meaning this delay came only 18 days before the game was to be released. After waiting for so long, I felt that delay like an almost physical blow to the gut. This was the moment when I finally lost all faith that Age would ever release something on time. Much like the five stages of grief, I had finally moved to Acceptance – the peaceful knowledge that Age’s release dates are not to be trusted, and that is simply the way things are. Moving into this stage is a crucial part of becoming a Muv-Luv fan.]

August 10 2005
Minami Kuribayashi’s single “Muv-Luv” (Alternative version) is released.

[If you’re paying attention, that now makes all 3 theme song releases for Muv-Luv (including the original “Muv-Luv” single from 2002) that were timed to release alongside the game, only to be stranded when the game got delayed. I can’t imagine Lantis was amused by having all 3 of their releases go out without the product they were supposed to support.]

November 15 2005
Muv-Luv Alternative is officially scheduled for February 24 2006.

[By this point, I was finished with all the speculation, the analysis, going back through the game to find clues to Alternative, trying to piece together all the different scraps of info we were given . . . I just wanted this date to be true.  For the love of God, just let this date be true.  There were definitely fans who now believed that Alternative would never come out, and everything Age said to the contrary was a filthy lie.  I couldn’t bear to believe that . . . just let this date be true.]

February 24 2006
Muv-Luv Alternative is officially released.

[Having now waited 3 full years for the conclusion to the story, Alternative needed to be the greatest game in the world for fans to turn their opinion around…]

The Road to Muv-Luv

July 22, 2016

August 2000
According to creator Kouki Yoshimune, this is the time period during which he developed the plans for Kimi ga Nozomu Eien and Muv-Luv.  The two games were intended to complement each other, by focusing on the same theme from two different angles, and were intended to come out at roughly the same time.  In fact, the Hakuryo Hiiragi winter uniform seen in Muv-Luv was designed first, and the summer uniform seen in KimiNozo was designed afterwards by modifying the winter design.

October 2000
The gaming magazine Tech Gian announces both KimiNozo and Muv-Luv, with a tentative Autumn 2001 release window for both.

April 2001
Age announces that Muv-Luv will be released in November 2001.

July 21 2001
Tech Gian includes the first episode of Akane Maniax in this month’s issue.  The idea is that Akane Maniax will run for five months, ending in November, cleaning bridging the gap between the KimiNozo and Muv-Luv release dates.  This is the first time fans get a clear look at the Muv-Luv characters.

August 03 2001
Kimi ga Nozomu Eien is released to immense acclaim, selling far more copies than Age could have imagined.  Age begins to rethink their approach to Muv-Luv.  They had to scale back their original vision for Muv-Luv, due to both technical limitations and available manpower – however, the money coming in from KimiNozo could change that.  Age decides to funnel the profits from KimiNozo into making Muv-Luv even better.

September 10 2001
Accordingly, Age delays Muv-Luv from November 2001 to a “Winter 2001 – Spring 2002” release window.

February 23 2002
Age announces that Muv-Luv will be released on April 26 2002.

March 25 2002
Figure maker Volks puts up a teaser page featuring their future Muv-Luv offerings.  The illustration on the page shows Meiya wearing a strange pilot suit and a robot silhouette.  Fans begin to wonder if there might be a science-fiction/mecha component to Muv-Luv.

March 27 2002
Age delays Muv-Luv from April 26 2002 to June 28 2002.

April 03 2002
The Muv-Luv single CD is released from Lantis.  This was meant to coincide with the April release of Muv-Luv itself, before the game was delayed.

April 24 2002
The drama CD “Kimi ga Nozomu Eien Drama Theater Vol. 3: Akane” is released.  Chizuru plays a supporting role – this is the first time fans are able to hear one of the Muv-Luv characters voiced.

April 25 2002
Volks updates its site to show off its offerings for Dolls Party 7.  Among its offerings are “Meiya Mitsurugi: Type-99 Surface Pilot Fortified Suit”, “Takemikazuchi: Meiya Unit”, and “Takemikazuchi” (a white version of the Meiya Unit).  Volks does not offer any additional insight into what these terms mean or how they are related to Muv-Luv.  Fan speculation begins to intensify.

May 16 2002
Age delays Muv-Luv from June 28 2002 to “Winter 2002”.  Fans begin to grow increasingly frustrated.  Unlike the other delays, this is essentially an admission that Age themselves don’t know when the game will be finished.

May 23 2002
Age releases Akane Maniax as a fan-club exclusive game.  This version combines all 5 episodes from Tech Gian into a single game, and is fully voiced.  This is the first time fans are able to hear the voices of the full Muv-Luv cast (besides Meiya, who does not appear in Akane Maniax).

July 11 2002
Age releases a trial version of Muv-Luv through its fan club.  The trial plays from the beginning of the game to October 26, the day before the cooking competition.  Of note, this version features Kozue Yoshizumi as Meiya, rather than Kazumi Okushima.  Yoshizumi played Mayu in KimiNozo, and would eventually go on to play Meiya’s twin sister Yuuhi in Muv-Luv Alternative.

July 24 2002
Minami Kuribayashi holds a live performance at Shibuya Eggman.  During this concert, she performs the Muv-Luv Extra ending theme “I will” and the Unlimited ending theme “Harukanaru Furusato no Uta” for the first time.  As a secret special guest, Masaaki Endoh (then famous for Gaogaigar) appeared to announce and sing the Muv-Luv song “Carry on”.  At the time, it was unheard of for somebody as famous as Endoh to perform a song for an adult game.  Of course, this only sparked a new wave of speculation as fans tried to figure out how this song could fit into the game.

