ARMOURED TROOPER VOTOMS Retrospective Part 1: The TV Series (1983)

votoms title card

“That day, the accursed war which had so disrupted my destiny ended. But its end was ultimately meaningless for me. The moment I saw her, my own private war had begun…a war for which there would be no end” – Chirico Cuvie (Episode 1)

Armoured Trooper Votoms debuted on Japanese TV in 1983. Created by the dream team of Ryosuke Takahashi (story) and Kunio Okawara (mecha design) and produced at studio Sunrise the pedigree of the show was certainly something to write home about. The show is held in very high regard by many and rightly so, the franchise has spawned a decent amount of OVAs and spin offs including video games and other merchandise over the years yet it’s nowhere near as popular as other far more mainstream works classified as “mecha”. In the west this is likely due to the fact it’s had rather a limited exposure on home video. Although released in America on VHS and DVD it’s been unavailable for over a decade with no Blu release imminent and hasn’t been released in many other territories such as the UK at all.

However, to categorise Votoms as a mecha show is to do it a great disservice. Certainly there is a decent amount of mecha action in it but that’s not really what it’s about. We’ll get to the plot soon enough though. First I’d like to bring your attention to another important element of the show’s quality: Norio Shioyama, the character designer for Votoms who sadly died along with his wife in a house fire earlier this year. The man’s designs were fantastic and he worked on some truly iconic shows from Casshern to Ronin Warriors and King of Braves GaoGaiGar.  All of his characters have very different and defined characteristics that helps each one of them stand out.

Chirico

The main character of Votoms, the steel eyed, blue haired Chirico Cuvie is one of my favourite anime protagonists. There is something uniquely compelling about him that grabbed me from the very first episode. Chirico is an AT (Armoured Trooper) Pilot, a soldier of the Gilagmesh empire who have (according to the opening narration) been locked in a war with a rival empire called the Balarant for centuries. In the first episode he is tasked with helping to retrieve an unknown object from a military base on an asteroid, however he soon gets extremely suspicious about the mission. First off his platoon seems to be infiltrating one of their own bases and he hasn’t been given any information about what his team are actually retrieving. Unable to help being curious he opens the capsule he has been sent to steal only to find it contains a naked woman bathed in a mysterious blue swirling light. As he looks on in shock and disbelief and wonders what he has stumbled onto she opens her eyes to look at him briefly before he closes the capsule again. Shortly after, the rest of his team catch up with him and retrieve the capsule. They then depart, however as Chirico gets closer to their transport ship in his Scopedog mech he is blown away before he can enter it by a grenade and left for dead by his supposed comrades.
Shortly after he awakes  on the Gilgamesh homeworld Melkia. Imprisoned and tortured for information by an officer called Jean Paul Rochina he wonders why he was betrayed and questions the mysterious nature of the woman in the capsule. Using his formidable survival skills he escapes captivity and before long finds himself in the lawless city of Uoodo.

The structure of the show is interesting. Though the story continues throughout all fifty two episodes there are four very distinctly different story arcs. Some western DVD labels like to split anime releases into artificial “seasons” and give arc names to boxed sets containing one story but here it seems to have been the intent of the creators because even the Japanese releases seem to follow this naming convention.

The “Uoodo City” arc is primarily about Chirico trying to survive regular clashes with the city’s corrupt police while being pursued by a secret society and his former jailer Rochina among other enemies such as biker gangs and criminals. During this arc he makes friends with the streetwise opportunist/ AT fight club owner Gotho as well as the eternally animated and chirpy Vanilla and Cocona. These characters will either find their way into your heart or annoy you depending on your tastes, gladly it was the former for me. They certainly help inject a bit of humour into what is a pretty dark show. Chirico is a very cold character at the beginning of the story, hardened by war and lacking in emotion. However by the end of the first arc and his experiences with his friends we see him soften a little as he realises they’re no longer acquaintances but people he cares about.

armored-trooper-votoms-9282-1

Gotho

Soon Chirico runs into the woman from the capsule again and finds himself calling her by the name “Fyana” though he does not yet know why, particularly since as far as he knows this is only his second time meeting her. We soon discover that she is a “PS” (Perfect Solider) a human being programmed to be a living weapon, sought after by both sides of the military and is being manipulated into fighting Chirico against her will by the secret society.

