Daydreaming his way through school, Kouichi Hayase fantasizes about being the ‘ally of justice’, a protector of the weak and innocent… while his reality is far different. Awkward around girls and frequently picked on, Kouichi is quite clearly delusional and firmly in the ranks of the wannabes. Until, that is, circumstances conspire to gift Kouichi with command of the gigantic mecha Linebarrel (don’t ask how – it’s anime, remember?) and he finds himself suddenly conscripted into the JUDA organization. JUDA are embroiled in a bitter war with the evil Katou organization, a conflict which is poised to shake the world to its very core. Finally, it seems, Kouichi’s fantasies of being a valiant crusader for justice have been realised! But then, given how this initially goes to his head, that may not be a good thing…
This, then, is the premise of Gonzo’s Linebarrels of Iron, a 24 episode show (plus OVAs) that mixes up high school comedy, mecha mayhem and more than a little fan service. Perhaps its most notable credential is that it features character designs by Hisashi Hirai, whose distinct designs graced the Gundam SEED series.
Right from the outset, the biggest hurdle Linebarrels of Iron faces is that it’s one more show amid a morass of similar material. Mecha anime, perhaps more than any other sub-genre in the medium, has to have something tangibly unique going for it if it’s ever going to leave a mark. So how well does Gonzo’s show acquit itself in this crowded arena?
It’s a well produced series, certainly. Visually, it’s just dandy, with a great approach to the CG elements and their integration with the more traditionally animated stuff. Music is nicely varied as well, meaning that we avoid the dreaded ‘oh no! We only have three musical cues to choose from!’ syndrome. It’s a well executed, polished production, meaning the show never feels cheap – always something I’ve looked out for since the days of Gundam SEED’s endlessly re-used animation cycles.
In terms of the show itself, there are a few genuinely funny gags, and the fact that it doesn’t shy away from delivering a few unexpected surprises – including a couple of BIG ones halfway through – certainly stand in its favour. But for all it accomplishes in these areas, the show also throws in a few well-worn and predictable trappings and plot developments. The interesting premise of our hero initially being a bit of a douche, whose new-found agency has gone to his head, doesn’t really ring true for my tastes. Kouichi never seems identifiable as less than put-upon and unfortunate as opposed to outright dislikable. Sure, he makes some bad decisions and he slips up… but I was never left with the impression that maybe I shouldn’t be rooting for him, even when he was at his slimy, hormonal worst.
More disappointing, however, are the show’s fairly bland mecha designs – it actually took me until around Episode 20 before I could accurately put names to all of them – and rather one-dimensional characters. The cast is quite broad, and it would be inaccurate to say they’re not given much to do. They just don’t feel all that fully developed. There are sub-plots and arcs for minor characters, and some are better realised than others, but these tend to either feel lightweight or re-tread ground that may feel overly familiar to long-time fans of mecha shows or anime in general. It’s also not a show likely to win over feminists with its prediliction for amply endowed female characters, whose roles in the story seem somewhat perfunctory, and who appear quite frequently in a state of undress.
So that’s the bad. On to the good stuff!
What this show really has going for it is that it’s a pacey affair and doesn’t take forever to start going places. Early episodes are pretty propulsive, rattling through the story set-up before the show settles into its more comfortable routine of screwball comedy, gratuitous fan service and mecha action. And this is where your personal preference will be the deciding factor as to just how well you get on with the show. A bright red banner on the back of the DVD case proclaims that Gonzo’s effort provides ‘gritty mecha action’ – when really, what it offers is (for the most part) fairly undemanding entertainment. It’s never going to rival a show like Gundam OO for sheer mecha spectacle, or something like RahXephon for intelligent plotting and story development. But it never really tries to. It’s unapologetically silly stuff, and good fun with it. It’s hardly must-see material, and you may find the prevalence of quivering bosoms and dubious high-school sex comedy wearing. But there is something about the show that gives it an energetic feel and keeps things watchable.
So, here at the end of the review, I’m inclined to score the show pretty favourably, though you may want to lop a point or two off my rating if you find any of its afore-mentioned quirks difficult to take. Very much, it’s a show with a specific tone that hits the targets it sets for itself. It’s just a question of whether this particular flavour of mecha show is something you want to try.