Three hundred years ago, a colony ship from Earth was brought down by plasma storms on an unknown planet. Six men survived, but no women. Fortunately they managed to reproduce with the help of cloning and gene-splicing technology and went on to populate the planet, but their descendants too are all male. Instead of human women there are marionettes, super-strong emotionless robots in female form... or that's the theory. Otaru is about to meet three unusual marionettes: Bloodberry, Cherry and Lime.
This franchise is fairly extensive. The main story comprises two TV shows and an OVA series, but there's also a radio show, manga, novels and a 1995 three-part OVA called Saber Marionette R that's basically a dry run for the following year's Saber Marionette J. Fans have tied their brains in knots trying to reconcile the two continuities, but it can't be done.
Saber Marionette is amiable but slightly bland and, yes, another robot harem show. Lime, Cherry and Bloodberry are capable of emotion because they have "maiden circuits" and thus naturally all fall in love with Otaru. I'm afraid so. Even their raving queen of a next-door neighbour Hanagata is in love with him too, although the poor chap stands about as much chance with Otaru as the three robots. Overall I couldn't say it's the best harem show I've seen, but it has interesting features.
The most obvious of these is the setting. Saber Marionette is pretty hard SF, with a fairly well-explored futuristic society and a distinctive planet, Terra 2. Admittedly they're not afraid to use stereotypes as shorthand. The six survivors of the original crash each founded his own nation, each being a knee-slapping distillation of every national cliche imaginable, being respectively Japan, China, Russia, Germany, America and (I think) France. It can sometimes get a bit groanworthy, but it makes a complicated geopolitical situation easy for the audience to understand. It works. Even Terra 2's history and technology are carefully thought through and vital for the plot. Those aforementioned "maiden circuits" have planetwide significance, incidentally.
The social consequences are just as interesting. Men are presumably expected to fall in love with other men. Homosexuality is the only socially acceptable option, since most marionettes are mindless machines. Otaru's life with his metal girlfriends is thus strangely innocent. Cherry and Bloodberry bicker and fantasise a little, but that's it. There's no sex, or even any suggestion of it. Everyone lives together happily and it never occurs to Otaru that women could want anything so bizarre as physical intimacy. As for choosing one of them over the other two, the mere idea is enough to make him freak when the marionettes start wondering about it later on.
And then there's the ending. I liked the ending.
Each series stands on its own, but is also a vital part of the complete 57-episode saga. J starts out fluffy but builds up to a satisfying ending. J Again needed to be a thirteen-episode series (at least!) instead of a six-part OVA and has some of the jerkiest plot progression I've ever seen, but it's worth watching. Allegedly its story was going to be the lost 26th episode of the first TV series, but if so then they got a bit carried away while expanding it into an OVA series. J to X starts light-hearted but turns serious around the halfway mark and at times gets almost tear-jerking. Our heroes grow up and go through hell, with death and sacrifice before the end.
The plot is great. It's a strong, rich, dynamic story on an impressively well-realised world, in that sense putting to shame the rest of the harem genre. Basically it's a plot-driven show... and it had to be. I have a problem with the central ensemble. They get on too well. It's nice to see all the relationships so stable and cosy, but "stable" is the opposite of "dynamic". Shows like Tenchi Muyo could run for ever on the demented hijinks of their main cast, but the Saber Marionettes don't have what it takes for that. Cherry is fairly one-dimensional and Bloodberry is fun but nothing special either. The interesting one is Lime, whose mental processes are those of a wildly energetic eight-year-old. She's innocent. She doesn't have the slightest clue about the adult stuff about which Bloodberry and Cherry occasionally bicker, but just wants to protect Otaru and make everyone happy. ("I love Otaru!" is her favourite phrase, but she says it with an simple ebullience that puts one in mind of an infant or even a faithful dog.) Her emotional journey is deeper and more extreme than the others. She's the star and arguably the soul of the show.
On the other hand, unusually Otaru is a cool male lead! He's sufficiently good at martial arts to be not stranded on the sidelines when the marionettes start tossing around trains and hurling each other through walls, while in the more gentler episodes he's the leader of this adopted family instead of just a passive centre. That was refreshing! However downright fascinating are another trio of marionettes: Luchs, Tiger and Panther. They're not evil, but they serve an evil master. In the first series they're far more interesting than Lime, Cherry and Bloodberry, showing us the dark side of all these "yes master, we adore you master" wish-fulfilment fantasies. They're like our heroines gone horribly wrong. It also doesn't hurt that they're whip-wielding busty dominatrices in figure-hugging Nazi uniforms, although no one could accuse this jolly-looking show of having sexy art.
I've seen J to X criticised for its lurch from fluff to seriousness, but it works better in the context of the full 57 episodes. In particular I found its ending fascinating. It's unexpected, but right in all sorts of ways. It's a surprising, intelligent epilogue to a show that throughout had been working hard at its plot and worldbuilding.
Overall I liked this show without thinking it had gelled. It's doing a serious SF story within the robot harem genre, a combination which doesn't quite succeed. The harem elements might put off SF fans, but scary nerds looking for emotional masturbation might find it slightly bloodless. It can also feel as if it's playing to a younger audience, with cartoonish national stereotypes and slightly goofy art. It's an interesting show rather than an outstanding one, but it's thoughtful and sincere with a strong story building through its 57 episodes. It's intelligent and sweet. You could do much worse.