Chirico’s efforts to save her continue into the Vietnam-like “Kunmen jungle wars” arc where matters with the secret society are complicated further and the “Deadworld Sunsa” arc which takes the show into outer space with Chirico and Fyanna aboard a mysterious spaceship with no memory of how they got there. In the final arc “God Planet Quent” we discover more about Chirico’s past and the legacy of the mysterious planet Quent and its ancient technology. All of which are tied to Chirico’s destiny and the answer to all of the big questions posed in the series.

Chirico and Fyanna

The show stands out in many ways; for one, the way it portrays the combat between the armoured suits. In many shows of the “real robot” genre the mechs are pretty tough and can take considerable damage before they are destroyed. However in Votoms this is not the case. A well placed missile or burst of machine gun fire to the right area can decommission an AT or destroy it entirely and so Chirico must rely on skill and instinct often using his wits to get himself out of tricky situations. He probably spends a great deal more time on foot in the series with a regular handgun than he does in the iconic Scopedog or any of the other titular armoured troopers. Which brings me to another refreshing aspect of Votoms, because the mechs are destructible and frequently do get destroyed Chirico will often abandon a damaged one and hop in whatever is available, even if he has to steal an enemy unit. There is no “hero robot” like there often is in any of the Gundams or super robot shows. The robot is merely a vehicle to prevent the pilot from harm, a literal armour and because so many people are constantly trying to kill Chirico he needs all the protection he can get, however temporary. The “Votoms” part of the title sounds very similar to “bottoms” when pronounced in Japanese which is intentional as they are seen to be the “grunts” of the military, the lowest of the low.

The fact that the series isn’t entirely focused on mecha warfare keeps the story incredibly interesting and more akin to an adventure/mystery thriller. There are some quite varied episodes even early on from an episode in which Chirico is held captive by slavers to one where he battles a biker gang to the death using his Scopedog. Thematically this last episode in particular really grabbed my attention on the first viewing as it drives home Chirico’s point in the first episode about how even though his role in the military was over the moment he discovered Fyanna that his own personal war would never end (See opening quote). The morality of a battlefield and the streets of Uoodo are the same, it’s kill or be killed, only his enemy and the battlefield he fights on are different.

The mecha design is pretty great too. Kunio Okawara’s concepts look quite realistic to the point where they’re something you can envisage being designed by the military. The Scopedog in particular is an extremely aesthetically pleasing design that ticks all the right boxes. It’s cool to look at but simple and imposing, a green bulky tank-like behemoth. I like the way the lenses (or scopes) rotate for different types of vision in the cockpit through the camera eye. In addition to having wheels and the ability to zoom around on tank treads the “hydraulic punch” is quite a creative weapon as well. The Scopedog has an extendable arm which when “fired” lengthens the arm quickly delivering a hydraulic powered punch to the enemy. The arm then launches a spent cartridge like a shotgun discarding a spent shell.

Scopedog

The narration of the show is perhaps an unusual talking point but it’s surprisingly good. It’s narrated by both a traditional narrator and by Chirico himself as if he is reminiscing on his experiences throughout the course of the story. Often Chirico’s commentary gives great insight into his character, particularly the growth of his feelings from hard hearted to more vulnerable as he forms attachments to his companions and a love for Fyanna with whom his destiny seems intertwined. Even the next episode previews are worth watching; some TV anime have previews that are a bit too spoiler centric sometimes. Votoms hints at them but never outright spoils anything and it always seems to describe what is to come with a kind of philosophical musing that I became quite attached to. Though this is my second viewing of the show when I first watched it I was always genuinely intrigued by what was coming in the next episode after watching these and it had the desired effect of making me more excited and invested in what was coming next. Which is really what a next episode preview should do.

Votoms animation is also pretty damn good considering it was made in 1983. There are lots of OVAs and theatrical anime from this era that still look absolutely beautiful but TV anime of the time can fare a lot more badly. I’ve probably seen as many that still look pretty good as have dated a bit, as it happens Votoms has held up rather well. The characters and ATs are drawn well 98% of the time and animated smoothly. Occasionally the mechs may move a little more stiffly and there may be the odd time a character looks slightly off model but it’s quite rare for a show that has an episode count of fifty two. I can only recall two episodes for example where Chirico himself looks a bit off-model for any noticeable amount of time. Whether it’s regular man to man combat or AT combat the action always looks awe-inspiring. ATs and vehicles explode with fury showering the screen with flaming debris and smoking rubble, embers flying everywhere inbetween. The show often feels cinematic with shots and framing that increase the tension whether it’s a scene of dialogue of some importance between two characters or a full on action scene. The series has a rare kind of tension about it from the very first episode. It’s incredibly dark too, it’s certainly not light viewing and though there is humour it feels somewhat necessary because of the rest of the show’s tone and content.

