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Japanator review: Strain - Strategic Armored Infantry

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As I write this review, I realized I have a bias towards this genre--90s and early 2000s science fiction anime that takes place in space. My mind is often littered with the thoughts for things like Gundam, Macross, Nadesico, Vandread, Outlaw Star, etc. I like also newer entries like Tytania, Planetes, Crest of the Stars, Starship Operators and Heroic Age (coming soon from Funimation). I like spaceships that are charging their lasers! (Wait, what's not to like about that?) The genre has a long history with anime, too, being the birth-genre for classics likes of Yamato. Anyways, biased.

So when a space-faring science fiction anime about some war drops in my lap this past month called Strain, I made room on the schedule to rewatch this little title as Funimation shot out this 2-disc collection back earlier in the year. Just how was it?

Str.A.In - Strategic Armored Infantry (Also known as Soukou no Strain)
By Studio Fantasia
Released by Funimation
Original release date:  January 27, 2009

Strain is a 13-episode series about Sara Werec as the younger sister to Ralph Werec -- a war hero in one of those never-ending, not-really-explained interstellar conflicts. Mankind, in Strain, is split into warring factions labled the Union and the Deague. The Werec family is a respected military family for the Union, and I guess that's because both of Sara's parents lost their lives in the service. Dere for her cool onii-chan, Sara wipes away her tears and follows Ralph's footstep as an elite pilot.

At this point, I was about to roll my eyes. What kept me going, however, is attention to detail. While the general concept of Strain is based on an old children's novel, A Little Princess, the inclusion of near-light-speed travel as a plot device for creating tear-inducing time differentials is always a good one if you can avoid the blatant plot holes. In a Voices of the Distant Star manner, Sara pursues Ralph and enrolled into a pilot's academy where other young people, from rich and prestigeous families, enjoy school life, certain to become strain pilots. The other very cool detail is that these strains, space fightercrafts can engage in close combat with massive agility, have a biological component.

Instead of having the ghost of your mother inside the mecha you pilot (or something equally silly), each strain pilot has a living clone-cyborg computer -- it looks like a small carry-on bag with a brain in it -- called a Mimic, that syncs with the pilot and enables the strain to be piloted by that pilot. The Mimics are tailor-made for each pilot, and it's developed from the embryonic cells taken from the pilots while they were still a fetus. So if that Mimic gets blown up (or if you misplaced it in a garbage dump), your days as a strain pilot is over.

Or so it would make you think. Like all good science fiction, plot devices like the ties between a pilot and her Mimic is something you know that Strain will exploit, and Strain does a pretty good job tying that thread with Sara's obsession for Ralph. There are a lot of plot twists for a relatively short series as Sara undergoes character development and growth that climaxes at the predictable confrontation between Ralph and Sara. It explains why Ralph has defected from the Union to the Deague, and why Ralph ends up killing half the people Sara personally know (and much more!). 

Despite being a spin-off based on a children's story, Strain is a war anime in which people stay dead when killed. And there sure are a lot of them. The usual Gundam death flags and red shirt tropes are in play, which is uncommon even for this genre. And like many space anime, there's an ensemble cast of sorts supporting the show, and that makes some of the deaths hit even closer to home.

And this ensamble cast is a live one. In standard Studio Fantasia style, Sara is surrounded by a bunch of colorful characters. While some of them are fairly flat and not much more than Russian roulette gimmes, others are plain fun and just odd enough to be memorable. I think Lavinia takes the cake here, but Lottie and Jessie are both interesting enough to make me laugh or smile occassionally. Lottie plays a major role later on in the second half of the series, but so does Lavinia and the others, once they're done being comedic relief.

Besides some of the brutal deaths, Studio Fantasia is mindful of Strain's probably-largely-male audience by serving up occasional fanservice that, surprisingly, doesn't alter the mood of the show. They are sparse and at most light distractions to see a random panty shot here or there. Strain keeps its game face on for the most part, that it is a serious story about war and its consequences.

In terms of the animation, Studio Fantasia opts for full 3D CG for the action sequences as most action scenes take place in space. While at first it can be jarring to see the difference, it mostly spares the audience from seeing mismatched scenes where the 2D and 3D elements coexist together.

The mecha designs for strains carry an alien, etheral feeling to them, although they all seem a little too generic, green-blue-ish (except Ralph's, which looks deliciously diabolic). It is good contrast to the Deague's arsonal, which consists mostly of autonomous drones that reminds me of the AI ships from the Matrix, scaled to size; and the Union's gambees, which are more traditional, bi-pedal humanoid mechs with bulges and armor plating. The normal 2D character/background animation in the show, on the other hand, is really lackluster and non-descript. It feels budget.

The way I look at it, the story in Strain is probably the weakest element, even if it is competently scripted and it comes with an interesting, if generic, setting. The animation is unremarkable as well. If the details about science and fantasy tickle your fancy and you can enjoy standard science fiction plots, Strain is a safe bet with a short episode count. While unfortunately Strain fails to distinguish itself from its peers, that might be okay for casual entertainment and Strain doesn't aim to accomplish much beyond that. If you've been following sci-fi anime for a while, you might notice percent-wise, fewer titles are pure science-fiction nowadays. In that sense, it's a welcome sight to see a title like this hit the region 1 scene.

Lastly, check out FUNimation's Strain site if you want to see it streamed and find out more about their release...


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reviewed by Jeff Chuang

 

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Jeff Chuang
Jeff ChuangAssociate Editor   gamer profile

Yet to be the oldest kid on the block, this East Coast implant writes cryptic things about JP folklore, the industry or dirty moe. Attend cons and lives the "I can buy Aniplex releases" life. ... more + disclosures


 



Filed under... #anime #FUNimation #mecha #reviews #Science!

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