I've seen plenty of bizarre anime in my time as a fan, and it's no surprise that I tend to like shows that can knock me off my can every now and then. Shows like Lain and Perfect Blue give you plenty of off-the-wall scenarios to grapple with, and I loved both...but what is the line between compelling strangeness and wacked incoherence? Gasaraki treads that water very carefully in its first four episodes. For those who don't like ambiguity or slow starts, you may want to pass; however, after the first two hours of Gasaraki are done, I can almost guarantee that you'll be intrigued and interested in seeing more. If you've ever wondered what would happen if Battletech met The X-Files, then look no further.

The plot is hard enough to decipher, but it's possible to lay out a basic scenario. The fictional nation of Belgistan appears to be developing a new secret weapon, as a massive blast appears on intelligence satellites around the world. What no one really knows is that the blast wasn't the result of a military test, but an experiment gone awry, brought about by a mystical ceremony that wasn't completed. The center of the mystical ceremony is Yushiro, a Noh dancer, mech pilot, and fourth son of the Gowa family. The Gowas are a unique and powerful group that have been developing TA (Tactical Armor) that might bring a new dimension to modern warfare--these light, mobile robotic suits can easily defeat conventional units many times their size. As the UN and US start a Desert Storm-style offensive to try and control the rogue republic of Belgistan, the Gowas introduce their TA suits into combat, and Yushiro becomes a part of the action. It's not certain, however, if he is just another pilot, or if he controls powers that may ultimately decide the fate of mankind.

Now folks, the first episode of Gasaraki is just plain weird. There's no other way to put it, and you will not understand it at all without watching the first four episodes. (You still won't understand everything then, but many things become much clearer.) The first two episodes include virtually no character development, and little is explained, but things finally start making more and more sense in the second hour. If you don't have this kind of time or patience, then skip this show--you've got to delve past the opening to get it. Once Gasaraki's characters become a bit clearer and the premise makes more sense, the show really picks up from a narrative perspective. It's from this point that you'll want to learn more; because of the way the show starts, you feel like everything's making more and more sense by the time you're done, and you want it to continue. I can tell right now that this show is going to require a reasonable investment of time.

From a technical perspective, I think the investment will be worth it. The artwork itself is crisp and detailed, with a nice color palette and designs that are just unique enough to be interesting. Those who like mecha shows might be surprised by the designs, which are certainly functional but not extravagant. Actually, I like the mecha a whole lot--everything feels just enough like it could exist in the real world, and it avoids the "robot" looks that turns off detractors from Gundam and its ilk. Meanwhile, the music is nicely woven into the show, and it mixes some unusual J-Pop with quite a bit of dramatically appropriate music, much of it coming from ancient Japanese musical styles. I can say that I enjoyed the music a great deal. Although this show lacks a detailed polish on every scene, for the most part it looks excellent. The show also focuses on modern warfare in many ways, and some of the battle sequences are quite believable. I've never thought of describing anime combat in such a manner, but it lends a unique feel to the series.

It's hard to give a sterling recommendation to Gasaraki at this point, simply because too little has happened from a character perspective. Nevertheless, it is an intriguing show that could easily be the surprise hit of the year if its uniqueness doesn't overshadow its understandability. Don't let the utterly strange first episode throw you off; if you do, you'll be missing a striking package, one that has the potential to be the next thinking-man's anime.

Gasaraki Vol. 1 -- violence, language -- A-