September 10 2002
Muv-Luv Prelude is released by Enterbrain.  Prelude is a small book containing new information on Muv-Luv, but more importantly contains an expanded Muv-Luv trial.  This version contains all the content from the original trial, plus a second part stretching from October 29 to November 1 (the early part of the lacrosse story).

October 25 2002
Volks updates its page with additional offerings.  These new offerings include “Fubuki: Takeru Shirogane Unit”, “Fubuki: Meiya Mitsurugi Unit”, “Fubuki: Chizuru Sakaki Unit”, “Fubuki: Kei Ayamine Unit”, “Fubuki: Miki Tamase Unit”, and “Miki Tamase: Type-99 Surface Pilot Fortified Suit”.

December 21 2002
This month’s issue of Tech Gian includes a Muv-Luv short story called “Your Name is Takeru”, taking place before the main story.  Like Akane Maniax, this version is unvoiced – it would eventually be collected in Muv-Luv Supplement (and later in Muv-Luv photonflowers) with voices.

December 29 2002
Age mercifully announces that Muv-Luv will be released on February 28 2003.  Recall that it has now been over half a year since Age made any official mention of a release schedule.

January 21 2003
This month’s issue of Tech Gian includes a second short story called “My Name is Meiya”.

February 28 2003
Betraying expectations, Age actually manages to release Muv-Luv on this date.  (Age would eventually admit that they were simply out of money and could not afford to keep pushing the release out.)  At the same time, they also announce that the third and final chapter of the game could not be finished in time, and was not included in this release.  As a result, the Takemikazuchi model that had introduced fans to the mecha side of Muv-Luv ends the game sitting in a hangar, unused – a particularly harsh blow for Volks, who now had to sell figures of it despite nobody ever having seen it in action.  The highly anticipated Masaaki Endoh song also fails to appear in the game.  And, of course, anybody playing the game to the end will find that the major mysteries of the story go completely unresolved.

Not to worry, Age assured fans.  The story for the third chapter was already complete, so the follow-up game should come out very shortly.

But that’s a story for another time . . .

Schwarzesmarken 08-12

May 3, 2016

In the final stretch of the show, Schwarzesmarken transforms into a completely different story.  At the end of episode 7, the Schwarzesmarken squadron as we know it – the 666th TSF Squadron of the NVA – is effectively dismantled.  In its place we now follow a new Schwarzesmarken squadron, now part of a full-scale revolution.  Muv-Luv at its best has always been about human conflict, so it’s only right that the final phase of the show focuses not on humans vs. BETA, but the Revolution vs. the Stasi.

Lise, of course, remains the most fascinating character in the show.  This is a story that very cleanly splits characters into Good Guys and Bad Guys, so Lise stands out for being the only character whose loyalties are unclear.  I think she comes closest to telling the truth in episode 7, when she asks Theodor to run away with her to West Germany.  It was for that reason alone that she cooperated with the Stasi.  In a certain sense – certainly from Lise’s perspective – the great tragedy of the story is that Lise only managed to made contact with Theodor after he had thrown in with Irisdina.  If that contact had happened just a few months earlier, when Theodor still despised Irisdina, he would very likely have taken up Lise on her suggestion to flee for the border.  When I think about it like that, I can start to understand how the sense of betrayal Lise must have felt at that moment must have been indescribable.  At that moment, she was right on the cusp of accomplishing everything she had worked for, and in a very real sense it was because of Irisdina that Theodor pulled away.  If she had a little more time, she might have been able to convince Theodor, but both Irisdina and the Stasi began to move against each other, forcing her to pick a side.

The other great tragedy of Lise is that she was never able to buy into Irisdina’s vision of a revolution.  Lise despised the Stasi and would have cheered their destruction.  If she had chosen to side with the revolution, she could have been an immense help to them.  But she had spent too much time with the Stasi to truly believe they could ever be defeated.  She participated in mass executions.  She was a major part of the network of spies that stretched across the country.  She saw how all threats to the Stasi were systematically eliminated.  In her mind, the Stasi were invincible, and taking up arms against them was a suicide pact.  That was why she hated Irisdina – because she had seduced Theodor into a cause that could never be won.  When the time came to choose a side, at the end of episode 7, she believed her only option was to continue serving the Stasi, rather than betray them.  From that moment on, she had no plan.  Everything that she had worked for had led up to that moment when she asked Theodor to flee with her, and that moment was now gone.  All she could do now was continue working for the Stasi, and look for a moment to convince Theodor, as she tried in episode 9 during their fight.

Lise’s execution scene in episode 10 is another good example of the thought put into this adaptation.  In the original novels, Lise was actually captured and brought back to base, where she was blindfolded and executed by Theodor in front of the others.  They could have done the same in the anime, but it would take up time – they would need to show where Lise was now, how much time had passed, and just generally establish a new scene from scratch.  All of this would take time away from the execution scene itself.  As one of the most important scenes in the story, it was vital to take the time to keep the emotional throughline intact, rather than break it up by transitioning to another scene.  The anime version of this scene makes good use of the time they have to give Lise the emotional farewell she deserves.

