It isn’t uncommon for a previously existing work, like a novel, to find itself adapted many times for any given medium, and for one of its eventual incarnations to stand tall above all the others, supplanting at times even the original source-material itself. There’s been countless screen versions of the works of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and other such antique hand-me-downs of classic literature, and we’re likely to keep seeing fresh versions of their work presented for film and television for as long as such media exists– no matter how much people claim to hate things like reboots, remakes and the like, an exception always seems to be made for anything sourced from a book that’s printed with gold tinting on its pages. Probably the most famous example of a book that took several adaptations for it to hold firm on the public consciousness would be John Huston’s seminal take on Dashiel Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon, the third time the book had been brought to the screen, and all within the space of a single decade. Science-fiction novels tend not to be repeated quite as often thanks to the high-cost it takes to present a lot of the high-concept stuff for motion-pictures, and when a work finds itself adapted a second time, it tends to be after a sufficient amount of time has passed, and technology has advanced enough to offer a fresh take (John Carpenter and David Cronenberg’s takes on The Thing From Another World and The Fly, respectively) or in a country other than the original adaptation (Steven Soderbergh offering another take on Stanislav Lem’s Solaris, for whatever reason). But for my money, there’s no stranger case of a novel adapted multiple times and in wildly differing takes than the case of Robert A. Heinlen’s classic Starship Troopers, which most audiences know from Paul Verhoven’s infamously satirical 1997 film, which treated the author’s endorsement for a kinder, gentler form of interstellar fascism with the tongue-in-cheek spirit it deserved.
That film has become something of a modern classic for sci-fi afficianados, enjoyed as entertainment and respected as socio-political commentary such to the point that even its direct-to-video sequels have a surprising amount of fans ready to hold them up for some amount of acclaim. It’s an old personal favorite of mine, being the first R-Rated film I saw in a theater, with my dad, and though I was pleased to see the copious violence and nudity strewn throughout the film as a co-ed, multi-ethnic fighting force decimated a ravenous insectoid alien species, I as more pleased that I was one of the few people in the audience who seemed to get the fact that we were all watching the sci-fi equivalent of Triumph of the Will, with our heroes as the Nazis, instead of the Imperial villains we were all more used to seeing (this was the year of the Special Editions, after all). But how many people out there, sitting in the theaters and blithely watching the Phil Tippet-assisted special-effect action without ever quite appreciating the goosestepping messages that were flying over their heads, knew that Heinlen’s novel had already been adapted for the moving image not ten years before Verhoven’s take, and in the form of a Japanese original video animation, of all things? I myself was aware of its existence, but only in passing– after seeing all those moments on-film of young men and women fighting, dying and showering together in live-action, I doubted if it was the sort of thing you could’ve easily edited into a tamer form on the Sci-Fi Channel’s “Saturday Anime” morning line-up. It’s never been released on DVD, at least not in the US, and is viewable online with English subtitles only by the grace of somebody who owned it on Laserdisc, back in the day. Probably the most surprising thing about the OVA is just how tame it is, not just by the standards of the Verhoven film but also within anime in general– not even a handful of judicious trims here and there, and all you’d need to make it broadcast friendly would be a fresh English dub, and even that isn’t terribly important for the demographic that’d be most interested in watching it in the first place. There’s even a bizarre appropriateness to how the international cast of Heinlen’s Earth Federation can hail from every corner of the globe and speak Japanese as comfortably as any of what their native tongues ought to be (it’s no stranger than hearing Juan “Johnny” Rico speak in crisp, Beverly Hills-friendly English in the live-action film, at any rate).
As directed by Tetsuro Amino, the kind of anime journeyman you’ll only have heard of if you bother to track down every incarnation of the Macross series, it’s at times disconcerting just how easily the substance of Heinlen’s book manages to fit itself into the confines of mech-suit anime (though I haven’t actually read the novel myself, so I might be completely wrong). Granted, there’s none of the political emphasis that Verhoven would have in his film– in fact, there’s no mention of politics at all through the OVA, and in fact we see many things like non-propaganda news broadcasts and open press-conferences that suggest a level of free-speech that would be completely antithetical to the autocratic regime the story is famous for. Much of what the later film is best known by is absent here– though there’s plenty of female naval pilots and officers barking orders, there’s no tough-as-nails girls fighting on the front lines with the infantrymen (the subplot of soldiers pining for salacious photos from girls back home probably would’ve resulted in a black-eye or two if somebody like Dizzy were in their ranks); the aliens that humanity goes to war with don’t resemble any kind of insect or arachnid so much as they do giant, pink tumors floating about through space, infecting ships with their invasive spores as if they were a form of highly infectious cancer; perhaps most noticeably, the soldiers spend most of their training and all of their combat time in giant mechanized mobile-armor suits, a detail from Heinlen’s text that was skipped over on film but practically tailor made for robot-mad anime. As such, it’s easy to watch the six-episode stretch of this series and only find one’s self occasionally reminded of the source material, as it pretty much resembles any standard anime from the 1980’s, only with far less sex and violence. While the best of the medium always stands out in some way or another, what makes Amino’s work on Starship Troopers so identifiable is just how anonymous it all is– robots flying and fighting strange aliens, space-ships blasting through faster-than-light rainbows, and pretty girls in uniforms set to the tune of strained, American-fused J-Pop.
