What seems like an eternity ago, Blade Runner took to the silver screen, and Ridley Scott introduced the world to a new approach to science fiction. Before Blade Runner, science fiction was understood to be (primarily) of a common mold: clean, futuristic landscapes, impossible technology, and fantastic worlds were all expected as part of the experience. Blade Runner, however, gave a new face to the genre. Dark, filthy streets and technology that could almost be real set the backdrop for a far more realistic portrayal of the future.

This new frontier, dubbed cyberpunk, was beloved by many, and spawned a number of influential hits in film, and in anime. By the ’90s, the genre found itself winding down, as “near future” ended up dating itself quickly and other genres began to compete for both market share and mind share. The anime world seemed to fight back, in an attempt to resist the growing ennui, as hit after hit, from Ghost in the Shell to Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040 hit the big and small screen alike. One of the centerpieces of this last gasp from the anime world was a four-part OVA, revolving around a terror in hot pants named Naomi Armitage. Her story was one that not only embraced, but truly embodied the spirit that Scott’s work had managed to capture nearly thirteen years before.

The series begins in the year 2046, on the planet Mars. Overpopulation forced man to take to the cosmos, in order to survive. Aided by a the “First” series of robots, humanity was able to build the first colony, Saint Lowell. Seventy years later, the city is a veriable shit-hole. Crime is rampant, gangs roam the streets, and hate crimes against robots is a daily occurrence. A deep recession and shortage of jobs have led to hostility and distrust toward non-humans. For Detective Ross Sylibus, this god-forsaken rock will be his new post. His flight into the city’s spaceport is uneventful, aside from the presence of Kelly McCannon: the last country western star in the universe. As he enters the crowded spaceport, a firefight ensues between a mysterious man with a large trunk and Naomi Armitage: A gun-toting terror in hot pants, and Ross’s new partner. While the stranger escapes, his cargo doesn’t.

Inside the trunk was McCannon. But something is amiss – while she looked, acted, and sounded human, her innards were mechanical. She was a robot, a Third. After McCannon’s swan song, murders of thirds rise as the mystery man hunts them down one by one. All the while, Armitage grows increasingly distraught. What is she hiding, and why is this psycho hunting the Thirds? Time is quickly running out,

If humans don’t want us, then why did they create us?

Armitage’s tale isn’t exactly a “fairy tale” existence. As one who hides in plain sight from a world that despises her, Her agony, her loneliness, and her shame linger, hidden behind the tough-girl facade. In this respect, the madman’s homicidal spree proves to be an important factor. In order to continue her own life, she must first accept who she is, and why she exists. Sylibus, the “straight man,” has his own demons, which are lain out to the public. The death of a partner, a deep hatred of metal monstrosities, and a secret that he would be loath to share with those dear to him. The lives of the Armitage and Sylibus, their struggles to simply belong, and to be, manage to overshadow the intense action, and the incredible spectacles of battle that they endure. The entire experience builds to a climax that befits the intense nature of the OVA, and a finale that seems proper for the tale of Ross and Naomi. The end isn’t what one would call “happy” by any stretch, but there is an element of hope that endures.

The cast is brought to life by a distinct, memorable visual style. The city of Saint Lowell reeks of despair, from its grungy alleys, to the industrial-flavored complexes. Every set piece has a distinct “lived-in” feel to it, and every battleground is integral to the character of the city itself. The characters have a style that hovers between western-styled realism, and more typical big eyes, small mouth stereotype anime fans have come to expect. Animation is simply gorgeous, particularly in the battle scenes. Armitage’s acrobatic combat maneuvers are particularly impressive in their slick choreography and smooth action.

The future barrens of Mars, and the city of Saint Lowell are given a voice and a character by Akira Kawase. Synthesized bleeps and metallic clanks come together to form a soundtrack that is raw, yet methodical. The single vocal theme, Ii Yume wo Omoidasenai, is a somber, reflective tune that captures the pain and loneliness that resides within Armitage.

Armitage III is a look into a future that isn’t always comfortable. Questions about humanity, and about what it means to be truly alive are raised, and the very concept of what “humanity” should be is brought into question. However, it would be misleading to say that the entire feature were anything but engrossing, and that it was any less than a paragon of cyberpunk. The gorgeous animation, well-written characters, and solid plot come together to form an experience that simply should not be missed.

Armitage III was released in America by Geneon Entertainment.
This piece was written as part of the 2011 Anime Spring Cleaning Challenge.