Space Patrol Luluco: Trigger makes marketing (mostly) memorable

I usually don’t enjoy mini-series, animated or otherwise (here, I mean stuff shorter than around ten minutes). Mini-series are good enough fun during their short runs, but they often lack the substance to be memorable. They just aren’t long enough to develop a story and, by the time you have met the characters, it is already time to say goodbye. Of the anime mini-series I have seen, I remember Aiura being a solid cute comedy, Oshiete! Galko-chan being a solid gross comedy, and Inferno Cop being a stupid meme. That’s about it. I can’t name any of the (non-title) characters. I can’t summarize their plots or ideas. I just vaguely remember that they exist.

Mini-series often seem more concerned with the creator’s self-promotion than the work for its own sake. By no means do I mean this in a negative way. Mini-series make a great capstone in an unproven artist’s early portfolio. For example, Cazzie David’s Youtube mini-series Eighty-Sixed seemed intent on establishing her acting and writing credentials beyond the fame-by-association with her father Larry David. Eighty-Sixed was certainly an enjoyable show, but it always seemed to anticipate future works by the creators rather than standing alone as its its own complete experience. In the anime world, Trigger’s Inferno Cop was a great marketing move: it created buzz around the new studio’s unique visual and comedy style ahead of its upcoming hit Kill-la-Kill. But, it also felt intentionally lazy, cutting any corner it could for comedic effect (though emphasis on intentional, it was pretty funny). The end result was worth a chuckle and not much more.

With that said, I am not sure what to think of Space Patrol Luluco (SPL for short). It takes the self-promotion aspect of mini-series to ludicrous levels, to the point that some episodes feel more like advertisements than homages. But it also has an unusually solid story and characters for a mini-series. Though Luluco, Midori and Nova are all basic parodies of anime archetypes, they fill their roles well with surprisingly memorable personalities (or in Nova’s case, a literal lack of one). At the same time, most of the rest of the cast are little more than references to Trigger’s other works, with many ripped from older shows like Inferno Cop itself. The space patrol setting only exists to allow the characters to traipse through the multiverse and into Trigger’s other shows. By design, SPL doesn’t have much of a plot as it constantly bounces around between gonzo comedy gags. However, what little plot it has in the first and third “seasons” are actually pretty cute and, sometimes, even a bit thoughtful.

SPL excels when it parodies common anime tropes. The first episode opens with a classic school-setting exposition dump: Luluco is a normal middle school girl that just wants a normal middle school life. Like apparently every anime MC ever, her parents are either completely absent (her mother is a space pirate…) or bizarrely incompetent at being an adult (the thirteen-year-old Luluco runs the household for her father, himself a likely call-back to Mako’s father in Kill-la-Kill). Luluco’s exaggerated desire for normalcy goes above and beyond the typical MC. She isn’t just a hopelessly average self-insert MC. Her entire character motivation is to become that hopelessly average self-insert MC in an absurd world that won’t allow her to do so. Luluco wants the most “normal” of all bland anime tropes: a middle school romance with her aloof partner Nova. Like all the critics that complain about bland tropes, the show’s primary villain eviscerates her romance as the most trashy and worthless thing in the universe. After all, what wish-fulfillment fantasy is more common and uninspired than an early teenage romance?

But for all of its parody, SPL has real heart. It doesn’t simply dress its anime cliches up in a dunce hat and tell the audience to point and laugh. Instead, it gives a passionate defense of even the trashiest tropes by explaining why we as an audience keep coming back for more of the same nonsense. It acknowledges middle school romance as worthless but then hits back and asks “So what?” with an exponential power escalation that would make Gurren Lagann proud. Luluco doesn’t care what the nihilistic space god (who is a literal black hole) thinks; she feels happy and that is all that matters. Luluco’s feelings morph into an overpowered, gorgeously animated pure-hype beam that blasts the haters away, saves the universe, and wins her love. She succeeds in the most absurd way possible: by embracing her desire for the most bland and normal romance possible. So what if the trope is dime-a-dozen tripe? Go ahead and enjoy it anyway. “Normal” does not mean “bad.”

