Taking a turn into the realm of sci fi, this weeks anime highlight blends in some horror for extra measure to create an incredibly unforgettable story. Along with the original Full Metal Alchemist and Shuffle, this series kicked off my girlfriends love of anime, and helped make it a regular thing in our household.
Set in the year 6,000, humanity has colonized space, but over time, broken into two factions that are currently at war. Series protagonist Sara Werec sets out to follow in her brother Ralph’s footsteps by becoming a Reasoner, a pilot to a specialized type of mecha. Since Ralph has been sent on a mission 130 light years away, Sara knows she’ll have died of old age by the time he returns, and her drive is to simply see him again at some point in her life.
Reasoners pilot a S.T.R.A.I.N., or a Strategic Armored Infantry mecha, an incredibly specialized type of unit that requires brain tissue to be gathered from before the birth of the potential pilot, so it can mature along side them over the years. That brain tissue is part of an organic based computer called a Mimic, that allows a S.T.R.A.I.N. to react to the pilots commands, by way of a neural link, incredibly fast, making the mecha more an extension of the pilot.
Some years after Ralph has left on his mission, and in fact, is still on his way to his destination, Sara has grown up and become the top student at the military academy she attends. As she nears her graduation, the academy is attacked by a mysterious S.T.R.A.I.N., killing all of her classmates, and destroying Sara’s Mimic. As she pulls herself from the wreckage, near an abandoned part of the academy grounds, she sees that the pilot of the strange mecha is Ralph himself, even though that shouldn’t be possible. He emerges from a bunker, carrying a young girl, barely seems to recognize his own sister, and leaves with barely a word.
Some time goes by, and Sara, now living under an assumed name, has gotten assigned to a ship, where she pilots a more clumsy, older style mecha. With her Mimic gone, she can never pilot a S.T.R.A.I.N. again, and is suffering PTSD, alienating her from her team mates. One day, in an old workshop, she finds a doll, and discovers a Mimic inside, one she is somehow able to forge a connection with, allowing her to pilot a S.T.R.A.I.N. once more.
As her true identity comes out, she resolves to track down her brother, now known to be allied with the enemy, and get answers. As the story unfolds, the origin of the mysterious Mimic Sara finds, and the girl Ralph absconded with, are revealed, as is how he managed to return despite not even having reached his destination yet.
One of the neat things about this show is how it accounts for relativistic near light speed travel. In the first episode, we are told that Ralph has headed out on a top secret mission to an area of space 130 light years away. Traveling at the speed he was, he wouldn’t have reached his destination when the attack occurs, and shouldn’t have returned until long after Sara had died of old age, making his appearance and treason one of the biggest mystery’s of the show.
Nor do the writers shy away from showing other ways space travel affects people. At one point, the ship Sara is stationed on arrives at a mining colony, and one of her team mates introduces his younger brother, who is an old man. The difficulties of waging a war under these circumstances are often touched on, as well, giving the characters and the series an extra layer of hardship, as they frequently have to deal with time dilation related issues in combat scenarios.
The physics aside, the show is a solid sci fi concept, executed pretty well, until the latter half, when the truth about Sara’s new Mimic begins to come to light. A sense of horror begins to creep in, and by the end, manages to fully establish itself as a secondary aspect of the show. The writers are so successful with this, that as Ralph’s motivations become clear, it’s hard to see him as the villain of the story. Experiencing what he has would be enough to change almost anyone’s character.
Another interesting aspect is the earlier mentioned PTSD of Sara, which is a topic that is addressed with all the seriousness it deserves. The once eager, bright, charming young woman has been replaced by a stoic, withdrawn individual that deals with nightmares, panic attacks, and finds just having a conversation to be almost more than she can handle. It is only when she connects with the new Mimic that she begins to try and deal with the trauma she has experienced.
The many scenes of her talking with the doll the Mimic is housed in create more friction with her team mates, however, as they begin to think that rather than just being aloof, she may well be insane. It isn’t played for laughs, though, and is another aspect of the horror element that is part of the narrative.
The animation quality is pretty solid for a series released in 2006, and holds up well even now. The battle scenes in particular are still very good, giving a sense of the speed and flexibility of the S.T.R.A.I.N. units the show is named for. The character designs are overall pretty good, despite the rather large cast of characters present over the 13 episode run.
The music is pretty forgettable, though, so don’t go into it expecting highly memorable themes. It’s all serviceable, but nothing you’ll be humming to yourself later, much less remembering anything about a month later.
There is occasionally a bit of a pervert eye with the camera work, and a pretty questionable gay character, but it is incredibly infrequent, and barely worthy of a footnote in the larger tapestry of mental illness, the brutality of war, and the horrors an unchecked government are willing to commit. If all that gives you the impression there’s not a lot of humor in S.T.R.A.I.N., you’d be correct. This show is dark and brooding, and the few characters who do serve as comic relief, usually end up dying as the ship faces off against enemy forces.
Still, the big reveal of the identity of the girl Ralph takes in the first episode that occurs towards the end, and her connection with Sara’s new Mimic, is worth every step, and misstep, in the journey. Sara’s eventual catharsis and healing is handled in a pretty satisfying way as well, as is the major plot twist of how Ralph could be in two places at once. All of which makes their final confrontation that much more emotional.
S.T.R.A.I.N. is, overall, a pretty clever little sci fi horror series that actually makes real world physics a major part of the plot and story arc, giving it a bit more gravitas than most sci fi shows. For a giant mecha series, it manages to distinguish itself as well, making the use of such machines unique enough to differentiate itself from Gundam.
One of the more fascinating aspects is the origin of the story, however. S.T.R.A.I.N., and pretty much every character in it, is based heavily on the novels of Francis Hodgson Burnett, with themes from A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and The Secret Garden all woven into the sci fi elements. So, if you love Burnett’s work, you’ll definitely want to see this.
The series was picked up by FUNimation back in 2008, and got a pretty solid dub, so it’s available in English for those who don’t want to read subtitles. Go check it out.