It's a curious conceit of anime that mighty heroes of unmatched strength and peerless valour start young. A proud soldier might be fourteen or fifteen, and if you're a grizzled battle-hardened warlord with a chest jangling with decorations you might even be as old as seventeen or eighteen. As strange as it may seem at first it does remind us that anime, for all the talk of it being a medium for mature audiences, is still largely ultimately for kids back in its native Japan... but that's not necessarily a bad thing. War stories can still be solemn and serious if they need to be - a child's suffeirng is all the more poignant - but with a younger perspective they still have the unexpended energy and potential to leap higher into crazy and extraordinary plots which 'mature' shows couldn't quite tolerate. It may be counter-intuitive but younger protagonists then can actually enhance an action show's potential and breadth of theme - can Chrome Shelled Regios take full advantage of that?
The world of Chrome Shelled Regios is a post-apocalyptic wasteland of endless empty desert, an inhospitable environment scoured to the very bedrock. Nothing can live for long in the biting open air - nothing except for the Contaminoids. These giant insectoid monsters are driven by nothing except a need to crush and kill everything in their path. The last remnants of mankind now eke out an existence as passengers aboard the Regios - truly gargantuan walking cities, each one many miles wide, that endlessly travel the sands driven by mysteriously alien intelligences. Some measure of civilisation has been restored as cities are rebuilt on the backs of these Regios, and while the Contaminoids that threaten them are virtually indestructible mankind can fight back with the Military Artists - humans with ability to channel kei, a sort of magical energy, and transform little blocks of DITE ("daitei") material into swords, whips, guns and other carapace-cracking weapons. Despite these amazing powers though existence is no easier, and despite the force of nature that are the Contaminoids, Military Artists mostly fight other humans as the various Regios jealously scrap over the world's remaining resources. The most powerful of the Military Artists and front line against the contaminoids are the wielders of the Heavens' Blades, bestowed upon them by the royal family of the Regios of Glendan. The teenager Layfon was once one of the youngest and most promising of these Heavens' Blades, but having tired of a life of battle Layfon has resigned from their order and, leaving behind a dear friend from the orphanage he grew up in named Leerin, he has sought out a new life for himself in the Academic City of Zuellni. Zuellni is a Regios dedicated to learning and ruled over by its student council - or rather, by its Student Council President, the eccentric and whimsical Keilan. Layfon may want a quiet life and new existence but Keilan believes that students should work together for the good of the school (as numerous beautiful sophomore assistants fawn over him... well, it's important that the President is rested enough to keep a level head, after all) and so like it or not Layfon haplessly finds himself roped back into study of the Military Arts once more, dragooned into the school's 17th Platoon which has just happened to find itself short a member. Can Layfon overcome his frustration to get along with his new class and squad-mates, and will he ever be able to forge his own destiny?
Chrome Shelled Regios is the 2009 anime adaptation of Shusuke Amagi's light novel series serialised in Dragon Magazine (the source of a considerable number of anime, ranging from the boobalicious ecchi Highschool DxD to the old-school swords'n'sorcery fantasy Legend of the Legendary Heroes, along with a number of fond fan-favourite classics like Chrono Crusade and Slayers). The light novel was successful, ending a substantial seven-year and 25-volume run only last year with a handsome 4.5M sales to its name, and has already had three different manga adaptations over its life while in the meantime starting up a prequel light novel series Legend of Regios. The anime version comes to us here in the UK as two parts of twelve episodes, and is developed by Zexcs, a studio with a fairly diverse portfolio ranging from magical-girl action My-HiME to one of the most distinctive anime of recent years, the rotoscoped Flowers of Evil. Does this wide-ranging perspective give them the scope and clarity to find a shoot of growth in the deserts of the Chrome Shelled Regios world, or will the anime wither away with no sustenance?
