It’s April 1st, 1983, a full year before the release of Neuromancer. Across Japan, TV sets are idly tuned into the premiere of Ryosuke Takahashi’s Armored Trooper Votoms, a dark, gritty military drama, unlike anything the anime industry had seen before. Unlike the mecha series that had come before it, Gundam included, Votoms had a level of realism to it that made it stand out, not just in its interpretation of robotic warfare, but in it’s setting as well. With a locale reminiscent of the Sprawl from William Gibson’s works to a hellish jungle directly inspired by the Vietnam War, to a claustrophobic space freighter from an age long past, to an ancient artificial planet taken over by tribals, Votoms stood out right from the start.
The series focuses on Chirico Cuvie, a brilliant, emotionless soldier accused of participating in a heist on a secret military outpost containing a hyper-augmented woman. After over a day of nonstop torture, something deep inside him snaps, an ancient failsafe, prompting him to break from his cell and flee to Uoodo, in search of an answer for why he was targeted, who he is, and what it means to be human. Another aspect of Votoms that helps it stand out among the sea of glitzy 80’s anime is the subject matter; Ryosuke Takahashi was never one to shy away from darker themes in his stories, and Votoms is certainly no exception. Chirico Cuvie is a war criminal, haunted by memories of a raid gone wrong during his days as a Red Shoulder(A special operations division of the Gilgamesh Confederation Military), and the “friends” he makes along the way refuse to speak of their pasts as well. As the series moves into its second half, smoothly transitioning from a Vietnam-inspired civil war to a brooding and intense survival story aboard a spaceship/derelict planet, we start to see the toll war takes on all of our characters, and Chirico himself alludes to the notion that he wishes to be “Free from this prison of my mind.” Without spoiling anything, Votoms is the earliest anime to explore transhumanist ideas with a degree of success, laying down the necessary footwork for later series to build upon. It’s a powerful combination of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Apocalypse Now, and Heinlen’s Starship Troopers.
Votoms is certainly an intimidating series to get into; the animation is dated, there are a dozen spin-offs of questionable quality, and there are many instances of budget cuts affecting the overall quality of individual episodes, but despite all that, it’s a cult classic in every sense. I strongly encourage anyone with an interest in either anime or 80’s Cyberpunk to check it out. It’s an undertaking to be sure, but Ryosuke Takahashi’s brilliant, pessimistic vision of a far-flung future is still one of the most engaging anime narratives, thirty-three years later.