Gate: Season 2
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2016
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Season Two: 12 episodes
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Review date:
14 November 2016
ga.te
It's still really rather good, I think. The right-wing nationalism is nowhere near as bad as people say and it's a surprisingly sensible, intelligent treatment of its idea. It subverts the expected light novel tropes. It repeatedly undercuts one's heroic expectations, instead having its military characters say and do exactly what the military would do in that situation. Sometimes this is cold-blooded. Sometimes it's a bloodbath. Some people might be disturbed by its take on sexual relations, though.
To recap, it's the story of Japan's anti-army (Self Defence Force, aka. JSDF) in a fantasy world of magic and dragons. A gate opened in Tokyo. Apparently this has happened before, which would explain why the fantasy world's humans seem divided neatly into generic fantasy peasants and the Roman soldiers in charge. However, as was demonstrated repeatedly and bloodily in Season 1, swordsmen are doomed against machine-guns, air support and high explosives. Whenever the Empire picks a fight with the JSDF, there's a sea of blood. (This can occasionally be disconcerting to watch, but it's a reality check against any assumptions you might have from heroic adventure and fantasy. They're soldiers. They'll treat you like royalty and salute everyone in sight until they're given the order, whereupon they'll kill everyone in the room without even blinking.)
Everyone agrees that the original novels' author is a right-wing nationalist. He served in the military himself. The general consensus appears to be that he portrays Japan's military as saintly and all their enemies (foreigners, journalists, left-wingers) as evil. This isn't without basis, but it's not the whole picture. Firstly, there's no significant involvement for other countries this year. No foreigners, so no foreigner-bashing. Secondly, there's the fact that the fantasy Imperial court could be read as an exaggeration of right-wing militaristic bigots, which might partly counterbalance the show's portrayals of journalists, peaceniks, etc. Then, thirdly, Japan's actions here are as dodgy as ever, despite the good intentions of the soldiers on the ground. They're quietly doing surveys the natural resources and strong-arming deals from the local rulers for exploitation and permanent tax holidays. (I'm not sure whether or not the author's realised how nasty his characters are being there, but I'm not sure that matters.)
Furthermore, the Japanese authorities' decisions here are based on greed, cynicism and/or self-interest. The show started as if proclaiming the new Japanese Empire. The Prime Minister's a self-serving weasel who doesn't want to protect his allies if he's got an election coming up. He needs bullying into doing the right thing. The military routinely refuses pleas for help, regardless of the apparent morality of the situation. It's not their business. They'll move if given orders. Even heroic characters (Itami, Sugawara) will refuse humanitarian requests even when there's a massacre about to happen and they'll only change their minds if they can find a cold-blooded reason.
This is refreshing. Compared with the default mushy blob of touchy-feely heroes, Itami has his head screwed on hard and isn't afraid of ignoble decisions. "Save us from the dragon!" "Come off it. My first responsibility is to my subordinates and doing what you say would get them killed." What's more, the hard-nosed logic will be right, albeit not nice. Some of the show's most impressive moments involve someone thinking up a surprising way to be heroic without violating the reasons we'd just been hearing for why blindly following their hearts would be stupid. Admittedly the fantasy characters will often be amazed at the strength, nobility, civilisation and just plain wonderfulness of Japan, but this will be because they're gobsmacked at the idea of, say, keeping prisoners of war alive for any purpose other than selling them into slavery.
The big storytelling challenge for this franchise, obviously, is finding opposition for the JSDF. They can steamroller anything. There's nothing here they couldn't kill, although a god or a fire dragon would give them a fight. A villain would have to be demented to think he could oppose them... and that's what we have in Prince Zorzal, whose idea of mercy is to rape a prisoner-of-war personally instead of letting her be gang-raped by his men. That's not just talk either. He commits a rape in his introductory scene, while another of his victims is a girl kidnapped from our world who's been his prisoner since before the first attempted invasion. This has been toned down from the manga, incidentally, e.g. his sex slaves being allowed to wear a few rags in the anime, although they're still hardly modesty-preserving. He also orders the assassination of a fifteen-year-old girl for the crime of being more popular than him. Zorzal is an abomination, but he's not the only hate figure. Tyuule is trying to start another war, the Pied Piper manipulates others into committing his murders and the biggest bastard of all is that god in ep.17.
The season ends with remarkably few of these villains dead or in captivity. (Entire legions of their troops get bloodily gunned down, though.) I presume Season 3 is in production, then.
While I'm discussing the show's sexuality, there's also some tame fanservice (no significant nudity, but some cleavage-friendly outfits) and one possibly squicky romance. It involves a man in his thirties and a twelve-year-old girl. For a while it's one-sided and played for some of the show's best laughs, but then events force a development (admittedly to save lives) and suddenly both sides seem to be taking it seriously. Um. Right. Er. Admittedly they're both planning to wait and he keeps desperately insisting that he won't break any laws, but that was, um... well, anime.
Mind you, that twelve-year-old girl (Sherry) also happens to be the show's toughest, smartest character. She's awesome. "I will not look away from the people who are dying because of me." In comparison, for me the nearest thing this show has to a fault is that its regulars can be a bit on the bland side. You like them, but they're hardly unforgettable. The soldiers are soldiers. Tuka is in father-related denial that will topple into severe mental instability, but she oddly manages to achieve this without having that much personality. You care for her. You like her. It's just that she's just nice and normal, except for the sanity-threatening delusions. Lelei's a bit on the anonymous side too (although her sister's funny). She's cool and the second-cleverest character after Sherry, which in this show means something. However she doesn't have any quirks.
Rory Mercury's an instant standout, though. It's hard to overlook a gloating, sadistic tease who regards death as an aphrodisiac and yet is also on the side of the good guys.
I did notice that all the show's couples are human. Since it's a multi-species fantasy environment with hot elves, this seems a bit of a coincidence. I hope it's not some kind of right-wing racial purity thing from the author. Mind you, not counting the surprise couples at the end, I also noticed that the two girls who get a bloke are the cleverest (good) and youngest (hmmm). I'm getting technical there in the case of Itami, though.
I still like this show a lot. It's fun and easy to watch, although admittedly some people are more agitated by its politics than I am. I do get the impression that the story's been bashed quite hard to achieve that entertaining tone, though. The rape, the bloodbaths and more suggest that the material's natural direction might well be much darker. However I enjoy watching these characters and I think the story's tough edges make it a good deal more interesting. I even like this season's relative disinterest in its main character! Theoretically Itami's like any number of light novel protagonists, i.e. the modest, all-conquering hero who's surrounded by girls and yet ignoring their attentions. Even his otaku tendencies are a common anime trait. However he's involved surprisingly little in this season, while his age and laid-back soldier attitudes differentiate him from the usual archetypes. This is a strong and occasionally startling show. I hope they make Season 3!
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