Blue Submarine No.6 (OVA)

If you've read my articles covering the shorts to come from Hideaki Anno's Janan Animator Expo you've probably seen the name Mahiro Maeda come up quite a few times. He was responsible for some of my favorite shorts to come from the Expo, and from those shorts my curiosity towards Maeda as a director was rekindled. I'd always been a fan of arguably his most notable series, Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, but hadn't seen much else from him beyond that. I soon learned that despite him being a prolific name in the anime industry, doing work in everything from key animation, to designs, to storyboards, his range of directorial works was surprisingly limited, with only a small handful of shows, shorts, and OVAs under his belt. One of the works that caught my interest was a late 90s OVA from studio Gonzo called Blue Submarine No.6, based off a manga of the same name. I knew very little about the series going in, but Maeda had earned my curiosity with what I had seen from him, so I decided to give it a chance and figure out how well it held up.

One of the first things that struck me about Blue Submarine No.6 was in its story, or more specifically, its world building. The show follows the crew of the Blue Submarine No.6, who are locked in constant battle with artificially created mutants who wish to overtake humanity as the dominant species, along with being responsible for the now flooded state of the earth. The series' plot almost entirely relies on a conflict that's been going on for a while, jumping in to a point in which that ongoing conflict has been building up to a climax. Despite this, the series makes no attempt to baby its audience with exposition dumps, or explaining things through overly obvious or obtuse means. Information on the world, conflicts, and characters of the series is integrated into the actions and conversations of the characters progressively throughout the story, allowing the audience's understanding of the bigger picture to slowly but surely grow until it all finally starts coming together.

This is a risky game to play, as if you tell or show too little it can become confusing, or lack the dramatic weight brought by context. Blue Submarine No. 6 however walks this line remarkably well, tactfully introducing plot elements through contextual clues and clever writing allowing for a world and conflict that feels more natural, and giving big moments and reveals more heft, as the right pieces of information come together at just the right times. It also allows the fairly short runtime of the OVA series (a mere four episodes, about the length of a film in all) to be entirely dedicated to characters and plot progression. Rather than wasting precious time explaining things outright, it's worked into the background of already story-pivotal scenes, killing two birds with one stone.

Unfortunately, despite its efforts to make the best use of its time as possible, it doesn't completely succeed at this feat. Four episodes isn't very much for a series with so much world, plot, and cast to cover, and while it does the best it can, some things are lost along the way, mainly with the characters. The series has a lot of characters, and many of them have a lot going on below the surface. From Verg, the mutant general obsessed with pleasing his creator, but is wrought with an unshakable jealousy towards humans, to Mutio, a quiet fish girl who ends up helping the protagonist, who's characterized and develops almost entirely without dialogue. And of course the main character, Tetsu, who's reluctant in returning to battle, due to guilt over the loss that comes with war. Although the characters are interesting, the show simply didn't handle them as well as I felt they could have, largely thanks to the show's meager runtime. Thanks to this some character moments feel rushed, and relationships seem loosely formed.

 For instance, about halfway through the series the young female soldier Kino decides to disobey orders in order to assist Tetsu, citing the bond they've formed as her motivation. But this so called bond was thin at best, the two hadn't really gone through much together emotionally other than a few conversations and getting out of a dangerous situation together. It felt as if there wasn't space for them to naturally build their relationship. And there are other situations like this in which conflicts and developments occur that don't feel set up, some ideas aren't properly explored, or some characters go underutilized to the point I can't help but feel the series could've been even greater if it had a few more episodes to work with, allowing them to take their time rather than throw around plot turns as efficiently as possible.

Yet, although it can stumble when it comes to smaller character scenes as a result of its limited runtime, when it really counts, Blue Submarine No. 6 still shines through. The mystery surrounding the conflict is well handled, the protagonist's development is fascinating, and it all culminates in a conclusion that's satisfying both as a grand, dramatic climax while simultaneously being thematically fitting. Tetsu's arc goes to some really interesting places, and how it intertwine's with the main villain's plan and motivations results some great plot revelations and powerful themes. It's a series about war, and what it takes to overcome human nature, and despite taking place in a post apocalyptic world where humanity is on the brink of extinction, it can often be surprisingly hopeful for the future and humanity's potential. Maeda's excellent direction really brings the series together despite the hiccups along the way, bringing some truly powerful moments thanks to an impeccable attention to detail and some excellent storyboarding.

From a visual perspective, Blue Submarine No.6 is a somewhat unique case. It was one of the earliest anime to blend its traditional 2D animation with 3DCG animation. Although I frequently lament the use of CG in anime as a lazy shortcut to more easily animate things that would be difficult to do with 2D animation, it's interesting to see an earlier work that used it more as a means to pioneer the field and test the limits of how the two different approaches to animation could be used together. It's just too bad though, that the CG visuals have aged abysmally. To try to give an idea of how the CG looks, it's like going back and watching the cut-scenes from the early days of 3D video games, that at release looked so advanced and impressive, but now look like someone vomited textures onto an unnatural blob of sloppily modeled shapes. This is similar to how I felt seeing the CG in Blue Submarine No.6. It's the tragic fate of many things that were "impressive at the time", in that with time the lack of experience they had utilizing this sort of technology becomes especially prominent and distracting. Water looks blocky and unnatural, the monsters look like PS1-era game enemies pasted into a 2D animated film, even the submarines don't look especially appealing. The models look bad, they aren't integrated well into the 2D animation, and they aren't even particularly well animated. The more I watched the series the more I did start to get used to the CG, and it never ruined my enjoyment of major scenes, but it still hampered the experience as a whole.

Another reason why the poor quality of the 3DCG animation was noticeable was because the 2D animation of the film was on the total opposite end of the spectrum. The traditional 2D animation in Blue Submarine No.6 is absolutely fantastic, some of the best I've seen from studio Gonzo. There's an insane amount of detail put into realistic character movement that constantly shows weight and personality in even the tiniest ways. The big, emotional scenes of the film become all the more effective thanks to how expressive the characters are with both their faces and bodies. The series also boasts a terrific musical score from a band called "The Thrill". The music, a mix of jazz and rock, fits the series perfectly. It can be fast, big, and exciting, but also more slow and atmospheric when needed. It's the kind of soundtrack that's so distinct it's great to listen to on its own, while still getting across just the right tone and emotions when used in the show. So while on the one hand the poor 3DCG is very noticeable and can often detract from the experience, especially early on, the excellent 2D animation and score do a good job making up for it.

Watching Blue Submarine No.6 does mean conceding to some kinks in the experience. Its short length prevents it from developing some of its characters and relationships as far as I feel it should have, and the 3DCG, while perhaps innovative at the time, holds up about as well as an expired jug of milk. But despite this, the strengths of the series hit their mark so well it manages to overcome its shortcomings and comes together wonderfully as a whole. It's a well executed story, told in a fully realized world, with interesting characters, fun action scenes, catchy music, and exemplary 2D animation. It's a series I both enjoyed watching as a visceral thrill ride, and an interesting story that left me thinking about it even after it was over. A balanced mix of fun, intrigue, drama, and world building that, when it works, really works. Anyone looking for a unique, thoughtful, and thoroughly engaging sci-fi anime should definitely check out Blue Submarine No.6.


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