Blue Submarine No. 6 – Blessed are the Peacemakers
How many movies have you seen that go something like this: humanity is facing extinction, its back against the wall, fighting an implacable alien invasion, when it mounts a heroic, last-ditch effort to defend its very existence? I can think of at least five Hollywood movies off the top of my head that fit that description perfectly, and some of them weren’t even directed by Roland Emmerich.
In those movies, their attempts inevitably succeed, the enemy is defeated, and everything is fine in the end. There’s plenty of courage, daring, and heroism to go around, implicitly inspiring the audience, raised on tales of wartime heroism, to go and do likewise. These are the kinds of tales people have told for as long as war has existed.
The 4-episode 1999 OVA Blue Submarine No. 6 begins with humanity in just such a situation. A sociopathic geneticist named Zorndyke has flooded the Earth’s coasts, killing billions and turning the planet into a watery wasteland. He now wages war on the last remainders of humanity with an army of aquatic creatures, seemingly bent on wiping humanity off the map.
In response, every major nation has banded together, forming the multinational Blue Fleet to fight for their very survival. The first two episodes detail their preparation, getting ready for a last-ditch nuclear attack on his Antarctic base to ensure their continued existence.
There’s a twist, of course, or else I wouldn’t be writing about the show in this way. At the same time, hotshot antihero fighter (err, submersible) pilot protagonist Tetsu Hayami gets caught up in events that bring up his dark past and make him wonder if humanity’s warlike bent isn’t the best path to take.
That’s a pretty novel message for Hollywood, which tends to be a bit militaristic, but it’d be a familiar concept to a late 90s anime fan in more pacifistic Japan. It is, in fact, the subtext of every one of the numerous permutations and spinoffs of the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise, the mega-popular mecha franchise that is one of the few anime series to become a part of Japanese mainstream culture.
This might be a subtext pleasing to the post-war Japanese pacifist, but in the context of a show for adolescent boys about giant robots fighting each other, it ends up being pretty hypocritical. The core problem that Gundam shows have never been able to get past is that, while the protagonists like to whine about the evils of war when they’re not piloting giant armored suits, once they are, their sole purpose is to sell DVDs and model kits to children and teenagers by doing what giant robots do best: killing other giant robots in awesome ways.
In other words, if you’re going to make a show about the evils of war, you probably shouldn’t base your business plan on glamorizing war in order to sell toys. At least, not if you want your message about the evils to war to resonate in any meaningful way.
Gundam makes enough money that Sunrise could probably buy someone else’s artistic integrity if they so desired, but Blue Submarine No. 6 is a quiet direct-to-video action show with an upbeat, jazzy soundtrack. Integrity and its message are all it’s got going for it.
So it’s probably no surprise that Hayami’s revelatory journey is more meaningful and nuanced than any Gundam hero’s. First off, rather than being based on emotion or ideology, it’s coldly utilitarian.
Blue Fleet spends the entirety of the show on the run, chased by an enemy of seemingly infinite numbers and an animalistic bloodlust. Humanity is barely hanging on a thread; 99% of its former population is lying dead on the ocean floor. We don’t see any desire to build a new civilization from any of the human characters, just a bloody-minded desire for revenge.
So, Hayami’s conclusion that humanity should try to make peace with the invaders is a completely rational one, in this case. And it’s only because of his unique contact with the enemy that he is able to reach this conclusion.
In the first episode, he downs one of Zorndyke’s organic submersibles, and finds that the pilot is a humanoid creature that appears to be half girl, half animal. Against the protestations of his co-pilot, he rescues the trembling and fearful girl and throws her back in to the water, earning some muted gratitude from the bewildered creature.
A relationship of sorts develops between Hayami and the creature, whose name, we learn, is Myutio. Even though they’re incapable of speaking to each other, they form a bond based on their own shared empathy for each other, and the fact that it makes them both outcasts amongst their warmongering peers.
That, ultimately, is what lets Blue Submarine No. 6 be a successful show about peace and understanding the Other. Rather than acts of daring heroism or action-packed spectacle, Blue Sub 6 is ultimately a show focused on its characters and their relationships.
Humanity’s current state is represented by 18-year old Mayumi Kino, Hayami’s fellow co-pilot and obligatory quasi-love interest. Kino is a girl raised in the midst of apocalypse, and as such there’s nothing on her mind but avenging her lost family. She’s the one who chastises Hayami for saving Myutio, and she accompanies him on his mission to find Zorndyke only so she can “punch his lights out.”
