AniTAY has been growing at an ever-increasing rate lately, which is great to see, and comes predominantly from the coverage of each season’s releases; whether it be individual reviews or the collab, which always has more participants than the one before. However, even as anime marches on and currently airing or upcoming shows claim our attention, there is still benefit to returning to some of the older shows which deserve their place in the considerations of fans. Some originated or progressed the tropes we see in shows today, others still stand as solitary examples of varied style which have yet to be eclipsed. I intend to cover some of these, my own favourite selections, and hope others will follow suite; in addition, I’ll frequently also intend to go in-depth with each show by way of spoiler-intense explication; sometimes at the end of the review, sometimes as a separate article, examining why the shows deserve to be kept in our minds. And for my first attempt at this, I have chosen to cover a show which has never really been followed by anything quite like it: Vandread, AKA Gender Wars in Space.
Vandread opens with
an entirely accurate portrayal of women a somewhat scenery-chewing propaganda film depicting women as horrible demons whose existence is purely to torment men. In a smartly done cut, this is then shown to be playing on screens throughout an oppressive, imposingly-blocky cityscape and more pertinently, on the tv of our protagonist, a short loud-mouthed guy called Hibiki Tokai who we meet as he is simultaneously preparing for and regretting a task that his temper and stubbornness have cornered him into. As the propaganda continues in the background, we discover that humanity seems to be at war with itself, divided by gender, and the men are preparing to start their counterattack in a magnificently bombastic macho celebration with the launch of a new flagship, built around the old colony ship that first took their ancestors to this planet.
The launch is (so rudely) interrupted by an attack from fighters seemingly far more advanced than the clunky technology and industrial aesthetic we’ve seen in use by the men so far, and after a somewhat pathetic attempt at resistance the old section of the ship is boarded by what are identified as women, wearing spacesuits that really play up the demonic appearance rumour, who promptly round up the male crew (that they can find) and kick them out. In escape pods. Unwilling the let the women steal the venerated colony ship, the male command decides (with manly tears!) to jettison the old section and destroy it. Before the torpedos impact however, a strange light engulfs both the colony ship and the female vessel, and when it disappears, so have the ships.
A significant distance across the galaxy away the ships reappear, linked by the strange crystalline matrix the old colony ship used as a power plant which continues to fuse both vessels into a single, entirely new craft, as well as having altered three female fighters and one male mecha that were onboard. Taking stock of their new situation, the women discover three men have been taken along with them; Hibiki, a bishounen doctor named Deuro (who has a bad case of ennui and is just slightly dismissive of anything that bores him, such as physical threats or social protocol) and Bart, an opportunistic rich brat who generally serves as a buttmonkey, shortly before they are attacked by unknown enemies. The attack forces them to include the men in their response due to most of their own technology still being offline from whatever happened to them, and in the process they discover that the altered male Vanguard mech, piloted by Hibiki, can combine with the altered female Dread fighters to form an entirely new craft with overwhelming abilities, jointly controlled between Hibiki and the three respective female pilots: Dita, an airhead obsessed with “aliens” (which she includes men amongst) who is instantly fascinated by Hibiki (the first “alien” she’s ever met), Jura, a pretty, shallow, pretty shallow blonde, and Meia, the leader of the female Dread squadron and an emotionally- detached over-achiever, cold to her crewmates and aggressively disdainful of the men. Thus begins the process of men and women getting to know each other as they journey home, discovering that what they thought they knew about their universe is not-at-all how things actually are, and coming to see a great number of things differently as their experiences force them to grow, including themselves.
An Interestingly Different Portrayal Of The Gender Divide
Modern media has a somewhat stereotypical depiction of the roles of men and women; Men are action-based, do-ers, always confident and proactive, yet blunt and uncomplicated, verging towards simplistic. The vast majority of male characters are sourced from this rough area and taken in a direction either to exaggerate these traits: giving the brute, the callous jerk, the abusive user or the stupid manchild, or to subvert them: providing the sensitive listener, the passive supporter or the wimp. Women on the other hand are reactive, more subdued, more nuanced, often depicted as having a better understanding of the world around them and quite commonly with a vague infusion of superiority, deserved in-universe or not. Their exaggerations lead to the meek wallflower, the “Little Girl” (regardless of age), the full-blown Object or the Moral Angel, whilst their subversions trend toward being a ball-buster, a bitch, the gender avenger or the slutty temptress. Whilst serving well-enough for the majority of media requirements and being loosely sourced from observable gender differences (Subjective! Circumstantial! Apocryphal!) when they are all we ever get, they cease to be able to provide much utility to new stories. They become limitations, both for the medium and those who are influenced by it in real life.
Vandread, whilst nodding at these, rapidly moves in it’s own, fresh direction regarding the gender divide, and one that notably does not provide a superior/inferior gradient. Both have strengths, and both are flawed. Men are depicted as stratified, classist, aggressively utilitarian (eating poor-tasting food pills, making no attempts to beautify their environment) and shockingly backwards technologically, but also with tenacity, pragmatism, not being overly emotionally stunted ( MANLY TEARS!) and with a strong moral certainty. And existentially terrified of women.