The other aspect of this scene to keep in mind is that the original version of this scene pretty clearly calls back to Irisdina’s execution of her brother.  Theodor executes Lise in exactly the same manner that Irisdina was shown to have executed Jurgen.  It places Theodor in Irisdina’s shoes, as well as drawing some uncomfortable parallels between the Stasi (who forced Irisdina to kill Jurgen) and the revolution (who forced Theodor to kill Lise).  The anime version very clearly calls back to different scene, Irisdina’s execution of Inghild in episode 1.  The scene still places Theodor in Irisdina’s shoes, but the context is quite different.  Here, rather than something forced on him, the parallel suggests that Theodor’s execution was a mercy killing, something to bring peace to Lise at last.  It’s a very interesting, separate interpretation of what is still at its heart the same action, and when an adaptation can bring a new interpretation to a work, I always find it very fascinating.

At the very end of Lise’s life, she recognizes that Theodor is not going to quit the revolution despite her wishes, and so she dedicates her final words to helping him instead.  In the novels there’s a bit of an interesting story behind her last words.  Just as we see in the anime, in the novel she whispers something to Theodor that we, the audience, don’t get to hear.  Theodor reveals to the others that Lise told him where Irisdina was being held.  However, Beatrix reveals that she fully expected Lise to betray the Stasi in her last moments, and so had given Lise false intel, with the intent of luring the revolution into an ambush.  At the battle’s critical moment, however, Theodor reveals what it is that Lise really told him – that Lise also didn’t trust Beatrix, and had used her own connections to learn Irisdina’s true location.  The revolution then planned a decoy operation to lure Beatrix into believing her ambush had worked, while their true force would head for Irisdina.  It’s the story’s one last attempt to call Lise’s legacy into question, by suggesting that even her final attempt at helping Theodor could have unwittingly harmed him even further.  However, ultimately it doesn’t actually affect the course of the story – just like in the anime, the initial attack ends in retreat, so this maneuvering from both sides wound up not coming to much.  This is probably why the anime chose not to spend time on this part of the storyline, and simply revealed from the beginning that Lise had given them Irisdina’s true location.

So, speaking of Lise’s legacy, she of course left Theodor one last present, the Cheburashka Zwei.  (Incidentally, “Zwei” is written with the Japanese word “Kai”, often translated as “Custom”.  The anime is the first time we hear “Zwei” spoken aloud.  I like it a lot more than calling it the Cheburashka Custom.)  In contrast to the relatively subtle metaphor of the Shiranui Second, the Cheburashka Zwei goes for the blunt symbolism of combining Lise’s machine with Irisdina’s head.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with the direct approach, of course.  In the novels, the Zwei was introduced at the end of the 6th novel, directly after Lise’s execution.  I actually panicked a little as episode 11 started up and there was no mention of Theodor’s new TSF.  The introduction of the main character’s custom mech is always one of the high points of any mecha anime, and while I can understand that the anime doesn’t have a lot of time to waste and needs to cut out scenes that don’t move the story along, I would have been very sad if the Zwei was brought onto the show without the usual fanfare.  But I needn’t have worried – the anime simply moved the introduction to the end of episode 11, to coincide with Theodor being appointed squadron leader (which I don’t think specifically happened in the novels either – but since Gretel was gone and Theodor had the strongest TSF, I guess he was kind of squadron leader by default in the novels as well).  And of course, it came with all the typical mecha anime flourishes, including the vocal track performed by composer Evan Call that he was keen to promote in his interview.

(By the way, the Cheburashka Zwei actually appears in the opening credits – Theodor pilots it at the very end.  When the anime first started, and people were wondering if the show would actually cover the entire story, the presence of the Zwei was another clear piece of evidence that it would.  How many of you managed to notice it?)

That was a lot about Lise.  I guess we should talk about some of the other characters.  Katia steps up in a big way in these episodes, first in episode 8 when she reveals herself to Heim, and then in episode 12 when she makes her broadcast to the entire country.  What always stands out to me in these moments is how Katia has changed since we first met her.  Over the course of the story, she’s learned a lot about how this country works, and she’s lost much of her old innocence, but she hasn’t actually changed her core philosophy.  Faced with the reality of the world, she doesn’t back down from her frankly naive stance, but rather fortifies it with the strength to push forward in the face of reality.  Seeing her onstage in the final episode, I think it’s easy to imagine how another character from a different show might have presented her speech with the same simple-minded naivete that characterized her early appearances.  When I think of that, I really appreciate how difficult it must be to bring a character like Katia to a point where she can openly acknowledge the horrible things she’s seen, while still holding to her optimistic belief that we can do better.

Gretel is another character who really steps up during this last stretch of episodes.  More than anyone else, Gretel winds up occupying a position that nobody could have predicted at the beginning of the story, taking over as leader of the Schwarzesmarken squadron in Irisdina’s absence and serving as one of the heads of the revolution.  I like the story of Gretel’s journey a lot; in some ways I think she’s my favorite character.  That said, I get the feeling the author of Schwarzesmarken, Hiroki Uchida, got a little too attached to Gretel as well.  It shows in the way he portrays the end of her scene in the Stasi Files room.  In the novels, as she lays dying while the Stasi Files burn around her, she just so happens to come across a file near her that just so happens to contain a file on her old crush.  This is in reference to her Requiem side-story, in which a boy she liked was taken away by the Stasi.  This scene stood out to me when I first read it because, up to this point, Uchida had been very careful not to make such blatant references to the Requiem stories in the main series.  The main series had made several small references before – Kurt, for example, made some vague references to his Requiem story while talking to Katia – but these were bonuses for readers who had read the side-stories as well.  Readers who only read the main series and hadn’t read the side-stories would still be able to follow the plot.  Gretel’s scene here was the first time I felt that the audience would be completely lost without having read her Requiem story – they would have no idea what the file was, or why Gretel was so emotional upon reading it.  It felt like Uchida bent the rules a little because he wanted Gretel to have this moment, even if it meant some readers might be lost.  It’s an obvious moment for the anime to cut, and seeing the anime version of the scene, I remain convinced that the scene works better without such a complete coincidence coming out of nowhere, with no buildup in the main story whatsoever.