Zorndyke’s forces are represented by Verg, an 8-foot tall man-shark who commands Zorndyke’s main fleet. He spends most of the show brutalizing his fellow soldiers and going on long tirades about destroying the humans. So, the focus of his arc isn’t centered on Hayami, but his “papa”, Zorndyke.
We see in later episodes that Verg isn’t just another monomaniacal bad guy bent on domination; he’s also a wayward son to Zorndyke. Verg has perverted Zorndyke’s desire to use his “children” to teach humanity humility into something more palatable to his war-like demeanor: he just wants to conquer them.
This strains Verg’s relationship with Zorndyke, who responds to Verg’s gleeful proclamations of victory with a melancholy pledge to pray for his safety. Even Zorndyke’s dying plea to get along with humanity bring nothing but pained denial, as the dissonance of his father’s wishes and his own beliefs brings him to tears. Either way, it’s an accomplishment that Blue Sub 6 manages to wring this much pathos out of a ruthlessly violent half-man, half-shark.
It’s Zorndyke who looms largest in Blue Sub 6’s cast, though, and it’s Zorndyke who is most difficult to write about. Part of the problem is that he often seems more like the embodiment of whatever ideology the writer is trying to impose than an actual character. Outside of his scenes with Verg, he only shows up once, to make cryptic conversation with the leader of Blue Fleet, before Hayami and Kino make their way to his secret Antarctic base to have a slightly less cryptic conversation with him.
But we’re clearly meant to feel some sympathy for Zorndyke, despite the blood of 10 billion people on his hand, so that makes writing about him essentially mandatory. He comes off as simultaneously a misunderstood sage and a monstrous psychopath.
Which is, I think, the intended tension. The humans who aren’t Hayami are often portrayed as slightly misguided, but their intentions are always sympathetic. From Kino’s desperation to avenge her family to the story of a woman who converted to Christianity to find something to sustain her after her family was horribly killed, you never get the sense that the human desire for revenge is unjustified, merely that it is unwise.
That’s one of Blue Submarine No. 6’s strong suits: that every character is sympathetic, with their own motivations and viewpoints that the show treats with respect. Hayami’s disaffected peacemaker is clearly in the right, of course, but every other character is presented not as vicious and irredeemable, but as a misguided person, driven by their own pains and circumstances to behave how they behave.
It’s that sympathy that allows for Blue Sub 6’s greatest achievement, and perhaps its most misunderstood aspect: its completely anticlimactic ending. Action movies thrive on a climactic release of tension, some final stand, but Blue Sub 6 is, ultimately, a movie about building relationships, and relationships are rarely formed on some dramatic climax.
Blue Sub 6’s ending, therefore, is not a defeat for either side, but a begrudging peace. It’s a foundation upon which to build a relationship. And it’s only a first step: we’re not told whether it leads to peace or more strife.
And this isn’t the kind of phony, “everybody is friends” ending that we usually see in shows with this kind of message. It’s a messy, uneasy peace, with each side still resentful. But there’s still a chance that things could work out, and that’s enough.
The irony of this review is that I’ve barely touched on the only thing everybody was talking about when Blue Submarine No. 6 first came out, which is the visuals. It was one of the first shows to blend 2D cel animation with 3D computer animation, which might have been impressive in 1999, but looks awful in 2010. There’s a jarring difference between the hand-drawn cels and the blocky, poorly-textured 3D models.
Which is a pity, because the art direction is solid, blending its gritty post-apocalyptic feel with the sterility of a military submarine, and the direction is amazing. There’s a dreamy, laid-back quality to the animation that works perfectly for a reflective undersea show, and it sells the characters as real people well enough to make the character relationships convincing.
And really, that’s what they’re meant to do: serve as a way to make the story and relationships convincing. That’s where Blue Submarine No. 6 shines and, while it may be jarring to find that in the trappings of a heroic action show, I can’t help but think that it’s for a reason. Blue Submarine No. 6 is ultimately a new kind of heroic drama, a show about noble sacrifice not for a single tribe or out of the base desire for vengeance, but out of love and a desire for peace, regardless of nationality, creed or species.
Blue Submarine No. 6 is readily available on DVD in Region 1. I highly recommend the English dub, which is superior to the original Japanese in every respect, but especially the non-Japanese characters. Nothing is more jarring to me than a Japanese man trying to sound like an African-American.