There's a big problem looming over Chrome Shelled Regios, one whose shadow steadily lengthens and engulfs the series as it progresses - the phenomenon of the "cosy catastrophe". Civilisation has collapsed, the ecosystem is unravelling, and the human race faces extinction... all of which is so much delightful background colour to remark on by characters as a conversation topic at cocktail parties. They are completely insulated from pain and suffering behind narrative glass, and see no reason why the end of the world should interrupt a comfortable genteel lifestyle. This scenario is rarer nowadays, perhaps because Brian Aldiss's coining of the phrase as a withering put-down has made authors self-conscious about its unreality and pat convenience, but it was a condition that affected a substantial amount of mid-century sci-fi.
You can argue whether Aldiss's criticism was a fair exposure of a generation of literature's deluded fantasies or just a unreasonable symptom of his politics which resented the thought that optimistic small-c conservatism which trusted convention could still prevail against adversity. However, what is indisputable is that Chrome Shelled Regios slots into the "cosy catastrophe" definition so neatly and exactly that it's rather embarrassing. The world of Chrome Shelled Regios is a barren, sterile, stony desolation, totally inhospitable and stalked by unthinking, impossible, grotesque monstrosities. Life is so marginal and existence so tenuous that human societies feel that pang of hunger deep enough to blot out considerations of co-operation and instead fight over what few resources have not yet been scraped off the earth's lifeless dust. You wouldn't know any of this to actually look at the show, though! The cities are bright, light and airy, with wide concourses, tall buildings and sophisticated architecture. Everyone is well-fed and well-dressed (Layfon having a suit tailored just right for him is a plot point), there are maid cafés brimming with cakes, electricity is as bright as day and there are whole garden districts with rolling hills and leafy forests - this savage post-apocalyptic hell is so fresh and green even the hangar deck has a nice hedgerow border. Back in Glendan, Leerin is at university studying that blandest and most suburban of courses - management. Zuellni is supposedly in a dire straits with only a single mine left to fuel its reactor, so the loss of just one more municipal challenge will finish it. Would a city worried about an uncertain future and having to carefully husband its limited supplies blow them on a huge swimming and hot springs resort? In one episode Zuellni is on a collision course with a top-threat Contaminoid, forcing Leyfon to sally forth and slay the beast... then the city turns away and walks off elsewhere so the thing was never a problem in the first place. The dissonance of this setting reaches the height of its ridiculousness when the heroes go exploring a ruined city which has been overrun by Contaminoids (one of the cleanest scrubbed ruins I've seen, I should note) - they pitch camp in one of the lower levels and still get hot showers, fer chrissakes! But Nina can't run the hot water for more than three minutes, the poor dear - how can she cope with such poverty and privation?
The end result of this entirely pleasant and harmless end of the world is to drain Chrome Shelled Regios of any sense of threat and so rob its narrative of any sense of momentum. There is no consequence - nothing's at stake, nothing matters. The show might as well have been a common-or-garden high school slice-of-life for all the bearing the post-apocalyptic scenario has on the characters. All of the competitions, the declarations of the need to be stronger, Layfon's own grappling with his past... it all exists in an isolated capsule and so rather than the drama being heightened as each action ticks the doomsday clock, it's all cheapened as adolescent squabbling over trivialities. This is a fundamental flaw with the very concept of the show and leaves a gaping hole in its very purpose.
