This one's controversial. It's Sunrise's latest not-Gundam mecha show, produced by the director of Gundam SEED (+ Destiny). It has mecha. It also has a ton of fanservice, exploitative content, terrifying brutality, staggeringly evil plot developments and basically something to horrify almost everyone.
I thought it was terrific, albeit let down a bit by the finale descending into mecha mega-battles and interdimensional technobabble. It's really strong stuff. Too strong for many, admittedly.
Our heroine is Princess Angelise, i.e. Ange, a lovely person who believes in friendship, teamwork and trusting other people. Remember that. One day, she'll be a stone-cold bitch who'll shoot people in the head who were asking for her help. She'll go into massive denial. She'll become suicidal and get comrades killed. In many shows, she'd be the villain, but I didn't reject her because her world's even worse than she is and she's fighting against it.
She lives in a world where people can use magic, you see. They call it mana. However there are a few rare throwbacks, all female, who are mana-allergic and can neither use it nor be restrained by it. They're called "Norma". You might think these people deserve pity and help from the rest of civilisation, but no. Episode one shows Ange telling a mother to abandon her Norma baby. "They are instinctively violent, anti-social monsters. She must be quarantined immediately. Norma are not human. Forget her and give birth to another child."
The irony, of course, is that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I bet you can't guess what Ange's going to learn about herself before the episode's up. If you're a Norma, you'll get your human rights revoked, not to mention your right to call yourself a human in the first place. You'll get sent to a prison-like military establishment where you're strapped into flying mecha and sent to kill monsters for the rest of your short life. Of course you'll become violent. More precisely, you're going to decide you hate yourself, other Norma, the entire human race and/or the planet Earth, then you're probably going to decide you want to destroy one or all of the above.
Cheery, right? It then gets more complicated, not to mention even darker. This is a savage, appalling story. Some anime fans have been so appalled, in fact, that they think its content in itself makes it a bad show. In fairness to them, mind you, there's also the fanservice. The mecha pilots' uniforms are sleazy and there's lots of nudity and inappropriate behaviour (including scenes that may or may not be rape, depending on your definition). I didn't mind that. It's less distracting than many fanservice harem shows I could mention. It fits, you see. It's appropriate for the characters and their world, since this is basically a "women in prison" series. More specifically, it's a strong (if unpleasant) portrayal of a brutal single-gender military environment, full of alpha bitches and bullying. There's sexual harassment and lesbianism, both explicit and hinted at. (The show has a vocal lesbian fandom, by the way, which unsurprisingly doesn't like Tusk.)
This show's darkness extends, of course, to the villain, Embryo. He's like God. (One of the characters calls him that.) I genuinely thought all the heroes were going to die. He's also a stalker rapist who's going to kill everyone. However there's not a big difference between his goals and those of our heroes, while he's frequently nicer than they are.
The plot impressed me. There was a brief phase early on when I was wondering if this military prison format might prove to be static, but I was wrong. There are big revelations and bigger plot developments. Named characters die. Friends become enemies. We learn why the world is as it is, so our heroes try to destroy it. The only thing I'm ambivalent about is the ending, which unfortunately falls into genre obligation (it's a mecha show, so we need a mecha battle) and gets a bit too big and interdimensional for its own good. It's still strong. It works. It's satisfying and I went away without complaints. However I think it's less powerful than the episodes that led up to it, which is a slight shame.
There's light in the darkness, though. It's entertaining. Ange and her fellow Norma are a lively bunch, to put it mildly. There are even two or three nice characters in the cast, one of whom is both lovable and funny because she's human (i.e. non-Norma) and no good at fighting, yet she's faithful to Ange.
There's also something bracing and even exhilarating about the show's fierceness. Our heroes go to war on mankind. When they talk about "humans", that's "them", not "us". I also liked the horror that is the Ange-Sylvie relationship and in particular where it ended up.
It's impressive, I think, although not for anyone intolerant of female nudity and plenty more family-unfriendly content. (If you're watching the censored TV version rather than the Blu-ray episodes, expect to see a lot of white or black flares across the screen.) I like the characters. Ange's slow and incomplete evolution into a human being is impressive, while there's also a lot to discuss in supporting characters like Salia and Hilda. I liked the way that these people often turn out to be their own worst enemies. I admire the anime's willingness to go beyond most limits of civilised behaviour and acceptability. (Look out for incestuous paedophile intentions from Ange's brother Julio, for instance.)
The important thing, though, is that it's a powerful, uncompromising story with strong characters and shocking themes. Recommended.
"To survive, I will claw the ground, drink muddy water and vomit blood."