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The first thing about Shinji Aramaki‘s Viper’s Creed to grab my attention when scanning through last season’s schedules was that it is a mecha series that deals with life within a Blackwater style Private Military Company, or PMC. Set in the crumbling, flooded Fort Davia, a fictitious city attempting to rebuild itself after the devastation of global warming and a subsequent world war, it follows a squad of ‘Blademen’ – mecha pilots employed initially by Arqon Global Security (AGS) to defend the city from rogue, discarded automated weapons. However, as the plot unfolds events become far more complex, with the main characters finding themselves embroiled in conspiracy and the object of hatred from a dissatisfied public.

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Not that you get even a hint of that from the first episode, which is nothing but pure action. The squad is sent out in their shiny, transforming bike-mechs to take down a BugMech, a rogue robot walking tank that’s speeding towards the crowded city. What we get as a result is 23 minutes of high octane CGI mech-fighting and colorful explosions while a wholly inexplicable and logically unnecessary gaggle of moe office girls – sorry, ‘operators’ – look on spouting similarly unnecessary encouragement and advice. Sadly the whole thing feels a little a studio not wanting to take to much of a risk of alienating it’s audience – as if it’s saying ‘yes, this might look a bit serious – but we have got pretty girls and big robots kicking the shit out of each other, honest. Oh, and here’s some big-breasted fan-service for you – in the opening credits.’ And it’s a message the show seems to be trying to get across quite a bit in the first few episodes.

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Which is a shame, because even in these early shows there’s some quite interesting themes emerging. With the AGS troops facing not only the bug mechs but also terrorists, kidnappers and civilian protests at their activities, there’s obviously the potential here for what could be an interesting critique of the role insurgent facing US troops and PMCs play in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, the squad run into trouble in episode 3 when they inadvertently kill some of the civilians they are trying to protect, causing a backlash from the already downtrodden public. But again there’s the feeling that, as the anime industry stares the cold, dark reality of Japan’s recession in the face, that producing studio Sony Pictures doesn’t want to take any risks, and that someone, somewhere, did everything they could to try and make this just another mecha drama.

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Sadly, one of the places where this is most obvious is in Viper’s Creed visual style. While the automated, disposable BugMech’s have a believable, Shirow-like industrial design, the transforming ‘Maneuver Blades’ deployed by AGS look far less realistic, much more plastic and a little too much like they were drawn up with toy sales in mind. Similarly, the character designs are unimaginative and predictable, and the entire pallet of the show seems to feel a little too light and brash for a show with such a potentially dark subject matter. Too often it feels like the show, at some point in it’s development and production process, has been dumbed down from a tense political drama into yet another easily digestible shonen/teenage drama. For example, do we really need to see shots of our battle-hardened mercenaries boarding their mechs by running down corridors and sliding down pointless elaborate theme-park tubes like something out of Thunderbirds?

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In all reasonableness, I may well be being too harsh on Viper’s Creed. The show has just finished it’s TV run in Japan, and I’ve still got eight episodes to catch up with, so it’s early days still. Normally I would probably have ditched this show by now, but there’s something about it that has me holding out hope. There is potential here. I was expecting something tenser, deeper and perhaps similar to early Patlabor in it’s merging of drama, mechs and corporate politics, and maybe, after a few weeks of settling in, the scripts can push it a little more in that direction. Depending on time and what delights the spring season has to other, I’m pretty sure I’ll be back to Viper’s Creed at some point to see if my hunch is right.