In 2016, a meltdown of a nuclear power plant creates a big catastrophe in Tokyo. 20 years later, the city has become a ghost town due to the high levels of radiation. From that area, a distress signal is received. The Self Defense forces dispatch three girls from the special unit Coppelion to search for survivors. But why aren't they wearing any protection against radiation?
Based on the manga by Tomonori Inoue and directed by Shingo Suzuki (K: Return of Kings, Mardock Scramble, Baccano), Coppelion is one of those more interesting franchises in that the anime is based on a manga that is only around 20 volumes in length. This means that the show runner either could choose to make a short series or pad out the episodes with filler. Even the tight nature of the story and its setting, the producers quite wisely chose to go with the former option. At thirteen episodes long, Coppelion packs a lot into itself but finds the time to explore some topical notions and key character development while the action and glory takes place at the same time.
Key to the show's success or failure is the three main leads: Ibara Naruse, the leader and strongest physically, Taeko, the medic and the most cautious and Aoi, the youngest and the most passive. Ibara is resistant to radiation and has superior strength and healing abilities. Taeko Nomura has enhanced senses and has an ability to get along with animals. Aoi, has abilities related to energy manipulation and dispersal but doesn't know how and when to use them. Naruse is such a proper leader: solid, dependable and tenacious. She fights to keep her team together even as her superiors frequently drop problems in her lap thanks to bureaucracy and politicians demands. Given to bouts of self-doubt, she worries that what she does isn't going to be good enough. Taeko is a nice girl who is able to work under fire and can endure more problems than Aoi but she's never been tested in her mission so this current job opens her up to scrutiny as she struggles with the difficulties of a changing mission. Aoi, for all that the show focuses on her, is the least interesting character of the three as the show starts, giving her next to no time compared to the other two, only opening her to new experiences and relationships in the final five episodes. She forms a great relationship with Nosense,a robot who serves the regular humans in the hot zone (more on that later). She also provides the glue that holds the gang together at times by refusing to stop believing in her friend's abilities.
As the show starts,the trio are tasked by their superior, Vice Principal Mishima, to look into a group of people still living in the shadow of the old capital of Tokyo. Tokyo has long since been lost to the radiological disaster that befell the metropolis twenty years previous. So when the Coppelion medical team (our heroes) find out there's a network of people and supplies coming to keep the group alive, they don't know that it will trigger a huge showdown with a forgotten squad of Japanese soldiers who took their orders to its logical ends. While it goes on, the story of the Coppelion and their genetically engineered backgrounds starts to be revealed and I have to say it is hard to figure out who has it worse: the people trapped or abandoned in old Tokyo or the young kids who were grown to survive in this hell only to clean up their creators messes. A lot of the tension in the show comes from the Coppelion and whether what they are doing constitutes an unnecessary amount of torture. Haruto, a boy from the Coppelion "class" who was friends with Naruse, is part of the cleanup crew and he's prickly about humanity and why they made him and the rest of the kids. For a short while, his anger threatens to overcome Naruse who only sees her role as one of help to the people who need it. Through the struggle, Haruto comes to understands that the mistakes of the past can only be fixed by the people who caused them. In the end, he represents the Coppelion who struggled with their destiny.
If he is a Coppelion representative of the ones on the fence, then the Ozu sisters, Shion and Kanon, represent the rage of a humanity manufactured. The Ozu's are part of the Coppelion division but they have long since abandoned any notion of being helpful to the cause of human endeavour. For them, humans are a problem not the reason the Coppelion exist. All along they fight against the fact that one day, all of the Coppelion will drop dead and cease to exist, leaving them without a raison d'être. If their lives are short, why are they wasting it fighting for people who made sure they were built to clean up the adults messes? The show mixes up the angst of the Coppelion, representative of Japanese youth who are coming to terms with the fact that they are expected as their parents were to take care of their progenitors, with the timely use of a man-made disaster triggered by human greed and indifference. The plague that surrounds the Tokyo area was made by an energy crisis whose solution got out of hand and blew up, killing thousands and endangering millions. It's notable that this anime was supposed to go into production as the same time the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster happened but was postponed until after. For my money, I'd have pressed ahead with the production if only to make people in Japan even more aware of how close they came to disaster with the actual event. As it happened, the show came out a few years later but still has things to say about its real life counterpart. The area around Tokyo is a no-go area, the government doesn't know how to deal with it, the public don't know the truth of what happened in those fateful hours before the accident and the young people in the story are the ones dealing with the results. Anime could never be accused of being all that subtle but even Coppelion deftly makes it point without beating me to death with it. In the end, the medical team lives up its creed of helping people by following Gandalf from Lord of the Rings in his advice of: "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."
If there is one problem with Coppelion, it's that it is too damned short. At only thirteen episodes, the show spends the first half setting up the mystery of the citizens of Tokyo that the team tries to find them. Once found, we are quickly introduced to the residents of the Planet (a bio-dome within the city where the occupiers can will without hazard suits), the people behind the supply service, the remains of the army brigade who were abandoned and their nutcase leader and Ozu twins plus Haruto. It's almost like they were afraid they wouldn't get a second season and wanted to get everything into the box. The show tries and mostly succeeds in telling the hopes and fears of the medical team and each of them gets to shine. Where the show has to work fast, it plays out its cards with a capable hand using intonation and reaction to get its point across. Naruse and Haruto might be love with each other but it's never said. Not that it matters, because Naruse and he work well as friends long before their feelings are hinted at. Same goes of the two other girls. Taeko gets her moments, takes a back seat for a while and comes back with a blast at the very end. Aoi is very nearly the character in need of rescuing all the time but she proves that she is supposed to be on the team but taking a stand when she needed to. The supporting cast are good and they get to shine in the little moments that the show allows. The animation is relatively good with a very deliberately chosen dead and lifeless palette with the gang having to deal with clouds of plague carrying toxicity while the sun adds colour whenever it comes through the grey skies. The action scenes are a mixture of CG and cel animation and it works even if it's not pushing the medium all that much.
I liked the dub (especially since Richard Epcar is in there!) and the original version is its own boss but there are moments in the English version where the characters end up talking themselves silly in an attempt to match the lip flap of the original Japanese dialogue. I really don't think people speak like this even in Shakespearean English but hey, it's not the worst dub I've ever heard. Longtime anime song writing/singing team ANGELA provides the opening and closing themes so they give a good tone to the episodes and I can't praise the direction of the series in general enough. This being a Kaze UK release, the disc is very basic and won't win any awards for extras or presentation but then, I suspect that Kaze actively don't care all that much about things like that in the UK and Ireland.
For the price you pay, Coppelion is worth your time. Whether it has any rewatchability is highly subjective but I hope with the statement at the end of the final episode that we get to see more of the Dispatch 3rd Special Force Coppelion again.