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The Fine Print
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Can a machine ever have a soul? Can mankind ever truly love a machine? Will technology ever allow the machine to love back? These and many more questions stemming from the relationship between man and machine have been put forth in countless science fiction novels and have been the central theme in many anime, Armitage III and Ghost in the Shell being two of the more prominent. And why not? With each year mankind's technological prowess marches on toward a level where the creation of computers and machines that can match or even surpass our abilities is not such a fanciful fantasy after all. Although this is a fascinating subject with intense implications, sometimes it's good to just step back, get a fresh perspective, and maybe even...laugh.
Enter the Saber Marionette saga.
Originally a manga by the prolific Satoru Akahori (Combustible Campus Guardress, Sorcerer Hunters, Sakura Wars) serialized in Kadokawa's Comic Dragon Jr. weekly anthology, Saber Marionette J's popularity quickly saw it made into an animated series by the same name.
ATTACK OF THE CLONES
The story of Saber Marionette takes place on the planet of Terra II--an out of the way planet on the supposed edge of the known universe. In the 23rd century, Earth has become overpopulated to the extent that humans must take flight to the stars in search of suitable colony worlds that can house the excess population. One pioneering colony ship, the Mesopotamia, experiences tragedy while scanning the world now known as Terra II, and a group of only six male crewmembers from distinct cultures survive to make it to the surface of their new, unwelcome home. Luckily, these six men were the best and brightest aboard the Mesopotamia and rather than fade quietly into the night, the survivors decide to pool their considerable knowledge to populate the planet with clones of themselves. (Kind of a creepy solution if you ask me.)
Eventually each of the survivors goes his separate way into the frontier of Terra II and establishes a city-state based on his respective cultural background: Japoness, Gartlant, Peterburg, Romana, New Texas and Xian. Perhaps "clone" wasn't the best description for the inhabitants of Terra II--except for the leaders of each city-state who are exact copies of the six survivors--since that term would imply absolute similarity between each city-state's citizens and it's obvious that everyone has unique physical and mental characteristics. Technically, everyone is more of a test-tube baby, but for ease of description, let's just continue to call them clones.
Despite their skills with the human genome, the men who seeded the planet of Terra II were unable to manipulate the genome to clone a human female. And since they couldn't clone a woman, the six instead did the next best thing: they built an android likeness of a woman, and thus the first Marionette was born. Genetics and robotics...Is there anything these guys can't do?
DO MARIONETTES DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?
On Terra II, Marionettes perform various important roles in the city-states ranging from simple servants to imperial soldiers and are created with the best artificial intelligence and robotics technology available to emulate human females as closely as possible. Although Marionettes are often used for companionship, it is never made clear how...ahem...anatomically correct they are. Despite the advanced technology though, Marionettes are still not capable of expressing emotion and thus are generally regarded by the citizens to be nothing more than mere machines. But one little technological goody thought lost to the ages makes emotions possible when used with the right Marionette--the legendary Maiden Circuit.
While some of the earliest and most powerful Marionettes commonly contained the Maiden Circuit, over time the technology faded into obscurity and the modern city-states either lost the ability to reproduce it or keep it under tight lock and key, never using it themselves. In the end though, the Maiden Circuit is much more than an emotion-creating piece of hardware, and I could tell you its true purpose, but that would be spoiling it.
SABER MARIONETTE J
The first 25-episode television series based on the manga by the same name, Saber Marionette J takes place in the city-state of Japoness (the "J" in the title stands for Japoness) approximately 300 years after the Mesopotamia's survivors crash-land on Terra II. The city is a bustling mix of high technology and old Japanese fashion, architecture and customs and is ruled over by the 15th clone of Ieyasu Tokugawa, one of the original Mesopotamia survivors. Just for you history buffs out there, the Ieyasu Tokugawa in Saber Marrionette J is in no way related to the Ieyasu Tokugawa who unified Japan in the 17th century after the Warring States Period--they just coincidentally share the same name.
One day, Japoness proletariat and all-around nice guy Otaru Mamiya accidentally falls into a river and gets swept away to an abandoned museum where he discovers a mysterious capsule. When the capsule opens suddenly, Otaru is shocked to find a Marionette that seems to have emotions. At first he doesn't exactly know what to make of the strange, and often ditzy Marionette who calls herself Lime, but Otaru soon comes to find out about the Maiden Circuit and its ability to impart emotion upon special Marionettes. Before long Otaru discovers two more Maiden Circuit-equipped Marionettes around Japoness: demure Cherry, and brash Bloodberry. In addition to having distinct personalities and emotions--not to mention fruit-flavored names--these three also have combat skills that vastly surpass any Marionette in Japoness.
