Review of the Month; Schwarzesmarken TV

To preface this review, I do have a bias for Schwarzesmarken as a fan of Muv-Luv overall. However, because of this bias I’ve decided to approach this series from the point of view that it is a singular entity without any ties to pre-existing franchises. This decision also stems from the fact Schwarzesmarken was marketed with that title alone without any naming connections to Muv-Luv. Within the fiction there is no pretence about the connection, and one can only guess why this decision was ultimately applied. Whatever the case may be, the show still needs to stand on its own and deliver a solid show for a positive review.

To expand upon the series needing to stand on its own, this review could compare Schwarzesmarken to the Light Novels and the Visual Novel, and to Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse. This wouldn’t allow the work to present itself as it is. A comparison between different versions of Schwarzesmarken is worthy of its own post altogether.

A television series is a different beast to literal works. Total Eclipse is a lot of people’s first experience with the franchise and Schwarzesmarken served the same role to some extent. Because of this, in this review, I won’t hold against the staff for the changes that were made during the adaptation. Whatever is on the screen and how it is conveyed to the viewer are the only things that matters, supplemental and source materials be damned.

This’ll  be more or less in-line with the Kimi ga Nozomu Eien and Muv-Luv posts I’ve done. Expect a general outline of the whole series with commentary running along with it. Not the best way to make a review, but never thought I’d go over this episode-by-episode basis. Expect loads of terrible jokes to boot. If you want a short tl;dr version, you can slip straight to the end paragraphs.

Now that you know where this review will have its base stance on regarding the series, let’s start with the show.

A show like this needs to establish its alternative history fast, and it does this in about two minutes. The background of the BETA invasion, the desperate struggle and split it creates among humans. It’s a short and effective showing about how little success the infantry has against the invading forces. It sets the initial tone as we see the main characters of the 666th squadron flying in to enact laserjadg, a tactic where an advance force moves deep into enemy lines to kill the Laser-Class BETA so that air superiority can be restored. While it seems that the squadron is able to fulfil their mission to the fullest, the show establishes in less than ten minutes that not even the characters introduced in our mainline team are safe from the cold embrace of death.

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Note the mix of 2D and 3D in this scene

Schwarzesmarken employs 3D for its mecha as much as possible. This of course is not to everybody’s liking, but as evident in the scene above, there is use of more traditional methods whenever needed. 3D is a cost-cutting measure, but it also offers largely flawless animation models for mechanical objects. This being a budgeted show, it works just fine.

The latter part of the episode surrounds the aftermath the rescue of Katia Waldheim, whom reminds our protagonist Theodor Eberbach of her little late little sister. Despite East Germany being a shithole, Katia wishes to defect and join the 666th Squadron. Well, later in the episode she tells her real motivation was to find Lieutenant General Strachwitz for whatever reason. As a sidenote, the characters here act very much like generic anime characters despite being German in-fiction. This is a weakness for the show and takes it down a notch overall.

Katia’d defection into the ranks of 666th squadron sets the political tone of the series to some extent. She is to swear loyalty to the usual communist beliefs, and her ideal to unite the people of the West and East together to fight the BETA causes Theodor to take her outside in order to lay how the BETA are not the only enemy. If you’re familiar with general history, you should be aware of the role the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, more familiarly known as the Stasi, carried for the Soviet Union in the East Germany. The Stasi used Zersetsung, a form of subversive psychological harassment, as a way to destroy the self-confidence of targeted people. The ways in which Eastern bloc politics worked alongside mandates from the Soviet Union, anyone could accuse you of betraying the nation and its ideals. You either worked with the system, becoming a full-fledged collaborator or you would withdraw from the public eye. In the BETA-verse, there is no option to escape the system. When the captain of your squadron, Irisdina Bernhard, is an alleged collaborator who rat out on her own brother, you really don’t have much room to manoeuvre. Well, the episode ends with a Stasi execution scene, with a character in shadows.

The first episodes doesn’t have a lot of time to establish the show overall, but it does establishes the those two points; death can be expected all around, and people next to you aren’t just dicks. They’re probably the ones who will get you executed. Evan Ward’s music for Schwarzesmarken works great for the show and is put into good use, often elevating the scenes across the show. Sometimes it’s a bit too theatrical for its own good, but that might be just me. There’s nothing much else to say about it, but it probably isn’t to everybody’s taste.

