Back Arrow: 2021’s Campy Mecha Hidden Gem

TGRIP
TGRIP
Apr 4 · 9 min read
Back Arrow PV 2

Alright, what is this show, and why haven’t I heard of it outside of randomly browsing Funimation’s lineup?

Wait, didn’t you read my first impressions article about it from earlier this year?

… Sure I did. So shouldn’t this be a final impressions article about it?

Well, as it happens, Back Arrow’s not done yet-

Wait, it’s in its second cour?

… Yup.

Is it based on a manga or light novel series?

Nope.

Then… a revival of an old property?

Not that either.

You mean to tell me this is an anime original series that got two cours right from the start?

Sure am… is… it sure is.

… How did that happen? That never happens.

Well, when you’ve got the director of Code Geass and the writer of Gurren Lagann for showrunners, it’s fair to say the studio making your project has more than enough faith in giving you 24 episodes to fully tell your story.

And that studio would be?

Studio Voln.

I… don’t think I’ve heard of them.

And I can’t blame you; Voln’s just six years old, and is another studio formed by a Madhouse alumni (Keiji Mita, best known for being an animation producer on the 2011 Hunter x Hunter series). It only has four series and a couple of films under its belt, which include the Ushio & Tora series from 2015, and 2018’s I Want to Eat Your Pancreas.

Ushio & Tora

Oh, I’ve heard of those.

Voln’s an up and coming studio that despite not having name recognition, is making a name for itself; give them a couple more years and a breakout hit, they should be standing proudly alongside their stepbrother studio Mappa.

I take it though that Back Arrow won’t be that breakout series.

Probably not, due to the studio not being well known or followed (despite the reputation of the creative talents attached to it), and winter 2021 being an ungodly packed anime season. A lot of stuff has gotten lost in the arguing about Mushoku Tensei, fawning over Horimiya, and the weekly immolation of The Promised Neverland’s second season.

Come on, maybe this show’s not getting attention because it doesn’t deserve it-

Have you heard of a shortform series called Pui Pui Molcar?

Er, no. How is this relevant?

Because that’s another show that’s gotten lost in the shuffle, and although it was in netflix jail, it’s something cuter than Yuru Camp multiplied by Tonikawa.

That’s a big claim.

And it’s one I’m standing by, given how since it’s dropped on netflix, it’s garnered enough attention to top a few ANN’s writers “best of the season” lists.

A shortform series did that?

Yes. Even famed mecha designer Masami Obari himself is a fan of it.

Pui Pui Molcar

Okay… let’s say that maybe this season was overstuffed so much that some shows fell through the cracks. So why should we look behind the couch cushions and give this show a try?

Because if this were a lighter season, and if it had a bigger studio behind it, Back Arrow would be seen as one of the best mecha series in years.

Another big claim, there.

Big? Nah nanana. “Big” would be saying that if this were a Gundam show, it’d be the best one in decades.

You just annoyed a fair number of Iron Blooded Orphan fans.

If it’s any consolation to them, this show will also probably have the same fate as IBO, in being a critical darling that doesn’t manage to find mainstream success.

Is it really fair to compare this to Gundam though?

I’m a bit surprised myself to say it, but yes, because this series is impressive in how close it comes to capturing the original magic that show was known for in 1979.

What kind of magic, dare I ask?

Its camp.

… Camp? Original Gundam?

It’s a bit of a leap, I know, but going through past shows like The 08th MS Team and movies like War in the Pocket, and watching the recent OVA series Gundam: The Origin helped me see the franchise in a new light. At its heart is a series that wants to detail the horrors of war, while paradoxically being a franchise that glorifies it. I think the way it has best managed these dueling interests has been when the series lets itself have some fun with giant robots beating the crap out of each other, hence why more serious stuff like IBO has done okay-but-not-great, while lighter shows like Build Fighters have thrived. It could also be another reason why mecha anime in general has gone though a bit of a drought over the past decade.

Mecha has become a bit of an endangered species, hasn’t it?

It hasn’t gone extinct, but the 2010s weren’t a good time for it. However, the 2020s are showing some signs of revitalization, with SSSS.Dynazenon, an upcoming adaption of Gundam Hathaway, and even Godzilla vs Kong, the latter of which is a glorious case of something that has just the right amount of camp to it.

SSSS.Dynazenon

And Back Arrow should be considered part of this new wave as well?

Definitely. I said earlier this year that this show had this weird quality to it, that it was somehow smarter than it was letting on, and 13 episodes later, I realize that it was camp, and the best kind of camp at that: intentional camp. This show is silly on purpose, but not so much that it becomes a full-on parody.

How did a show from the creators of Gurren Lagann and Code Geass manage that?

My best guess, it might be that they balance out their weaknesses, while enhancing each other’s strengths. Kazuki Nakashima of GL is a writer who had gotten on my last nerve recently with BNA, and Goro Taniguchi has been in a bit of a rut since 2015’s Maria the Virgin Witch, but here the two have gelled wonderfully by making a series that lets them both run wild by maintaining a balance between silliness and seriousness, depending on what the story calls for. I still want to hold off on declaring Back Arrow some of the two’s best work, because as we’ve seen with GL and CG, the two have run into issues when their shows enter their second half…

Are you calling Gurren Lagann or Code Geass bad?

