With a title like Pumpkin Scissors, I half-expected some goofy puff pastry about kids pulling pranks at Halloween. The show is anything but, though — in fact, it’s one of the more intriguing new offerings for the end of 2007, a strong mix of elements that are both audience-friendly and relatively challenging.
Call Scissors a “post-war story,” for a lack of a better term — it’s not about war itself, but how the mess left behind after the official hostilities have ended is sometimes every bit as bad, and often worse. Anyone who’s opened a newspaper anytime in the last four years knows this, but you don’t need to look to Iraq alone for an example — Japan itself will do nicely. There are plenty of grim memories of the post-WWII years, when hunger and black-marketeering and a general state of ruin prevailed*, and a lot of those feelings, however second- or third-hand, seem to have filtered into the overall mood of Pumpkin Scissors.
Scissors (derived from the manga of the same name, which has been picked up by Del Rey) is set in the “Royal Empire,” a fictitious nation that bears many parallels to post-WWI Germany in its technology, language, and local color. After suffering a catastrophic loss at the hands of the Republic of Frost, both nations have since signed a cease-fire — but the end of the actual war has not made life any easier in the Empire. The country’s rife with starvation, breakdowns in basic services, disease, and platoons of soldier who have decamped from the army to form bandit gangs. Against all of this we have the “Pumpkin Scissors” of the title, a special division of the Royal army charged with the task of providing relief aid to the populace. Unfortunately, most people in the Empire think of the Scissors as an irrelevant joke at best and a bunch of propaganda-mongering flunkies at worst. Spreading good will alone won’t fill an empty stomach.
Second Lieutenant Alice Malvin, however, doesn’t see herself as a mere propagandist. She’s the XO (Executive Officer) for the Scissors, and takes her job seriously — maybe a touch too seriously, as most any challenge is met by her with a drawn sword and a great deal of oath-shouting. She’s an instantly appealing figure, not just because of her can-do attitude but because she has a way of imparting a little of that spirit to others around her almost without trying.
The other members of her division also look at her askance, at least at first: Martis, a glasses-wearing milquetoast; Oreldo, the ladies’ man who mostly sees the Scissors as a way to avoid more rigorous duty; Stecchin, the “office lady” and aide to Hunks, the crusty captain of the outfit. But her enthusiasm is infectious, even if they’re not always sure how to follow her example. (Oh,yeah: — there’s also Mercury, the dog messenger, who suffers a demotion from Corporal to Courier Private First Class after chewing on one of the other enlisted men and provides the comic relief for the show’s closing credits, too.)
One day while tracking down and routing out a rogue platoon that have turned to banditry and terrorizing civilians, the Scissors run into a walking casualty of war: Corporal Randel Oland — large, gentle, and scarred both outwardly and inwardly. He’s like a full-blown characterization of the shell-shocked soldier that we see glimpsed briefly in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (which is, not coincidentally, a WWI movie). Oland is marginally more functional, but clearly a wreck, and the writers manage to make him sad and intriguing without making him all-out pitiable.
When the bandit platoon drives their tank into town and fires off a chemical-warfare round, however, Oland sheds his timid shell and reveals himself to be one of the infamous 901st battalion — the dreaded Gespenst Jäger, the “Ghost Hunters.” These were men trained to take out tanks one-on-one — they’d walk right up to the vehicle, press a specially-manufactured gun point blank against the armor, and fire a round right through the head of the driver. Only the most fearless — no, make that deranged — soldiers need apply for this sort of suicide duty, which certainly explains the depth of Oland’s damage. But there are no official records of his unit, nor of his peculiar weapon, and so Malvin is compelled to dig into the mystery of this sad, wounded man to see what turns up. She turns up a lot, even in just the first four episodes.
A bare outline of this series makes it sound irredeemably grim going, but it’s not — it’s upbeat a fair amount of the time but also doesn’t shy away from the nastier implications of what’s going on. Part of that cheer, I think, comes from the character Malvin herself: she’s from a noble family, but joined the army out of a sense that it was the right thing to do, and is earnestly surprised (and angered) when other people don’t share her optimism. One episode in particular highlights this, when she goes to stop another nobleman who’s stolen a tank and is using it to run a kind of all-or-nothing death lottery with the starving peasants in his domain. The petition to oust him, as it turns out, came from his own in-house help — who, when they take Malvin hostage, are themselves stupefied to realize they have a nobleman at the end of their guns. But a nobleman will die just as surely from a bullet as anyone else, and that’s exactly the sort of lesson of war Malvin seems to be suited to impart to others — provided she can survive long enough to do it.
Judging from what the first disc has to offer up, Pumpkin Scissors is an interesting hybrid: it’s got some of the heavier, more adult themes that many better anime have become known for, but it’s also deployed in a relatively friendly and accessible way. I was actually expecting something of the tone and tenor of Witch Hunter Robin, but PS is far more spirited and accessible than Robin (and a lot less self-indulgent). It also never completely loses sight of the more serious conceits at hand — like how war is not something that ends when shots are no longer being fired, and how the only thing worse than being at the mercy of another country’s soldiers is being at the mercy of your own. A promising start.
* If you’re curious about this formative and turbulent phase in Japan’s recent history, go check out John W. Dower’s excellent book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, a Pulitzer Prize-winning overview of Japan under American occupation. A lot of the recurrent themes in anime and manga were shaped from the inside out by the issues that defined this period in time — even shows and comics that we wouldn’t think of as being particularly adult or political.