Chrome Shelled Regios is holed amidships before it's barely left port, but in the absence of a compelling story or interesting setting, can its hull be patched up with the characters' interpersonal relations? This is a bit of a mixed bag. Layfon does put in a good show with genuine backbone - he has made the decision to start a new chapter but to his credit when he is confronted about his past life he doesn't angst over it and sees no reason to apologise for himself, and he exhibits genuine heroism. His commander Nina is a bit harder to endorse; she's very inconsistent. At first, she's amazed by Layfon's powers and ropes him in to the 17th Platoon to increase its power and win competitions - yet when he does just that and saves the platoon from being disbanded, she lambasts him for being too good. She seems to be a classic sufferer of the Tall Poppy Syndrome, the conformist mindset which resents an individual excelling for embarrassing the rest of the group (and her especially). Later on in the series, she criticises Layfon when he says that you must "do what you need to in order to survive". I think she's getting at a 'death before dishonour' philosophy, which if not commendable is at least understandable given a society with a strong set of honour codes which lead to things like regulated battle in the municipal challenges. However, I'm not too sure as it's really badly explained in the English script so I'm having to make a few leaps of interpretation there. At one point she expels Layfon from the platoon, but seems to have forgotten about it by the end of the episode. The third member of the 17th Platoon, Felli (also President Kailan's younger sister), mostly speaks in a "kuudere" monotone with occasional outbursts of shin-kicking anger; it's fair enough for her to exhibit some adolescent brattyness, as she after all is one, but although she resents having her life mapped out for her as a Military Artist by Kailan she still goes along with all the events of the series, and not enough is made of her and Leyfon's similar situation.
It's a shame, because there is a considerable amount to like about the art of Chrome Shelled Regios. I unabashedly love the sophisticated uniform designs worn by the students of Zuellni, which ably combine scholarly, military and noble qualities, and the DITEs used by the characters have interesting properties, particularly Felli's wand which slips off little blossoming petals to represent her telepresence. However, there is a bit of strange perspective in the background art - the 17th Platoon's recreation room suddenly becomes a vast cavern with only a tiny seat in it from some camera angles for instance - so a lot of scenes can appear weirdly vacant.
Over the course of the series there are a number of cutaways to the Legend of Regios prequel storyline. These are frankly bizarre: each one has a different monochrome filter dropped over it - one is in yellow, another green, another blue and so on - for no discernible reason other than If...-style lame artsiness - and they have no discernible relationship to the events of the main plot at all, neither reflecting, commenting on nor informing the full-colour action in any way. They are also incredibly badly-paced - short scenes litter the episodes entirely at random with again no relation to what's around them, and a single car chase is literally dragged out across ten whole episodes, almost the entire length of this whole collection. I assume the events of this subplot will tie back in to present-day events in the second collection (assuming any events actually happen, as given current pacing it'll take six episodes to pour a pot of coffee), but for the time being it's hard to call it anything other than padding.
Fan service in the series is moderate. Some really rather nice bikinis come out for a water-park episode towards the end of the collection and over the series there's intermittent slapsticky yuri groping of Leerin by the rather improprietous Queen of Glendan. There are three brief shower scenes but the finer details are misted-over, so outside one short shot of Nina's rear in a hot spring there's no nudity. Early in the series it's shown that as soldiers and comrades standing together against oblivion, the heroes and heroines share Starship Troopers-esque mixed showers without fuss or comment... you know, we never had those back when I was in the Army. Did I join the wrong regiment? Anyway, the scriptwriters seem to forget this detail because being comfortable in each other's presence doesn't seem to stop Felli's "baka hentai!" harassment of Layfon when he commits unpardonable acts of molestation like, erm... touching the tips of her shoes...?
Episodes are split evenly with half a dozen on each disc, while all the extras are loaded onto the second disc. The extras are not special but they capably tick the boxes, including the expected minimum of clean opening and closing animations (although there are multiple versions of the ending credits with different singers, the music's really forgettable) plus trailers. Have you noticed that DVD trailers these days just tend to be the show's opening sequence anyway?
In the end, Chrome Shelled Regios doesn't find good soil in its desert environment to take root in. Fun action-adventure on the one hand or dramatic struggle for survival on the other, this anime is ultimately neither. While it's not necessary for a post-apocalyptic show to be entirely severe and po-faced - there are regular chibi-esque comic interludes, in fact, which get a smirk particularly when Felli is teasing the 5th Platoon later in the show - a light-heartedness is deflated by the lack of any real direction, and some pretty art and a couple of interesting characters aren't enough to pump it back up again. There is the promise of some intrigues back with Leerin in Glendan which may be able to give the show some more air to breathe in the second collection, but until it's wheeled over the experience feels flat throughout.