Mecha Lekka Hi, Mecha Hinie Ho

Rooster Teeth’s ‘gen:LOCK’ is Anime, American-Style

For all its influence on animation and appreciation by fans, most people in the U.S. still know nothing about anime. Apart from decades-old exceptions such as “Akira,” “Ghost in the Shell” and “Spirited Away” that got attention here, anime as TV or movies still mostly lives on lesser-known streaming services such as Crunchyroll and in rotation on Adult Swim’s long-running Saturday-night lineup.

Which makes Rooster Teeth Animation’s most ambitious project yet, “gen:LOCK,” all the more remarkable. The new eight-episode series attempts to Americanize and update some of the tropes of anime. It brings the style to a much wider audience, with A-list voice talent including executive producer Michael B. Jordan, Dakota Fanning, and David Tennant.

Based on the pilot episode available for free on Rooster Teeth’s website, and another four episodes released so far, RT made a successful gamble.

A few episodes in, the show transitions into a squad-focused wartime saga about gigantic robots having visually crazy battles, like Voltron without the toy tie-in.

But the show’s 32-minute pilot focused on Jordan’s character Chase and his fellow fighter-pilot girlfriend Miranda (Fanning). In a stunning set-piece, a nanotech-wielding force called The Union invades 2068 New York City.

Michael B. Jordan in gen:LOCK

The pilot wisely pushes a credits sequence that may come across to some as a little cheesy to the end of the first episode. While it does contain moments of levity, the pilot mostly reflects a tone loss and panic, grounded by some great voice work. Smooth, detailed animation creates a believable war zone out of future NYC.

In the second episode, we get the twist. The military force trying to hold back The Union, which sounds a lot like The Empire from Star Wars, has developed new technology that could turn the tide. It involves a brain meld, the “gen:LOCK” of the title, with giant battle suits. They bring in a group of elite soldiers from around the world  to audition for service in this squad. These soldiers join Chase, who’s already sacrificed a lot for the cause.

If you thought the original Pacific Rim was dumb, this is probably not for you. But if you fist-pumped at the high-concept action, and cheered underdog warriors blowing up big monsters with missiles and mecha punches, gen:LOCK will please you to no end.

American audiences have a hard time understanding most Japanese anime because of lousy translation. But gen:LOCK breaks that tradition with relatable dialogue and a few casting aces in the hole. The diverse cast, both on the screen and in the voice talent, makes a difference. Tennant’s performance as the wacky and wisecracking mad scientist Dr. Weller lifts the show from its more somber moments.

True anime fans will eat up the battles. The show doesn’t skimp on action. Rooster Teeth’s animation team has created a fluid visual style and sleek mechs and jets to engage in warfare. Subsequent episodes tackle the physical and mental toll robot battling takes on the trainees and how the resistance integrates these mecha warriors into the rest of their forces. The show makes some smart script decisions early on, distinguishing each of the characters behind the ‘bots beyond their different-colored war suits.

It’s too early to say if the whole season will be able to maintain the stakes that gen:LOCK establishes by the midway mark, but it feels like there’s plenty of runway for deepening the characters against the backdrop of a war for America. Even in the grim fight-for-the-future setting, the show manages to have its light moments. It gives the characters personalities beyond bland soldier types and raises interesting questions about the melding of person and machine.

Above all, though, it’s a fun watch.

Creator and writer Gray Haddock, also in the voice cast, has found a way to meld a classic anime story with our modern expectations for top-shelf action movies and animation.

It’s a good intro to anime for non-fans, but well-made enough that Japanese animation fans should be enamored as well.

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Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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