In the serialized version of the story, Gretel never appears again after this scene, leaving the impression that she had died.  I kind of liked the idea of her having a heroic death here.  However, when the story was collected as a novel, a special epilogue was added – the same one that appears at the end of the anime.  I find the reveal that Gretel had miraculously survived a little underwhelming.  The novel version of the scene strongly implies that the same boy from the Requiem story, whose file Gretel coincidentally found, also coincidentally happened to be a member of the revolution, and had coincidentally managed to arrive on the scene and save her at the last second.  I find this even more underwhelming.  It, again, feels like the author liked Gretel too much to allow her to die, and contrived a feel-good scenario to give Gretel a happy ending.  To be honest, there was a part of me that was kind of hoping the anime wouldn’t have time to include a scene showing Gretel surviving the fire.  But I guess that’s asking a little much.

There’s not a ton to say about Irisdina.  She barely appears, after all.  (When the 6th novel came out, people were wondering why Irisdina got to be on the cover when she doesn’t appear in the story at all.)  This last section of the story is very much about the people she brought together carrying on her will without her.  Series creator Kouki Yoshimune mentioned something interesting, that it’s possible Lise isn’t completely wrong to say that Irisdina is only using Theodor as a pawn.  I think it’s worth looking back at her character in that interpretation.  She does say, several times, that she doesn’t truly have a will of her own, that she lives only to serve the will of those who have passed on, like her brother.  It’s not outrageous to think that such a person might care more about how other people can serve that will than about the people themselves.  In episode 3, Irisdina outright admits that she made Theodor take care of Katia because she knew he would see Lise in her – that’s pretty emotionally manipulative of her.  I’m not sure I buy into it completely, but it’s an interesting idea worth thinking about.

I got the first Schwarzesmarken Blu-Ray disc in a while back, and I was surprised and pleased to find that each disc will come with a booklet with notes from author Hiroki Uchida on each episode.  One interesting thing that Uchida reveals in the notes for episode 2 is that, during the script meetings for the anime, he and director Tetsuya Watanabe had a long discussion about the scene where Irisdina executes her brother Jurgen.  This was right about the time that Uchida was about to start writing Bernhard im Schatten, a Schwarzesmarken prequel story focusing on Irisdina, Beatrix, and Jurgen, and Uchida mentions that the discussion they had helped shape the story he was about to write.  In episode 12, you can clearly see how this discussion also influenced the anime, as it is packed with references to the relationship between the three characters.  Almost none of these references existed in the original novel (in fact, I don’t think Jurgen even had a name at the time – he was just “Irisdina’s brother”).  These references especially help shed light on Beatrix’s state of mind, suggesting that she believes, in her own way, that she is carrying on Jurgen’s will in helping to save the world.  These new additions, along with her much more sympathetic portrayal in Bernhard im Schatten, help to make Beatrix a much more rounded character – she’s kind of a one-note villain in the original novels.

Now that I’m reevaluating Beatrix as a character, it occurs to me that she and Axemann are set up to represent different types of evil.  Beatrix is someone who believes wholeheartedly in what she is doing – it’s just that what she is doing is evil.  Axemann, however, has no ideology.  He seeks only to gain power for himself.  He was part of the Stasi because he held power there.  When things went south, he sought an alliance with the revolution, extracting a promise that he would be part of their new government.  When it looked like they were going to lose, he threw in with Beatrix and the Moscow faction.  And when the people started to rise up against them, he hoped to seek refuge with the CIA.  He has no cause – he will serve whoever will keep him in power.  So there’s something to think about: who is the greater evil?  The one who devotes herself mind and soul to an evil cause?  Or the one who serves, but has no loyalty to, an evil cause?

And that’s it for Schwarzesmarken.  Once Bernhard im Schatten finishes, it will be time for Age to move on to their next major Muv-Luv franchise, Duty -Lost Arcadia-.  Duty got its start in Hobby Japan’s Tactical Surface Fighter in Action series, and a Chronicles story featuring its characters is included with Photonmelodies.  However, these were merely a preview of the franchise.  Sometime this year (tentatively – you never know with these guys), they’re planning to launch the main series.  They already have an author for the series lined up – Ryou Yoshigami, currently writing a series of Psycho-Pass tie-in novels.  Several people involved with the series, including creator Kouki Yoshimune and Akira Yamazaki, have noted that since Duty features a German battalion set in the present day, it features a common German lineage with Schwarzesmarken, and they have hinted that surviving characters from Schwarzesmarken could conceivably appear in Duty (aged 18 years older, of course).  Who might appear in Duty?  Could it have anything to do with Yoshimune’s warning to pay attention to Theodor’s line from the final episode?

“Even if they call me an enemy of humanity . . .”

Schwarzesmarken 04-07

February 28, 2016

We’re through the middle stretch of episodes, which largely center around Lise and the question of where her loyalties lie. In the novels Lise’s return was a complete surprise, in my opinion one of the largest in the series. For both the game and the anime, Lise appears quite prominently in promotional materials, including listing her as a member of the Schwarzesmarken squadron on their web sites. The anime includes her in the OP and ED as well. I’m not sure I like that, but I guess it’s simply far too late to try to keep her a secret now that all the novels are out.

