Okay, stop, and take a breath. Before anything else, we need to get this out of the way. Coppelion is not S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Fukushima. I'm sorry. I know, I know, it broke my heart too, but you're just going to have to let it go. If you really cannot get past this fact, then the review is already over - sit yourself down with a bottle of cheap vodka, put that YouTube clip of the Girls und Panzer cast singing "Katyusha" on repeat and read up on Agent Strelnikov's SCP Handbook to have a good night in. Everyone else, you can read on!
Coppelion is the 2013 anime based on the ongoing manga by Tomonori Inoue which has been running in Young Magazine since 2008 - it's actually ending just this month in November 2015. While it seems to have passed without much fanfare, premium Crunchyroll users can already read the manga in full in English on its digital manga service, and it's a pretty substantial story with 23 volumes and over 200 chapters to read. Anyone who's already been reading the manga has thus had plenty to keep them occupied while waiting for the anime to reach the UK, but as much as Coppelion's British release has had a long wait the anime itself took even longer - Coppelion was in production as early as 2010 but the Tohoku tsunami and subsequent explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011 understandably made broadcasting stories about an irradiated post-apocalyptic Japan seem rather gauche. This put the show into a bunker for over two years to give time for the fallout to settle - but has it now emerged into the light of a new world as clean and pure new life or as a withered and pale old husk?
The year is 2036, two decades after a nuclear power station meltdown irradiated and forced the evacuation of Tokyo. For twenty years the fallout-contaminated metropolis has been under strict quarantine and has been given over to decay and overgrowth, but people still flout the cordon and to investigate these breaches the Self-Defence Force has founded the 3rd Division Technical School, whose members are called Coppelion. Bizarrely, the Coppelion are all teenaged schoolchildren, the product of a government project after the disaster to engineer new life that has been genetically modified to resist the poisonous environment of the city - allowing the three girls of Coppelion's Medical Unit to go about casually in school uniforms and breathe the open air where any other person would need lead-lined hazard suits and sealed oxygen tanks. Our three heroines - serious Ibara, ditzy Aoi, and empathic Taeko - are all excited to finally have the life that they've been literally built for come to fruition as they embark on their first mission into the ruins of Tokyo, but they're about to discover that there will be more to their job than chasing looters and that while Tokyo is abandoned it's by no means quiet.
That's partially because it's full of life - Coppelion is quite remarkable for its highly-detailed backgrounds of an overgrown city gone to seed, as fresh forests bloom out of cracked concrete. "Wallpaper anime" is often used pejoratively for talking-heads shows like the Monogatari series but I mean it with all sincere encouragement when I say that I'd be quite happy to have screenshots of the backdrops on my computer. It makes it a shame that Coppelion doesn't have a Blu-Ray version for the UK as this is one show that would genuinely benefit from it, but it comes across well-enough on DVD. Coppelion's other distinctive trait is to give many scenes a discoloured palette, bleached out with purple and brown hazes - this has been disparaged by other reviewers as "Instagram filters", but I like it. It does take a bit of time to get used to - at the start you'll be flicking channels to make sure that your TV hasn't got a burnt-out screen - but it's thematically appropriate for the show, like chemical detector paper; staining the air with a pollutant smear it keeps you mindful of the setting even despite the lavish backgrounds and without needing the obnoxious tinnitus clicking of a Geiger counter every time people set outside, and I came to enjoy it as a contribution to the atmosphere. Character art is also notable for having very distinct, thick black borders when they are in the foreground. This isn't really a technical issue - borders thin out as characters retreat into the background so the animators could have trimmed them down if they wanted to - but again, I like it - it's a subtle thing to separate the people from the world, that the planet rumbles on eternally while us gnats scamper about on it with our insignificant squabbles. There are some small niggles (such as a pregnant woman who swells to the size of a beanbag chair in the delivery room) but overall I thoroughly enjoy the art and design of Coppelion.
Combined with the detailed backgrounds is also decent animation - while in the middle of the series there are a fair amount of shortcuts with speed-lines and zooming in and out of still frames for fight scenes, big set-pieces around them feature fluid animation, active camera movement with seamless background CGI integration with the cel-animation, and billowing explosions. There's a lot of incidental, subtle animation of little tics and skipping gaits from the characters as they move over the ruins and some mild shaky-cam effects to give the audience a more intimate presence without becoming motion-sick, but this stuff is front-loaded into the first few episodes - characters do become more static as it progresses, but this does conserve resources to put in a good turn when the action starts up again.
