Thursday, March 18, 2010

I finished watching Pumpkin Scissors, which was a bargain-bin raid trophy from last month. I had only watched the first episode back when it first aired, and didn't think much of it, having been on some sort of authenticity kick or something like that. It's a show about a military civil affairs unit (more or less, they call it "war relief", but you get the general idea) in a world which recently wrapped up a World War I-type conflict, and is suffering from the mother of all demobilization recessions.

The two protagonists are Randel Oland, a towering, badly damaged stormtrooper with a severe case of institutionalization, and Lieutenant Alice Malvin, an aristocratic enthusiast who just barely missed the war - her academy class graduated on the day of the armistice. She basically picks up Oland from the side of the road - he's a shellshocked headcase, perpetually poleaxed & in search of someone to tell him how to live without the structure that the war gave him. He makes Alice his sin-eater - someone who promises to tell him how to live as something other than the dehumanized, monstrous killer that their empire's deeply amoral military made out of him. In turn, he goes on beserker rampages of shocking viciousness when she lets his leash loose. This isn't one of those bloodless fighting shows where the protagonists never kill anyone - his on-screen body count is in the dozens, although it trails off after the initial ten episodes' bursts of bloodshed.

I didn't pay the show more attention than I did initially because it comes with a somewhat silly gimmick. Oland was part of a bio-soldier engineering project to produce specialized killing machines - chemical troops, flamethrowers, anti-tank troopers, ninja - via obscure, madscience surgery and chemical manipulation. Oland was an "anti-tank trooper", turned into a thing that could charge a tank & basically tear it apart single-handed, with nothing more than a pair of the Jaws of Life and a preposterous fifty-calibre "Doorknocker" anti-armor pistol. The show looks like it's going to be "tank of the week"-style weekly rampages, but they drop that after about four iterations. After that, it turns into something a lot more interesting.

That's because Alice takes over the show, and Oland becomes a supporting character. He's a monster looking for salvation, but Alice is an actual Hero. She's a straightforward, bloody-minded, ruthless, hard-charging lieutenant, who never calls Oland on his monstrous beserker outbursts, or accepts the limitations and compromises demanded by the corruption of the military around her, and the economic failures of society in general. There's one arc which basically consists of Alice's merry band of "war relief" specialists repeatedly arresting the same group of drug dealers (who are victimizing the population of war refugees they're trying to get resettled), only to have them be bailed out the moment they get to headquarters. Eventually, she tries to save the dealers from their own boss, who grew understandably wroth with the hassle and expense of dozens of bailouts, and just ordered his Dragon to incinerate the whole lot of them, soldiers dealers and all.

Anyways, the TV series ends with a long six-episode arc about a gang of petty-marxist workers who were incited by a shadowy conspiracy to descend upon a nobles' ball, pitchforks and axes in hand, to kill a corrupt economic minister & slaughter the feckless, partying nobles while they were in the neighborhood. Alice, attending the ball with her fiance & sisters, spends the next six episodes attempting to defuse the situation in her own way: via the narrative of righteous, judicious violence. It's a fascinating dance of manipulation and pugnacity, as she retrieves her blade, challenges the corrupt, cowering minister to a duel, and proceeds to filibuster the potential massacre into an arrest of all guilty parties.


In the interim, there's a virtuoso display of the practical uses of violence, and an explicit demonstration of how weapons can be tools for changing the minds of your opponent. There's a soliloquy by a minor villain on why bladed weapons (or in his case, a flail) are superior to guns for the purpose of cowing civilians and repelling mobs, talking about the psychological impact of a pointed edge in your face. There's Alice's violent symposium of the purposes of nobility, for the edification of both the angry mob & the rather useless, cowering crowd of effete minor nobility, most of whom are at least a head taller than her. There's how her own troops, having rode to the rescue, eventually yell her down & threaten to put her under arrest for going on a rampage while off duty & without official sanction. And then there's the central set-piece duel, wherein Alice eventually demonstrates how to fight someone with a big, heavy machete when you've got a glorified long dagger. The whole arc is about the primacy of narrative over physical violence. Alice's object is to impose her narrative upon a much larger group of much larger men, and she does it with her principles, a great-lunged bellowing Voice of Authority, and concentrated, charismatic violence. It's *great*.

It's also about an episode and a half too long - like a Dragonball Z fight that seems to take two months to wrap up. But I was willing to give the show the time to make its point.

In short, Pumpkin Scissors is one of those military shows that gets all the details wrong - the unit's moe little secretary is a sergeant major, and thus effectively outranks every other member of that "little festival unit", including the commanding captain - while still getting the spirit of the thing exactly right.

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