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Shades of Blue: Blue Drop and Project Blue Earth SOS Notes

My friends and I have an ongoing thing wherein we’ll buy and watch just about anything that has the word “Blue” in the title and is on sale. This started when somebody picked up Daphne in the Brilliant Blue on a whim, knowing nothing about it, and it turned out to be a flaming ball of awesome. Since then our blue roulette has turned up at least a couple of interesting shows, if no gems on the level of Daphne. (Aside: The number of anime with “Blue” in the title is disproportionately large, if you think about it.)

A while ago on a RightStuf clearance sale this lead to my purchasing both Project Blue Earth SOS and Blue Drop, neither of which I knew anything about apart from what the box blurb said and what the package art looks like. Which, actually, is the way I like to go into anime—the less I know, the better.

Both shows, as it turns out, were about aliens armed with fantastic technology invading earth. It would be difficult for two stories based on that premise to be any more different.

Project Blue Earth is a spectacular show—basically a giant wad of classic sci-fi movie cliches wrapped in a thick layer of super-cool retro style and lavish animation. The Hardy Boys do War of The Worlds, pretty much, although it also hits Independence day, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the sub in the desert), The Day After Tomorrow, zombie movies in general, and I’m pretty sure Thunderbirds and maybe Atragon, too, plus no doubt a half-dozen more classic sci-fi films that I’m too young and uniformed to recognize. You’ve even got Dr. Breast and his daughter, Lotta, for some James Bond naming goodness (even so, the character designs are quite realistic, and none of them are notably well endowed—no fanservice anywhere).

The episodes are even structured like an old movie serial—instead of 12 half-hour episodes, there are only six hour-long ones, complete with mid-episode dramatic break (you could easily watch it in 30-minute chunks instead of hour-long ones) and a final painted still-frame recalling anime of yore.

Classic-movie nods aside, the series (set in an alternate 1999) is absolutely loaded with sweet retro-tech: hovercars paired with reel-to-reel tape players, ’50s-style ray guns, giant flying battleships, and all manner of purposefully wacky science. (Although I did have to ask:  What the heck is the manual transmission in the hovercar controlling?) The retro style alone would have made the series worth watching, and when you throw in an ensemble cast lead by two boy geniuses straight out of a classic boys’ adventure story and a bunch of actual adults who do dramatic stuff too, you’ve got a heck of an entertaining ride.

The cinematography is spot-on throughout—slick, but never too modern—the Japanese acting is uniformly good, the story is actually rather entertaining—plenty of mystery and weird alien schemes—and it’s exciting in its own cheesy way.

Although it’s so archetypal you can pretty much tell where it’s headed, I don’t want to spoil the end, so skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen it and ever intend to.  That said, while it ends on a more dramatic note than the high adventure mood might have you expecting, that’s basically required for an old-school sci-fi yarn—you need the introspective, open end. And, of course, Billy has one of those pure-awesome solutions to a semi-tragic end, which made it all work. His rival is moping around because his potential girlfriend vanished into the far reaches of space, to which Billy proposes the obvious solution: Get off your whiny butt and build a spaceship to go after her. Problem solved. I’d love to see a sequel play that out.

Now, contrast this with Blue Drop. Blue drop is a weird series. Not weird like Excel Saga, weird like it’s 70% Maria Watches Over Us and 30% Gall Force. Not mixed, just the two series shown simultaneously in those proportions. Really.

You’ve got most of the plot and screen time centering on Mari, a somewhat maladjusted girl who lost her family, and most of her memory, in a mysterious disaster of which she was the only survivor, who’s just re-entered society at a fancy all-girls’ boarding school. She has trouble fitting in at first, but eventually makes friends and gets involved in her class’ production of an original play about Joan of Arc. It’s slow, it’s very low-key, and it’s all-around pleasant; the drama is mostly quite minimal. The Maria Watches Over Us part is, in particular, due to Mari’s relationship with the unfriendly, taciturn Hagino; they at first get along very badly, but eventually develop one of those ambiguous, soft-yuri, semi-romantic relationships.

Then the show will occasionally cut to Blue, an alien ship lurking offshore that’s part of a reconnaissance team in preparation for an alien invasion. The story is stingy with details about what’s up with Blue and its only two remaining crew, but eventually there’s some drama involving them, as well—big, extra-dramatic stuff involving vengeance and betrayal, and several short battles as other ships in their group attempt to cover something up.

The battles, by the way, are Gonzo-gorgeous—short, but they look spectacular. Also, a trans-dimensional ice cannon is a sweet weapon.

One of the two weird things about the series is that these two parts don’t interact at all until the very end. Hagino, being the commander of the alien ship, is the tie between them, but the plot involving Blue and the goings-on at the school are completely isolated until the final couple episodes.

I’m not sure if it’s stranger that you’re watching a pleasant, soft-focus, slice-of-life story that occasionally gets interspersed by trans-dimensional ship-to-ship warfare, or that somebody managed to make a series starring an introverted alien and doesn’t do anything with it until the climax.