Kazé is a French company and so this release also includes a French version, which runs a separate trailer when you boot up a disc for the Francophone online streaming service ADN and has a French subtitle track if you fancy some extra-curricular practice for your school tests! From my own understanding the French is actually not too bad. The English subtitles though have a glaring omission of the opening and ending sequences - in the English audio track, only the on-screen credits are subtitled, and for the Japanese audio track nothing is translated at all and the sequences run raw. In both versions the song lyrics are completely untranslated! This might get a pass for an online simulcast where music licensing is an issue but for a years-late retail release it's totally inexcusable; it's a missing feature and a cheapskate diminishing of the product. While the subtitles are lacking, the English dub deserves praise and is well-acted throughout with no duds in the cast, and a very strong turn especially from Cassandra Lee Morris who works extremely hard as the voice of Aoi, pitching her character well so that she comes across as chirpy rather than whiny, staying sympathetic even during her more bratty scenes. However, given that so much of the cast need to walk about in hazmat suits, you'll be listening to a lot of these voices through a tinny radio fuzz for most of the time and your tolerance may vary on that.
Of course, anyone who watches a science fiction story accepts that he must suspend his disbelief to establish the scenario, so I can accept the magic of cute anime schoolgirls (with miniskirts that flap tantalisingly around the upper thigh in the wasteland winds but never ever flip up no matter how many high ledges they leap off of) being immune to radiation poisoning, and not think too hard about the mechanics of their pistols which - like the Medic from Team Fortress 2 - shoot healing bullets of Nuke-B-Gone that give instant timed immunity to sickness like it's a buff effect. However, while this sort of thing is in the service of setting up an interesting and unusual environment, within that there is still a lot of head-scratching plot and dialogue which threatens to knock it back down again. In the first episode our heroines are ordered to search for the source of a distress signal in Tokyo that's somewhere "in a five-kilometre radius" of their position. That's more than thirty square miles, an area larger than Nottingham, of badly damaged and heavily urbanised terrain that needs to be thoroughly explored by three lightly-equipped girls who don't even have raincoats. On foot. I'm glad Aoi is really enjoying the onigiri in her lunchbox, it might need to last her a while!
Okay, so it is fairly nitpicky to focus on a single short and inessential line, but unfortunately this lack of script care starts mounting up. The crisis of episode two is so ludicrously contrived I actually shouted aloud "this is nonsense!" while I was watching it. A mother with her daughter fleeing the Coppelion decides to hide on the tenth floor of an obvious half-collapsed high-rise, instead of the dozens of other anonymous buildings surrounding it and despite it being so insecure it falls apart in a rainstorm, just so she can fall off a cliff for Ibara to cling onto her slipping glove desperately. The result of this is sad, but what's even sadder is noticing how the anime cuts out the impossible mechanics of the situation which ensues. That's the magic of cinema! In the meantime, the girl's father suicidally wanders into a high-contamination zone he was instructed to avoid because he can't stand idly by while his daughter's lost. "Forced drama" is a hackneyed phrase, but this episode should be cited in Film Studies courses as an absolute textbook exemplar of the concept.
The following story arc involves the Coppelion finding evidence of a shady company that's dumping toxic waste in the city. This also puts another heavy load on the suspension of disbelief. A Japanese civilian company is using an US Air Force B2 stealth bomber (cost: $950 million. I don't know how that affects the company's balance sheet) to fly into the city without detection, which might be vaguely plausible... if the notion that it hasn't been noticed before now is strained by the fact that it's flying in daytime in open sky in an area that's still patrolled by other aircraft and it can be seen on the ground with the naked eye - and indeed, our heroines can attack this invader because it has to land to capture a witness. The illogical contrivances that Sellotape together a ramshackle plot continue to be stuck on - why did the crew land and expose themselves to massive risk if in the next scene they're quite happy to fire missiles and blaze cannons at the heroines from the air? And after all this, despite undertaking an illegal and highly secretive activity the company still leaves its logo on the barrels they're dumping (it's not even as if they're etched on at the factory - they're stickers! They could have just been peeled off!), which is awfully helpful of them.
