Summer 2019 Cute Robots Fight Cute Robots Anime: Granbelm

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Now here’s a show that’s crossed between audiences. If you look at the promotional materials for Granbelm, you expect a magical girl anime, and possibly a ripoff of the dark hit Madoka Magica. Despite distinctive designs from Re:Zero character designer Shinichiro Otsuka — the man ultimately responsible for the Rem Fever of a few years back — nothing about the show pops out at first glance.

That is, until you watch the first episode, which is a stunning, beautifully animated 20-minute giant robot battle royale with copious directorial nods to 80s genre classics. It’s an unexpected feast for mecha and action fans, and completely alienating to the “anime about cute girls” demographic at which this show is ostensibly aimed. Granbelm’s got guts, you have to give it that.

With its young girls fighting a bitter struggle within an ominous system, Granbelm does owe quite a bit to Madoka Magica, but it’s more interested in toying with the concept than cloning it. Even the heroines’ obvious resemblance to Madoka and Homura is a deliberate bit of shorthand the show uses before looking at things from its own angle.

As one might expect, Granbelm moves back and forth between the titular battle royale — a winner-takes-all fight to crown the only mage in the world — and the girls’ daily lives. They process the trauma of Granbelm itself, work on the next plan to survive it, and attempt to have normal lives and relationships on the off time. There’s very little “cute girls doing nothing”, because even the quiet moments are heavy with impending doom. After all, they’re all going to have to go fight each other in robots.

The robots are squatty super-deformed types, of the type usually used in kids’ shows like Mashin Hero Wataru or Mado King Granzort. This is a clever move: they’re cute designs and easier to animate, knocking over one of the big obstacles to getting a non-Gundam robot anime made in this day and age. The little guys’ battles are every bit as explosive and intense as in one of the flashier Gundam series. I really want plastic models of the whole bunch.

Like Dragon Ball Z, you can basically chop this show up into arcs by its villains. The first, Anna Fugo, is the best by a mile. Clearly playing on the “frustrated, one-upped rival” archetype that pops up in every Gundam, Anna makes up for her lack of any magical talent in nastiness and pure, white-hot, scorned rage. She’s awful, but she’s delightful, and we can’t help but cheer her foolish, doomed rage-out.

Rather than a true contest of strength, Anna’s arc is a story of intense sorrow and frustration on all sides. The effortlessly superior heroine Shingetsu can’t bring herself to crush her adopted sister Anna, and that fact itself fuels Anna’s rage and madness to new heights. Outside the robots, their family relationship was exactly the same. Anna’s voice actress deserves an award.

It’s a shame the show leads with Anna, because the second and final villain Suishou isn’t nearly as engaging. Suishou is the kind of villain who’s all too common in anime: the condescending eyes and smug smile, overpowering, omnipotent, so invincible that it’s boring. Pure chuunibyou, no chaser.

This kind of character is always intended to come off as cool and intimidating, but when Suishou once again laughs off a knife to the gut with no explanation, it’s not so much impressive as groan-worthy. Anna’s story is great because the stakes are personal and intense. Unfortunately, the layers of Suishou’s personality — and the nature of the battle itself — are pulled back far too late in the show to redeem the character.

There’s more going on than just the battles, but that’s the part where I have to call “spoilers” on my review, because everything about the world and characters falls into that territory. I will reiterate that the main heroines’ resemblance to Madoka and Homura is definitely intentional: that same level of co-dependency is certainly the basis for Mangetsu (full moon) and Shingetsu (new moon).

Fans of robot anime probably didn’t catch Granbelm, which is a shame because they’re the ones who’ll enjoy it the most. It’s clear what the makers of Granbelm most wanted to make — intense, old-style robot battle anime. Granbelm’s drama isn’t bad either, but it slips and fizzles in a way the consistently impressive fight scenes never do.

If Granbelm had been able to carry the emotional impact of the Anna story forward into its second half, I’d probably be recommending it as a sleeper masterpiece. Instead, I’ll recommend it as an overlooked curiosity. It’s flawed, but worth your time.

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David Cabrera

Sooolar wind. Anime/games writer. Sometimes on @polygon? @Kawaiikochans is the sum of my efforts. Serious about stupid.