While mainly remembered as a “Rambo in space” cartoon, the venerable Armored Trooper VOTOMS series didn’t become the flagship in the repertoire of Real Robot anime stalwart Ryosuke Takahashi for being just another robot slugfest. Set in a sprawling, masterfully developed universe embroiled an interstellar war, VOTOMS gained acclaim as much for its nuanced geopolitics as for loving portrayals of military technology.
As the Scopedog Armored Trooper (AT) showcased the power of multi-role optics and programmable controls in a mobile battle platform, the blue-haired curmudegon Chirico Cuvie became the answer to Char Aznable for that thuggish ruggish boneyard of lowtech sci-fi fans with a fondness for mecha more inclined to mow down infantry in the jungle than shout attack names at nebulas. At the heart of the plot is an intergalactic conspiracy between warring nations, clandestine cults and organized criminal organizations, but as the story unfolds, Chirico and his destructive powers take center stage. VOTOMS: Shining Heresy turns this premise on its head: Chirico’s talents are now openly paraded as the key point of contention, but merely as the backdrop for a heavy dose of political scheming. Showing great promise, Shining Heresy is in many ways a product of the tumultuous nineties, ending up as both victim and symbol of its genre’s ultimate downfall.
Out of the handful of follow-ups to the original 1983 production, Shining Heresy is the only one that isn’t a spinoff or side story, picking up right where the 52-episode series left off. At the end, Chirico got fed up with the hubbub around him and bailed into space in a hibernation capsule - only to be recovered in the first episode of this OVA by a militarized religious order fittingly named the Church of Martial. Organized religion, particularly of a Catholic flavor, is a time-honored anime staple, though rarely invoked beyond adding a gothy flavor to disposable vampire stories. Catholic in style but Manichean in both spirit and behavior, this church is a nexus of wheels-within-wheels political machinations that influence the entire galaxy, highly reminiscent of the corrupt Vatican seen in Soviet spy serials and The Godfather III. The Politburo-esque council of elders, a stagnating gerontocracy of barely-living seat-fillers, calls the shots. Presiding over this crumbling viper’s nest is an even more decrepit Pope, whose unintelligible mumbling is just a couple self-awarded Hero stars short of a biting caricature of Leonid Brezhnev’s final days.
As the Holy Hospice dodders and rots, the heavy lifting is done by middle-aged cardinals, themselves locked in a bitter power struggle. The awakening of Chirico, who is the subject of a fatwah as a living “contradiction to the faith”, poses a concern for the order. The ensuing debate condemns the Perfect Soldier program and even ATs as blasphemy, and Cardinal Montwells introduces a kosher alternative of his own: a blessed cyborg called the Nextant, the result of cybernetically modifying his daughter Teitania. As she seeks to confront Chirico on behalf of the church, our hero is once again drawn into the heat of the conflict, resulting in the sort of automotive chases, aerial combat and all-hot robot-on-robot action that is so dear to VOTOMS aficionados.
In a curious twist, Teitania’s augmentation is actually an auxiliary cyberbrain functioning as a tactical awareness and combat coprocessor. This artificial interloper is as much a utility as a parasite challenging the organic brain’s decision-making processes. We get a few glimpses through Teitania’s eyes: a jittery visual stream corrupted with the grainy salt-and-pepper distortion of an untuned analog TV, as an unnerving electromechanical din jangles in the background. The idea of a cybernetic vision system that isn’t a seamless parade of crisp semi-transparent HUDs and icon-filled overlays is unexpected; with the exception of Texhnolyze, it’s not clear if any anime made since this one dared to imagine being a cyborg as such a miserable experience.
As the cardinals squabble over matters of papal succession, we discover the extent of Martial’s meddling in the affairs of the galactic superpowers. Familiar faces from the previous VOTOMS shows resurface, and old mysteries, like the origins of the Perfect Soldier program, are revealed. Meanwhile, Chirico, who is simultaneously pawn and prime catalyst in this tangle of events, is busy escaping from Church goons and blowing shit up. The potent blend of fast-paced action and lofty intrigue reaches a new high for the franchise, with the religious arguments over genetic modification and human cyber-enhancement hearkening to the later volumes of Frank Herbert’s Dune (you know, the ones nobody gets to after giving up at book 2 or 3). Right out the gate, it’s clear that there are ample seeds in the exposition for a complex, multi-layered plot.