The first episode could be used as a masterclass in how to hook the viewer. I said to my buddy Ian of the Retro Anime Podcast earlier this year that it’s like the creators are constantly shouting at you to get your attention during the first episode. They’re like “Look at this! has this got your interest? No? then HOW ABOUT THIS?” it starts off with a montage of hundreds of years of warfare with a brutal barrage of imagery full of screaming soldiers and explosions, continues to the surreal scene of Chirico’s mysterious discovery (extremely mesmerising) and finally to torture/interrogation and a valiant action packed escape scene. Though we know nothing about Chirico as a character this early in the show the fact he is tricked, used, left for dead, tortured and accused of being a traitor by his own people instantly puts us on his side and immediately we are firmly invested in his quest for the truth.

chrico entering scopedog

Though the series for the most part is pretty realistic (even the ATs could forseeably be made a reality these days) the final arc does introduce something a little more science fiction orientated that feels a bit different to what has come before. However this particular plot point is handled well (in my opinion anyway) and does give a pretty good answer to all the questions posed in the previous three story arcs. I’m sure some people will disagree with me and find the ending unsatisfactory but I feel it is the right ending for the series as a whole. One criticism I have is that although Fyana is a very strong female character who remains relevant to the story throughout most of the show the final story arc doesn’t use her much at all. I understand the final arc is very much Chirico’s story and that by that point she has served most of her purpose in the plot but it would’ve been nice to see her used a little better in this arc. She does however get to rejoin Chirico for the final few episodes in order to be a part of the finale.

The soundtrack of the show isn’t something I’ve heard discussed very often but for me it’s yet another part of what makes the series great. The score is ominous and the oft-used tracks are full of dread, mystery and intrigue. It also uses some very funky and smooth Jazz, a genre that although I’m not massively fond of works to fantastic effect in key scenes. In fact I even own the soundtrack, that’s how attached I grew to the music in the series.

All in all Armoured Trooper Votoms is a classic piece of anime history. It can’t really be branded as just an action show, a mecha show or a piece of sci-fi or even a dystopian future show, it’s all of those things at once and it does all of them extremely well. Some people may moan that the series lore and stuff like the rivalries and backstory isn’t massively well explained but I think the show does a good enough job of telling you who’s who and why they’re fighting. The storytelling of a lot of shows back then was a lot less hand holding, Votoms is a prime example of that. There are however some universe expanding OVAs which may help flesh out some of these details that were released later.

So if you like hard edged and dark science fiction tinged with a bit of realism, great action scenes, good characters and an epic scope then Votoms has you covered on all fronts. Check it out, I can’t imagine you being unhappy that you did.

Though I first watched Votoms quite a few years ago I only initially watched the TV series and the first 1985 OVA The Last Red Shoulder. I thought I’d have gotten round to the rest by now but my backlog is insane, particularly given there’s a lot of classics that have went unreleased until recently in English and brand new stuff is coming all the time.
This time I plan to watch every single piece of Votoms anime and review it here inbetween doing other reviews and articles. I hope you’ll return to hear my views on the rest of the series.

Availability: Sadly at the time of writing this article there is no official western release of Votoms available on DVD or Blu ray in either the US or UK. As mentioned previously the series has never been released in Britain. I don’t believe it is on any western streaming services either. If you want to own an English friendly DVD release your only option is either the Region 1 US Manga Corps or Nutech DVDs released over a decade ago. Both of them are quite hard to come by on the second hand market these days and neither are remastered so don’t expect amazing picture quality. Hopefully someone will pick up the rights in the future and release an outstanding collector’s edition for this and other entries in the series.

UPDATE: 5/7/2018: Section 23 announced that they have acquired the rights to Armoured Trooper Votoms.  No news yet on a Blu or DVD release but I will post an article about it or share the news on Twitter when the details are known.

Please feel free to comment on the article. I love hearing your thoughts on classic shows.

