Student Council President Hotaru Tachibana has a strong sense of justice, and just cannot help confronting people who perform malicious acts. After hearing a rumour that a female student has been wronged at a host club, Hotaru storms the place and confronts the host in question, pretty boy Masamune Matsuoka – however the last thing that Tachibana expects is to be dueling him with airsoft guns. After a prompt defeat, Masamune uses his victory to get Hotaru to join his failing airsoft team, Toy Gun Gun, to repay for damages done during the match. What he totally misses is that the newest man on his team isn’t a man at all, but a girl! Due to Toy Gun Gun’s policy on female members, Tachibana absolutely cannot expose this fact to Masamune, or risk having to foot the expensive damages bill. Despite being reluctant at first, Hotaru soon comes to enjoy airsoft, and aims to win the Top Combat Game, a tournament to decide the best airsoft team in Japan.
As each season of new anime comes and goes, you soon come to realise that sword and sorcery action shows are a dime a dozen, but shows with a focus on gun combat are surprisingly rare. I’m not sure if that’s a byproduct of writers preferring writing fantasy settings over realistic ones, or purely because sword or magic fighting is more popular, but despite America’s long-standing penchant for gun-toting heroes in action films and TV, it hasn’t ever really been a thing in anime. Sure, you have the absolute holy grail in the form of the kick-ass Black Lagoon, but I’d struggle to name you too many others, which is a real shame. Both in and outside of the medium of anime, gun fights can be very bit as thrilling, fun and slick as any other form of action, anyone who has seen a John Wick film can attest to that, and it’s certainly something I’d like to see more of. This is what initially piqued my interest about Aoharu x Machinegun, a sports show based around airsoft survival games, as I hoped it could fill the gun-shaped void in my heart, albeit without the actual death. Despite the initial appeal, it wasn’t the gunplay that won me over in the end, but pretty much every other aspect, surprisingly.
With an anime featuring three gun-wielding characters on the front cover and Machinegun right there in the title, you’d expect the airsoft battles to be the centerpiece of this particular show. The first thing you are shown as you begin watching is the OP, full of energetically animated, acrobatic and impressive looking battles, and the end of the first episode features a similar sequence, being chock-full of style and flair, and generally just being fun, pumping you up for the longer and even better action scenes to come. Except, those scenes don’t come. Not really. With a couple of exceptions, all of the airsoft sequences are short, infrequent and directed in a rather pedestrian manner, lacking most of the excitement seen early on. You get the occasional glimpse of it here and there, but it’s over before it’s even begun, and never amounts to much. I guess you could say it’s a realistic depiction of airsoft, but that certainly isn’t what I wanted out of a show like this, as I don’t tend to watch anime for realistic depictions of anything. The freedom that animation provides creators is boundless, and I love to see that pushed to its limits, which it sadly isn’t here.
Now, even though I just dedicated a whole paragraph to my disappointment with the main conceit of Aoharu, this is certainly a case of expectation management. I came into it expecting an action-packed shonen, hence the let-down with that particular element of it, yet as you progress further into the latter half, it becomes abundantly clear that it isn’t trying to be. At its heart, this show is a character drama, that just so happens to use airsoft in its premise and in that regard, it’s actually very good. It strays from your typical sports plot by keeping the sport mostly as a background element. In total, only 2 or 3 out of the 12 episodes focus on full matches, practically sprinting past the well-worn tournament arc in order to better serve its characters, rather than having them play matches that don’t directly impact the relationship between the core cast. The first half is purely focused on getting protagonist Hotaru to bond with her new team mates, before throwing in the conflict in the latter half, and it’s here where Aoharu hits its stride, with the drama making for compelling viewing, as we slowly learn about Toy Gun Gun’s past. Considering it’s only airsoft matches, Aoharu does an excellent job in making the stakes feel tangible and personal, injecting excellent tension in later episodes.
None of the drama would work if the cast of characters weren’t up to scratch, which in this case, they certainly are. Aoharu lasers in on a small group of only three protagonists, but this works in the show’s favour, as they all have equal time to grow, both on a personal level and as a group. Masamune easily has the most depth, at first appearing as a cocky but charismatic host, before the layers are peeled back to reveal a much more complex character. Yukimura, the third member of the team, and Hotaru are a little less fleshed out, but still see growth and change throughout, which is always nice to see, and both are generally likeable characters. I especially was a fan of Yukimura, a perverted and socially isolated erotic manga artist with a heart of gold, who provides many a decent chuckle throughout the series. I’d also be remiss not to mention the antagonist, a beloved doctor who turns into a total psychopath on the battlefield, and whom you just love to hate for reasons that become clear as the story unfolds.
As alluded to previously, the animation quality in Aoharu x Machinegun is superb, and I’d expect nothing less from the studio behind it, Brain’s Base. Most famous for both Durarara!! and Baccano!, you can definitely see their stylistic influence here during the airsoft games. I was also a big fan of the use of colour in some scenes too, in particular a highly stylised and vivid flashback sequence in the fifth episode.
Anime Limited’s release of Aoharu x Machinegun contains both the original Japanese audio track and an English dub produced by Sentai Filmworks. This may be setting off alarm bells for some, but I found the dub to be of a pretty good quality. Aside from an appearance from one of my least favourite voice actors, the ear-grating Greg Ayres, the cast is pretty solid and put in a decent effort. Cast members in the dub include Chis Patton (Full Metal Panic, The World God Only Knows, D.Gray-Man), Monica Rial (Monthly Girls Nozaki-kun, Monster Musume, Soul Eater) and Corey Hartzog (Gatchaman Crowds, Food Wars, Akame Ga Kill). Asami Tachibana (Darling in the FranXX, Haikyuu!, Seraph of the End) takes on music duty, providing a great, if not particularly memorable, soundtrack, a critique which carries over to the OP and ED too, performed by the Japanese voice cast.
Although it may not have been the action-filled romp I expected, Aoharu x Machinegun instead offers quality drama, focusing sharply on its small cast of well developed characters.