Content warning: gore, violence, blood
What’s it about? In the waning years of the Cold War era, governments worldwide race to uncover the relics of an ancient alien civilization that one ruled supreme over Earth. Their powers are beyond human comprehension, holding untold, unchecked power: however, in the wrong hands, they could spell mankind’s utter ruin. Enter brash and fearless Yu Ominae, a teenager known as a SPRIGGAN, equipped with power armor and filled with a determination to keep the past in the past and the present safe.
SPRIGGAN (all caps) is a fascinating bit of history: it’s a story that takes place in a time I didn’t know as I was born in 1992, and am solidly a product of the late 90s and aughts culture. As a Cold War era piece, it feels very much of that time, and David production ran with it, creating a fascinating cyberpunk world that suffuses every inch of this story. Of course, that can sometimes nudge up against the incorporation of current tech: the internet as we know it exists, as do other pieces of tech like iPads, which definitely weren’t around in 1989 when the manga debuted. It’s a smart choice, one that I liked as the forty-five minute episode played out.
For this watch, I chose the dub since it was available. I’m always curious about dubs, and it felt, in a strange way, like the best way to watch it given America’s entanglement with the Cold War and its own race towards potential ruin for the planet. And let me tell you: the dub is solid, lending itself to the premiere: episode 1, “Flame Serpent.”
The premiere is a very straightforward setup for our lead character, Ominae Yu, though a lot happens in and around the periphery. And speaking of Yu, he’s actually a really solid lead, and feels like a collection of shounen tropes that mesh well together. I can see now, in so many characters, the DNA from this series: Yu’s brashness, charisma, and flippant nature pair well with the show’s more gritty nature, offering levity in a show where a lot of bodies hit the floor…literally. It’s quite a blood premiere.
There’s also heaps of incidents and conspiracies and just countries takin’ each other down. It’s a lot of cat and mouse as Yu rescues a scientist, dukes it out with Russia and the United States, and protects a MacGuffin, i.e. the Shrine of Fire, which is sent from an ancient civilization that uses Hebrew, which… okay, I’ll be honest, I kept waiting for this to turn anti-Semitic.
I take such fierce umbrage with Hebrew and Judiasm being used as analogues for “strange mysteries”; and while I, (a non-Jewish person, so grain of salt) felt SPRIGGAN avoided going full-on conspiracy, the choice of Hebrew as the mysterious alien’s chosen language was very of the time and still feels a little wrong. I feel like this was something that maybe could have been changed to like… literally a fictional language. Call it the “angelic language” or something, but don’t just tell me it’s Hebrew, y’all.
All this (minus my concerns about antisemitism) pairs well with the absolutely bangin’ soundtrack, which was giving Netflix Cowboy Bebop, Cannon Busters, and a taste of Firefly at times. I really enjoyed it: it’s got this sound of a specific era that has produced a lot of the music that’s dovetailed into some of my favorite genres today, including future funk and lo-fi. It shows up in the ambient BGM, which features a lot of synths: another nostalgic draw up
And let me tell you, this premiere is full of nostalgia, which is definitely weaponized to evoke a very specific vibe. SPRIGGAN is giving Mad Max and Damnation Alley as well as a healthy taste of Roadside Picnic, all of which are Cold War-era products. It’s evoking this fear of technology that actually creates a quite interesting vibe of what it would probably feel like to live in a world where aliens, Christianity, and weaponized warfare permeate all aspects of an other side to life that most people don’t have access to. It creates this feeling of crashing into that as an outsider, which plays to SPRIGGAN’s benefit…until it doesn’t.
That’s because one of SPRIGGANS’s most notable weaknesses is its jargon: a lot of acronyms get thrown out from jump, and if you don’t know the bulk of the terms, you’re bound to just handwave them because what else can you do? You just kind of have to roll with things and sink into the conspiracies upon conspiracies because the premiere explains so little, most likely to pull you in into the remainder of the run of this ONA. I don’t know how effective that is unless you’re either already a fan of this series, this specific mashup of genres, or are just really hankerin’ for a Cold War story. Regardless, that’s what you get, and SPRIGGAN doesn’t seem to want to change that going ahead. I suspect its a flaw of the source material, though hey: at least we get an explanation of the titular spriggan and its terminology, right?
I went into SPRIGGAN with no expectations, and while I personally won’t revisit it (I’m not a fan of war stories) I do think it’s very worth your time if you’re interested in seeing a historic manga get adapted in 2022 with modern animation and direction. That doesn’t necessarily save it from some of its weaknesses: the story is very straightforward, and I have to wonder how much it’ll lean on nostalgia or pulling on tropes of the decade (the 1980s) versus developing the story into something more than the sum of its source parts.
All of that isn’t to mark SPRIGGAN as bad, but as something appealing to a very specific viewer and also, trying to play up a specific kind of anime. Is there much to look for as a feminist? No, I don’t think I’d poke this series with the feminism stick at all. It’s very much so in the vein of brash ‘n bold boy saves girl and the world.
That said, this premiere is curious enough to hook you from jump, looks nice enough even though it can look quite muddy with its coloration, and while it may be lacking in what we expect in terms of complexity and storytelling, may prove to be an interesting “blast from the past” when it comes to getting a taste of sci-fi of old. Give it a try, if blood, gore, violence, and a heck of a lot of Christian rhetoric won’t harsh your mellow: I think there’s something neat here, even if it’s something I’ll come back to in another season just to have to wrestle with the story a bit.