Let's discuss Avengers: Infinity War -- a movie BOUND to make you feel so good!

February 7, 2014

Let's "discuss" Infinite Stratos (Part 1).

You don’t need me to tell you how bad Infinite Stratos is, because it shoots itself in the foot with a cannonball from the start.

The premise is that in the future, all military hardware has been surpassed by the IS system -- that is, women don armor and weaponry and duke it out wherever conflicts may arise.  So basically, women in this universe don’t pilot mechs; they ARE the mechs, only significantly dumber.  I refuse to believe that there’s a military in any universe that would approve of girls going out to battle with armored arms and legs, but nothing to protect their heads or bodies (or thighs, in many cases) but a skintight leotard.  Setting aside the fact that we have tanks, planes, and ballistic missiles for a reason, even if the IS pilots had an “anti-everything shield” it doesn’t work in the context of this universe.  One of the first main characters introduced is a sniper.  Unless she’s the only sniper in the world, there’s nothing stopping any given soldier from grabbing a rifle and ending a few lives from halfway across the battlefield. 

But you know what?  The concept itself isn’t completely wrong.  If the only reason these girls are in fanservice-ready suits is because of fanservice, then all they had to do was take out the military aspect and put them in a different context.  Put them in some kind of sports competition.  Have them be on teams, and competing in arenas for fame and fortune.  Have them literally try their hardest to put on a show.  That would make it so that A) there are no gaps in logic over how there could be a military that approves this concept, B) there are no tonal issues trying to marry a serious plot with…the other kind of plot, and C) you don’t make the military, real or not, out to be such a farce.  All Infinite Stratos needed to do was make a few minor tweaks, and it could have approached being good.  Alas, it didn’t care enough to try.

So what does it care about, then? 

I have a feeling that this is gonna be one of those posts…

I’ve heard the argument that if you don’t think about Infinite Stratos as a mecha show and think of it as a harem comedy, it’s much better.  I don’t buy into that at all, in the same sense that I don’t buy into the “turn your brain off” mentality used to “enjoy” things like the Transformers movies.  Ignoring the fact that you kind of need your brain on at all times, you can have your dumb movie and engage with it for a much greater experience than basic, visceral thrills.  Not too long ago, Pacific Rim showed us just how rewarding a movie can be intellectually and emotionally, especially if you give it the (rightful) chance for it to engage you on more levels than just “giant robots punching monsters”.  Simply put, if you have to apologize for the faults of a story to the point of ignoring its faults or lowering your standards, then it’s a bad story.  Period.

But I’ve found something interesting when it comes to Stratos.  I read the comments on anime blogs before I watched the anime itself, and it’s given a clear sign that not everyone buys into my mentality.  That’s fine, I suppose -- but there’s more to it than that.  People are willing to get swept up into its pace, and take it for what it is instead of what it could (and should) be.  More to the point, there are proclamations and discussions over who’s “best girl”.  It’s subjective, I know, but it is very interesting -- especially when, in light of the recently-aired season, the comment threads full of “X is my waifu” declarations are also the threads full of “this show is awful” outcries.  It makes me wonder if there’s some secret aspect to the show that makes it worthwhile.  Hell, just looking at the comments of that Reddit post tells me there’s some real juice to the concept.  For all its apparent bungles, Stratos is doing something right.  So one day I figured that hey, maybe I should give it a look and decide for myself if it’s got anything worth


You know what the sad thing is, though?  Honestly, Stratos gets off to a pretty good start.  Not perfect, by ANY means, but the first few episodes are fairly entertaining.  Leading man Ichika is established almost from minute one as a guy who’s not only out of his element, but constantly beaten down by his circumstances and his surroundings; he may be the only guy in MechWarrior Academy, but he’s far from living in paradise.  He’s got massive manuals to memorize, the girls treat him more like a circus attraction or a goat in a petting zoo than a person, and the only two people who could help him get accustomed to his new life -- his older sister Chifuyu and his old friend Houki -- are both dead-set on giving him the cold shoulder…that, or physical abuse.  Generally speaking, at the outset being Ichika is suffering.

But here’s the thing: Ichika may note how bad things have gotten, but at the outset he takes it like a champ.  He’s a nice guy, but he takes no guff from anyone.  Screw around with him, and he’ll stand up against anyone who tries to write him off.  He’s kind of a dumb guy (as you’d expect), but that won’t stop him from firing off a good quip if he gets the chance.  It’s in the early episodes when it’s established that he’s the main character for a reason: because it’s his show.  He’s the mover-and-shaker, even if his circumstances are less than ideal.