At times, it feels as though you could be watching a male-version of Gunbusters played for straight, with all the avant-garde ending stripped out and all the Coca-Cola replaced by cans of Budweiser– this is what holds it back, and results in it being a rather pedestrian work, and one that especially doesn’t really live up to the reputation it’s gathered over the years. But at the same time, it also underlines what makes it special, at its most potent moments. Most of the best works in anime all tend to be fairly self-conscious about themselves, and cast their mind-blowing enterprises with a fair amount of knowing winks and self-deprecating humor, as though to defuse the viewer’s apprehensiveness by showing them just how silly they think it all is, too. It’s the reason something as ridiculous as the parody-series Project A-ko and Tenchi Muyo wind up being so many American otakus’ introductions to anime– there’s a safe feeling at how those works are willing to poke fun at themselves. Hideaki Anno has proven something of a master of this sort of thing, though he’s just as often to push it into absolutely bizarre and misanthropic lengths, as he did in the suckerpunch End of Evangelion. Kazuya Tsurumaki directed the twisted FLCL in such an extreme mix of off-beat humor that it helped the rare moments where everything stood still and was played straight stand out, and deliver more of an emotional impact. Even Mamoru Oshii wasn’t immune from the occasional winking joke in his Patlabor movies, which were wise to occasionally let out the tension generated from all those drawn-out philosophical meditations– one of the reasons his Ghost in the Shell features feel more and more remote over the years is because of just how dreadfully serious it all is, and how they lack the human quality of his previous series. Starship Troopers is serious as well, in a way that makes it stand out from the majority of anime and the black-comedy of Verhoven’s later film, but what makes it work is the fact that it is not dreadfully so– Amino treats Heinlen’s story of soldiers training for war with an interstellar insect-race less as an examination of a society in the grips of military dominance and more as an occasion for young men to pine over pretty girls, roughhouse with one another and fight to stay alive just to get into some more trouble the next day.
It’s this mix of the serious and the slight that makes the OVA as pleasantly watchable as it is– the characters feel far more human and sympathetic than the ironic recruitment posters of the live-action film, and therefore their lives feel all the more valuable as they start to get lost along the way. There’s a hardness to the faces that’s appreciated, in particular, a strange mix of doll-like artificiality and angular physicality that recalls both Oshii’s cyborgs and Anno’s teenagers, constantly reminding one of just how precarious the situation all their lives are in, and just how precious even the most mediocre of lives are. It’s only in the last episode that we actually see Rico and his friends join actual, honest-to-goodness combat, but until then there’s plenty of danger to be found even in the training missions, where they spend most of their time playing paintball capture-the-flag from the cockpits of their mech-units (which ought to be reason enough alone for the militaries of the world to finance large-scale robot constructions). The personal losses each of the soldiers suffers over the course of the anime also feel stronger than they did in the major motion-picture, at times developing a genuinely deserved brand of sentimentality that you usually only see on-screen in old World War II movies where babyfaced boys in dashing uniforms kissed girls on railroad platforms, each of them knowing they’d probably never see one another again. Amino might treat the idea of volunteering for the army as an occasion to indulge in shojo-melodrama, but it feels a little more respectful than the outright joke that Verhoven made out of Heinlen’s frighteningly dead-serious celebration of “earned citizenship”. To be certain, that doesn’t mean that the OVA is anywhere near as important or even as entertaining as either the film or the novel, and it definitely doesn’t mean that it’s essential viewing in the realm of anime, either. It’s a minor curiosity, one likely to blend in with so many crowds rather than stand out, but for those willing to take a closer look, it’s absolutely worth spending a mere three hours watching, even in a grainy, streamed-form. It’s not the type of tree you’d miss a forest for, but even a fallen evergreen is worth admiring.