Mecha March: Power Dolls (1996)

Welcome to Mecha March! An annual celebration of all things Mecha anime related. This yearly robo-fest was an idea born from the mind of Scott at Scott’s Mechanical anime reviews. For a couple of years now my buddy Ian and I have been hosting Retro Mecha Podcast, a mecha anime focused review show and blog that delves into mecha history and attempts to give wider context to the often underappreciated genre. Because 2020 was such a strange year full of setbacks for both of us, Ian and I never quite got round to partcipating in this event last year but we’re doing it now and that’s what matters. As stated in my last post and on Twitter this year we’re doing a cross platform event between this blog, Retro Anime Podcast and Retro Mecha Podcast. This little project is called (appropriately enough) Retro Mecha Anime World! Follow our twitter accounts for details on all of the coverage! @retroanime and @animeheadsretro

So onto the article. Today I’m going to be taking a look at Power Dolls, a little OVA which got its first episode in 1996 and a second final episode in 1998. It’s based on a series of tactical strategy videogames of the same name with RPG elements. They were released on a variety of old platforms from like PCFX, MSX and Playstation 1 with more recent entries appearing on Microsoft Windows. None of them made it west as far as I know (info online seems quite limited) but some of them seem to have been fan translated since. The title refers to a unit of all female soldiers nicknamed the DoLLS (an acronym for “detachment of limited line service”). The power in the title coming from the mecha which are nicknamed Power Loaders (often just referred to as “loaders” in the series). The setting of the series is the planet Omni, a space colony at war with Earth.

The standard Power Dolls loader in action

This was my first viewing of Power Dolls and I have to say as 90’s OVAs go it’s pretty good for a number of reasons. Ian and I talk about world building in Retro Mecha Podcast a lot. Those “lived in universes” with a backstory that have been either very fully realised or at least given a decent introduction via explanatory text or a big info dump.This goes down the explanatory text route thrusting us into the already ongoing war with the first episode and focusing on a single mission which I think works quite well.

The plot of the first episode centres around Yao Pei Liu, a Dolls unit member who must confront her past when she is tasked with a mission that involves destroying a dam in her hometown that her father built years ago to protect its people. The first episode is a good mix of characterisation and action which is quite the juggling act considering the episode’s brief running time (under 28 minutes including the credits). We get a good sense of Yao’s motivations in this episode, we see her rescuing orphans at the beginning of the episode and a flashback reveals she lost her father when she was quite young. Then when the Dolls Commander Hardy reveals their next mission is in her former hometown and involves destroying what her Dad worked so hard to build she obviously struggles with her conscience as to whether she can do it or not.

Yao arrives at her old home

The second episode having established Yao as a character fast forwards to after the war between Earth and Omni with an older Yao pulled back into a new mission to investigate a strange loader that has ties to the Dolls past. This episode has more of a focus on action and although the first episode looks fine this second one has a noticeable upgrade in animation quality. The battle scenes are extremely fluid in places and have a lot more dynamic effects and stylish action than the first. Apparently the two episodes were animated by different studios, the first by Artmic and the second by OLM. The step up in animation could be due to the fact that there was more time between episodes allowing OLM a more leisurely production schedule than Artmic had but that’s just conjecture on my part.

The spider-like enemy loader in episode 2 with its many legs makes it a menacing looking foe and definitely makes an impression compared to the more standard humanoid design of the regular loaders you see a lot of over the two episodes. The designs of course come from the games and are apparently by someone called Tomofumi Ogasawara whose most notable credit (at least in the west) is the Gundam Wing manga Glory of the losers. They’re not revolutionary but are very cool and fit the “real world” aesthetic the series is going for really well.

Both episodes end with a bit of emotional resonance, the first on more of a happy tone and the second on more of a sombre note but both feel like meaningful stories that aren’t simply an excuse for mecha action. Considering all of the dolls are drawn to have attractive character designs it’s not exactly a fanservice focused show although there is a shower scene featuring Yao Fei Liu.

I almost forgot to mention the limited use of CG in the show. It’s used very occasionally in heads up displays for the loaders and in the opening sequence of episode 2. Of course due to when this was made it doesn’t look that impressive as CG was in its infancy then although Macross Plus did CG much better the previous year.

So would I recommend Power Dolls? All in all yes as it’s pretty entertaining stuff. A lot of the secondary dolls besides Yao’s friend Fan and Commander Hardy don’t get a lot of characterisation and it’s not the most original story but it’s an entertaining enough watch that balances action and plot well and the mecha design and soundtrack are pretty good too.

Apparently this got a UK release on both VHS and DVD though it was one that must have passed me by at the time, Australia and the US also got a release as well. Power Dolls is currently out of print though so your only options are digging through auction sites or finding it online through ahem…..”other means”.

If you’ve enjoyed this article please feel free to leave a comment for me!

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