Episodes 4 and 5 tell the story of the 3rd novel, centering around Operation Neptune. I think anyone who’s read my Total Eclipse stuff knows I love exploring the international relationships of the Alternative world, so obviously I love getting to see the West German and American armies here. Schwarzesmarken mostly concerns itself with the internal strife within East Germany, so this is pretty much the only time when we get to see the shape of the larger world in this much detail. The scene at the end of episode 4, where we see exactly what the West thinks of East Germany, is a powerful scene, but one that has to tread a careful line – while it’s a common trope for a newly introduced team to look down on our good guys, in this particular case I think objectively most viewers would side with the West. Certainly this is not a show looking to glorify East Germany or prove its superiority over the West.

The story ends, then, not with an explicit rebuke of the West but with an alliance. It’s a powerful display of Katia’s ideals – by convincing the West German army to come to their aid, she hopes to build a bridge between the two Germanys. And it’s also a significant step forward for Irisdina’s plan – by coming together for a common goal, she hopes to prove themselves to the West and form friendships so that they might be more willing to come to the aid of the East Germans when things go south. The story ends with the Americans explicitly calling the Schwarzesmarken squadron their buddies, and with the West Germans offering a salute to them. This essentially serves as the halfway point of the story, and it’s a hopeful note to end on.

Episode 6 covers the 4th novel, which is a very talky novel with pretty much no action scenes at all. It’s basically concerned with moving the various pieces into place in preparation for the second half of the story. It’s here that we first learn of the split between the two factions of the Stasi. Beatrix’s Moscow faction, using the information they pulled from Marei’s interrogation, have begun a purge of top NVA officials, in preparation of an all-out coup. I always found this an especially tragic end for Marei, who Hannibal entrusted with his greatest secrets, only for her to leak them to the Stasi. Meanwhile, Axemann’s Berlin faction, feeling threatened by the Moscow faction, has begun trying to recruit the Schwarzesmarken squadron to their side. At the same time, Irisdina has begun trying to strengthen her hand as well, by trying to hook up with sympathizers in the capital. As I said, it mostly leads to a lot of talking, and setting up the conflicts that will come down the road. I’m not at all surprised they devoted only one episode for this novel; I would definitely have done the same.

As with all the novels, there are number of small scene cuts that don’t affect the story much. There is, however, one major cut to the novel: after Axemann publically accuses Lise of being a Stasi spy, Lise collapses and is taken to the infirmary. That night, she receives a call from Axemann himself, confirming that she is in fact a Stasi spy, and that contrary to what Axemann had said earlier, he is well aware of this. So why did he expose her to the rest of the squadron? As Pham notes, this allows Lise to deflect suspicion by confronting it head-on. The rest of the squadron already suspects her, so Axemann’s statement changed nothing except to allow Lise to address their suspicions directly, whereas before Irisdina and the others plotted against her in secret, and she was powerless to respond. By accusing them of suspecting her, Lise can force them to deny it and play on their sympathies.

It’s an interesting scene to cut, since it’s such an important scene in the novels and game (the first game actually ends right on this scene, a pretty brutal revelation to leave players hanging on). I think the anime staff was interested in exploring how the storyline plays without the reveal that Lise does in fact work for the Stasi. Certainly the scene where Sylvia and the rest of the squadron confront Lise on the rooftop plays out very differently. Despite the increasing suspicion laid on her, viewers still feel that there is a very real possibility that Lise is innocent, and that affects how the scene comes across immensely. Other scenes, like the infamous seduction scene, also come across very differently without that solid proof. And it really builds up the end of episode 7 – now, instead of learning of Lise’s true affiliation through a telephone call, we learn it when Lise holds a gun to Irisdina’s head. It’s definitely a much more shocking way to learn the truth. What I find especially interesting is how this one cut changes the feel of so many scenes afterwards, without actually changing the story. In a sense, the anime lets us see the same scenes from the novels from Theodor’s point of view – he continues to believe in Lise long after the novels have revealed that she can’t be trusted, and the anime lets us see things from that perspective. I’ve written before about how I’m interested in seeing different tellings of the same story, and this is a great example of it.

Episode 7 covers the 5th novel, and this time there are a number of bigger cuts to the story. Some of them follow logically from the cut from the previous episode. In the scene where Lise asks Theodor to flee with her to West Germany, in the novel she basically admits to Theodor that she had indeed worked with the Stasi, but that she only did it to reunite with him, and that her time with the Stasi has given her the opportunity to memorize the border patrol movements so they should be able to make it across the border. After Theodor makes it clear to Lise that he is going to stay and assist Irisdina with her revolution, Lise eventually offers to work with them and give them her knowledge of the Stasi in order to help their plans. That in turn leads to the ending we see in the episode, where Lise betrays them when the Stasi attack. That’s quite a chunk of story to cut away, but as mentioned before, this entire plotline was cut so that the reveal that Lise is working with the Stasi would come at this point instead of earlier. I’m a little more conflicted about these cuts than the ones in the previous episode, but ultimately, as I said, I understand that they wanted to present a different point of view to Lise’s story, so any reference to Lise working with the Stasi needed to be cut.