 

2 Comments

  1. The first exposure to this franchise for me was the spin off “Mellowlink” OVAs via VHS fansubs, which I still have somewhere. Haven’t watched them for about 20 years I think. I got the “Kunmen Jungle Wars” arc on VHS from my local comic book shop (via Previews) as a very expensive box set around 1996 or maybe 1997. CPM were doing box set as initial releases then releasing individual tapes after that. Got the Nutech DVDs a few years later. They were pretty decent (despite oddly placed chapter stops and using the subbed VHS masters) as they had fairly thorough liner notes, character and mecha reference sheets and setting materials on the discs. Got it for a third time when CPM re-released he series itself on DVD. Vast improvement in quality. Can’t believe it’s been more than a decade since those DVDs came out. I think like Patlabor TV and OVAs, it was pretty poor seller for CPM. Just didn’t find an audience in the US or more likely got buried in in the avalanche of material released in the early 2000’s.

    Apart from the robots themselves, probably one of the most iconic things about the show is the preview for episode two which the narrator states that Chirico finds the coffee bitter in Uoodo city (I’ve seen that referenced in several series). Almost as iconic as Gundam’s will you survive or Misato promising more fanservice in the next episode of Evangelion. I agree the animation is pretty good for the era, but I think I sort of felt gypped by the fact that the robots didn’t run but were propelled along the ground. But I think that ties into the realism of the series as it would be a more efficent way for a robot to move. The other thing of note, as you mentioned, is the stylistic explosions; the painters use paint splatters/flicks on the cels to obtain the effect.

    The show goes a bit weird in the final arc which I wasn’t expecting. There was also the whole “is Chirico the same as Fyana?” thing, which I can’t remember if it was resolved or not as it’s been a long time since I last saw he show. It’s a bit like “Blade Runner” in that regard. I wonder if it was influenced by “Blade Runner” as that film had an amazing influence on anime in the 1980’s. The ending was a bit unresolved from memory and I haven’t seen the sequels but it did feel like Chirico was doomed to be searching for Fyana forever.

    The only thing which drove me a bit nuts in the show was Coconna’s singing in Vanilla’s club in the jungle arc. She only know one song!

    I don’t know if you’ve seen Ryosuke Takahashi’s “Flag” TV series which takes the military aspects of robot warfare a bit further using recent conflicts such as the 1992 gulf war, the modern Afghanistan war and possibly the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It focuses on a photojournalist embedded with a military unit with a new bipedal robot weapon. It mostly presented in the point of view of the journalist with some “found footage” type shots. Really interesting show.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t seen “Flag” but I am making it my mission to hunt down everything Takahashi’s worked on so I will get round to it. I can see why you may not have enjoyed the final arc as much because of the fact it does delve into brand new territory and gets a little bit more “out there” with regards to Chirico’s origin. In answer to what you wondered: yes it does resolve the question of whether Chirico and Fyana are the same. I actually really love the ending of the show despite certain elements of it coming a little out of nowhere. Chirico’s search for Fyana definitely comes to an end.

    I haven’t actually seen Merrowlink yet, I watched the TV series and Last Red Shoulder years ago and because I was watching so much stuff didn’t get round to more at the time. Now though I’m going through the entire franchise as re-watching it has cemented it as one of my all time favourite series. It’s just so utterly unique among mecha and sci-fi shows for so many reasons.

    It’s a shame that it probably got buried in the slew of stuff that came out back then on DVD. That’s probably why we’ve never gotten any of the OVAs or a more recent re-release. I would love it to come out on Blu Ray as I’ve become very fond of the franchise. So much so that I have a 1/20 scale Bandai Scopedog model kit on the way 🙂

    Though there are definitely dystopian themes in Votoms I wouldn’t necessarily say it was inspired by Blade Runner (though undoubtedly that film did influence a ton of anime at the time as you say). There are some thematic similarities in the fact that both have plot points about someone meeting a sort of father/god figure who wants to manipulate their “creation” however it’s an extremely small part of Blade Runner resolved in a few minutes whereas the whole final arc of Votoms hinges on that and it’s a lot more complicated and occurs for totally different reasons.

    Judging from what I’ve read the design of the Scopedog was a lot to do with trying to make it as realistic as possible. I guess they thought the ability to have the wheels pop out of the feet would make it adaptable to different types of terrain. I personally love that aspect of the show, the fact they’re clunky lumbering mechs one second and the next they can speed around on wheels if the terrain allows. I think it gives a different feel to the battles that other mech shows with robots/armoured suits that are ground based don’t have.

    Liked by 1 person

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