Decades of warfare destroy any sense for subtle wit.
To compensate for recently giving in to the urge to write about Kaiba, I sought out a helping of big men, big guns and big robots: Armour Hunter Mellowlink, a spin-off OVA set in the same world as Armoured Trooper VOTOMS. ATV is an unusual franchise, and one with which I’m not too familiar. Aided by some fine people (who know who they are) I’ve acquired the original VOTOMS, but I’ve only dipped my toe into it so far. My only other VOTOMS experience is the first half of the Pailsen Files (ably introduced by Hidoshi, with more structured first episode summaries from Kaioshin and at Tenka Seiha).
Thankfully for me, Mellowlink‘s plot seems to be only very loosely connected to the rest of the franchise. Directed by Takeyuki Kanda (who later directed the first half of The 08th MS Team before his death in 1996) this is the story of one Mellowlink Arity (in this instance I’ll forgive you for laughing) and his revenge. Mellow’s unit was framed for an egregious piece of looting by his superiors, and cynically sacrificed: though they were trained mecha pilots, they were forced to fight as infantry armed only with out-dated anti-tank rifles. As the only survivor, Mellow took it upon himself to hunt the officers responsible down one-by-one, and kill them all. Since this is a sequence of revenges, there are only three characters who run through the full twelve episodes: drifting card-sharp Lulucy, Caradine the military investigator and the gun-wielding Mellow himself.
Our hero is not a complicated character. He has two drives, anger and a sense of responsibility to his dead friends, and the emotional climax, if there is one, of nearly every episode is the satisfaction he (and we) feel at the death of another opponent. What really carries the show, at least until the narrative begins to gather momentum and coherency in the second half, is the action itself, the journey from Mellow finding that opponent to that opponent’s last moments, impaled on Mellow’s projectile-spike-bayonet-thing.
That journey as it appears in the first episode.
This is action that delivers, not so much in spades as in a convoy of front-loaders. Mellow is always the underdog, as he fights using the anti-tank rifle his superiors forced him to use, and his opponents usually pilot Armoured Troopers. Much of the combat revolves, therefore, around ingenious traps and tactics on Mellow’s part, not unlike Lelouch’s lightning-fast planning, but with a big gun instead of chess pieces and megalomania. Added to this is the considerable thought which must have gone into picking the exciting range places for Mellow to fight in, including a speeding Wild West-style train and a faux-medieval keep (neither the train nor the castle survive unscathed).
It would be easy for Mellow to become a Rambo figure, but he’s (just) saved from this by his aura of youth. Matsumoto (more recently heard in Gundam 00 as the voice of Alejandro Corner) manages to sound convincingly young, and in battle Mellow frequently displays stress, surprise and fear. The outstanding fourth episode cements this impression: we’re thrown into a gloomy, upended spaceship wreck in which an obviously frightened Mellow is being hunted down by an unknown and cunning enemy. We know Mellow will survive for the story’s sake but a palpable sense of danger still emanates from the screen, as harsh as the desert sun outside the spaceship’s hull.
In fact, you could say that Mellow is really a bit stupid, or at least something of a simpleton. Normally I’d dismiss this as a question which just doesn’t fit the show’s genre – aren’t most action heroes like this ? – but Mellowlink itself brings the issue up: the plot’s (suitably explosive) conclusion suggests that Mellow’s simplicity allows him to finally escape the world of military politics which he has just blown his way through. Portraying simplicity as a kind of virtue in itself caught me by surprise, but it’s a good tactic for a simple action story to employ, and it goes well with the Mecha Military Rule of Thumb: as you move up the command structure, people become nastier and more corrupt.
Ultimately, Mellowlink is best watched as an engaging, well-made oddity rather than as a classic. Given how much I enjoyed this, I’d say pitting an action hero against giant robots is worth doing more often, though there aren’t many mecha universes which would accomodate a footsoldier, however preternaturally skilled, destroying massive war machines this regularly.
[Incidentally, these were the worst fansubs I've ever seen. I don't mean any disrespect to the subtitlers in saying that, though: these were rips taken from VHS-era fansubs, ugly and with a sometimes-inadequate translation which worsened as the series progressed. I knew that we've never had it so good, but experiencing pre-digital fansubs drives the point home - and puts recent discussions about translation (your mileage may vary, but I felt this was the most interesting part of that furore) into perspective.]
Postscript: months after writing this, I’ve found a proper review of Mellowlink at Destroy Tokyo.