Tuesday, October 25, 2016

In 'Schwarzesmarken', an Alien Invasion Is Not Enough to Stop the Cold War from Happening

Schwarzesmarken is 12-episode anime series that serves as a prequel to the Muv-Luv Alternative visual novel and also Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse anime.  Maybe.  I’m not really sure.  Muv-Luv is such a confusing franchise of alternate timelines, and I haven’t encountered any of its titles prior to Schwarzesmarken.  Fortunately, as the very first story in its chronological timeline, its premise and plot can be understood without any prior knowledge of the rest of Muv-Luv lore.  It can be enjoyed on its own.
The anime is set in an alternate history wherein everything basically played out the same as our actual history until 1967, in which humans encountered the alien invaders they named “Beings of Extraterrestrial Origin” (BETA, for short) on the moon.  Six years later, the BETA landed on Earth and began their invasion.

Fast forward to Cold War 1980’s, in which the plot is set on, humanity had already constructed high-tech mechas called Tactical Surface Fighters or TSF to help them combat the BETA more effectively.  However, the BETA advancement shows no sign of slowing down, overrunning Eastern Europe and bringing the war’s frontline into the German Democratic Republic or East Germany.

The story centers on East Germany’s most elite and most daring TSF squadron, the 666th TSF Squadron a.k.a. “Schwarzes marken” or “The Black Marks”, who not only protect the Fatherland from BETA invasion but also serve to give glory to it by showing the West the superiority of the East.  Meanwhile, the Stasi (the name of the communist state police in this universe) is making moves to grab power from the government, and the 666th has to deal with the possibility that a Stasi spy is in their midst.
First and foremost, Schwarzesmarken is like a combination of Attack on Titan and Code Geass.  It’s not as great as either, but its elements remind me of elements from both.  The creepy, grotesque monsters and the themes of war and human survival remind me of Attack on Titan.  The mechas, alternate history, and political intrigue remind of Code Geass.  This anime doesn’t always tap into the storytelling depth and thrill that could have been made from its elements, but it manages, due to these elements, to be as dark, riveting, and visceral as what AoT and CG had been.  It requires patience, though, before it finally engrosses you.

What makes Schwarzesmarken stand out from the usual “mecha vs. aliens” anime is its unique setting, which brings several interesting things to the table.  Most notably is the fact that the Cold War still exists in this timeline even though the fate of humanity is at stake.  Instead of uniting against the common enemy (i.e. the BETA) that threatens to wipe them out, people still found it worthwhile to squabble about their ideological differences, pursue political reputations and ambitions, and – as for the communists – conduct strict surveillance, tortures, and purges on its citizenry.  I find the exploration of this regrettable flaw of human nature and society fascinating.
The fact that the characters are in a communist totalitarian state is also a strong point of this anime, as their tragic backgrounds and struggles due to living in such an environment make them vividly well-layered.  The political circumstances also add more tension and complexity to the dynamic of the ensemble.  For example, the squadron has both a captain and a political commissar, which has basically the same level of authority as the captain – a common feature of communist military units during the Cold War.  Though they respect each other, the two aren’t always on the same page, and the resulting dilemma is quite enjoyable to watch.

In the end, Schwarzesmarken also has its flaws.  The action scenes are good, but noticeably inferior to the action scenes from previous mecha anime I’ve watched.  It has parts of uneven writing, and there are some instances wherein characters behave annoyingly or inconsistently.  However, at its best parts, it’s heart-rending, thoughtful, and gripping.  Despite its missteps in some details, it has a solid core, making it a worthwhile anime to watch.

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