So.  How about those girls?  Namely, who is “best girl”?  Well, here you go.

It’s Cecilia Alcott.  Cecilia wins.  Cecilia is best girl.

The connotation of “best girl” seems to imply that objectively, there’s no competition.  The best girl is best, and there’s no reason for debate.  It’s a bit jokey so that net-goers don’t have to come to blows, so in a way you can probably redefine the term as “this is my favorite girl amongst the cast”, only in fewer words.  Fair enough.  So I guess in my case, Cecilia is best for a number of reasons -- and it has nothing to do with her character design, or the fact that in the dub she has a British accent (which, as you’re well aware, is the greatest of all accents).  No, it’s because -- again, at the outset -- Cecilia has the best chance of making the story much more than just a stupid harem comedy.

She’s proud.  She’s boisterous.  She’s selfish.  She friggin’ loves her country, to the point where when she makes long speeches (which is surprisingly often), the British flag starts flapping behind her.  She’s got the skills to back up her bravado, establishing herself as a world-class sniper in her first fight, beating Ichika in their first fight even when he unleashed his Protagonist Powers -- she considered it her loss, but given how easily she overwhelmed him for 95% of the match I’d say she’s being generous -- and manages to save his dumb ass when trouble brews.  She wasn’t just another spot on the Harem Bingo card; she was an actual character with her own presence, desires, and personality.  She might have been a walking joke, but she was a good walking joke -- and not a joke dependent on her lust for Ichika’s spandex-shrouded body.

 But it goes even farther than that.  Believe it or not, I’m not 100% opposed to a harem romcom.  I am when they’re a complete waste of time, but I don’t think they’re an automatic failure state as long as one of two conditions are met.  (Or both of them, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.)  The first condition is that the harem antics and whatnot have to be in top form at all times -- doing the old song and dance with such high execution that you can’t help but be entertained.  The second condition is to use the harem as a jumping-off point into something much bigger than just “Whoops!  I saw you in your underwear!”  And for a while, it looked like Stratos was willing to go for the second condition.  The plot and the mechs pushed toward that, but it had to be the characters more than anything else.  And that was EXACTLY what Cecilia was primed to do.

Wikis, websites, and supplementary materials seem to suggest that in the world of Stratos, gender dynamics are shifted drastically in the favor of women, as they’re the only one who can make use of the IS system.  In a way, that makes the better part of the school’s treatment of Ichika more understandable, at least in the context of their world.  He’s not a comrade, or a peer, or even a potential friend; he’s someone to be observed at their leisure, and shoved aside and around when the ladies are done with him.  He has no control over his life, because the women around him -- the ones “wearing the pants”, even though as per The Laws of Anime no female character can wear pants, EVER -- are doing all the controlling.  I can only wonder how men throughout the rest of the world are being treated.  Are they meek homemakers?  Are they subject to inequalities in the work place?  Are they resentful of their place in the world?  Has there been a regression in society akin to the pre-rights movements of old?  Or could it be that the men (and women alike) pretend or don’t even perceive there’s nothing wrong, and just plaster smiles on their face?

Given the scope of Stratos -- i.e. its focus on MechWarrior Academy -- it might be a little too much to ask for a sweeping view of society in this brave new world.  But that’s precisely what Cecilia could have been used for.  Does she give Ichika trouble for being an idiot, Japanese, a man, or a mix of the three?  I’d say that on some level, she has her biases; she has no choice, because society has engraved into her mind that it’s all right for her to act and think the way she does.  And that’s actually an element that’s supremely interesting -- more so than harem hijinks or even the occasional robot battle.  Cecilia could have stayed as the same general person, as could Ichika, but their interactions could have shed a light on the world around them as well as developed their characters.  Hell, this whole franchise could have become Pride and Prejudice and Mechs if they were willing to explore the relationship a bit more.  And while it’s arguable that the harem shenanigans and the competition to “claim” Ichika is an extension of the societal conflict and inequalities, what IS offered can’t even begin to rival what COULD BE offered.

