Back in the middle of the (northern) spring anime season, I called Valvrave: The Liberator one of the five anime you should be watching. Now that all the episodes have aired, I can understand that it may not be for everyone; but for me, it was one of the most crazy and utterly enjoyable anime of the season.
Good — Over-the-Top Premise
At first glance, Valvrave appears to be yet another unlikely-teen-becomes-Gundam-pilot story. In reality, though, it's a story about body-swapping, giant robots who turn people into vampires; a high school that becomes its own independent space colony nation; and, yes, an unlikely teen who becomes a Gundam (Valvrave) pilot. And that's just scratching the surface.
Good — A Juxtaposition of Light and Dark Themes
Mecha shows tend to come in two varieties: 1) lighthearted, over-the-top, and melodramatic or 2) super serious. Valvrave, on the other hand, is both at once. At one moment, it will be about making a cheesy music video for a donation drive. The next, there are scenes of violence, death, war atrocities, and even rape.
This tonal whiplash -- the juxtaposition of light and dark moments throughout the series -- is perhaps the anime's strongest aspect. Having the light moments be so happy and carefree makes all the dark ones seem even more shocking and horrible by comparison.
Good — A Teenager Run Society
The setting of Valvrave is basically the same as if a group of students doing a “semester at sea” were the only ones left on the ship and suddenly found themselves in control of its previously unknown nuclear arsenal -- only in space, of course.
At first, it's like a childhood dream to them. The adults are all gone and the kids get to run wild. Of course, soon, we see more and more problems in their attempted society, even after they stop fooling around like unsupervised kids on vacation. Things start breaking down, they are under constant attack as everyone under the sun wants the WMDs (the Valvraves), and, eventually, kids start getting killed because of the whole chaotic situation.
In many ways, it makes the characters seem like they don't belong in this anime -- like they are high school anime cliché characters trapped in a world far more “real” than they expected, where the stakes are very much life and death. Watching them try to reconcile the world as they wish it to be and with how it is ends up being by turns heartwarming and heart wrenching (as it seems that even their best intentions are destined for failure).
Mixed — The Sea of Unanswered Questions
Usually, I would complain about an anime having a cliffhanger ending. However, unlike the other anime this season that just seem to end mid-story, Valvrave has a confirmed second season coming in October.
But even with a second season mere months away, I feel I should have some handle on the series' lore after twelve episodes -- at least some idea of the rules of the universe that has been created. I really don't.
The series seems happy to let you assume that the rules of the universe mirror those of your average Gundam, only to pull the rug out from under you at every turn. Everything from how the Valvraves work to questions about the nature of the pilots’ new lives (like, do all the pilots have random berserker moments or just Haruto?) are still unanswered.
Even so, the mysteries presented are enough to keep me invested in the show. And the occasional flash forward to events 200 years after the series are the proverbial icing on the cake.
Bad — Doesn't Dig Deep Enough
While Valvrave does look into the implications and problems of the student run colony, it never seems to go far enough. A problem is looked at for the span of an episode and then quickly forgotten. It's just assumed that whatever the problem was has been basically fixed for all time -- regardless of whether that would be true or not.
In the end, Valvrave: The Liberator succeeds by playing on your expectations, by taking a lighthearted setting and cliché characters and forcing them to confront the serious problems of a much darker anime. And while many of these are solved a bit too easily and permanently, the consequences of failure are dramatic and lasting. If you enjoy Gundam and are looking for a clever twist on the standard formula or just like the idea of mixing an over-the-top premise with real world consequences, then Valvrave is certainly worth a watch.
Valvrave: The Liberator aired on Aniplex in Japan. It is available for free in North America with English subtitles on Crunchyroll.