Of course not, those two series still deserve their recognition as the last two great mecha shows of the 2000s (and if you told people back in 2007 that these two showrunners would collaborate on something together, just imagine their responses to that idea). It’s just that they both have stronger first halves, with GL being more focused and grounded pre-time skip, and CG being better regarded for its first “smarter” season, even though I personally liked R2 a lot… mainly because the show kind of admitted defeat and leaned back on its campy roots, and thus became a lot more fun. A key reason I’m adoring Back Arrow is that it’s kind of like Geass R2 without the first season holding it up to a higher standard, and the show’s allowed to get as buck wild as it wants.

I heard that Back Arrow wasn’t that wild though, and instead rather boring?

That would be due to being a show with a good-sized cast, multiple factions (and factions within factions), and a story spanning 20+ episodes, Back Arrow suffers a bit of “narrative lag”, where early on the show’s setting so much up that it has a slower pace than it probably should. It also doesn’t help that despite being a solid production overall, it really could’ve used a bit more “oomph” somewhere. A better musical score, more fun voice direction, a bit more pep in its animation; if just one of these issues were addressed, I’m pretty certain more people would’ve held onto it until it hits its stride (and it’s why I badly wish for Funimation to breathe some life into it with a proper dub).

And when does this show hit its stride?

Without a doubt, episode 8. Radiant fans have said that their show also kicks in at episode 8 or 9 roughly, and I imagine I now know what they feel like. Episode 8 is when everything comes together, from Back Arrow showing some surprising scenes that feel like they should be fanservicey but somehow aren’t thanks to great character designs and direction, a separate character design that is a straight-up Gundam homage (you should know it when you see it), the show’s best joke yet where a mad scientist has a choir sing for him when he performs experiments (and whose lyrics are gut-busting), and it ends on the show’s first big twist, which you can see coming but is played so damn well you can’t help but have a big smile on your face when you see it. If you skim through the first 5 episodes (and honestly skip episode 6; it’s not bad, but not necessary), the reward at the end is worth it.

An Actual Scene from Back Arrow

Okay, so, let’s just say I’m not a fan of camp. What then?

Well… first, you have my condolences for being boring and not liking fun.

Oi.

But second, is that while camp is this show’s blood, its muscle is its mecha action, and its soul is that it continuously surprises you by how clever it is.

… Go on.

Of all the past mecha shows this reminds me of that aren’t Gundam, the one at the forefront is Zoids from the early 2000s. It is mainly due to the mechs being CG and all the human characters being traditionally animated, but it’s also thanks to how well the CG mechs are done as well. I’ve been waiting for a studio to take notes on how Studio Orange does its CG, and Back Arrow might be one of those success stories I’ve been awaiting, with the animation being a smoother framerate, the mechs having a good feeling of weight to them, and the designs of the giant robots not being overly complex, making them easy to follow and pleasant to look at. I miss 2D mechs as much as the next person, but if more 3D mechs were done like this, I’d be more onboard with where things have been going.

As for that “clever” bit, part of it is in how self-aware this show is (so many great jokes feel like they were ripped from some of the best episodes of Futurama), and also in how it does setup and payoff where you least expect it. How the titular Arrow’s trademark fighting quirk is where he lets his opponents live, and when one of them tries to take advantage of that as she attempts to suicide bomb him (and his reaction to which is one of the show’s best moments, with easily the series’ best voice acting). How an aerial dogfight culminates in two experienced fighters taking advantage of the world’s natural anti-aircraft ceiling to stop an opponent. Even a scene where a character fully comprehends how bad a situation is when someone doesn’t make a snarky remark. This show has genuinely amazed me in how rewarding its been, not just by how much it has improved since it started, but also by where its story has reaped from narrative seeds it sowed months ago. Heck, even the first OP was rewarding in how it changed from week to week; in something as minor as this, Back Arrow gave you another thing to anticipate.

Okay, you’re clocking in at nearly 2,000 words. Let’s say my interest has been piqued; final thoughts, for real?

I really hope that the debuting spring season is light enough on new shows for more people to give Back Arrow a proper shot, especially as there are signs that word of mouth is getting this show the attention it deserves (thanks in no small part to funny gifs this show just keeps on delivering). And being the same day of the week as Dynazenon can’t hurt, since for the first time in ages, we’ve got a genuine goddamn mecha-friday power hour. Above all that though… mecha anime aren’t just rare nowadays, but original anime themselves are too. And we owe it to ourselves, and the people who work on them, to give unproven projects attention, for if we don’t we truly are doomed to not just the mecha genre going even further away, but the medium as a whole becoming one increasingly dependent on adaptations and taking no risks whatsoever. This isn’t to say all original anime are inherently good, but sometimes, some more than deserve a second look. Especially when they end up being so much pure damn fun to watch.

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