It’s rather frustrating how long it takes to get to anything substantive with Blue and its crew—the fleeting hints have you wanting a lot more detail, which you don’t get until way into it. The big drama on the ship also makes the girls in school and their issues look rather insignificant, so it sort of hamstrings the drama there as well. Maybe it’s because I’m male and well past adolescence, but I was far more interested in what was going on with Blue than what was happening at school, but the vast majority of the time was spent on the latter. Oh, and it’s slow—it could have been probably half the length without cutting much out.

On the up side, it’s a rather unusual way to approach the alien-in-school premise, and it’s certainly not what I was expecting in terms of story or presentation. It’s also much milder with the ambiguous big sister dynamic of Maria Watches Over Us—most of the characters are pretty much straight, and the emphasis is on friendship, excepting Hagino (whose race is all female) and (probably) Mari.

Aside: There are only a couple of male characters in the show, one of whom is the principal of the school. Which is fine, except he looks exactly like B-ko’s dad, and his character design seems wildly out-of-whack with the rest of the show. I don’t think he was supposed to be a joke, but every time he was onscreen I couldn’t help but laugh.

One of the two biggest problems, however, is the lack of chemistry. One of the aliens and her mate have plenty—it only took a bit to establish why she’d be bent on vengeance after losing her lover. But Hagino and Mari just never seem to have any chemistry that you buy—you can see why they’d have some interest in each other, but it just doesn’t sell them as having some kind of deeper connection, which weakens the entire series.

The other weird thing about the show is a huge spoiler, so you’ve been warned from here on. It’s weird because at the very end the alien invasion happens. As in, the invasion starts in the last episode, and we see none of it. Earth, as implied in a an epilogue (that’s also shown at the beginning), loses, finally surrendering 30 years later. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever seen a story that ends with the start of an alien invasion, and in which the invasion has nothing to do with the main plot—it’s just an aside that the characters don’t hear a word about until the finale.

Part of the reason is, I’m assuming, because the series serves as a prequel to the couple of Blue Drop manga, which are apparently set way, way after the invasion, and center on the difficulties of human and alien society integrating, since the aliens are all female. They’re also, or so Wikipedia says, harder yuri than the rather ambiguous main relationship in the TV series.

That doesn’t make it any less weird, though. What’s weirder still is that the alien invasion, and the rather tragic finale, seem weirdly out of synch with the rest of it. After 12 episodes of pleasant, small-scale drama, having a thoroughly tragic end just didn’t fit. It in fact didn’t have anywhere near the level of emotional impact such a thing should have, because you were so unprepared for it it just seems sort of random. My main emotion was pretty much confusion.

I assume that the intention was to have the slice-of-life half act as a sort of counterpoint to the impending tragedy, emphasizing the value of little things in life in the face of war, death, and despair. That was all but telegraphed in the play, which from what we see is set right before the execution of Joan of Arc. This just didn’t work; the sci-fi plot was so opaque that you were spending your time trying to figure out the mystery of what happened four years ago, and why the fleet commander wants Blue destroyed, rather than seeing the juxtaposition or feeling the impending tragedy.

I found myself wondering, basically, what the point of the whole thing was; the plot didn’t go anywhere, the end was abrupt and didn’t fit, and none of the schoolyard stuff seemed to have any meaning in relation to where it ended up. It was as if the end negated the previous 12 episodes worth of material by overwhelming it with something entirely out of scale.

I have a feeling it’s one of those shows that was trying to build to a singular emotional moment—Mari calling after Hagino as she goes to sacrifice herself to protect her—but there’s so much going on, so little preparation for the big moment, and the chemistry between Hagino and Mari is so weak, that the moment flops.

The other issue is that the actual plot part of the series is brutally unsatisfying. Apart from the fact that, regardless of anything else, Earth gets invaded and we lose, it basically ignores all the other interesting stuff—the whole contact telepathy sub-plot, what the purpose of the Emil Force Drive experiment was, a twist about thought warfare, and why Hagino tried to kill Mari the first time they met. I assume, based on the plot of the manga, that it was all intentional, but what it felt like was that they had intended an entire extra season of stuff and instead were forced to wrap everything up in a single episode by slapping an alien invasion on top and calling it done.

I will, however, give points for the series surprising me—I certainly didn’t think that’s where it was going. I also did not see the revenge-blinded soldier surviving—she was about as doomed as a character can possibly be from the first minute, and she even made the ultimate mistake of having a last-minute, dramatic change of heart. Of course, I didn’t see Hagino dying, either, but that seemed awkward more than anything.

It’s funny, too, because the very first scene is the same as the epilogue, although it’s not clear that’s what it is at the time. This was probably supposed to tell you where it was going, but by the time the end rolled around I had completely forgotten that that’s how the show started. As in, if a friend hadn’t insisted that the final scene was also at the beginning, I wouldn’t have even looked. It was so out of place, I guess, that my brain didn’t even bother to store it.

In the end, I had to wonder what the point of the whole exercise was, but it was at least passably interesting and nice-looking.

So basically you have one story that turns a brutal, world-destorying alien invasion into rollicking good classic boys’ adventure, and another that shoves it into a corner while we watch a less-refined, less-yuri Maria Watches Over Us.

Between the two, Project Blue Earth SOS definitely comes out ahead in terms of quality, entertainment factor, and satisfying plot, but both series do manage to throw a few curve balls, and are if nothing else the kind of unusual thing that makes anime interesting to watch.