As you’d expect, the show begins its collapse as early as episode 3.  Cecilia’s introductory arc comes to an abrupt end -- itself preventing Houki from having an arc of her own, and leaving the audience with a really bad first impression of her -- because, surprise!  It’s time for another girl, China’s twintail-bearing Rin, to make her appearance!  And after two episodes, her arc is over…except “arc” is a charitable phrase, because it’s mostly just her getting huffy over Ichika and some promise they made when they were kids.  I hope you’ll forgive me for not being thrilled; it’s not exactly reassuring to know that A) Rin’s arc is about as riveting as a long grocery store line, B) this might be the first and only time Rin will get time to develop as a character, and C) the show is getting further and further away from the actual plot -- which literally has to explode onto a scene to remind you that there’s something else going on besides fighting over Ichika.        

I’m not even joking.  Ichika is like a magnet that pulls all of the character out of the characters; the general progression regression happens almost every time without fail.  Girl is introduced ==> Girl clashes with Ichika ==> Ichika does something, usually one thing ==> Girl lays claim to Ichika, directly or indirectly ==> Girl is threatened by the introduction of a new girl and they shout/fawn over him.  I suppose it’s a setup that works if you’re a squawking hen enthusiast, but in most cases it doesn’t work.  At all.  Example: Houki takes a shot at Cecilia by saying she has a “fat ass”. 

Setting aside the fact that Cecilia’s ass is nothing short of picturesque (seeing as how it took up about a third of a shot in one episode) and presumably no different from Houki’s ass, an insult like that is wildly out of character for a person who’s not only shown disdain for Ichika alone, but underneath her harsh exterior is supposed to be a proper and demure (if overly serious and uptight) lady.  Does that sound like the sort of person who would bust out the talons over a boy, let alone break out the insults?  Even if that was just an addition to the dub, it doesn’t change the fact that these girls would be arguing in any language…because why, exactly?

Stratos makes some huge-ass assumptions about its audience.  Why should I or anyone else believe that Cecilia would get so hot and bothered about Ichika over a fight she dominated in, to the point where she starts falling for him?  Why should anyone find entertainment in seeing dozens of lines of dialogue go toward arguing when those lines could have been spent developing characters so that they’re more than just archetypes or broad strokes? 

And more importantly, I’d like to think that there’s a special level of hell reserved for anyone who abuses the “childhood friend” trope as much as Stratos.  Houki and Rin start out as almost the same character (looks aside), and the show assumes that because their relationship has already been developed off-camera, there’s no real reason to try and show any semblance of chemistry, camaraderie, or even concern until it’s time for the girls to blush over Ichika’s condition-bred trigger words.  Seriously, is there anyone in the real world who uses the phrase “childhood friend”, let alone spams it as much as this show?  Then again, on the subject of triggers I’m wholly convinced that according to The Laws of Anime, saying the word “cute” completely overloads the fairer sex’s senses. 

If it seems like I’m being too harsh on the show, then let me pause right now and say that Stratos isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen; merely the fact that there could have been something worth sinking my teeth into puts it several dozen steps above certain other terrible things I could name.  When it’s time for mech fights, it’s time for mech fights; they’re pretty cool, and while there are some massive gaps in logic (Rin is hyped up as a close-range specialist, but spends the majority of her episode shooting from afar), they do offer a reprieve from some of the inanity.  Unfortunately, I have to un-pause because the show is hell-bent on going further into inanity, as proven by episode 5.  Even Stevie Wonder wearing a burlap sack and locked inside of a safe could tell you that this character is not a boy -- but the show tries to sell you on that regardless because…reasons?

No, Stratos.  NO.

It just breaks the show wide open.  Why would France try to introduce a male candidate?  How did they successfully dupe everyone in the world to believing that their representative was a boy?  Wouldn’t any given test have proven they were lying?  Wouldn’t MechWarrior Academy have detected something was amiss based on the mannerisms, posture, and voice alone?  Why wouldn’t “Charles” and “his” existence spark dozens of experiments and inquiries, and begin putting forth the idea that the very structure of the world -- IS and beyond -- is about to change? 

By extension, why isn’t Ichika under constant examination?  Why isn’t he in a lab?  Why won’t the show give me a good answer as to why Charles Charlotte had to masquerade as a boy, given that her explanation suggests she could have come to the academy as a girl and gotten everything she needed to -- information about Ichika, recognition for her father’s company/country, more training -- by virtue of her natural (and top-notch) skill set?  Why would the show create these circumstances if A) it’s not going to do anything with them, and B) it’s just going to create plot holes thanks to negligence to be filled solely with a pair of apparently-retractable breasts?