The second episode opens with the info that Katia wet herself in her first mission.

“How did you know!?”

Outside that, the opening song White Forces is your standard J-pop and is not fitting for the show. At least it’s a much better song than Total Eclipse’s Go to the Top, but clashes harshly with the rest of the music of the show. They should’ve asked the other Evan from their translation team to sing something instead.

While the first episode set some of the squadron’s characters’ up, the second episode allows Pam Thi Lan to appear as the team’s jokester/big sister character. This light-hearted moment is followed by the official introduction of the Stasi officials Heinze Axmann and Beatric Brehme. The whole scene is largely introduction to all the big named characters, going as far as giving Katia a beating for her foolish beliefs. While the scene is short and serves its purpose, the Stasi just flies away right after. It’s jarring and is essentially just exposition and could have handled better. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the series showed us how these characters act rather than told us. Even Irisdina’s character is being expanded upon, and her actions with the Stasi are put into spotlight in few ways.

The latter part of the episode is all about engaging advancing BETA. Here we see some neat machine porn how the Tactical Surface Fighters equip themselves. It’s a very short and very sweet scene. The rest of the episode concentrates on the battlefield, showcasing more BETA strains.

Short scenes like this give a lot of insight on the functions and setups with the mechanics of a show. It might not appear for more than few seconds on a screen, but on paper it might be several paragraphs
Short scenes like this give a lot of insight on the functions and setups with the mechanics of a show. It might not appear for more than few seconds on a screen, but on paper it might be several paragraphs

The third episode deals with the aftermath of Katria and Pham being the lone surface pilots to survive defence of Fort Neuenhagen. There’s very little that could be done for them, no order to save their assess have come through and Stasi probably wants them dead anyway.

The first half of the third episode is largely saved for exposition and character growth, much like the second episode. However, what Schwarzesmarken constantly does is advancing on those expositions in characters themselves. In this episode we are given the final setup that would play out until the very end, where Irisdina would serve as the main opponent against the Stasi. Theodore’s inner thoughts are laid bare with him breaking down in front of her.

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Cap, your nipple is digging into my ear

This scene will serve as a slight turning point in the series, where characters whom have been portrayed with a hard shell are broken down a little bit in order to allow them to move more organically in this climate, whereas Katia is thrown in the middle of infantry defence battle against the BETA. It does not do anything positive for her psyche, to say the least.

No guts no glory
No guts, no glory

To sideline a little bit, this is what Muv-Luv‘s warfare has always been. There is no glory in it, and normal people are thrown in situation they have very little to no chance to survive. You either deal with it and become a soldier, or you’re eaten. You’ll see your friends and loved ones die, nobody is the exception. Schwarszesmarken is no different in this regard. However, for Schwarzesmarken there is the element of politics involved, and your loved one might be the person who gets you in front of the Stasi’s firing squad.

Not to go too much into detail in order not to spoil everything for the show, Pham is being replaced with Lise Hohensteim due to her injuries in defence of Fort Neuehagen. Too bad her first clear introduction in the after credits scene of the third episode confirms her allegiance, and her being Theodor’s step-sister is further confirmed in the pre-opening scene of the fourth episode. Let’s not forget that we already know her allegiances due to the first episode’s after credits sequence. This is one of the major missteps of the show overall, not leaving any air of doubt about Lise in this regard.

However, the main focus of the fourth episode is in a joint-UN operation named Neptune, where the 666th Squadron will represent East Germany in a plan to destabilise BETA military forces in Poland in order for East Germany to reinforce their defences. The Soviets do not want to lose their footing on the map, and the West does not want to lose East Germany as their frontline shield against the BETA. This expands the scope of the world, showing Tornadoes from the West, English and even American units. We even see A-6 Intruders landing on a low quality beach.

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Now paint it red and make it yell OH YEAH! every time it shoots

The scope of this mission is made clear with numbers of manpower and equipment, as well as in the slight increase of animation quality. However, Eastern politics are not left alone for a moment, with Theodore having to work on Irisdina’s goals while listening to Gretel Jecknel’s political nonsense about not admitting West’s tactical superiority when required. It’s a historically accurate too; socialism sucks. Hell, the fifth episode even opens with Kírkē Steinhoff of West Germany outright calling East a terrorist nation. I recommend reading more on Western bloc politics to get more background on the issue.

