The first episode of Glass Fleet throws so much at you, and explains so little of it, that I dreaded what else awaited me on that disc. It was like bolting a whole box of bonbons at once: space battles, emperors, revolutions, uprisings, all of it mounted and staged with the pomp and pretense of a widescreen Hollywood special-effects epic. Then the second episode snapped everything into focus, and while there’s a lot here that’s clichéd and obvious (or downright puzzling), I would be lying if I said it wasn’t fun to watch.
Anime deals in collisions of glorious extremes. The silly and the serious, or the epic and the goofy, often share screentime in the same moments. What would you think of a space battle where the ships in the armada all line up like they’re on a field — and where the smoke from the explosions drifts straight up? Is that a) mindless contempt for the laws of physics or b) just another touch in the bigger canvas? If you opted for b) and you like your anime big and bold, with grand theatrical gestures and oaths sealed in blood, this is your show. Someone else has compared it to a mix of Le Chevalier D’Eon and Captain Herlock, and as far as mixtures of influences go that’s a pretty dead-on assessment.
Glass Fleet is set in a future that seems vaguely reminiscent of Frank Herbert’s Dune books, where the stewardship of the universe is in the hands of a decadent aristocracy, the “Allied Nobility.” The original royal family has gone missing, and the masses suffer so that lords and ladies might dance all night. Against the Allied Nobility rises up a self-proclaimed savior, the bishonen Vetti Sforza, and the opening scenes of the first episode (the source of so much initial confusion) show Vetti dealing blows against the empire, then crowning himself the new emperor. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
You can’t oppress the people all of the time, though, and so before long another rebellion against the Powers That Be rises up — the People’s Army, led by the charismatic and also heavily androgynous Michel Volban. He’s more than willing to stick his neck out right alongside his comrades, which puts him a cut above most other revolutionaries. Unfortunately, his coup d’etat is cut short by the arrival of Vetti’s fleet, and after his capture Michel decides the best way to serve his cause is to be its first and greatest martyr.
Then out of the starry night comes a glass battleship emblazoned with the royal family’s logo — one ship which turns the entire armada arrayed against it into a floating junkyard. At the controls of this maverick vessel is Cleo, enigmatic and taciturn, with a manly mane of black hair as a nice contrast to the effeminacy of both Vetti and Michel. Cleo’s a self-professed pirate with a crew of ragtag hangers-on of miscreants, misfits, and maladapts, and he hasn’t dropped in to save anyone — he’s there to loot Vetti and company, and only takes Michel and his crew along when the young rebel begs him to do so.
The two groups are not a good match. The pirates are, as one can imagine, an uncouth and aimless lot, and Michel’s underlings (despite his exhortations to them) are looking for any excuse to just leave rather than suffer any further indignities. But they’re loyal to their master, and they stay — even when Michel endangers himself by accompanying Cleo into the freezing cold when they go planetside. Cleo and Michel are also about evenly matched in their fencing skills, which comes as something of a surprise to both of them, and only after their duel ends in a draw does Cleo begin to reveal key secrets about his self-appointed mission. Piracy, as you can well imagine, is just a front for what he’s really up to. He has noble blood in his veins, and wants to put the royal family back on the throne where it belongs.
Paralleled with all of this is Vetti’s own storyline, and he’s developed into a character that’s at least as interesting as the other two. He has ferocious ambitions for the universe he lives in — he wants nothing less than to make everything he sees into a part of his empire, including the other apparatus of the empire, like the church, that were previously off-limits to everyone else in his position. Even more eyebrow-raising is his lover, the equally-effeminate and disturbingly young Ralph, whom I consistently mistook for a young girl until I realized that pederasty amongst the ruling classes was probably not completely out of gamut for a setting like this, either.
This leads me to my major complaint about the show. Vetti, Michel, and Ralph are all ostensibly male, even if they’re not always drawn that way. And while that fits the general aura of decadence they’re trying to conjure up, it’s also sometimes unnecessarily confusing. To wit: Michel is voiced by a woman in both the English and Japanese editions of the show, and is, of course, gorgeous in every shot — despite lacking a bustline — but both the press material and other reviews I’ve dug up refer unambiguously to Michel as male.
Then there’s the space-war action, which manages to look both epic and chintzy at the same time. There’s no question that CGI has made it easier to fill most animated productions with images that could never be hand-animated today at any cost. The problem is deriving a look that integrates well with the rest of the show, and the CGI in Glass Fleet is jarringly unlike the hand animation. Compare this with, for instance, the way the Ghost in the Shell TV series used CGI: the Tachikoma and the aircraft were rendered in a way that complemented the characters and their environments, and the digital landscapes of the cyber-world had an unabashedly CGI look since they didn’t need to be consistent with anything but themselves. (Another outstanding example of CGI and hand animation fused in a complementary way: Tekkonkinkreet.) Even the hand animation itself (by GONZO) is not quite as crisp or fluid as some of their other work, and I suspect that’s because a good part of the animation budget went into the CGI in the first place.
The CGI look isn’t the only problem — the space battles don’t really have the fluidity that we’ve come to expect from such things, especially any show crafted in the mold of transforming-fighter / giant-robot shows (Gunbuster comes most directly to mind). They do, however, try to make up for it with sheer visual flair, and this goes double for when Cleo’s royal craft executes its special attack — it morphs into a bayonet-like needle that rams through the enemy ships’ engines. I’m reminded of Rama’s arrow in The Ramayana, probably the prototype for any number of epic spectacles on and off the page — an arrow he shoots not only through seven trees older than the universe itself, but “the seven worlds, the seven seas, and all things in seven,” and which ultimately returns back to the bowstring it was shot from. Glass Fleet isn’t quite that over-the-top, but boy does it ever climb hard.
Epic with a capital E — that’s what Glass Fleet wants to be, even if it doesn’t always succeed, and even if the setting (and the androgyny) sets your head spinning at times. Start with Le Chevalier d’Eon, and if that show snags your fancy, pick this up as a sort of spiritual successor.