Science fantasy mecha shows honestly aren’t as common as you might expect. When looking across the genre as a whole, just what notable titles stand out? Escaflowne, no doubt. Aura Battler Dunbine, perhaps. And there’s even an entry in the mighty Gundam franchise by way of Turn A Gundam. But once those heavyweights are out of the way, it honestly becomes tricky to name shows or franchises that mine this particular seam of giant robot anime.
So, a show like Broken Blade should come as a breath of comparatively fresh air. This six episode series tells the story of a world in which it is the norm for children to be born with the ability to magically manipulate a substance called quartz. During a time of war between neighbouring nations, this miraculous material is used to construct the frames of giant war machines called golems. Here we meet Rygart Arrow, a young man (voiced in Sentai’s dub by Greg Ayres) who enjoys the distinction of being born an ‘un-sorcerer’ – a rare individual unable to magically manipulate quartz. Rygart has, in younger years, made the acquaintace of future royalty, the king and queen of the state of Krisna. This acquaintance will see him thrust into the centre of the bitter warfare all around him when he discovers an ancient golem, the Delphine, which responds only to him. As he becomes further embroiled in the affairs of his old friends, he finds himself riding the Delphine into battle, reluctanty forced to confront the realities of battle. So far, so formulaic, I guess. But is the show’s payoff justification for its overused set-up?
Broken Blade frustrates initially by taking a little too long to show its strengths. Given the complex political backdrop of the story, which involves several warring nation states and players from all sides, I’d have appreciated having a little more clarity in the set-up as opposed to the typical Japanese character introspection we actually get. For me, all this scene-setting meant the series took until episode three to get interesting. By this point, the dynamic of the major characters and their interwoven histories is firmly set up, and it allows the show to serve up one of the gnarlier mecha battles I’ve seen since Gundam 00. And, let’s be honest, we came here wanting to see giant robots duke it out. So it’s a good thing the show delivers on that score.
The partnership of Production I.G. and Xebec really does serve up some exciting fight scenes. There’s an uncommon feeling of weight and heft to Rygart’s encounters with the enemy. In fact, it’s true to say that Broken Blade doles out a fair bit of grit in this regard. From the beaten-up look of the golems, to pilots commiting suicide in their cockpits rather than be taken prisoner, to the sheer spectacle of severed robot limbs and shattering oversized swords, this series sends the message loud and clear that giant robots fighting = SERIOUS BUSINESS. In fact, it’s this level of pick-your-teeth-up carnage that overcomes what was one of the show’s major problems for me, in that the golems themselves are, frankly, a bit boring to look at.
This merits a little consideration: Beyond premise, mecha shows generally stand or fall on the strength of their two major hooks – their cast of characters and their mecha designs. But to be blunt, the mecha of any given show are usually the face of that series and, for many fans, the most immediately appealing asset. So, in such a well-populated genre, it doesn’t hurt to have a unique selling point. While many a show simply aims to serve up a sexier lead mecha than the last, Broken Blade goes for designs that are a straight fit with the fantasy atmosphere. They have a feel that’s functional, as opposed to fancy. They’re well enough conceived to make them identifiable, but at the same time, they’re convincing as the front line weapons in the semi-fantasy nations-at-war setting. This extends to the fragility and unreliability of the golems in battle. They chip, crack, splinter and break in ways that’ll make you wince.
One aspect of the show that I did enjoy a great deal is that the golems are only ever as good as their pilots. Thus, we see a gamut of character types. Rygart is initially the over-confident, reckless golem rider. Zess, the untouchable, over-confident elite. We also see the common selection of determined soldiers, natural born prodigies and ruthless warriors that most shows of this type boast. We’re also treated to a good deal of pilot chatter, giving us the thought processes of the characters as they do battle. Nothing new there, and it borders on being an anime cliche. But it’s used very effectively here, helping to define the characters by their actions and show us who they are, right in the thick of the action – as well as generating a bit of all-important tension.