 I’m more than a little torn here.  My love of ass-kicking machines (as per my status as a human being) commands that I at least try to give Stratos a chance, and I do see potential in it -- potential that may or may not be fulfilled, depending on the progression of the source material.  And indeed, some of that potential carries through -- in the occasional sparkle, but that sparkle is just enough to carry a less-than-friendly viewer from one episode to the next.  But shit on a stick -- the longer the show goes on, the harder it becomes to sit through it. 

Ichika loses most of his charm and none of his stupid, Houki stays the same only with the occasional mate-attracting ritual show of affection, Rin stays the same (i.e. is pretty much mini-Houki) but actually gets more screechy, and each new girl offers up more disappointment than the last.  Charles/Charlotte’s arc starts and stops in what’s almost a tangent of her two episodes, capped off with her getting fed by Ichika (don’t ask).  Germany’s representative Laura might establish herself as an ass-stomping borderline villain -- wearing pants! -- in the beginning, but that doesn’t matter because you’re just counting the seconds before she turns into a blushing hanger-on.  I’d say that Cecilia walks away with the least damage done, because at least in her case you could maybe argue she’s acting out of a sense of pride and jingoism, but given that the anime goes to further and further lengths to make her a joke I’d say that’s an unintended interpretation.  Then again, being a joke in Stratos is the best level of hell you could ever hope for. 

I wish I could say more about the plot, but alas.  Speaking as someone not too keen on the Stratos canon, based on what I’ve seen there are at least two avenues worth pursuing: it could be a story about an antagonistic force -- terrorists, or something like it -- looking to steal and harness new technology to turn there is units into the ultimate tools of war.  An arms race, of sorts, breaking free of the constraints imposed by the IS developers (spearheaded by Houki’s older sister).  The other possibility -- besides the one I suggested about making it a sports series -- is to make it about the global relations between the countries, and how those change as a result of the IS technology.  Have the girls engage in more than just being stereotypes, or just mere students; have them be movers-and-shakers in the world for the sake of their countries.  Give them some semblance of political weight, not just a fancy title.  Barring that, just turn the whole thing into G Gundam with 2000% more breasts.

Instead, the major thrust of the plot is a tournament.  A tournament that’s supposed to be about…something…but instead becomes a contest to see who gets to date Ichika. 

That’s the plot, then?  Who gets to go on a date with Ichika?  No.  That is not a plot.  That is not a compelling conflict.  There are no stakes.  There’s no tension.  It devalues the mech battles, because these characters aren’t really in danger, and they’re moving toward a goal that’s more alien than Dr. Zoidberg.  There’s nothing to be gained from it as a viewer, because A) these girls have by and large already done plenty of things that constitute going on a date, and B) the further the show goes, the less of a character they have, which kind of invalidates any sense of chemistry or presence any of these people have with one another.  And on top of all that, they’re willingly throwing out a perfectly good plot -- an invading enemy mech, which is unmanned and therefore proves that there are some tech-savvy malcontents out there -- for the sake of showing Ichika grabbing Charlotte’s ass in the most contrived way possible.  And then there’s a beach episode, where pretty much everything comes to a halt.

This show is not making it easy on me.  But that’s fine.  It’s fine.  It’s totally fine.  I mean, I’ve been through worse.  And if I can live through that, then I can live through this.  So, how many episodes have I gotten through?

Eight and a quarter?  Okay, and how many are there?  Oh, two seasons’ worth.  Huh.

Bardock, you wanna take this one?

I’m out.  I’M OUT.  And I wouldn’t recommend Stratos to anyone under normal circumstances unless they’re schoolgirl enthusiasts.  The only capacity, the only reason to watch this show is as a test of will and endurance.  I had to struggle to watch the episodes that I did, and having heard that season 2 is an absolute disaster, I have no interest to go any further.  None at all.  They had something good, but they squandered it with glee.  And there are few things that are worse in this world than a story that squanders its potential.

Sorry, Cecilia.  You may be best girl, but that doesn’t mean much in an anime that belongs in the trash bin.

Cripes a la mode.  You know, it really says a lot about an anime when I have to use Kamen Rider as a chaser between episodes.  And none of those things are good.  But at least it’s over; all things considered, I’m starting to wonder if making anything involving a harem is a dead-end.  Stratos seems to have gone out of its way to prove that the harem is a self-defeating model, so by that logic anyone who tries to do otherwise is a complete 

Oh.  Right.

*hikes up britches* Looks like you and me aren’t done just yet, Stratos

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