I’m still making my way through the wide world of VOTOMS (I finished Armor Hunter Mellowlink recently and am continuing through broadcast order), but I finished the original TV series quite a while ago and finally have the time to write about it. For those who don’t know, VOTOMS is about a soldier, Chirico Cuvie, who gets caught up in a conspiracy involving super soldiers and secret societies. Basically, everyone wants to kill Chirico. The general description of VOTOMS falls along the lines one would expect: It’s a grim, gritty series, quite dark and morose. It is often just that, reinforced most of all by the visuals, which look just good enough (on the remastered DVDs) that it’s not offensive to watch because of OLD, but also still have a rough look and feel to them. My favorite visual detail is the embers that accompany every explosion. It adds just the right touch of horror and devastation to each battle.
But VOTOMS is not simply relentless grimdark, at least not in the way I expected. There are some key ways in which the series subverted my expectations for better or worse. (Although even in the parts of the series I am not so sure I liked, they are at least still interesting.)
(P.S. I have taken care to avoid spoilers as much as possible.)
The main point of interest about VOTOMS is that it’s like four series in one. It’s not that there’s no continuity or that the story doesn’t flow in a coherent way; rather, it’s that each arc has a specific theme, tone and (I would argue) genre all its own.
VOTOMS starts out in a normal manner: Chirico is on a routine mission, but he finds out that this mission has a different, more clandestine purpose than he initially believed, and because of that, he is a wanted man. Chirico then finds himself in Uoodo City, and it is here where the first shift in tone occurs. I expected hardcore science-fiction mecha WAR; what I got, at least in the beginning, is more of a gangster flick. I wouldn’t go as far as to call the Uoodo arc mecha noir (though that description is undoubtedly enticing, and also brings with it the potential for adorable drawings of Scopedogs dressed like Humphrey Bogart), but it’s not far off. Corruption seeps through Uoodo. The cops are rotten, and the biker gangs that run roughshod through the city aren’t much better. To survive on the mean streets, Chirico finds himself allied with a weapons dealer, a black marketeer and a brash, loudmouthed orphan, all of whom attempt to take advantage of him at some point. There are mecha gladiator battles, with the seedier denizens betting on them all the while, of course. The arc’s climax is straight out of a heist film.
The tone and feel surprised and delighted me. It is definitely quite dark and mean, but seeing this world developed in this way made it feel all the more real to me, even as I was thinking the entire time, “This is SUCH a gangster movie!” With the power of hindsight, I can see what a great stage-setter Uoodo is: It’s the perfect grimy representation for VOTOMS.
Then Chirico finds himself in Space Vietnam.
What? Yes. In the time between arcs, Chirico has enlisted in a unit that is quite blatantly fighting the Vietnam War. (One of Chirico’s fellow mercenaries is named Pol Potaria, which amused me greatly.) After the Uoodo arc, my first thought was, “This is totally a Vietnam flick!” but it goes a bit further than that by showing two prominent groups using the warring factions to fight their own proxy war. This was where I really started enjoying how VOTOMS would take this obvious concepts and conceits and spin them just a bit to make sense in its own world. Seeing the Vietnam War play out (along with all the usual Vietnam War imagery, including boat rides and attacks on villages with straw huts) could be quite silly, but somehow it makes sense in this world.
It’s also an interesting spin for me, personally, because it’s a different view of Vietnam than I normally get. Because I am not nearly old enough to have fought in or lived during the Vietnam War, my (limited) view of it is gleaned through the pages of history and all the media that has been produced regarding it. American cinema about the war tends to focus mainly on one soldier or a group of soldiers and their scarring experiences. Although the general opinion is that the war is bad and should never have happened, there never seems to be much to suggest any sinister motivation on the part of the U.S. The war itself is a sinister enough enemy. But in VOTOMS, both groups pulling the strings are up to some gnarly shit. The people doing the battling are the exploited, and those on top scurry away when the fight goes awry.
This is more like the VOTOMS I expected, but the manner in which it is delivered is entirely unexpected. However, I am saying that from the point of view of it being decades since the affair. In the early 1980s, this still weighed heavily on people’s minds. Perhaps it was not so unexpected then.
The emotional logic of that arc flows logically into the next, which is part-PTSD nightmare and part-post-apocalyptic insanity. (I have heard it compared to Dune, but I am unfamiliar with either the novels or David Lynch’s notorious film adaptation, so I am not the right person to comment on this.) Of all the arcs, this pulled the rug out from under me the least, although it makes up for that by being terrifying and claustrophobic in the beginning. This is where Chirico heavily questions his place in the universe and what all his butchering amounts to. Does he exist purely to kill? As a soldier, is he simply a tool to be used by those who do not wish to stain their hands with blood?
All this doubting happens while Chirico is on a ship speeding away from everyone trying to kill him. He’s got nowhere to go and is cornered quickly. It’s not a fun time for the poor fellow. This arc does an excellent job of communicating the sheer emotional stress Chirico endures, even as he tries to be stoic about it. Of all the arcs, I found this one the least interesting to think about, but it makes up for that with how intense and harrowing much of the action is. I would say more, but this is the point where I have to tread carefully because of GIANT SPOILERS.
The final arc surprised me the most, and not always in good ways. Honestly, I’m still not sure how I feel about it, even weeks after I have completed the series. The events feel far removed from the rest of the series in tone and feel, though they are actually quite entertaining in and of themselves. This arc is blatantly a riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey, though again, done in a way that mostly serves VOTOMS rather than being shallow aping. Much of it is tough to swallow, but I can partially manage it because I never totally deluded myself into thinking VOTOMS is Total Ultra Super Realest Real Robot. It is real robot in that the robots can be junked pretty easily and don’t have superpowers and shit. Otherwise, the characters often do crazy things that would get them killed a million times over in reality. I don’t particularly care about that point, though. As long as what happens feels like it could happen in this particular world, that’s enough “realism” for me.
Here, though, well . . . I hesitate to bring this up, but this arc brings in some mystical explanations for things, but they don’t totally jive for me. Maybe there’s a metaphor I am not quite grasping. (This would not surprise me.) Maybe it’s a commentary on action heroes surviving all sorts of nonsense and insanity. Maybe the creators just could not think of a better way to close the book on the conspiracy angle. Who knows? It just does not feel quite right to me, although it does admittedly lead to several entertaining moments and a fun sequence of “Will he or won’t he?” with Chirico possibly allying with or destroying this new, mystical presence.
Whatever the case, VOTOMS kept me on my toes until the very end, and that’s such a rare feeling that I can value it, even when it’s not totally satisfying. I enjoyed it enough to wade through the rest of the OVAs and movies and whatnot, so that is something. I enjoyed my time with VOTOMS.