In media, the apocalyptic context is one of the most remarkable narrative stratagems to scrutinize humanity. Whether catastrophe occurs via George R. Romero’s infestation of zombies, Mad Max’s oil shortage and subsequent collapse of societal concord, or the environmental upheaval of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the framework allows for a reflective glimpse inward. Habitually, we find secondary characters at their worst, their vicious behaviors a twisted manifestation of some deep-rooted need for survival. In effect, the genre offers much-needed (albeit reductionist) explanations for the ills of our world.
But lead characters consistently reveal that tiny ray of optimism in a world that shrouded in unremitting nihilism. The infinitesimal, often altruistic, Yin to the malevolent Yang around us, they are the order engulfed in chaos, as well as a substantiation of altruism. In Coppelion, they’re embodied by a trio of schoolgirls tasked with locating survivors after a nuclear disaster leaves Tokyo blanketed in radiation. Characteristic of the series, the set-up requires a healthy suspension of disbelief. But if viewers can overlook the anime’s narrative improbabilities, they’ll find poignancy, intrigue, and a remarkably sumptuous visual style.
Undoubtedly, some of Coppelion’s transgressions stem from the adaptation of its source material. In order to endow the anime with a vigorous pace, the series attempts a sizeable adaptation of Tomonori Inoue’s manga, with the thirteen episode season covering the first eighty chapters of the original work. As such, inference is required from viewers, while other confounding elements have the tendency to be explained later in the series. More likely to break immersion are the occasional disruptions of character behavior. Quite frequently, tears will spontaneously erupt from one of girls, while the anime’s sole romantic component receives a modicum of foreshadowing.
Then there’s the illogical action which seem ubiquitous in modern media. When Ibara Naruse, the Coppelion Rescue Unit leader, seeks permission to apprehend a gun-toting civilian, she’s using a walkie-talkie within unmistakable earshot of her target. Naturally, he’s oblivion to the conversation. Elsewhere, a leaning skyscraper begins to crumple at the most inopportune moment, while a jeep demonstrates enough fortitude to keep up with a stealth bomber. Of course, the biggest head scratcher might be why the Coppelion team wears school girl outfits instead of exponentially more appropriate para-military uniforms.
Fortunately, any frustrations that stem from these oddities are moderated by Coppelion’s philosophical musings, characterizations, and a tone that occasionally ventures into the melancholic. Early on, we learn why the trio can withstand perilous amounts of radiation in thigh-high skirts; the girls are genetically created beings- a justification which also explains their superhuman abilities. When the professor responsible for creating the technology which led to the disaster expresses deep regret for his invention, Ibara reminds him that science is the only mother she knows. Pleasingly, Coppelion is filled with tender moments like this, which tend to reverberate after the closing credits have rolled. At least some of the anime’s pathos stems from the recollection of the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, a tragedy that delayed the show’s production.
Coppelion can be heavy handed at times, with the bond between the three leads and Coppélia, a French ballet about an inventor who makes a life-sized doll, forced a few too many times. But there’s little fault in the construction of the anime’s personalities. Early on, Ibara shows a Spock-like detachment, even preferring the rationality of nutrient injections over the pleasure of physical foods. Equally as curious is her occasional rejection of protocol; when Ibara shirks her superiors and comes to a person’s aid, identification with the character comes easily. With the ability to communicate with animals, Taeko Nomura brings interspecies empathy to the show, while her acute visual abilities and medical training make her a valuable member of the team. Susceptible to emotional outbursts and other childlike behavior, Aoi Fukasaku seems like the outlier of Coppelion Rescue Unit, but near the end of the season her behavior receives explanation. Most interesting are the backstories of Coppelion’s secondaries, which allow the anime to explore issues of honor, regret, loss, and forgiveness. Far more than the frothy scenarios one might expect, the anime delivers sentiment on the majority of its episodes, offering ruminations on the fragility of nature and the idea of home. Even the story arc’s villains offer a motivation that sufficiently disturbing, bolstered by a provocation that’s just south of rationality.
While the occasional action sequences bring exhilaration to Coppelion, especially when slow motion choreography is employed, most of the anime’s vitality stems from a well-built sense of intrigue. Elevating the tension is the anime’s stunning art design, with GoHands’s making a deft decision to shun the pursuit of photorealism. Instead, characters are drawn with a bit of cel-shading, allowing them to stand out from the backgrounds. Coppelion’s backdrops also deserve merit, envisioning a once-bustling urban space that still cloaked, but with enough overgrown flora to signify a glimmer of hope. Dexterously, Coppelion handles mistrust well with the face and emotions of strangers masked under bulky radiation suits.
Viz Media’s Complete Edition offers both the Blu-ray and DVD versions housed in a single, standard-sized case. On both types of media, picture quality is faultless, with GoHand’s frequent use of grain filter producing a deliberate difference in aesthetic quality. Beyond 1080p delivery, Blu-ray owners also have access to an art gallery, while both versions offer a clean opening and ending, as well the original trailer. Aurally, the season offers both the original Japanese voicework (with subtitles) as well as an endurable English dubbing.
Coppelion flirts with distinction, delving into the philosophical while still extending moments of adrenaline-producing action and suspense. Unfortunately, its narrative can be a bit disjoined- a transgression which largely stems from the decision to depict a lion’s share of the manga. But if viewers can overlook this blemish, Coppelion mirrors the traits of its miraculous medicine, ether. Even in small dose, the anime proves to be more of a pensive panacea than just an attractive placebo.