Up until this point, life for Otaru may resemble a cheesy sitcom, but things quickly get complicated. All is not well on the planet of Terra II and the winds of war are blowing from the industrial city-state Gartlant thanks to its ruler, Faust the 10th. Possessing both an army and technology that outstrips the other city-states, Faust also harbors a long-standing grudge against his former comrades, making him dangerously militaristic. When war finally does break out, Faust quickly captures Peterburg and then turns his attention towards peaceful Japoness. Only the Marionette team of Lime, Cherry, and Bloodberry has the power to stand up to Faust's war machine, but it won't be as easy as they think. Unknown to Otaru or the Shogun, Faust also has a trio of Maiden Circuit-equipped Marionettes--the deadly Saber Dolls!
Although he is saddled with the responsibility of caring for and working with Lime, Cherry, and Bloodberry to save Japoness, Otaru's burden doesn't end there. The Maiden Circuit that gives Otaru's Marionettes their feelings is also an instrumental piece in reviving the female gender on Terra II, and only through a constant input of experience and emotion can the circuit fulfill its task. But can Otaru ever truly love a machine, no matter how human it may seem?
SABER MARIONETTE J AGAIN
Filling the gap between Saber Marionette J and Saber Marionette J to X is the short, six-episode video series Saber Marionette J Again. With the Gartlant crisis having passed and the female gender making a comeback, life for Otaru and his Marionette companions has significantly calmed down--for a little while, at least. All heck breaks loose once again when Faust's "reformed" Saber Dolls pay a visit to Otaru hoping to get a little practice in the field of being more human. To complicate things even more, Otaru has the luck of befriending yet another Maiden Circuit-equipped Marionette, this one named Marine. Marine is unlike any of the other Marionettes in that she is equipped with not one, but three Maiden Circuits and is also able to manipulate the plasmatic energy that threatens the inhabitants of Terra II. For these reasons, Marine is hunted by the city-state of New Texas who have plans of their own for her, but Otaru and his Marionettes won't give her up without a fight. Although Saber Marionette J Again is an entertaining and genuinely funny watch, other than a little bit of character development with Otaru and Faust's Marionettes, there is very little in the way of plot advancement.
SABER MARIONETTE J TO X
Bigger! Better! Faster! More cuteness! The latest in the parade of Saber Marionette series, Saber Marionette J to X is the 26-episode sequel to Saber Marionette J that aired from October 1998 to March 1999 in Japan and, like the series before it, is currently being released in the U.S. by Bandai. It is the first Saber Marionette series to feature fully digitized animation.
After the events of the previous television and OAV series, Lime, Cherry, and Bloodberry have reached the maximum emotional levels allowed by the Maiden Circuits, but with the cloning of females underway, the future of Marionettes everywhere is up in the air. To make matters worse, the dark clouds of trouble once again stir...but this time, it's not Faust causing the ruckus, but rather another survivor from the Mesopotamia, a man named Hess. Hess feels rage toward the people of Earth for never mounting a rescue party on behalf of the humans stranded on Terra II and seeks to punish them by returning to Earth aboard a rebuilt Mesopotamia to deliver a doomsday device!
Otaru and the Marionettes are inadvertently caught up in this plot when they win a vacation to the city-state of Xian. Along the way, Lime, Cherry, and Bloodberry are kidnapped by Hess who tragically steals their memories, breaking Otaru's heart and bring Hess' diabolical plans closer to fruition. In the climactic finale, the fate of both Terra II and Earth is held in the balance and only the actions of Otaru and his Marionettes can save the two worlds from apocalypse!
In the end, the real magic of Saber Marionette saga lies in its ability to take deep subjects, such as what it means to be human and mankind's relationship with their machines, and turn them from dreary philosophical diatribes into enlightening entertainment that can make you chuckle--certainly a commendable achievement. Is Saber Marionette J to X the end of the line for this saga of life, love, and androids? Only time will tell, but with its all-around high level of popularity, it'll be hard to keep a good Marionette down.