It’s hard to talk about Armor Hunter Mellowlink, because you’d be talking about a plot already summarized by the series itself. In the first episode you see a fellow named Mellowlink on a quest for revenge, which eventually involves him fighting a mecha while he is on foot, and our hero wins in an incredible yet somewhat plausible manner.
By God, if that’s something you want to keep seeing then there’s 11 more episodes for you to watch where a dude named Mellowlink is going to kick some giant robot ass while on foot. Stop reading after this paragraph if that sounds good to you; you don’t need the rest of the review here, where I talk about stuff that’s only of interest to people who log into IRC channels to match anime trivia knowledge against other long-winded “intellectuals” with no dates, ever, and therefore a lot of time on their hands. Find the series somewhere and watch it, it’s totally cool, I promise.
Armor Hunter Mellowlink is technically a side story to Armored Trooper VOTOMS, a fairly large yet fairly obscure franchise which came about during the 80s Real Robot frenzy, when toy manufacturers were frothing at the mouth to make series’ that sold unassembled toys to manchildren. Votoms is notable for being at the extreme edge of the Real Robot craze, the edge where high-flying invincible Gundams had their Super Robot heritage baked out and broken down into their constituent, vulnerable pieces. Mecha in Votoms aren’t special, basically mass-produced coffins for soldiers of the future to die in, made with technology that might be twenty or thirty years away.
Aimed at older fans with more of a background in science fiction than the average anime fan, it wasn’t afraid to have a complex (yet accessible) plot where characters were treated as complex human beings and the viewer was expected to be paying attention rather than having important events telegraphed to the viewer for their meaning.
How the hell did Votoms spawn a simple action miniseries like Armor Hunter Mellowlink, then? Nobody truly knows, except perhaps the Japanese. We’ll never find out because of their goddamn alien runes, though, which leaves nerds on the Internet like us free to speculate. Mellowlink himself seems to be a kind of thinking man’s Rambo for the mecha anime world. Instead of blowing up helicopters while half naked, the badass thing to do is to blow up robots with various cunning traps and an obsolete sniper rifle/pile bunker combo.
More than that, Armor Hunter Mellowlink seems to have been made in the 80s action movie mindset, where the realism of what is onscreen is less important than how exciting the action feels. Mellowlink has a legitimate claim for revenge against a whole bunch of people, thus he’s clear to kill a whole bunch of people for the audience in highly improbable stunts of testicular fortitude, and the audience doesn’t have to question the morality or probability of his actions: it is simply, in a word, awesome.
The distinction between Armor Hunter Mellowlink and most every action OAV ever made, of course, is that for once the directors actually managed to fucking pull it off. Perhaps because of their experience creating uber-nerdy hard SF mecha anime like Votoms, they had the skill to take the premise of “guy kills people awesomely; large explosions” and fill in all the blanks. Violent action OAVs exist everywhere, but they’re mainly remembered for how badly they were done and how incoherent or nonexistent their story is, and while Colony Drop certainly knows how to appreciate badness as a transcendent quality (being anime fans and all) you generally want your tale of blood going everywhere which way to have a plot holding all the megadeath together.
Mellowlink follows a certain format for most episodes and it’s more or less a given that Mellowlink will be finding and then awesomely killing a different person who betrayed his band o’ brothers, but the process of getting from point A to point B is what draws in the viewer. We learn a tiny bit about Mellowlink’s target and a little more about what his motivation for rollicking-blockbuster revenge is, and then we eventually get to a complicated action scene where Mellowlink is able to turn his weakness into a strength and use the environment to totally fuck up some guy and his robot. We know he is going to win, but getting to the “how” while learning his story is what keeps us interested, and strings together the action sequences into one cohesive package. Unlike the rest of the action OAV market, you’re not watching to see some guy die, but to see a smartly written and unusual set of events take place before some guy dies. Action OAVs with a plot!
And if you ask “why doesn’t Mellowlink just get in a goddamn mecha, since he has access to them and knows how to pilot them?” then just remember the Votoms creators assumed they had an audience who could read between the lines: because if he did, the revenge wouldn’t be ironic.
The only imperfection with this boiled-down revenge tale is that after a testosterone-fueled, multi-biome string of explosive carnage, we’re hit hard with something resembling a downer ending, where Mellowlink has killed a lot of people and gotten his revenge, but nothing has really changed and it looks like another senseless war is on the horizon. In a way, this is only keeping in with the general theme of Votoms, that mainly being “war sucks but will probably happen anyway; humanity sucks” (an important deviation from the regular Real Robot theme, “war sucks, but sure is AWESOME sometimes, huh?”). The creators couldn’t betray their roots by not accepting the reality of the situation.
When in Real Robot canon, shit gets, and then stays, Real. And perhaps more importantly, you really have to balance the equation with these things, for the audience’s sense of morality. Even the end of Rambo II, which otherwise was a story about a single American beating up the Vietnamese AND the Soviets while shirtless, suddenly makes a point at the end to remind us the Vietnam War really did happen, and a lot of people died in a real, really un-awesome war. Mellowlink gets his revenge, and it truly IS awesome, but the viewer is reminded that war is only cool when a guy with a mullet and a sweet bike fight big robots people ride around in.