Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Spotlight: Grenadier

Warning, there will be spoilers.

In a medieval world where swords can deflect bullets, mechanized cannons assault fortresses, and one of the deadliest warriors in the world is a man who wears a large accordion on his chest, who can save a nation when it's attacked from within?

I present to you Rushuna Tendo, the Senshi of Smiles.

Now, I commented in my last post that I really, really liked this series. It's one of the few series I felt compelled to buy not just the animated series, but also the manga volumes just to see how they were different. I've always had a strong fondness for westerns, whenever I see something akin to a western taking place in ancient Japan or space, I feel drawn towards it.

Amongst the series I've watched are Trigun, Cowboy Bebop, Wild Arms, Outlaw Star, and one of the first series I ever owned (hello, bargain bin!), Early Reins. But those are series for another time. Now, let's focus on Grenadier.

In the manga, Rushuna is a young woman in a search for her own identity. She knows very little about herself other than she's "from another land." Her goal is to find out where she's from and eventually find her way back. She was trained in the art of the gun from an old master, but had no other real goals or aspirations in life other than to solve her own life's mystery and protect others.

In the anime, Rushuna is still a young woman, but her motivations are slightly different. She was trained to act as a bodyguard and body double for the Tenshi (the ruler of the land) and is now on a quest to master what's called the "ultimate fighting technique." And what is this technique, you might ask? It's to "remove the opponent's willingness to fight without fighting." She finds out that the Tenshi, also her best friend, has placed a price on her head and every master warrior in the realm is out to collect. The overlying story is figuring out why she's being hunted and her attempt to get back to the capitol to confront her friend.

But what does it mean to "remove the opponent's willingness to fight?" Rushuna has to convince her opponents that it's in their best interests to not fight at all. By stripping an opponent not just of their ability to fight but also of their motivation to fight, she firmly believes that the world could become a better place. How does she strip someone of their motivation to fight? Sometimes all it takes is a hug and some comforting words, but other times it involves destroying everything they own so they realize how outclassed they are. Mixed message? Well, keep reading.

Now I know what people who have seen anime are thinking. They're thinking "Wow, a master gun user who tries to get everybody to solve their problems without loss of life, has blond hair, and is being hunted for unknown reasons? That sounds least, it did back when it was called Trigun."

I'll admit, when I first saw the series, that's the same thought I had. But is it simply "Trigun with boobs?" Well, in a way, yes, but that doesn't make it bad. Looking at Hollywood, there's any number of successful movies that have spawned numerous similar ones. For instance, Indiana Jones was heavily influenced by early pulp adventure movies, but you can trace all of the following to it: Tomb Raider, The Mummy, the Uncharted video games, National Treasure...the list goes on. Plus, I find it really interesting that Dark City, The 13th Floor, and The Matrix all came out at around the same time.

Now, granted, not all remakes or homages are worth the time and effort. Look at the classic movie Casablanca: take a tough, disillusioned bartender who bumps into a former lover. This former lover and their new sweetheart are key figures in the resistance against an evil, oppressive totalitarian regime. While initially neutral, the bartender's attempt to profit from something that would save lives backfires, and they realize some things are worth fighting for and risks themselves to help the two escape with the help of a sympathetic police officer who switches sides at the last moment. The movie ends with them watching the love of their life fly away, and the cop recommends it's time they join the resistance and take up the fight for the greater good. It's a classic story that produced one of the finest movies of all time. But you know what other movie has the exact same story?

So, yeah, not every attempt to replace an awesome hero with a pair of breasts works out, but let's look closer at this one.

What Grenadier (the anime) boils down to is the journey of a young woman who constantly feels at odds with herself. She's trained from a very young age to be one of the elite warriors of the entire nation, yet meets someone who convinces her that violence is the wrong path. She attempts to live to this impossible ideal, while constantly finding herself having to utilize her old skills to save her friends and innocents around her. The character even brings this up herself, acknowledging that her actions don't always mesh with her speeches about peace.

There's also a rather interesting moment when one of the secondary characters, a young girl named Mikan, steals Rushuna's gun and points it at her. The girl tries to draw back the hammer of the pistol just to find it won't budge. Rushuna explains that the gun is designed that way on purpose, "to be able to feel the weight of a life." She explains, "To shoot someone, you have to have a certain awareness of it." Compared to your standard Hollywood action hero who shoots people like they were tin cans on a fence, it's nice to see someone acknowledge that a life of even the lowliest soldier is still worth something.

There's also a moment with Mikan when the girl is able to confront the leader of a gang attacking her home. This is the same gang that killed her parents in an earlier flashback. However, she spares the man's life after Rushuna explains that if you take someone's life out of revenge, it just means someone will want to kill you back as revenge in a never-ending cycle. Plus, the man was a gang leader, but without his "ultimate weapon" Rushuna destroyed or the gang that gets scattered to the winds, he's just a defenseless, pathetic old man, one not worth holding a grudge against if revenge consumes the girl's life fulfilling it.

Now, that's not to say that the whole series is wishy-washy "make love, not war." Rushuna's fight scenes (both in the manga and the anime) are extremely impressive if often completely ridiculous. These are scenes that require a willingness to suspend disbelief to new levels, such as when she uses the stream of air bubbles from a torpedo to fire back at her target since the water hinders her ability to fight. Silly? Yes. Something the Mythbusters wouldn't even want to attempt? Probably. Awesome? Definitely.

If the series has one genuine failing, it's that it seems too self-aware at times. Rushuna constantly finds herself in a variety of skimpy outfits, and, as shown in her physique above, there's plenty of eye candy. The fact that she reloads her gun by flinging bullets out of her cleavage epitomizes this, and yet the series does it all with a wink to the audience, as if to say, "yeah, we know this is why some of you are here, so we decided to just take it over the top!"

Now, creating a series with the idea "the plot comes second to bouncing breasts and tight butts" is hardly uncommon in Japanese entertainment. I have the feeling that's how Agent Aika, Mouse, and Tenjho Tenge all got started (and for the most part they all sucked). But when a series seems to be trying really hard to flesh out the characters and deliver a strong story and a powerful message, it dilutes the whole thing when you keep throwing in jokes about breasts.

What you wind up with in Grenadier is the start to some very strong philosophical conversations that get cut off all too soon because of time restraints. However, the manga does go on for 7 volumes, but it doesn't focus on the "peace through less fighting" message as much (Rushuna actually does kill in the manga, but only in the defense of others, and even then she tries to save her opponent's lives when she can). What it does do is flesh out the secondary characters more and better develop the world these characters inhabit, so while the two stories don't mesh perfectly, they're still similar enough to enjoy together.

Overall, I enjoyed Grenadier. It's by no means as good a series as Cowboy Bebop or Ghost in the Shell, but it covers a lot of bases and handles them pretty well. If the anime would have just tightened up what it wanted to be a bit more, I really think the series would've been amazing. As it is, it's just good, goofy fun with an interesting twist on a common message. The animation of the cartoon is clean, and the artwork of the manga is quite crisp. If you're an anime or comic fan, I'd recommend it. If you've never watched anything Japanese before in your life...start with Spirited Away or Cowboy Bebop.

Oh, and if you're worried that I've spoiled too much about the series, I really haven't. There are lot more interesting fights, moral dilemmas , and interesting characters that show up. So go ahead, give it a look. Just don't expect it to be more than simple fun.

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