Well, I hope every enjoyed their holiday and New Year's as I enjoyed mine. So it's now time to return to reviewing obscure anime, and what better way to return than with something that isn't Gundam?
Metal Armor Dragonar, Kikou Senki/Record of Armored War Dragonar in Japanese, was an attempt by Sunrise in 1987-1988 at ending Gundam and creating something new in its place. Gundam ZZ was, and still is, an entry in the franchise that gets mixed opinions due to its focus on comedy in the first half and sudden change to seriousness in the second half. Sunrise apparently felt that maybe Gundam may have overstayed its welcome at this point and that there needed to be a brand new real-robot mech series to take its place. This is where Dragonar comes in...
It is the year 2087 and the United Lunar Empire Giganos initiated a war with the Earth Federation Military. Giganos has the upper hand, though, since they have control of a mass driver located on the Moon, and the repeated firings of the mass driver have turned portions of the Earth into a barren wasteland. Ken/Kaine Wakaba, Light Newman, and Tapp Oceano are three young men who live on a Federation colony spaceship called the Alucard, wanting nothing to do with the war, but when Giganos launches a surprise attack on the Alucard the three end up stumbling upon the Dragonars, three top-secret Federation Metal Armors that Giganos was looking for. With the three piloting the Dragonars, the Federation just might have a chance to win the war.
Yeah, the basic start of the story does sound similar to the original Mobile Suit Gundam, except that there are three guys instead of just one. In fact, Dragonar does have many similarities to Gundam and that was obviously on purpose. Still, the difference is in the characters and happenings themselves, as Ken, Light, and Tapp are all somewhat different from Amuro Ray and having three main characters works very well here. Meio Plato, the Char Aznable to Ken's Amuro Ray (right down the having a sister that becomes Ken's love interest), is enough of a different character from Char to be highly enjoyable on his own, and the other secondary characters are all mostly enjoyable enough. Also, Ken isn't the only character to have a love interest, as Tapp and Light also gain love interests early on (though Light loses out in the end), which is nice since all three relationships are different from each other and it shows that Sunrise really did try to make this similar to Gundam yet still have it be its own creation. Also, I believe Tapp may be the very first main character of a mech anime to be black, and he doesn't really go into any big stereotypes aside from being partially the comic relief character of the group. Overall the characters are all really enjoyable and for a show like this where characters are just as important as the story it really helps.
The story follows the same basic feel as the original Gundam is that it starts in space, followed by having most of the story happen on Earth, and then ending off in space once again. In fact, most of the Earth-based story deals with the Dragonar boys fighting against Gun Jiem, a mercenary-like Giganos soldier, and his crew. Gun Jiem's crew is mostly enjoyable to watch, especially Min, the female member of the crew whose Metal Armor has chainsaw gauntlets. Plato's focus becomes more of a secondary storyline as he finds out that not everyone in Giganos follows the same goal that its leader, and Plato himself, follow. In fact even the Training Squad, a trio of soldiers who follow Plato all the way through, end up getting some nice development as well and in the end there are some nice twists to the story that you wouldn't have expected. In fact, the story itself has some interesting twists, with characters you wouldn't expect getting focus actually getting it, and some nice jokes made at the entire mech genre's expense. For example, later on in the show the Earth Federation make mass-produced versions of the Dragonars, called Dragoons. Dragoons take the best parts of Ken's D-1 and Tapp's D-2 (Light's D-3 is recon-based and couldn't be mass-produced in any way), making them superior to the Dragonars in every way possible. Unfortunately, the Earth pilots are so inept at using the Dragoons that the Dragonars end up being more useful in the end! It's stuff like that where Dragonar also carves out its own identity. Where Gundam ZZ's comedy can be in your face and hit-and-miss, Dragonar's comedy is more subdued and character-based and adds to the show rather than distracts.
Of course, this show is still similar to Gundam, right down to having Kunio Okawara doing the mech designs. Okawara's Metal Armor designs are very well done and the Dragonars, especially Ken's D-1, are still highly recognizable to this day. In fact, Masami Obari would take the D-1's design and alter it slightly when creating the Dragon Fang from Platinumhugen Ordian (Obari himself directed the animation used during Dragonar's first opening sequence, so it's not like Obari was simply a fan of the show). Unfortunately, Dragonar is still a little underrated, and I think Okawara's Metal Armor designs are generally going to be forgotten among the tons of other mechs he has designed in his career, which is a shame.
The music works really well for the show, but there aren't really any truly memorable themes in this show. The opening themes, though, are both very memorable. The first theme, "Yume-Iro Chaser" by Mami Ayukawa, is a fast-paced song that goes great with the show and is probably one of the most memorable parts of the show; it's simply a song that hasn't really aged and is still great to this day. The second theme, "Starlight Serenade" by Mami Yamase, is also a good slower-paced song but is generally left to the wayside by "Yume-Iro Chaser"; that doesn't mean that the song is bad, though, as it's still a great opening theme. The ending themes, "Illusion wo Sagashite" by Mami Ayukawa & "Shiny Boy" by Mami Yamase, are both slower songs that work well as ways to end off each episode but aren't quite as memorable as the opening themes.
In the fansubbing circuit Dragonar seems to be cursed. There have been a total of three different fansubs groups that have tried subbing Dragonar fully, and the furthest any of them got was 5 episodes, and that was from the first fansub group! I myself had to watch HK-DVDs (i.e. Chinese bootlegs), where the translation could be a little funky at times and names could be completely off. Still, it was worth it as I fully enjoyed watching Dragonar. In Japan the show was a success, with Ken and his love-interest Linda apparently being named Best Male and Female Lead Characters in a mech anime by Newtype Magazine back in 1988. Still, the show couldn't take on the juggernaut that Gundam had become and ended up being a single anime. It kind of become a slightly-forgotten show afterwards until Banpresto used its mechs and characters in Super Robot Wars A for the Game Boy Advance. Since then Dragonar has made numerous SRW appearances as well being given major focus in Banpresto's Another Century's Episode series as well some Sunrise-developed games. It finally got a DVD boxset release a few years back, and it apparently sold well. Now in Japan Dragonar is a fondly remembered series and I always look forward to a Super Robot Wars title that has Dragonar in it.
Overall, Metal Armor Dragonar isn't a 100% original mech anime, but fans of Gundam and real robots in general should definitely check it out if they find a way to. Who knows, maybe one day the show will actually be fully fansubbed or maybe a company would be willing to take a chance and license it. I would certainly buy it!