The next title for Mecha Month is a bit different from the usual mecha mold in that the giant robots aren't exactly the main focus, at least in the main visual way that they usually are in mech anime. Rather, this show utilizes mecha as a means to an end & are more story-focused in their use, not to mention that the real star is a human-sized girl who is arguably even stronger than the mechs themselves and features some really weird imagery... Yeah, that sounds like a Toshihiro Hirano title.
Man, I haven't reviewed a Toshihiro/Toshiki Hirano title since my very first review: Haja Taisei Dangaioh. To be fair, I did bring up Hades Project Zerorymer in my first "Twelve Anime I Would License" list, but an actual review of something from the man happened back at the start of everything. The man is definitely a mixed-bag kind of director, as he was the man behind fan-favorites like Magic Knight Rayearth (both TV series & the OVA series), Vampire Princess Miyu, & Fight! Iczer-One, as well as mixed-opinion fare like the Apocalypse Zero OVA & The Devil Lady... But he also gave us tripe like Great Dangaioh. Then there is Hirano's more obscure fare, like Angel Heart TV & two of the New Savior Legend Fist of the North Star movies, specifically, Kenshiro-den & Raoh-den: Gekitou no Shou (bet you didn't know that he directed all three of those, huh?). Kikou Sen'nyo/Strange Steel Fairy Rouran definitely fits into the obscure category, but it's also one of Hirano's more interesting works, no doubt helped by the fact that the similarly-mixed Noboru/Shou Aikawa wrote it.
Dr. Masahiko Mikogami created the organization ASY, & it's five mechs called Gousens, to act as the new defense force for Japan after it's own military joined the UN. ASY immediately went after the Shiromorishu, a mysterious group that guided Japan spiritually for centuries, stating that the group had been controlling Japan instead of guiding it. Though their base has been destroyed the Shiromorishu are ready to enact their vengeance on ASY... But a mysterious girl named Rouran will complicate matters further by bringing back the past between Mikogami & the Shiromorishu.
Rouran's story is a bit of a slow burn, but that's probably the show's best asset. Though all of the major characters are introduced early on, each of their moments come in one at a time, and likewise the Gousens are introduced one after another, all with Rouran herself tying everything together. Specifically, Rouran is a sen'nyo/fairy, a powerful being who can fly and has enough strength that the first Gousen, piloted by main character Yamato Mikogami, is destroyed without Rouran ever having to summon her giant robot, Kikousen. The slow pacing is all the more impressive when one takes into consideration that the show utilizes 15-minute episodes, with only the 28th & final episode being normal length. A common issue with half-length-episode anime is that the episodes are still paced like they are normal length, which makes one wonder why the show was even made in this nontraditional style. Now, admittedly, there are a few episodes of Rouran that suffer from this, but overall each episode actually works in this style, so much so that if you were to think of the show as 14 episodes long (technically 14.5 episodes, or even just 13 if you take out the three recap episodes) then the pacing of each "episode" would be awkward. This is a great example of a half-length-episode anime series being done right.
Throughout the entire story Rouran goes through a fair amount of character development, all stemming from her mysterious birth & reason for destroying the equally-mysterious Senkotsu, which power the five Gousens. Rouran's entire existence affects the actions that both sides end up doing, and seeing her go from an empty slate to an actual character is just great. The other main characters do get their fair share of development, too, and it all stems from their own pasts & potential futures. Yamato's main development comes from his growing uncertainty that fighting for ASY actually makes him a good guy or not, mainly because of his father's secretive nature. Mahoro, Yamato's little sister, starts off as a doting sister who wants to help her brother out, but her own personal feelings towards Yamato, combined with her own mysterious origins, start to make her more of an issue. Aoi Akizuki, another ASY pilot, has an interesting character arc in that she starts off as cold & uncaring but eventually she goes into a destructive psycho-bitch, which I found neat. In fact, Rouran's most interesting aspect is that the ASY vs. Shiromorishu battle isn't the traditional "good vs. evil" battle.
To be honest, there are good-hearted people in ASY, but outside of Yamato it's actually the darker & potentially evil members that get the most focus, and when combined with the fact that the Shiromorishu have absolutely no good in them whatsoever the main conflict actually becomes more of an "evil vs. evil" battle, and when Mikogami's past with Shiromorishu leader Kasuya is revealed a lot of it becomes understandable. That leaves the good side with Rouran & Tetsuya Takechi, a former member of the Shiromorishu who left them & lived with "slummers" over at Tokyo Arcadia, an abandoned man-made island. The conflict & mysterious pasts behind Tetsuya & Rouran form the major portion of the plot and are really the main reason to watch the show. Also, some of Hirano's more visual trademarks make for some really cool imagery. For example, when Rouran summons Kikousen a breast opens up, revealing a fleshy hand that shoots out, grabs Rouran, and then retracts back into the breast... That is just so Hirano & I love it.