There was one scene that I was sad to see cut. Like most of the cuts the anime has made, this was not particularly important to the story; I just liked it a lot personally, so I feel like flagging it. In the anime, we see Gretel disguise herself by pulling her hair into a ponytail and taking off her glasses. In the novels, she actually is confronted by the Stasi, but convinces them she is not a soldier by pretending to piss herself (in reality, she had soaked a handkerchief with water). Afterwards, she reveals that she based her disguise – the ponytail, and just her general demeanor – on Katia, who, presumably, was the person who looked the least like a real soldier out of everyone she knew. She also admits that she drew on the idea of pissing herself from Katia as well. I liked this scene a lot because it really was the first time I thought Gretel was an awesome character. The novels come with an illustration for this scene which really does make Gretel look just like Katia. I was also amused by the idea that even Gretel had so internalized the idea of Katia pissing herself that one just naturally leads to the other.

Oh, I suppose I should probably say something about Katia pissing herself. Irisdina mentions it at the start of episode 2, but in the novels, Theodor comes back to this idea again and again. In fact, at times it seems like he’s not even capable of having a conversation with her without teasing her about this. The worst part comes at the end of episode 5 – as the Americans and West Germans are bringing the Schwarzesmarken squadron back to base, Theodor teases Katia about this over an open mic, meaning pratically everybody involved in Operation Neptune now knows about poor Katia pissing herself. It’s such an integral part of her character that it feels a little odd to watch the anime and not see it mentioned constantly, but the anime seems to want to set a more serious tone than the novels. I kind of miss it, but I also can’t complain too much if the anime wants to strike out the more comedic elements of the novel. There are many other such cuts that I approve quite highly of – for example, I find Annet to be a really annoying character in the novels (she’s essentially Schwarzesmarken’s version of Yifei – a girl with a very stereotypical high-school crush on Theodor that is completely at odds with the rest of the story).

I assume they cut down the 5th novel into one episode as well because they wanted more space for the final two novels, and if that’s the case, I can’t say I blame them. What’s coming up next is without question the best part of the story, and the anime staff apparently want the time to do it justice. The final act of the series is very, very different from what we’ve seen so far . . .

Schwarzesmarken 01-03

January 31, 2016

Pretty much any in-depth discussion of the Schwarzesmarken anime so far has to center on the show’s episode count. At only 12 episodes, this is going to be a much faster-paced anime than Total Eclipse (or, for that matter, most anime in general). This is actually much less of a problem than it may first seem. Total Eclipse was an in-depth character study, and it needed the breathing room to build up its character relationships. Schwarzesmarken is more of a political thriller, where character development is less important than the tension created by the plot. In fact, it may even be to the show’s benefit to keep things moving at a fast pace, not allowing viewers to catch their breath.

It helps, immensely, to have a director like Tetsuya Watanabe at the helm. He was the director of the Kimi ga Nozomu Eien anime, which was also heavily arranged from the original work. The high school era of KimiNozo took up almost half of the original game, but the anime fits the whole story into only two episodes. And yet, these two episodes feel completely natural. They convey the entire story necessary to understand the rest of the series, and nothing feels missing from them. The rest of the series continued to show an amazing understanding of how to translate from a game medium to television. It was that attention to detail that I believed in when Watanabe was announced as the director of Schwarzesmarken. Watanabe is even credited alongside the anime’s story editor Tatsuto Higuchi for writing the script to the first episode, suggesting a pretty heavy involvement in arranging the story.

Given only 12 episodes to adapt 7 novels, Watanabe has made the decision to combine the first two novels into a single story, essentially by combining the final battle of the first novel with the first battle of the second novel. The way it’s done is virtually seamless, to the point where I highly doubt any anime viewer would be able to tell that these three episodes used to be two separate stories. Here’s a good example of what was involved in combining the two novels together: in the original novels, the Schwarzesmarken were originally assigned to Cottbus Base, under the command of Holzer Hannibal. After Hannibal’s death at the end of the first novel, the team is reassigned to Bebersee Base in the second novel. In the anime, the team starts at Bebersee Base, which is now the one under Hannibal’s command. This allows them to remove all of the material in the second novel related to the team being reassigned, which is pretty superfluous and doesn’t contribute to the actual story. All of this is done without the anime viewer noticing that anything is missing. It’s those kinds of details which I find very impressive.

Let’s take a look at the characters of the story. Combining the first two novels into one story turns out to be quite a genius move for Theodor’s character, since Theodor actually goes through a similar character arc in both novels. By the end of the first novel, he’s thrown his lot in with Katia, but in the second novel, he again goes through the process of giving Katia the cold shoulder and then learning to accept her. By compressing them into a single story, Theodor’s character growth becomes much easier to follow. Now it’s the threat of Katia being stranded at Fort Neuenhagen that drives Theodor’s original revelation that, much as he may deny it, he cannot betray Katia. It is, again, a solid way to get Theodor’s character across in a shorter amount of time.

By the end of this storyline, it is revealed that Irisdina sold out and ultimately killed her brother Jurgen at his behest, in order to keep her safe – she would likely have been killed alongside her brother otherwise. In the years since, she has worked in secret to carry on her brother’s will and overthrow the Stasi. I don’t remember if it’s ever explicitly mentioned in the novels, but it’s definitely strongly implied that this is the hidden reason behind the people she has recruited for her squadron. Theodor hates the Stasi for what they did to his family. Sylvia is Polish. Pham is a 2nd-generation Vietnamese. Inghild was a Junker. These characters aren’t just included for the sake of diversity – Irisdina has purposely scouted pilots who have reason to hate or fear the status quo in East Germany, and who could potentially be persuaded to take part in a revolution against the Stasi.

As for Katia, she’s a pretty straightforward character thus far. Although she is, for the most part, a flighty girl who doesn’t understand the real world, episode 3 does a lot to show that she is in the process of growing beyond that. Her best scene is at the end of episode 3, when she allows Theodor to burn the only picture of her father, to prevent such incriminating evidence from ever falling into the hands of the Stasi. It’s a clear sign that she is now growing capable of acknowledging the world around her.