As fate (and studio politics) had it, we never get to see them germinate. The details on what actually happened are sparse and confusing. Supposedly, Takahashi was pressured by Sunrise marketing into making a direct sequel to the first series, but not given the latitude to tell the story the way he wanted. Shining Heresy is the resultant compromise, which left neither party satisfied and burnt out Takahashi on VOTOMS to the extent that he began resenting its prominence as his best-known property.
Given the sorry way in which this OVA comes to an abrupt halt before really taking off, it’s not hard to see why he felt that way. The abortive final episodes wrap up the series with all the grace of a rectal prolapse. Key developments and points of resolution limply tumble to the table like a handful of trump cards after the game has been forfeited. Once again, Chirico is shown walking off into the sunset alone, now forsaken even by his own creator.
Just like the end of the Cold War triggered a tectonic shift in the way storytelling addressed geopolitics, Shining Heresy too marks a departure from the bipolar conflict structure of the parent series. As old-world structures fell apart, independent players emerged from the ruins to take the reins. When the field grows more dynamic and less predictable, the observers too must zoom in to keep up with the action, with a subtle but inevitable consequence: the abandonment of world-building on a sprawling scale. Another, even more profound effect is the loss of comfort that springs from the safety cushion of an established order. When the ground under your feet is shaking, there’s no time to dream, so one turns away from the stars and gazes inward. In this way, another casualty of the changing times was the vibe that not just empowered Real Robot as a genre, but defined an entire era (not to mention a generation of fans): anime’s deep, earnest infatuation with futuristic technology.
The upheaval reverberated throughout the other big-name mecha legacies as well. Abandoning its Real Robot roots, Gundam fully seized the Tomino within to embrace the way of flashy missile-spam fireworks, moody, androgynous teens and pathos so thick you could cut it with a beam saber. Genre granddaddy Patlabor wrapped up its monster run with the capstone Patlabor 2: The Movie (let’s be honest, WXIII is barely a film, let alone a Patlabor) which foretold the naked cynicism of the 2000s eight years before the 9/11 disaster, but left no successors to its hard-hitting flavor of realistic storytelling. As for Ryosuke Takahashi, he has pushed off VOTOMS into the hands of other directors at Sunrise, moving on to create Gasaraki. That series is known for a unique mecha concept and a jaded outlook on geopolitics of its own, and I’d love for someone who can watch it without falling asleep to review it.
The old models had shattered, and with them went the hallowed school of scientific speculation with a genuine sense of wonder and zeal for discovery. In the new world order, science fiction’s sole, unenviable role is to serve as a layer of abstraction for social commentary. In the 21st century, we see the scope widen again, but this time, through the homogenizing prism of globalism. The damage has already been done, and expanding one’s horizons no longer offer a greater diversity of actors and perspectives, but rather mere palette swap variations on a one-worlder jeans-Coke-and-Autotune template. Like a luxury cotton shirt under a punishing washer setting, the world has not only shrunk, but faded, warped and lost its former rich luster.
It’s worth mentioning that Shining Heresy is the last VOTOMS with hand-drawn mecha, with both the Pailsen Files OVA and the nu-metal Phantom Arc having shifted completely to CG. For all their shortcomings, these five episodes are still an entertaining watch, if only for the old-school battles and the unique nineties anime atmosphere. For any grizzled head chomping at the bit from the distinctive whirring sound of an AT revving up its engines, this show is a gem that, though flawed and fractured, is sure to shine.
UPDATE: In the year or so since this review was written, VOTOMS: Alone Again, the 2011 sequel to Shining Heresy, has been fansubbed. Despite Sunrise’s proclaimed determination to recapture the original VOTOMS spirit, the 50-minute OVA comes off as utterly perfunctory, failing to provide satisfying closure to the story, or, for that matter, evoke anything but boredom and a sense of unfulfilled nostalgia. After a bit of half-baked stage-setting, Chirico and Teitania return to fight a bunch of hideous computer-rendered ATs, with the whole thing feeling like a cutscene from some low-budget MechWarrior imitation. Do yourself a favor and skip this uninspired tax writeoff. Instead, watch Shining Heresy and pour out a bottle of Polymer Ringers Solution for the franchise that once was.