Monday, March 14, 2016

Schwarzesmarken: The Anime Set in 1980s East Germany

One thing I like about watching anime is that they sometimes pick unusual time periods and countries in which to set stories, and rather than getting an American-centric view of the setting, we have it filtered through Japanese eyes.

Schwarzesmarken is one of the series I've been watching this winter, and it's set in 1983, East Germany, during an alien invasion.

I'm not sure why this particular setting was chosen, but it's certainly a unique one. Even though Germany as a whole is normally considered part of western Europe, at this point in time the DDR (the Deutsche Demokratische Republik) is part of the communist Eastern Bloc.

In Schwarzesmarken the aliens known as BETA have landed somewhere in eastern Europe/western Central Asia and are making their march west. Poland seems to have already been destroyed, leaving East Germany as the shield that protects the rest of Europe from invasion. The BETA aren't the usual spaceship faring variety and if anything seem fairly unintelligent. Fighting them is like fighting giant bloodthirsty locusts. What they lack in intelligence they make up in numbers.

The story focuses on the exploits of the 666th TSF Squadron, nicknamed Schwarzesmarken, or Black Marks (though the German is left untranslated, as it was for the original Japanese audience). This being anime, their units of choice are mecha, and they're the best TSF unit in East Germany, often taking the most dangerous assignments.

But what makes this different from other series, is that the 666th is just the best in East Germany.

The writing doesn't always make the best use of the time period, and there are moments where the behavior of the series' characters feels very anime and/or Japanese rather than German, but the one thing it does well is present multiple dangers from multiple sides, and just how hard it is for the 666th to get their job done.

The first time this is presented well is when they participate in a joint mission with the UN to retake land in Poland. Unfortunately the scriptwriter/storyboard artist completely botched which part of the map was ocean and which part was land, resulting in a landing on the southern beaches of Poland. They did land in a real location, and you can see the map in the show matches the real world, except the ocean and land colors are inverted, and the invasion tactics dialogue is scripted to match the inversion.

Geographical errors aside, the joint missions shows what the capitalist west is able to put out in sheer firepower versus the communist east. West Germany and their American allies have much less practical experience fighting the BETA, but they're able to make up for a lot of it with long range ballistics that don't require their soldiers to get up close and personal with their mecha. The scrappy members of the 666th are so used to fighting on limited resources that their western Allies don't realize that they frequently get into melee range in combat and it nearly kills the 666th.

The series isn't just the members of Schwarzesmarken dealing with crappier tech and limited ammo, or that they're constantly under alien attack in a way the western countries aren't. By setting the series in communist East Germany, the squadron also has to deal with political struggles between the National People's Army and the Ministry for State Security (better known as the Stasi), and it's clear from multiple characters that no one wants to mess with the Stasi. Historically, they were among the most effective secret police to exist.

The soldiers of Schwarzesmarken live in the kind of country where one member of their unit is specifically a political officer who makes sure everyone else tows the party line. Even the middle of combat, the question is not what is best to win the battle, but what is best for the party.

Regardless of an alien invasion going on, the most dangerous enemies are human, and a lot of the 666th's difficulties can be chalked up to trying to deal with a system that doesn't always work or have their best interests in mind. But if they want to save their country, this is what they have to deal with no matter how they individually feel about it.

We don't really see how or where the timeline diverged from our world, since relations between East and West Germany seem particular frosty for 1983 (this was a period when they were getting closer in our world, with reunification being seven years away), but the series gets points for making choosing an unusual country for an underdog fight.

Schwarzesmarken is still streaming so I'm not sure what kind of ending it will end up having, but I'm guessing for something along the lines of a Pyrrhic victory. Since it's a prequel to the Muv-Luv series, I'm pretty sure the aliens are here to stay, so at best the 666th might stop them for a short while. But, given their capabilities I'm not sure they'll get even that. I do like rooting for them, for being undermanned, outgunned, and fighting for a country that alternately finds them useful or an inconvenient depending on who's currently in charge.

It's just that they're human, and there's only so much a small group of humans can do.