The scenes with Hannibal and his second-in-command, Marei Heisenberg, reminded me that the game adaptation of the novels adopted an odd philosophy in which the story is told from Theodor’s perspective as much as possible. That means that most scenes involving Hannibal and Marei were cut entirely – I believe the only time they ever show up in the game is in the single scene shown at the end of episode 2, where Theodor is present as Hannibal dies. That means that Hannibal’s early hints that there is more to Irisdina than the rumors suggest are cut. Marei’s storyline, which as we saw at the end of episode 3 continues on past Hannibal’s death, is cut as well. Virtually all scenes with the Stasi are cut for the same reason – we only see Beatrix and Axmann when they interact directly with the Schwarzesmarken squadron. The game doesn’t follow this rule 100% – all of the scenes at Fort Neuenhagen are told from Katia’s perspective, and are too important to simply cut completely – but it’s still very odd. Games usually are told from a single POV, but the Muv-Luv games have been very active about breaking this rule, so I’m puzzled why they suddenly felt the need to change this. Luckily, the television medium generally embraces different perspectives, so the anime is free to leave these scenes in. It’s an interesting look at how the medium a story is being told in can change the way the story is told.

Kurt Griebel, the soldier who looked after Katia at Fort Neuenhagen, has an interesting history in publication. He first showed up in the 33rd installment of TSFiA, a monthly column in Hobby Japan magazine that depicted short scenes in Muv-Luv history. A few months later, he made his major debut in a short story included in TSF Cross Operation 2. This story, like all short stories included in the Cross Operation series, was eventually republished in a series of short-story collections called Schwarzesmarken Requiem. This short story was intended as a teaser for Schwarzesmarken, which was set to debut a few months later. The story focuses on Kurt’s tank unit, and includes only a short appearance by the Schwarzesmarken squadron at the very end, when Irisdina ignores his unit’s cries for help. At the time, while other writers had written short stories or segments of TSFiA, only series creator Kouki Yoshimune had written for a major Muv-Luv franchise, so I was a little worried about finally letting someone else write a full-length story. This short story went a long way towards convincing me that Schwarzesmarken writer Hiroki Uchida was going to do a good job here.

Kurt’s second-in-command, Vivi, also has an interesting history. In the novels, she didn’t even have a name – she just shows up, gives Katia a hard time, then gets eaten less than 10 pages later. The game mercifully grants her a name and a little more screentime, letting her appear alongside Kurt when he is first introduced. The anime is even more merciful, granting her a somewhat tragic death, whereas in the novel her death is almost comical. (Well, I laughed, anyway. Maybe that was mean of me, in retrospect.) Vivi’s actress, Moemi Otaka, also happens to be working as an assistant on Age’s weekly Nico Live broadcasts at the moment.

Let’s close out with some notes on the production. This time around, the theme songs are performed by the show’s lead characters – Yoshino Nanjou (Lise) is the vocalist for OP artist fripside, while Nozomi Yamamoto (Irisdina) and Minami Tanaka (Katia) sing the ED together. Some interesting names can be found in the OP credits as well. Akira Yamazaki is actually credited as a producer for the anime – Yoshimune describes him as the man who runs a lot of the day-to-day work on the Muv-Luv franchise nowadays, and he worked closely with Hiroki Uchida and their editor on the Schwarzesmarken novels. Fans may also recognize his name as the writer of The Day After. For the Total Eclipse anime, he was credited as a Setting Supervisor, but it looks he moved up for this anime. Speaking of the Total Eclipse anime, there’s another familiar name in the credits – Hiroyuki Taiga, one of the mechanical designers and mechanical animation directors from TE, is back for Schwarzesmarken as a “TSF director”. That only makes sense – this way, Schwarzesmarken can build on the technical know-how from the previous anime rather than starting from scratch.

Both the novels and the game make heavy use of spoken German, such as Irisdina’s common phrase “Achtung” and the squadron’s call numbers. The anime replaces pretty much all of these with Japanese. The reasoning, apparently, is that the novels and game use Japanese text, which can show both kanji and furigana to indicate both the German pronunciation and the Japanese meaning. The anime can only use the spoken word, so there is a risk that viewers will not understand the German words being used. This is a pretty fair reason, particularly for call numbers, since it is important to be able to keep track of people on the battlefield. It also makes a lot of sense since technically the characters are supposed to be speaking German all the time, so a mix of Japanese and German words isn’t very logical. Uchida is the first to admit that the use of German words in the story is just to make it sound cool.

One final note for those people watching the show on Crunchyroll – this time around, they seem to have gotten someone who actually knows what they’re doing, since the subtitles avoid the major flaws that plagued their TE subs. That means using “Pilot” instead of “Eishi”, translating military ranks correctly, and sparing us the embarrassing sight of Germans using Japanese phrases and honorifics. This is a particularly good sign if a future US release winds up using these subtitles as well. If only the person working on this show could go back and redo the Total Eclipse subs . . .

Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse – Collection 2 (Sentai Filmworks)

May 12, 2015

Sentai’s first release went well enough.  Despite my reservations about several translation choices, I was more or less satisfied with the show’s English dub, and even hoped that, having laid down the foundation, the second half could build upon it and do even better.  So how the hell did we get here?

This is a flat-out sloppy release.  Sentai is notorious for pumping shows out at a ridiculously fast pace with little or no quality control.  I had hoped that the reasonably solid first collection was a sign that they were righting the ship, but no, here we have a release that is everything Sentai’s detractors always say about them.

