The dichotomy of tradition, religion and warfare is at the heart of Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse, playing out in a Japan caught in the struggle of an alien invasion - the BETA. Despite the threat, there’s still the same attention to ritual, to history and to preserving everyday life. But it’s a militarised nation, conjuring the American occupation where the country’s culture was drastically transformed. The same is true of the alien presence. From the contextual opening, which plays like archive footage from a distanced future, we learn of the BETA invasion which started in the late sixties.
The opening two part episode introduces us to 1997, where schools have taken the place of recruitment, and students are groomed for combat. Their endgame is to pilot the Tactical Surface Fighter (TSF) where the user’s average lifespan is only 8 minutes. Yui Takamura and her friends act like any other youngsters, and there’s the usual high school revelries and stereotypes that gives us the false sense that we’ve seen this all before. When they swap their school uniforms for skin suits - skin tight and vacuum-fitted - the series gets to the nitty gritty. Once the students first face the sordid BETA hordes, we think that the power of friendship and belief will save them like in untold other series. In actuality, it’s a gruelling visual experience with Elfin Lied levels of gore and grimness, counterpointed only by an atypical style and plot. The score is full of Wagnerian depth in amongst the Jpop, which is as good a way as any to describe Muv-Luv.
The third episode is set years after the scorched earth that destroyed Kyoto to fend off the overwhelming BETA force. Imperial Japan is developing the next-gen TSFs to defend the front lines of the Far East. In response, the UN has backed a joint development programme between Japan and the US. The result is the Prominence project. Yui is now Development Chief, making up one part of the crack international team of pilots. Kudos for diversity (there’s nothing like a global catastrophe to bring us together) but stereotypes a diverse cast doesn’t make. The Swedish and Italian characters in particular seem inspired by ABBA and American cartoons respectively. And the English dub boasts some grating accents which make Mario seem politically correct.
The episodes following the time skip are at odds with the opening, and besides the same mechas, it feels like an altogether different show. It follows the personality clash of Yui and arrogant American pilot Yuya Bridges and the unavoidable will-they-won’t-they scenarios. It’s an unpredictable hodgepodge of tone and style, with each episode a further dilution of its initial statement of intent. It’s not that it needs to be all grim and gore, but consistency at least would have kept enough of a through line to keep viewers interested. Given the multi-media, ten year plus franchise it’s no wonder that the anime is strained, pulling in so many opposing directions.
For all its floundering and garish jiggling fanservice, Muv-Luv does have a great sense of style. Combat is dynamic, swapping between guns and sword play. The character design is particularly nice, with some subtle stylistic touches. The mechas have a tangible aviation inspired design, which gives the grimmer parts a speculative quality. At its best, Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse is a clever show that riffs on a nuclear subtext. It’s overseen by Masaomi Ando in the war movie tradition, where style, timing and plotting reveal the reality of war. Come for the gore and stay for the mechas, just avoid everything else.
Special Features: Clean opening and closing animation / Trailers
MUV-LUV ALTERNATIVE: TOTAL ECLIPSE PART 1 / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: MASAOMI ANDO / SCREENPLAY: TAKAUKI INAGAKI / STARRING: KRYSTAL LAPORTE, COREY HARTZOG, MOLLY SEARCY, KATELYN BARR, MEG MCDONALD / RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 24TH