In an alternative history the Earth is invaded in 1967 by the BETA("Beings of Extra Terrestrial Origin which is
I began this review just based on my impressions of the show as I saw it, before researching its background or reading Nicoletta's review of Total Eclipse. Nicoletta says that the Muv-Luv series originally began as a dating sim. All I can say is that this proves that franchises can take some really odd turns. The only thing here that really seems "dating sim" is the gender ratio; our young hero, Theodor Eberbach, is one of only two males in a unit otherwise completely comprised of females.
My first impressions of that female cast were rather unfavorable comparisons to, of all things, Gunslinger Girl. I have no idea if Italy has separatist terrorists as in Gunslinger Girl, though I've never heard of such a thing. On the other hand, some of the details of that show seemed perfectly plausible to me- the somber mood of all its characters seemed to fit its situation, and the dress and behavior of its cast usually seemed consistent with European norms. Schwarzes Marken, by contrast, has problems in these areas: the young women mecha pilots wear very non-military, flashy ribbons and bows in their (mostly) long hair (only one girl has short hair); they bow to each other in apology; and the younger ones, at least, frequently gush with enthusiasm, and giggle at the mess hall table. In short, they don't look or act much like you'd expect young soldiers in a repressive European regime to do; they acted more like- well, the former cast of a harem comedy (or maybe a dating sim?) who were looking for some new work, and were just given uniforms, and permission to play their roles exactly like they played their previous ones. (OK again, they DO all play things a bit more seriously as the show turns more grim, but it takes a while. The suits they wear while operating their mecha units sure have a lot of crash padding, by the way, with the chests being particularly protected...)
The second set of issues/comments I had related to the BETA themselves, and the battle scenes. 3D CG is used to animate both the mecha and the BETA, but it always seems to be dark (and often actually night and/or snowing) in Schwarzes Marken's East Germany, which I decided was probably BOTH heavy-handed symbolism AND a convenience for the animators, since they didn't have to make everything look that great. (The mecha designs aren't terribly original- think Pacific Rim's Jaegers, give them flying capability, and you've pretty much got it.) The BETA are typically composed of a bulbous head on some type of arthropod body. (Nicoletta's Total Eclipse review has pictures, if you're curious.) They run huge-to-gigantic in size, and come in several distinct types that are curiously specialized for various combat roles- for example, one type emits laser beams from its eyes, or eye (it comes in both binocular and monocular versions, like the Minions in Despicable Me), and so seems optimized for an anti-aircraft role. This would seem to indicate that these guys are the product of bioengineering rather than any natural evolution, but Schwarzes Marken may not say much about this- or whether these are actually sentient creatures with any actual goals other than destroying (and eating) humans. Exactly how did they get here? Do they have individual purpose, or are they effectively just huge versions of the army ants in Charlton Heston's The Naked Jungle? We don't know when the show begins, and I can't guarantee that that will change in the course of things.
Of course, there's also the issue of the bear in the living room; since in our world (and presumably the world of Schwarzes Marken as well) Russia occupied East Germany at the end of WWII and STAYED there (until the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980s), where are the Soviets in this world? Perhaps the BETA ate them- we DO know that East Europe even farther east than Germany no longer seems to exist. (Poland is just referred to, as a geographical marker only, as the "Former People's Republic of Poland".) Or perhaps the BETA invasion has just physically cut off the land connection between the Soviets and the East Germans, which would also explain how the East Germans were able to establish a (supposedly) independent repressive regime, possibly even a worse one than under the Soviets, whose rule is enforced by their secret police organization, the Stasi. Much of this gets clarified starting in Episode Six, when an internal political struggle in East Germany begins to take prominence in the story, and the human drama gets ramped up by a couple orders of magnitude (to the point of melodrama), though at the expense of the sci-fi.
This seems a good place to introduce some of our cast, the purveyors of that human drama:
Theodor Eberbach is our aforementioned male hero. He's the sort of fellow who follows his heart rather than his head, which, to give the show credit, is shown as NOT necessarily always the best choice. He thinks he understands a certain party and what they will do, just as Stalin thought he understood Hitler, and was sure he wouldn't invade Russia- until the Nazis DID, in fact, invade Russia. (Well, Stalin wasn't in love with Hitler, but still...)
Irisdina Bernhard is the commander of the 666th. Theodor is told that she is secretly a Stasi agent who willingly betrayed, and shot, her own brother, but as in the previous example, sorting out what the truth is, and who should (or shouldn't) be trusted, can be tricky when living within the natural paranoia of a repressive police state. (The show does a decent job with this theme, though not quite to the level of, say, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade.)
Katia Waldheim says she was born in West Germany but wants to join, and fight with, the East. This didn't just seem improbable to the East Germans- I didn't believe it either- but they let her join anyway. She becomes one of three females that Theodor vows to protect. But what if the ladies have contradictory agendas?
My own favorite character is Lt. Gretel Jeckelyn, the "political commissar" of the unit (though she flies the mecha as well.) She's dedicated and idealistic, but has a good handle on reality as well. She feels that the Western powers, who are fighting in an uneasy alliance with the 666th against the BETA, are using the East Germans as cannon fodder. (There may be some real historical parallels here- for example, Winston Churchill's WWII strategy of avoiding an early invasion of Europe against the Nazis was ostensibly to weaken Germany first, but also DID have the effect (incidental or intentional) of making the Soviets and the Nazis chew each other up for years.) She also asserts that the West hates the socialist states, and again she might have a point in real history- England and much of Europe turned a blind eye to the German Luftwaffe's use of the ill-fated Spanish Republic for practicing the blitzkrieg tactics that it would later use against everyone else. What takes Lt. Jeckelyn, and everyone else, a while to discover here is that the West is not the only enemy East Germany has, even though the role the other party wants the East Germans to be forced into doesn't make sense- isn't it a bit too late, and aren't they in exactly the wrong place? I verified this with my trusty Risk gameboard. Perhaps the Muv-Luv people should consider releasing their own version of Risk, by the way- the BETA version. (I know, I'm SORRY, the puns HAVE been pretty awful lately. My bad.)
But given all this, is the show any good?
It's a hard call. It's very much a bait-and-switch show- I always think of Air as the prime example- meaning it starts out purporting to be about one thing, then decides it's really about another thing. The problem is that I was really much more interested in its original subject. On the other hand, it does become a pretty well-paced political/war thriller with over-the-top (if sometimes too much so) characters, particularly one that manages to be cute, pathetic, and homicidally mad all at the same time. And I liked Lt. Jeckelyn throughout the whole show; she seemed to have the most consistently shrewd and sober judgment of the whole bunch.
It's not the show I really wanted to see, but it's not bad on its own terms- once it starts moving. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: We've got one of those It's-OK-We're-Not-Really-Closely-Related-By-Blood things going on (female nudity included), though the way things work out it's pretty good at demonstrating dangers in that sort of thing you might not have even thought of. Much blood and violence, including putting fatally injured foes (and friends) out of their misery. 16+ better.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital stream on Crunchyroll, Japanese with English subs.
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Schwarzes Marken © 2016 Liden Films/TV Tokyo
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