Let’s start with the subtitles.  I mentioned that the first release cleaned up the Crunchyroll subtitles by standardizing the various terms, which was immensely helpful because the Crunchyroll subs were all over the place.  No such QC happened in this release, so terms like Shiranui Second and XFJ Project are referred to with various different translations (Shiranui 2, Shiranui Type 2, XFJ Plan) depending on the episode.  It’s not a question of the “right” translation – I understand and accept that the translators generally won’t have access to all the reference materials published in Japan which spell out the official English translations.  But any decent translation will have ONE translation, kept standard across the whole show, so the viewer can actually keep track of what’s going on.  This is such a basic requirement that the fact that this release turned out this way pretty much means nobody at Sentai bothered to take even a cursory pass at the subtitles.

The dub is, astonishingly, even worse.  The first collection used “2nd Lieutenant” and “1st Lieutenant” for 少尉 and 中尉, which corresponds to the actual US Army ranks.  This collection reverts back to Crunchyroll’s “Ensign” and “Lieutenant”.  Again, to a large extent, I don’t even care which one is correct – the fact that characters are referred to with two different ranks over the course of the show is what makes this such a sloppy dub.  And it gets worse!  There are several scenes in the dub where the same character is referred to by different ranks in the very same scene – once even in adjacent lines!  It boggles the mind how little care must have gone into the dub for something like this to happen so regularly.

(Also, while we’re talking about ranks, the Crunchyroll subs tended to use “Commander” as a catch-all translation for anybody above the rank of Captain, regardless of their actual rank, which is a terrible shortcut for a military show where it’s important to know who actually outranks whom.  Once upon a time, I had hoped that Sentai would correct this, but obviously that didn’t happen.)

There were many, many mistakes which give the dub a sense of being slapped together on the fly.  On at least two occasions that I counted, Yui refers to herself as “Takamura Yui”, rather than in Western name order (as she does in the first collection).  This seems to have been done not out of some sort of dedication to Japanese name order, but simply because that’s the way the Crunchyroll subs did it, and whoever wrote the dub script didn’t care enough to check what her name actually was.  On several occasions, the dub uses the word “Fleet” instead of “Flight” (as in “Argos Fleet”).  This happens often enough that it can’t just be somebody flubbing a line.  There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to when this happens.  The dub script this time is credited to a huge team of writers, and the dub has the feel of having sent different sections of the script to different writers just to get the job done on time, without any coordination between them.

And now, the worst part of the dub: there are many, many instances where lines were just flat-out not recorded at all.  There’s just a gap in the conversation where a person’s line was supposed to go, making the next character’s line incomprehensible.  These gaps always occur when a character is off-screen, making it clear what happened: the process of recording the dub was so rushed that, when recording a single character’s lines, they primarily watched for when that character’s lips were moving, and accidentally missed a few scenes when that character had a line off-screen.  That’s how rushed the production on this dub was – not only did they miss recording several lines, but when assembling the dub afterwards, they either ran out of time to call the actor back in or didn’t even realize those lines were missing at all.  I’m just flabbergasted at this point.  I can’t remember the last time I saw a dub where lines were just plain missing.

I suppose we can, at this point, talk about the dub performances.  The returning cast pretty much maintains their quality from the first collection.  I don’t have any real complaints about the returning cast, except Krystal LaPorte, who still just doesn’t sound much like Yui.  I had hoped that she might ease into the role more as Yui opens up in the second half, but if anything, she struggles with Yui’s lighter moments, playing her much more comedic and broad than Yui should be.  That’s the kind of thing a director should be helping her reign in, but unfortunately, it’s become obvious that, at least during the second half, this is not a dub that was lavished with care.  The other major roles, who are mostly filled with veterans, come across much better, perhaps as a result of their experience despite the poor conditions the dub was recorded in.  Corey Hartzog as Yuuya continues to be the strongest performance here, and it was often his work that kept me going even as the dub’s shoddy production became obvious.

Interestingly, all the major new characters in the second half are staffed with completely new actors, with no major credits for any of them.  I don’t know if that’s related to the lack of effort put into this half.  Interestingly, Yifei was played by Emily Neves (who normally plays Natalie and other minor characters) during her brief appearances in the first half, apparently because the dub staff didn’t realize she was going to be a major character.  In this half, she’s played by Sara Ornelas, and she’s probably the strongest of the new actors cast.  The rest of the new characters – Leon, Sharon, and the members of the RLF – sound pretty rough.  Again, I suspect this is because newer actors require more time and direction to hone their performances, and those things are clearly missing from the production.

The dub for the first half was a stronger effort than I had expected from a company of Sentai’s reputation, so I had hoped that it was a sign that they had started putting more effort into their dubs.  This, though, is just a mess.  It’s clearly been thrown together with the absolute minimum of money and effort.  It’s such a shame.  One reason I had looked forward to the English dub of Total Eclipse is that it is a very rare anime that is actually set in America, and in which the characters are canonically speaking English.  If it had turned out well, it could have felt even more authentic to watch the show in English than in Japanese.  I suppose it’s not a total loss – I did get to hear some very solid English voices for many of the main characters.  But this is not a dub I’ll be going back to again.  It’s a horribly wasted opportunity.

When I first heard that Sentai got the license, my immediate reaction was that I wished somebody else – anybody else – had picked it up.  I then regretted that reaction and vowed to give them a fair chance.  And now that I’ve given them a fair chance . . . I wish somebody else had picked it up.