Though the parody of anime normalcy is the most prominent “thoughtful” string floating through Luluco’s insane world, it also makes plenty of other little enjoyable jabs. When Luluco rushes the shattered slices of her father to the police station instead of a hospital, she laments “Frozen or not, he still has to report to work and punch in!” (After watching bosses berate coworkers for using sick leave in my Japanese workplace, I completely understand the sentiment). The running gags on “justice” often seem to comment on the arbitrary absurdity of adult society from the perspective of children. Every crime is “quasi-legal” but simultaneously punishable by death, except when it is not. The adults can re-write the rules whenever they please while children like Luluco try to follow along in bafflement. Even that arbiter of flaming justice, Inferno Cop, is revealed to be only twenty-one years old, barely out of childhood himself. The conclusion seems to be: the world is insane so try to do right anyway. Why? Why not, I guess.

As an aside, my absolute favorite one-liner: the background noise in one episodes drolls, in English, “The current episode’s storyboard is under production without a final script.” Apart from the fun comment about laziness or rushed production schedules in anime, a la Inferno Cop, it’s worth noting on how well the show uses English badly. The English is often so outrageously awful that I am sure someone with native or near-native level skills wrote it. Only a speaker with an intimate knowledge of English would recognize why the line “Yes my ma’am!” is so wrong. This isn’t funny-bad Japanese English because the writer doesn’t know what they are doing. This is funny-bad Japanese English because the writer knows exactly what they are doing. In a country and industry that so often uses English so badly (See: Steins;Gate 0 for a seasonal example), it is wonderfully refreshing to see SPL abuse the language properly.

The absurdist comedy does not work nearly so well in the Studio Trigger homage episodes. They often fall into two major pitfalls of reference humor. First, the references I did not understand mostly just confused me. What was going on in that detective episode? As someone who has not seen the parodied work, none of the jokes were funny, none of the new characters were relevant, and none of the plot points had any connection to previous or future episodes.

Second, the references I did understand did not offer any interesting comment on the parodied works. It is the most boring kind of reference humor. The parody episodes simply left me thinking “I recognize this” rather than “I recognize this in a novel setting. How fun!”

The Kill-la-Kill episode exemplifies the problem. Kill-la-Kill already had Trigger’s absurdist charm and plenty of meta-humor to make fun of itself. Because the original did not take itself seriously to begin with, SPL has nothing to parody. All it can do is imitate the unique visual style of Kill-la-Kill except… we can already watch Kill-la-Kill to see that style, so why bother? As usual, Trigger seems to respond “Why not?” but I couldn’t help but feel the homage episodes crept more into advertisement territory than thoughtful parody.

By contrast, removing the Kill-La-Kill references from its homage episode would have made the whole bit pointless. The entire middle section of homage episodes could have been cut without the show losing anything in terms of interesting plots or characters or settings. The Kill-La-Kill episode only seems to meet the mini-series push for self-promotion: it works like an advertisement for Trigger’s other works. Do you like this visual style? Yes? Then head on over to Kill-la-Kill next!

Of course, not all of the reference humor fails. When a heartbroken Luluco visits hell and meets Inferno Cop, it actually leads to a pretty cute moment. Inferno Cop becomes Luluco’s mentor and offers some wisdom to help her return to life. In my mind, the cardinal sin of reference humor is that if you remove the reference and the scene no longer works, the reference was a waste. The reference works in the Inferno Cop episode because even if the audience had not seen Inferno Cop, the episode still has relevance to Luluco’s character and the narrative’s thematic goals. Inferno Cop could have been replaced by a generic Space Patrol Employee of the Space Month and the scene still would have worked about as well. The reference adds meaning to the episode by giving the mentor figure a cool backstory to those in the know but is not necessary for understanding.

Space Patrol Luluco is genuinely great. But it struggles to be itself under the weight of so many homages and references and in-jokes. I considered giving up entirely on the series during the parody “arc,” which is a shame because I enjoyed the rest of the show so much. SPL has the merits to be more than a massive showcase of Trigger’s work. The studio had nothing to prove with this mini-series, as it did with Inferno Cop: the sheer number of shows referenced speak to Trigger’s excellent portfolio. So why not prove that it can make the medium memorable and unique, that it can make the mini-series more than a marketing activity? It comes so close…

I adored Space Patrol Luluco. And that’s why I found it so disappointing. I wish it could have escaped its marketing role for Trigger with the endless homages and references. As insane as the whole experience is, it has real heart. With the full attention of a complete season, I think Space Patrol Luluco could have become a real classic.

So, what’s next? I’m feeling a Trigger show. Maybe Little Witch Academia? Oh my god, I think the marketing is actually working…

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