Two planets are at war. For generations the men of Tarak have nobly defended themselves from the fiends that live on Mejale. Hibiki may be a short-tempered mechanic who's clearly read too many psychology self-help books, but at least he's never had to face Mejale's mind-shredding monsters! This will soon change. He accepts a dumb challenge to steal a "Vanguard" (a giant robot with a human pilot), which ends up with him accidentally heading into space. Naturally the Mejale attack, but before everyone can kill each other, they're attacked by a third force and thrown halfway across the galaxy. Yes, it's Star Trek: Voyager. Can mortal enemies stop fighting long enough to save the human race?
In the end this show isn't particularly special, especially its disappointing climax. It's by Studio Gonzo, so we know from the start that it's going to look pretty but be written by chimps. I've just discovered that Kaleido Star was also by Gonzo, which explains a lot. However I had lots of fun and tore through this at top speed, preferring it to the likes of Martian Successor Nadesico. My reasons may be shallow, but they're enough for me!
Firstly there's the story concept. Two space empires are at war, each believing the other side to be the bearers of death, evisceration and space plagues. For generations they've fought. These mortal enemies are... men and women. It's cheap, it's obvious and it's extremely funny. The men's propaganda videos must be seen to be believed, while the traditional battle of the sexes gets a further comic twist from their SF circumstances. These people don't know even the most basic facts about the opposite gender. Tarak's men reproduce with the help of factories and gene-splicing technology and, well, guy stuff.
Second are the visuals. The artwork's full of energy, colour and simple clean-lined character designs. No problems there. More controversial are the CGI spaceships and mecha, which are jarring and ugly but still oddly a huge asset to the production. Yes, they're horribly plastic-looking. Yes, it's like watching a computer game. However the advantage of CGI is that you can do action shots that would be impossible with traditional animation. Vandread's camera can zoom in at top speed, barrel-roll under a ship's belly and blast you through the heart of a thirty-ship dogfight. It's breathtaking. This is some of the best space action I've ever seen. When the fights start, this show looks astonishing.
It doesn't have the parody factor of the more famous Martian Successor Nadesico, which more importantly was better written. To be honest, Vandread can feel like it's coasting. It has a few emotional episodes, but also lots of formula. It's a harem show in space! Admittedly Hibiki breaks the mould by having a personality, but unfortunately he's short-tempered and aggressive with a tendency to blather on about self-actualisation. Despite this women find themselves strangely attracted to him, especially Dita, who battens onto him like a retarded leech with breasts, although the twist of course is that no one understands basic biology. A man likes a woman. Great. What happens next? None of the characters are particularly original, but what saves the show is its high concept. The writers could have freewheeled for years on this set-up. Even with this formulaic cast, the dynamics and conflicts are always fun. Vandread has a rock-solid foundation. Here is a badass and interesting enemy, the heroes in deep shit, one hell of a high concept and a story that's going somewhere.
This show is better than I've come to expect from Studio Gonzo, but even so as usual it's a bit stupid and falls apart at the end. Instead of the expected epic confrontation, we have the equivalent of a group therapy session in which everyone gets in touch with their feelings. Uh-huh. However in fairness I'd have complained even harder had the show wrapped up with empty space battles. It's not a bad ending, but it's a seven out of ten. I'd have rated the earlier episodes much higher for their action and fun factor. As I said, it looks good. The women, for instance... well, clearly the ugly girls weren't allowed space travel. Amazing breasts too. For a significant proportion of this show's audience, breasts were probably the biggest single reason for watching. And those uniforms! I can't say I objected, but they're hardly military.
As as aside, this show may look like a standard 26-part series but it was actually produced in two thirteen-episode seasons. There are also two OVAs which contain a little original footage, but basically just recap the first and season seasons respectively.
Vandread isn't as deep as it thinks it is, but when it's on form it's more fun than a barrel full of monkeys. It's also nearly unique in being by Gonzo and yet not have me hurling things at the television. Every action fan should watch at least one Vandread space battle and have their mind blown. [Footnote: since I wrote those words in 2006, the world has moved on. Vandread's action scenes seem a little less remarkable now, which is a pity.] This show has lovely-looking art, all sorts of eye candy, some great jokes and a cool character or two. Gascoygne rules! The opening and closing themes are rubbish, but apart from that I enjoyed this show.