Throughout this arc the company's dumping of waste is treated as a reprehensible action of beastly mankind destroying the world and dastardly capitalists only caring for profit blah blah save the whales blah. Unfortunately, while Coppelion is preaching at me I'm only thinking that this company has it exactly right and is doing a sensible thing. If spent fuel needs to be dumped, then rather than risking the contamination of unspoilt parts of the world using an abandoned area that's already been catastrophically polluted seems to be a pragmatic option that makes the best of a bad job and minimises damage as far as possible. If Coppelion wants to beat us over the head with Captain Planet sermons then why can't these horrid businessmen be pouring out barrels of waste down rabbit warrens and over tropical reefs or something? Coppelion is so ineptly scripted and its points so poorly argued that it can't even defend itself within its own show!
The next enemy is a band of renegade soldiers who hold a grudge against the government for "abandoning" them in the contamination zone. They've spent years building a scrap-metal Doom Fortress in the middle of the city (which despite all that effort is so weak it falls apart from a single hand-grenade - although that might be a subtext on how harebrained their scheme is) and brooding over a nihilistic revenge plot to breach the containment dome at Ground Zero and destroy the woooooooooorrrrrrrlllllddd! These soldiers have hazmat suits, tanks and trucks. If they didn't want to be abandoned in the city they could have just... y'know... drove away? I mean, I dunno, just throwing ideas out here.
The clumsy script fumbles multiple attempts to raise tension - the Coppelion are abandoned for several episodes in hostile territory because the entire military apparently can't spare just one helicopter for a single sortie (a whole taxi-rank of Chinooks are sitting idle on the tarmac behind the commander as he radios the news); a real-time countdown is rendered pointless by the timer skipping and even vanishing between shots; and the notion that they make hazmat suits perfectly tailored to fit in a 40-week baby bump is just laughable - and pacing so poor that we're waiting for the mother's water to break for half the series is just frustrating.
To be fair Coppelion's dub script does work hard to compensate for the duff material and mask the setting's inconsistencies, heading off science quibbling by studiously referring to the city as being vaguely "contaminated" rather than specifically irradiated, and also never mentioning exactly how long ago the disaster was to ameliorate the fantastic absurdity that people have been sitting twiddling their thumbs in bunkers for twenty years waiting for our heroines to show up. A viewer will scoff at the pseudo-science bit which insists an insane Coppelion inherited her psychopathy from her serial-killer egg donor, but he won't be made angry with the show because the somewhat self-aware dub sympathises with him about how dumb it is as a character reacts to the explanation with a disbelieving, pithy "Oh, of course". The script also does, thankfully, anticipate and avoid a major problem that I was worried was going to encumber this show - although the Coppelion are genetically-engineered ectogenes there is a bare minimum of "am I really human?" angst. Indeed, Coppelion nimbly punctures the balloon of hot air that usually gets inflated by this topic when Ibara encounters a renegade soldier whose face has been eaten away by the contamination - when he takes off his mask he evidently expects both her and the audience to be horrified, but the character's own overblown self-pity is effectively neutralised by Ibara's dismissive laugh.
That laugh also reminds us to relax a little - while there are enough plot holes to make Coppelion look like Swiss cheese, cheese can still be tasty! Coppelion does benefit from a more light-hearted tone with some comic relief segments (mainly from the ditzy Aoi's pratfalls) and maintaining this atmosphere free from S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s ponderous dourness does make earlier mistakes and other 'cosy catastrophe' indulgences like bunkered survivors having extravagant dinner parties (and owning a whole farm of animals) more acceptable to the viewer for helping out his mood.
That attitude also does a lot to explain Coppelion - you can enjoy it, if you forgive it a lot first. If you try and subject the show's events to any sort of logic you won't need to have radiation poisoning make your hair fall out, you'll tear every tuft off your scalp yourself - you have to assume that the contamination rots the brains of everyone exposed because the schemes of heroes and villains alike are those of absolute cretins. You will need the patience of a saint to pass over the mounting implausibility of each ridiculous encounter, and the single-mindedness of an ideologue to overlook the inconsistencies which undermine its own environmentalist message, but if you can do those things you can take simple pleasure in the scenic tour of a city given over to Nature highlighted with some physical fun in the playground it creates.