Unfortunately though, Broken Blade isn’t the world-beating mecha spectacle it could have been. There are several irksome problems that conspire to push it out of the leagues of the must-see mecha events. There are the aforementioned laborious opening episodes, which may establish the setting capably enough, but just aren’t an awful lot of fun. There’s also the issue of some rather forced and unwelcome fan service. I felt rather uncomfortable with the characterisation of Cleo, an awkward 12-year-old golem rider prodigy having, as a defining characteristic, breasts so large that one character actually comments on their unnatural size. It’s a jarring and dubious element that seems ill-judged in light of the show’s overall tone.
Another obtrusive problem is the downright silliness of certain scenes and plot developments – a couple of which inspire head-slapping incredulity. While these may be mitigated via reference within the script, they aren’t explained away with nearly enough credibility. On one hand we have the most inept and protracted attempt to save an owl chick from a cat (watch and be amazed as this life and death struggle is interrupted by Rygart’s need to formally introduce himself to an interloper). On another we have a psychotic golem rider and murderer whose own FATHER wants him dead… given a place in Rygart’s squad and trusted with an enormous, oversized weapon of war. Smart move! This contrived and occasionally absurd vein of story progression does tend to take the sheen off the show. And there’s just no denying that, a few extended action sequences aside, there’s a feeling that the show is taking 50 minutes per episode to give us as much story as could easily be told in 24. While each episode doesn’t feel overlong or superfluous, the format feels like an odd choice – especially given that the dramatic hook of an episode or a vital piece of information is occasionally relegated to a short post-credits scene. What makes this all so much more frustrating is the amount of story content that we’re not given – things that are hinted at or shown in passing, but go largely unexplored.
One particular aspect I found hard to stomach was that the world of Broken Blade is ostensibly populated by people with magical abilities who appear to only use them to pilot giant robots. Surely there’s more to it than that? Beyond a few blink-and-miss-them scenes of children levitating stones while playing in streets, there’s not much indication of how big a deal magic is in this world. Even Rygart’s status as an un-sorcerer is woefully underdeveloped. And indeed, ‘underdeveloped’ could be the tag line for this show. Characters are introduced as the story progresses in quite abrupt fashion, sometimes delivering their own backstory via a line or two of introductory dialogue. And sometimes, given the show’s willingness to kill characters, they disappear just as quickly, having spent far too little time with us for their passing to really mean anything to us. This is inelegant, unfulfilling storytelling, and the combination of all these faults makes Broken Blade a show that you’ll probably end up enjoying in spite of them, rather than entering whole-heartedly into. Your reward for the time invested in the series may feel disproportionate, too. Being based on a manga that was still in progress at the time of production, the series lacks a properly conclusive ending. A lot of character threads are left dangling unresolved by the time the credits roll for the last time.
On the upside, Broken Blade’s creators certainly knew what they wanted in terms of feel and tone, and never once compromise on it. The musical score (Yoshihisa Hirano) is arguably one of its greatest assets, using cues and rich, horn-led soundscapes that never let us forget the fantasy flavour of the story. Sentai’s dub is a pretty workmanlike affair, and could have a bit more character to it for my liking. But it’s all largely played straight, which is in keeping with the gritty fantasy vibe. The much-maligned Greg Ayres seems to have had his histrionic tendencies placed in check, which makes a potentially odd choice for the series lead work pretty well. And it must be said, this is a well animated show. We get the best of the visuals during those relentless mecha battles, which manage to create a palpable feeling of peril for the poor schmucks piloting them. Between the sights and the sounds, the desired atmosphere is pretty comprehensively captured, and it definitely helps make up for some of the show’s faults.
And there it is. I’m conscious that my criticisms of the show are scathing. But, to be fair, it’s not that bad. Broken Blade starts off treading the uneasy line between ‘slow burning’ and ‘turgid’. But once it finds its feet, it’s decent enough entertainment, and those fearsome battles make it just about worthwhile. There’s a lot about the show’s execution that made me scratch my head, but it kept me mostly engaged. Certainly, it’s a visual spectacle, with some beautifully fluid, theatrical feeling animation and impressive production values across the board. I wish the story had a bit more heart and substance, but what’s there is palatable enough.
I’d suggest this might not be your first choice of mecha show if you’ve got the itch to watch some giant robots, and it wouldn’t be the best intro to the genre for the newly interested. But mecha fans looking for a slightly different slant on things could do worse than to check it out.