Women in turn are technologically advanced, beautiful, proactive agents who retain the sense to make life enjoyable (real food, comfortable living spaces) but who take it too far (their superficiality and flagrant waste of resources leading to energy shortages), who suffer from an inability to handle new situations well and easily rival the men for aggression and callous disregard of undesirable societal elements. Overall, both are shown to be not so different, and it’s notable that, as the show progresses, the effect the genders have upon each other within the cast manifests as the women becoming less strident and aggressive and the men gaining a confidence in themselves that they lacked. The suggestion that perhaps men are insecure and lost, and women need to be more open to and accepting of difference runs quite contrary to what I would assume most people here in the West would automatically imagine.
The CG of Vandread is quite noticeable, being unnaturally shiny and consisting of vibrant colours and glowing effects. However, this actually works very well for the vast majority of the uses it’s put to; the female ships look as sleek and advanced as they are portrayed to be and the enemies seem appropriately unnatural and creepy. In fact...
The Art in General
For a show now approaching being 15 years old, the art is amazingly good. The first few episodes feature odd deformations that can be jarring but these quickly diminish into artistic style shifts that are typically used for comedic effect, and otherwise the show is a visual joy to watch.
Not a Harem Show - Technically
Perhaps counter-intuitively given the cast consists of a male protagonist, only two other male crewmembers and otherwise a very large number of women, Vandread never becomes a harem show. Strictly speaking. Whilst Hibiki does have relationship-style interactions with the three pilots of the Dreads he can combine with (and the “combining” itself is very obviously metaphorical for other ways men and women can join together...), only Dita is ever an actual romance option out of the three; Jura being in a committed (if incredibly tolerant) relationship with another pilot (same-sex pairings being the default for the cast given their situation. Dita is considered quite a weirdo for her interest in Hibiki, though heterosexual inclinations do arise in some others and a couple of love triangles do form throughout the two series) and Meia never expressing any interest in such matters at all. So no harem activities, at least as far as the humans are concerned. For the titular mecha, this show is one of the best depictions of a harem you’re ever likely to see. It even all works out well!
There are some hilarious moments...
Reveals, Consequences and Growth
There is a lot more to Vandread than first appears. What starts as a campy, cartoony show about men and women squabbling to a slightly more significant degree turns into an adventure much deeper and more significant than most would suspect. There are many layers to the events that our cast find themselves immersed in and they continue to be peeled away right until the climax.
Vandread is a story about growth, in a myriad of different ways. To mention them would be moving into spoiler territory, but it is safe to say that none of our characters remain the same as they were at the beginning of the story. Which is good, because...
DEAR GOD ARE THEY ANNOYING SOMETIMES! Understandably so given their emotional maturity (or lack thereof) and if you’re going to show people growing they need to start off without the personality aspects that growth will provide, but they really can be irritating on occasion. Especially Hibiki and Dita.
I put this here because it it may be off-putting for some viewers. Let me be clear, Vandread is an astonishingly dark show if you stop to think about it. The vibrant colours, goofiness, silly art-shifts and cheerful pop music do not do more than lie atop profound questions about what choosing, and continuing, to live can require and the ramifications of what the answers can be.
The First Series ED
The show itself is, to a large degree, pretty lacking in fanservice. The outfits of some of the characters could certainly be considered stripperiffic (Barnette, Jura, I’m looking at you here. No, no reason, carry on with what you were doing...) but Oh My does the Ending sequence used by the first 13 episodes make up for that... Amusingly, whilst the ED has Hibiki, Dita, Jura and Meia interact in a far more typical harem manner, you do still get an indication that it’s not what the show is all about, heh. An argument could possibly be made for it representing Hibiki trying to run away from various thoughts that he doesn’t know how to deal with, but... Well, Vandread is a show that can really provide all the subtext a person might want with minimal digging on their part, but that doesn’t make it all valid, heh.
Deus Ex Plot Device
Whilst they don’t simply ignore it; indeed it not only underpins the story but initiates it, the full nature of the Space Magic-providing crystalline Paksis is never fully explained. It can do whatever is deemed necessary by the plot, including creating almost anything out of more of itself (the main ship, the Vandreads), teleporting objects and people, providing power for technology etc etc, and only becomes more central as the story progresses. This is only partially redeemed by the cast themselves not being able to figure it out in the slightest and it proving to be... unreliable with its abilities.
Vandread deserves to be considered one of the all-time classics of anime. Nothing else quite like it exists; either its approach, scope or accomplishment. Much of what makes it great cannot be talked about without spoilers, and indeed can be easily missed by those just watching along with the ride. It is also important to mention a Light Novel that provides some further stories following some of the crew, including what happens after the finale, but sadly it is not available in English. The Wiki entry does provide a synopsis however.
Vandread can be watched for free at Funimation... if you’re in the US. If you’re a filthy peasant living outside the Shining City on the Hill, well, sucks to be us.
Vandread has a lot that can be said about it, not all of it as obvious as the majority of the show would lead you to believe. I intend to do a companion article in the next few weeks, when I have time, to go deeper into these qualities and will update this section once it goes up.