Unfortunately, one of Hirano's biggest problems comes about in Rouran, and that is what I now call, "Getting Hirano-ed". It doesn't happen in all of them, but Hirano has a slight habit of giving some of his titles endings that leave open the idea of a sequel. Now that alone is not a problem, but rather than make it so that one could still think that the story can be considered done, Hirano instead likes to show off something awesome right at the end that gets you really excited and ready for more... But nothing ever comes from it! Dangaioh is probably the biggest example of this, with the original OVA leaving the future of the leads uncertain, & then Great Dangaioh barely continues off of that ending, while teasing something even better at the end of that show. There hasn't been any word of a third Dangaioh creation yet, and it's been more than a decade since Great ended. Granted, Rouran isn't as bad as Dangaioh in that regard, as one could ignore the post-credits scene in the last episode and just think of the show as having a melancholy ending, but that post-credits scene is just that awesome. It's like when it comes to endings, Toshihiro Hirano is the Ashton Kutcher of anime: He likes to punk fans.
Anyway, Hirano can be a great director, and Rouran is a great example of that, with excellent pacing that slowly reveals more and more of the story while also tossing in a false lead to the viewer here and there. To go with that, Noboru Aikawa's script is also very well done, with only a couple of characters that ended up being mostly useless, and even then they weren't really brought up as potentially important characters in the overall scheme of things. Another highlight of the show are the mech designs, which feature a nice range of styles, from the more blocky & simpler styles of the early Gousen to more more complex looks of the last two Gousen, plus the deceptively simple but effective look of the Kikousen. These mech designs were done by Yutaka Izubuchi (of Gasaraki, RahXephon, Gundam: Char's Counterattack) and Rei Nakahara (Nadesico), which explains the nice variety of styles; Aoi's Gousen even features a Dunbine-esque head. The music, done by Yoshiro Kakimi, is a nice mix of slower-paced & eerie themes & more upbeat songs that wouldn't be out of place in Hirano's creations of the 80s. The opening theme, "Kakusei" by Shuichi Senkawa, is an instrumental theme that is as engrossing as it is eerie, and the footage of a silhouetted Rouran dancing in front of a waterfall just adds to that feeling. There are six different ending themes, though four of them are one-episode deals from episodes 24-27, with the main ending theme being "Iroha Uta", both a female version by Myca Motomiya & a male version by Toshimune Suzuki, and the song follows "Kakusei's" lead by being both engrossing & eerie, but with a touch of soothing mixed in. Overall, the music follows the already great direction, script, & mech designs. Finally, the character designs will likely look familiar to fans of Slayers, and that's because Naomi Miyata did the designs, and they fit in very well for the show as well.
The cast also pulls out a good job, headed up by Hiromi Konno (Akira Kogami in Lucky Star, Potato in Air TV), who voices Rouran in a way that perfectly mixes a more childish style for her human form & a more serious style for her fairy form. Masahiko Mogami is voiced by Naoya Uchida (Jin Hayato in the most-recent Getter Robo anime, Cobra in Cobra the Animation), and he does a great job in making Mikogami sound absolutely mysterious & even cold-hearted. Yamato is voiced by Souichiro Hoshi (Kira in Gundam SEED, Sano in The Law of Ueki), and he pulls off a nice job for making the character believable in a "unknowing of what he fights for" way. Rounding out the cast is Takumi Yamazaki (ASY member Souma), Shinichiro Miki (Tetsuya), & Mugihito (Kasuya), among others.
Kikou Sen'nyo Rouran is not only one of Toshihiro Hirano's more interesting works, but it's also one of his better ones, and this can apply to Noboru Aikawa as well. It actually utilizes its half-length episodes very well, and with a compelling story, interestingly flawed-by-nature characters, & nicely-done ending (even if the post-credits promise too much) it definitely is something to track down. There are fansubs out there, though you might have to look a little harder for the last episode, as it's not usually included in any of the batches out there due to it being subbed more recently than the rest of the episodes. Also, Episode 27 was never subbed, but it's one of the three recaps, and even the R2 DVDs treat those three as extras. After a rough start to Mecha Month this was a great follow-up, and though the mechs aren't exactly the "main course" in this title they are still enough of a focus to consider it a "mech anime". But the next review will definitely be all about the mechs, and that's because it's the return of three simple letters: S-R-W.