In an alternate history, in 1945, strange alien creatures known as the Genjyu appear in the skies above Earth. Leaving a trail of poison and destruction wherever they roam, these creatures decimate the planet, and force the world’s nations to band together under a common flag.
In Japan, what this means is the institution of the Student Military Colleges, where school-age kids are taught the basic skills needed to get by in life: reading, writing, piloting giant HWT mecha, and how to kill a towering alien creature in three simple moves with the devastating PBE bomb.
This is the world of Gunparade March, a twelve episode series based on an arcade game of the same name, which focuses on Atsushi Hayami and his class mates in one of the aforementioned Student Military Colleges. Who make up the group known as Unit 5121. The long-standing conflict with the Genjyu is a part of their everyday school life, and things are about to be livened up by the arrival of a new student, who will have quite an effect on Hayami. Ah, school life!
Visually, Gunparade March is quite a good looking show. The quality of animation is above average, as opposed to very good, although some scenes stand out as being particularly pretty. There are some instances of superb, atmospheric lighting, and some tasteful CG effects. Very, very occasionally we’re even treated to some memorable imagery: the way the sun lights a scene as it sets, the way snow falls (all too often a dreadful, over-simplified effect in modern anime) and even the way dead leaves blow in the breeze. All are captured very well, representing the show’s visual highlights.
The show’s soundtrack, however, isn’t nearly as impressive. We’re presented with an upbeat opening theme, an end theme that could best be described as anodyne, while the in-show music is fairly bland stuff, comprising of some occasionally irritating spot music and the odd musical cue. It services the story pretty well, it must be said, with some rockin’ guitar for action scenes and some oppressive, morbid vocal tracks that underscore the bleakness of the show’s setting.
Something that’s noticeable from very early on, unfortunately, is that this is a show to watch with the subtitles running. The English dub cast are so universally wooden that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were tucked away in a special hospital somewhere, being treated for Dutch Elm disease! Lines are delivered awkwardly, with lack of emphasis or conviction in the performances – it’s a real and very disappointing throwback to the bad old days of English language dubbing.
But if there’s anything deserving of severe criticism in this show, sadly, it’s the story’s execution overall. Because let’s be under no illusions here: Gunparade March is made of solid clunk.
After a strong start, which throws us in at the deep end during one of Unit 5121’s operations against the alien menace, we’re shown the devastating effects of the PBE bomb super weapon. So far, so good. The stage is set in sterling fashion for an interesting sci-fi show. But then, no sooner have the characters dusted themselves down and congratulated themselves on a job well done, than things take an abrupt and alarming change of direction as the show settles into high school drama and unfunny comedy.
Worse, there are some aspects of this show that are tantalisingly set up but never once picked up on after only the briefest mention. For example, we’re told that Unit 5121’s youngest member is condemned to live her life permanently stuck at the age of eight as a result of genetic tampering. This is because she has a specific ability that enables her to activate the PBE bomb. Yet it’s never once disclosed what this ability is, or why this state of affairs exists. Similarly, there’s no effort made to explain who or what the Genjyu are, what their interest in Planet Earth is, or what possible motivations they could have. Are they intelligent creatures? Are they just beasts? We never find out.
Given the short length of the series, this slapdash flinging about of ideas with neither resolution nor farther reaching consequences is baffling. In spite of the broad continuation of events from one episode to the next, there’s almost no sense of momentum, where ideally the plot should be rattling along. Instead, what we’re given is a series of quite pedestrian slices of school life interspersed with far too infrequent mecha battles.
The show may be dressed up as a mecha series, but that aspect of Gunparade March is also woefully mishandled. With literally just three or four full-on scenes of the HWTs being taken into battle in the whole series, mecha fans are sold short. The HWTs do appear elsewhere, but mainly it’s under the auspices of training simulations, which feels like a cop-out. What’s really unforgivable, though, is the use of recycled animation for the later battle sequences, and if you’re expecting the series to end with a gigantic battle between mankind and the Genjyu, think again. It doesn’t happen.
By itself, that would be no bad thing. But what it means is that the spotlight falls all the more unforgivingly on the cast of broad anime archetypes, their interactions and story arcs. It’s here that the show has its biggest problems.
Diverting the audience’s attention away from the draw of the big shiny robots and scary aliens would be all well and good if we could sympathise with the characters and feel a sense of investment in their predicaments. But it’s just asking a bit too much here. For starters, with just a few exceptions, most of the expanded cast are too poorly developed to hold interest. Worse – and this is an issue not helped by the clunk-tastically inept dub – the two romantic leads are almost impossible to root for. Hayami comes across as a bumbling, indecisive drip, while Shibamura is so hostile and uptight that you can hardly see why Hayami would be so hung up on her. I didn’t want these two to get together so much as I wanted to slap them both into next week! Considering these are the only characters with any kind of substantial ongoing arc in the whole show, and how that arc becomes the show’s meatiest story content later on, their dislikeable nature is a crippling blow.
In the final analysis, what we have here is a show that is more likely to infuriate than it is to entertain. After a solid start, Gunparade March squanders its intriguing premise and settles much too comfortably into tepid will-they-won’t-they high-school romance territory. There’s a pervading feeling here that the creative team had no idea what to do with the different story elements – either that, or their budget constraints were too restrictive.
Without a doubt, this is the most disappointing anime I’ve seen in 2010. Had the show’s script been a little more adventurous and actually gone somewhere, Gunparade March could have been an entertaining way to spend an evening or two in front of the TV, in spite of its faults. As it is, what we have is a show that feels confused as to what sort of story it’s trying to tell, and never really feels like it gets on track.
A crying shame.