Egao no Daika fever is going around, and with good reason. It’s unlike pretty much anything seasonal viewers have been treated to in quite some time. But, watching it reminded me of some of the older anime-original sci-fi shows that used to be more popular, and one particular one came to mind.
Title: Soukou no Strain
Length: 13 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Sci-fi, action, mystery, mecha, space
Year of release: 2006
Soukou no Strain (henceforth: Strain) is an incredibly refreshing anime. It sets a simple overarching story, whereby its main character and badass, Sara, travels to the other end of the universe to find out why her brother betrayed the Union. It phrases itself as a revenge story, and Sara really, really wants to kill somebody despite her usual demeanour. Strain’s major story arcs are also pretty simple, whereby Sara’s no-nonsense attitude grates with her comrades, and there’s a lot of depth to the way she struggles to find a new place to call home amidst all the barrack bullying. Strain is a very simple anime, and it’s refreshing because it doesn’t bog itself down, and further, concludes its story in fulfilling fashion – no threads hanging, all in one fell swoop.
Despite clocking in at 13 episodes, I think Strain’s greatest achievement is getting its mileage out of those episodes, and it feels much larger than similar length anime. There was a relatively large cast, and while they weren’t tremendously developed or had the most unique chemistry, and even Sara never drifted too far from perhaps a little too nice, there was still a strong sense of camaraderie between the unit she eventually finds herself in. The show found that important feeling of completeness in its cast’s atmosphere; you could genuinely see Sara becoming a part of their group as a family during the show’s run, gradually bringing the show’s core to uplifting. From start-to-finish, a huge gamut of tone is explored, as Sara has happiness, loses it all, and gradually rebuilds it. The emotional landscape was well built as Strain moved between her carefree rich lifestyle, the oppression of bullying as she found herself at the bottom, struggling to fit in with the other recruits and Strain pilots, and naturally, at the behest of many intense battles.
There are many action sequences, and genuine stakes are presented earlier than the new recruits would like. Action scenes do not have a high level of strategy, but there is indeed a sense of many soldiers being commanded, and we only ever get a chance to follow one, and it’s through this that Strain finds a surprisingly convincing military feel. Battle scenes tended to land on the tense side, though some were outright horrific slaughter, but no matter what tone, the competent filming of high-detail CGI mech models was good enough to always bring me to the edge of my seat. It’s a shame that the stock-footage explosions were so reused, because Strain was otherwise a surprisingly competent production with CGI far beyond its years (even in 2019, they are above average!).
Strain’s greatest weakness, however, is its sound. The sound design was satisfactory, but the music itself lacked creativity, originality or even depth. One could be fooled into thinking many of its musical backdrops were stock music for visual novels, because the hook development was generally poor and unengaging. That said, the battle backing music formed a handful of motifs that the series relied upon, to some good (but not outstanding) effect. Considering how prevalent the dance motif was as a series theme, with characters even dialogue referencing the Box Step, I just can’t help but feel disappointed by the lack of punchy waltzes (the one waltz it did have near the end was rather unconventional) – not even for the potential of juxtaposition.
Strain’s other great weakness was also one of its greatest strengths: the comedy. Strain’s comedy was extremely off-kilter, which sometimes contrasted with the darkness of scenes in surprisingly reverent ways – my favourite scene of the show, hands down, is when the Engineering Team hold a “pity party” as the war outside the ship begins to look dour; it can be darkly hilarious, and oddly fitting. However, the filler episode (episode 7) felt entirely redundant, even if it put itself a good place during some (much needed) downtime. Other jokes, in general, were not grating but had questionable presence. Somewhat on from this, there were some ecchi moments throughout Strain, with extremely revealing shower sequences and some convenient clothe ripping – though, it’s important to note that, even during the occasional panty-shot, it never felt too revealing, nor did it feel like cinematography was being sacrificed for titillation.
With surprising nudity and the simplicity of the story, Strain reminded me of Gunbuster – especially in the thematic department. Strain has quite a lot of technical themes such as time dilation and human connectedness, and while these were not explored to the level of more specialist works, there was a surprising nuance to their depiction as well as a pleasant approach to including these ideas naturally, without forced exposition.
Throughout all of this, Strain never really got into any one idea or attached itself strongly to character development, but it approached each angle it took with a satisfying level of understanding and simply got on with telling its simple story. Indeed, for Strain is a simple story. Despite the occasional surprising death, Strain is a simple story with a simple conclusion, but with strong storytelling and a great sense of pace, Strain made for an extremely easy-to-watch and fulfilling 13 episode series.