For being a series written by Ichiro Okochi, the brains behind anime such as Code Geass and Planetes, Valvrave the Liberator isn’t quite as liberating as it should be. Then again, this is the first episode we’re talking about. Sometimes the first episode of a series is more than enough to demonstrate its importance and potential. Other times, the result is completely hackneyed. After all, Valvrave kicks off its premise in a school setting, with students and their raging hormones confessing their unrequited loves, all-the-while a sociopath and his group of terrorists plot an attack against the school; and… our young protagonist finds and pilots a mecha in order to save the day. Sounds familiar? I thought so too.
Valvrave the Liberator starts as most Sunrise mecha anime, with a narrator describing the time period and setting. There is a small space ship landing on neutral country JIOR module 77. Meanwhile, our protagonist Haruto Tokishima is leading an ordinary life with the love of his life and childhood friend Shoko Sashinami. Haruto is your typical school student, goes to class, holds friendly eating contests with his friends, texts and posts on social networks during class, you name it. Aboard the ship from earlier were a bunch of terrorists disguised as students, chief among them our co-protagonist (anti-hero, perhaps even antagonist) L-elf.
This white haired spy and his cohorts infiltrate the small satellite-like country with ease, killing and disposing of their opposition as they advance towards their target. This place in question happens to be none other than Haruto’s school. L-elf quickly pin points where he and his teammates must go, however, on the way he encounters Haruto and Shoko putting away cleaning supplies. L-elf overhears a conversation between Haruto and his beloved and interrupts when he hears Haruto mentioning splitting happiness in half. He questions Haruto’s opinion and advices him to let go of such a foolish view. He even threatens him, but stops.
Shortly hereafter is where the fun really starts. Haruto and Shoko proceed to a shrine within the school rumored to have the ability to make your love be requited if you confess there. As Haruto gets close to telling Shoko his feelings, the school suffers a freak terrorist attack from the Dorssia Federation. Among the dread and panic, Haruto loses Shoko as she tries to rescue someone stranded nearby, L-elf and his allies reach the destination and find their precious, a mech in a hidden lab under the school. Before boarding it, L-elf murders every single living being down there. As fate would have it, one survives and catapults the mecha onto the surface before the student terrorists board it. An enraged Haruto in a moment of frenzy manages to get into the giant machine and is willing to pilot it.
He wishes nothing more than to avenge the death of his love. This giant robot turns out to be the Valvrave as described in the booting screen of the cockpit. The screen also displays the question:
“Will you renounce your humanity?”
To which he eventually agrees. He successfully pilots Valvrave and destroys every enemy aircraft. This is where things get really interesting. After the storm of enemies is gone, Haruto lands on a beach nearby and encounters L-elf slowly walking towards him. Being the professional assassin that he is, L-elf takes out a blade and fatally wounds Haruto. Our protagonist collapses and he begins to have his dying breath. L-elf promptly takes out a pistol and shoots Haruto in the chest several times successfully killing him. L-elf then proceeds to board the giant mecha, but is stopped by a revived Haruto with glowing red scratch-like marks across his face. As if he was a blood-sucking creature, Haruto bites into L-elf as the cells inside his body bear the mark of Valvrave.
Like I mentioned at the beginning, for Valvrave to be written by the same guy who wrote Code Geass, it’s actually quite underwhelming and suffers in comparison. I’m not saying Okochi’s track record is perfect by any stretch, nevertheless there are elements here that could have been different. And that’s exactly my main problem with Valvrave thus far; it’s too damn similar to other, much better anime. Its pacing is a bit troublesome as well. Ten minutes in and L-elf and his team’s done in half a dozen people and Haruto’s professing his puppy love to Shoko. I remember Code Geass had the tendency to twist more than a high speed roller coaster, and it still didn’t precipitate things as predictably as they are here. The theatrics at play here are all familiar to the viewer: kids going about normal life, freak accident happens, one of them rises to the occasion and saves the day. There is also the enigmatic and conflicted white haired foil to the main character who starts off as a villain and progressively discovers his humanity.
The mecha design for Valvrave itself leaves room for improvement too. I find its design to be a mixture between the Knightmare Frames from Code Geass, Gundam Wing’s Deathscythe Gundam, and Eureka Seven’s Nirvash. Again, not original at all. Surprisingly, this episode also employs computer generated imagery in its battle scenes without seeming ham-fisted, and the T.M Revolution and Nana Mizuki song “Preserved Roses” is every bit as lavishly presented as the opening sequence it follows (shown as the ending in this episode). The character designs by Katsura Hoshino, responsible for D. Gray-man are nice and simple. Even after that, three pros don’t heal the open wounds that have been left behind after watching the entire episode of Valvrave and pretending it hasn’t been done before. Another thing I still don’t understand is what director Ko Matsuo (Rozen Maiden, Kurenai) is trying to say by constantly showing the way the characters communicate through social networks.
All the characters in Valvrave constantly use their cellphones or computers and are connected to the same social network. Is it there to emphasize how we’re all into online networking nowadays? Or to demonstrate the stronghold of Facebook in Japan? Or is it showing some cultural reference only the Japanese are supposed to understand? I’m sure Okochi wasn’t the only one pushing this network forward, and Matsuo probably had something to do with it. Like L-elf mentioned early into the episode, you can’t divide happiness in half. It isn’t happiness Valvrave the Liberator is dividing but its set pieces, which are separated into infinitesimal bits to the point that they all feel like disconnected stereotypes. Having said all of that, its final two minutes did keep me glued and guessing. Most anime don’t reinvigorate my attention at that point, which is why I still can’t say this anime is as feeble as it seemed until that point. Although, I do admit it’s the most disappointing I have seen this season, considering the talent behind it.