I don’t know much about the Zoids franchise other than what I just read on its Wikipedia page: Zoids is a model-kit-based toy line based on animal-based mecha and it’s got five anime series, one of which wasn’t even localised outside Japan (which says a lot about the ongoing state of the franchise). The fifth series, Zoids: Wild, started recently in July of this year, part of a series-wide reboot which includes new models and a Nintendo Switch title aimed at a younger audience, using smaller zoids and Pokémon-y character designs.
But fellas, we’re talkin’ Zoids: New Century (or /ZERO in Japan), a criminally forgotten anime series that ran for 26 episodes in 2001 and was subsequently erased from history.
Compared to the other mostly-serious Zoids anime series, New Century is pretty light-hearted. There’s nothing about the world coming to an end, next to nothing teasing death (outside a few moments towards the end): it’s just a sports drama anime about competitive mecha combat, competing for prize money and ranking.
Produced by long-time anime studio Xebec, New Century follows junk dealer Bit Cloud as the pilot of the sorta-mythical Liger Zero zoid and member of the Blitz Team and focuses almost purely on the world of mecha competition. Everything either comes down to winning a match or defeating the corrupt Backdraft Group (but usually both). Pokémon is a decent reference point, even though they’re not that similar: it’s aimed at an older audience with a grounded, detailed aesthetic and more mature attitudes, but New Century plays out like an extended sports series, where the focus is on competition, characters and zoid variety, with plot (as charming as it can be) taking a backseat to the action and comedy. An episodic format with low stakes – it’s downright pleasant.
Like the series’ before and afterwards, New Century takes a hybrid approach in its animation and uses both 2D and 3D animation – 3D for the Zoids themselves and 2D for everything else (characters, backdrops and the like). This method is literally perfect, especially considering it’s 3D animation on television from the turn-of-the-century’s Dark Ages. (Remember Transformers: Beast Wars or Reboot?) The 2D animation can be spotty, especially in the early episodes, but charming, consistent character and world design keeps everything above board. Episode direction is consistently strong, too, with fantastic comic timing and action.
What makes New Century different, however, is its surprisingly excellent writing and an endearing English voice cast to back it up.
For me, New Century’s most exciting trait is its pacing, its overall structure, because I’m a dull person excited by dull things. But seriously: it’s genuinely impressive.
It sounds simple but it’s rare to see series, especially a singular episodic series across 26 episodes like New Century, maintain such a strong overall arc across its run. Where each episode feels new, telling new stories that incorporate new elements into the wider run – new characters or mechanics that almost always pay off down the line, sooner or later. These are usually small details, like a certain type of zoid or a specific character or team, but the regularity that these details are looped back into the series, especially during its final five-episode tournament arc, the Royal Cup, is impressive. Because its exposition is so sparing, almost always keeping details under wraps until they’re necessary, there’s this understated, continuous world-building with each episode. These are small and easily missed details you’d only really notice on a rewatch, but there’s an architecture around it all that ties the series together.
Beyond that, New Century boasts strong, distinct characters that differ from the usual shonen archetypes, especially in its admirable female cast. Sure, they lack depth (it’s not a drama) but the fact that the majority of the cast aren’t immediate archetypes is impressive.
It’s difficult not to just list the traits of each character because each one of them, including the wider supporting cast, manage to be distinct, endearing and entertaining. This includes the entire Blitz team – the air-headed, aloof scavenger Bit Cloud, the self-centred but honourable Brad, the headstrong, brash and proud Leena, the reserved and hesitant Jamie, and team leader and Leena’s father Steve, who’s occasionally wise but constantly distracted by his infatuation with Zoids and Zoid models (it’s a little meta there and it’s pretty great).
Then there’s the wider supporting cast, who all manage to be just as distinct and endearing in their own right, like the well-meaning rich kid Harry Champ who chases after Leena’s heart (though it’s a very slightly creepy in 2018), or the cool, collected but humble sniper Naomi.
Besides the final antagonist during the Royal Cup, the villainous Backdraft Group are basic but interesting enough: they seek money or power or something, but only in service of their own entertainment. Obsessed with Zoid combat but bored and frustrated by its regulation, they seek a return to the high-stakes world of war-time Zoid combat where fighting was passionate and be-all-end-all (perhaps a connection to the previous series Chaotic Century, but I wouldn’t know). They’re even willing to disrupt, attack and wage a war against the Battle Commission in their selfish quest. I’m making them sound much more interesting than they are, though – they’re mostly just villains. The Team Rocket of New Century. But they’re good villains.
Anyway, forget all that because what I really wanted to cover was New Century’s surprisingly fantastic handling of its female cast.
For a format often criticised for its portrayal of women, a problem that’s obviously not exclusive to anime but can be more pronounced when the most popular series cater to teenage boys and ‘fan service’, Zoids New Century was really ahead of its time. Part of this might be its slightly younger demographic, younger than the typical shonen thing, but New Century still does a remarkable job in how defined and strong every woman is. Independent individuals in their own right who don’t revolve around the other male characters – this may be more common than I think, but it’s refreshing all the same.
Leena Toros is a stubborn, proud young woman with a brash sincerity to her, while Naomi is a charismatic, confident and clever ‘lone wolf’ type Zoid pilot. Fuma, a pilot for the Backdraft, leads her own elite team and is clever, resourceful and strategically gifted. Even characters who barely appear, like Chris and Kelly Tasker of the Lightning Team and Backdraft pilot Pierce are strong, independent female characters with their own motivations and goals.
Even the final antagonist of the series, Sarah, the guardian and handler of Bit’s final opponent Vega Obscura (in the English dub it’s very unclear whether she’s his mother, aunt or any sort of relative), is fantastic. Though very paternal and gentle with Vega, she’s clearly very determined, smart and wilful. The fact that a character like her isn’t exploiting her maybe-son solely for her own gain is refreshing; her sudden grip on the Backdraft Group comes from actions independent of Vega, manipulating the incompetent Altile until she can resume leadership herself.
That none of the women in New Century are objectified or sexualised was sort of incredible, watching it again. The series has an array of strong, endearing characters (if essentially simple), but this praise rarely applies just as well to the women as it does to the men, especially in a shonen-style anime. It’s not a case of a woman’s character traits being inverted into ‘bad-ass’ and/or those that male heroes typically have (a mostly-tired subversion at this point). They’re just well-defined individuals whose characters are just as reliant on their gender as the men (as in: not very).
No, New Century is not some stellar, thematically-potent character drama forgotten by time: it’s a stellar shonen-sports-mecha-action-comedy (phew) forgotten by time, one that deserves far more love than it got.
As I said, New Century isn’t innovative so much as it’s just very good. It hits all those competitive sport beats and rips out most of the drama to focus on comedy and action instead. I’ve watched My Hero Academia’s first season at least five times for the same reason: it’s a comfort food anime executed very well, with strong pacing, endearing and defined characters, and a gratifying, well-paced story that reaches its apex at the very end. (Also mecha.)
It seems impossible to stream legally in Australia (I’ve tried) and it’s only available in standard definition (at least for the English dub), but if you can find ‘somewhere’ to watch it and you’re in the mood for the some low-stakes, low-tension mecha stuff, Zoids: New Century is your jam.
Thanks to the Zoids wiki for all the info (especially the character names).