That might be one of the weak points when it comes to Schwarzesmarken. It trusts the viewer to know and understand the era’s political climate. However, it is doubtful that German history of the era is relevant in e.g. American schools. The show can’t explain everything in detail, and the Stasi largely comes across just another evil organisation working under a nation. Sixth episode does feature a small lesson on the power politics, but it’s not nearly enough to understand the whole situation as required.

After this, the animation quality jumps up for the action scene against a Fortress-Class BETA
After this, the animation quality jumps up for the action scene against a Fortress-Class BETA

However, the fifth episode does put Gretel Jeckeln in a position where she has to make decisions based on reality, not on party politics. She is true believer in the Fatherland as the political commisar of the 666th Squadron to a large extent, and while she is many ways green, she has the power dethrone Irisdina’s captaincy. For Gretel, it would be an easy thing to make a politically sound decision within the Eastern bloc, where the party reigns supreme. Out here, her indoctrination does not have a leg to stand as much. Gretel has to consider how the Western power would see the squadron’s actions, and how that action would be regarded by the party. These two don’t necessarily meet eye to eye.

The decision she puts in benefits both the operation, the party and her comrades, despite it technically going against given orders. However, this battle furthermore shows that no character is without weaknesses, as Irisdina is shot down, part of the reinforcement surface pilots are lost and Theodor is forced to engage in a knife fight with a Laser-Class BETA.

No left arm, no guns, no shield, knife only. As a sidenote, Crynchyroll's subs make Theodor yell
No left arm, no guns, no shield, knife only. As a sidenote, Crynchyroll’s subs make Theodor yell “Don’t underestimate humanity!”channelling his inner Meiya.

Indeed, from thereon the tension within East Germany tightens up few notches. As the Stasi has the power to dictate people’s fates as they see fit, there are numerous people who go missing. Axmann himself meets 666th Squadron on their way back, and puts Irisdina under arrest for making counter revolutionary statements during Operation Neptune.It doesn’t help that the Stasi itself seems to have a power struggle inside it that threatens to consume the East German military  with it.

Axmann playing on the viewer and Theodore here whether or not Lise herself is a Stasi spy is slightly hamfisted, because the first official introduction already gave that away, and because Schwarzesmarken employs anime hair, we have already deduced that she was the character in shadows during the first episode’s after credits sequence. While most of stuff we’ve seen regarding the Stasi’s actions have been overt, this plays alongside Zersetsung’s intention to throw people off-balance and degrade their mental state. It doesn’t help that Irisdina’s faction needs to work towards their own goal, while increased BETA activity has been noticed in the Minsk Hive.

Indeed, at this point in the sixth episode we learn that the Stasi intends to coup d’etat whatever is left of East Germany while the military is tied in defence warfare against the upcoming BETA echelon.

Axmann’s plan to destabilise Theodore and undermine the 666th Unit works to an extent, but seeing how the members of the unit largely know how the Stasi’s spies work, there is no real question whether of loyalties. Lise would even go as far as to use her body to convince Theodor otherwise. I can’t really make any good jokes about tapping dat ass, but maybe that’s ’nuff said.

The activity in Minks Hive is the result of Operation Neptune, and the amount of incoming BETA is twice as much as initially found. What this show usually does right is that it establishes a plot point in one episode and follows up on it in the next one. This keeps the series’ rhythm up quite nicely. Indeed, the seventh episode is about the counter offensive against the BETA from Minsk Hive. Much like last time, we are introduced to the Heavy Laser-Class BETA, and for the first time we see them closing and opening their eyes.

Furthermore, we see those extra organs the Tank-Class has as well. Assuming those are sort of eyes, that would hint that at least the Heavy Laser-Class does not see with its one singular large eye, but uses that solely to concentrate the particle beam
Furthermore, we see those extra organs the Tank-Class has as well. Assuming those are sort of eyes, that would hint that at least the Heavy Laser-Class does not see with its one singular large eye, but uses that solely to concentrate the particle beam. Furthermore, it would appear that the liquid contained within the eye is extremely hot, steaming when in contact with cold air and surfaces

Of course, as it was established in the previous episode, the Stasi moves on with their plans.

666th Squadron’s Laserjagd doesn’t really go all that well, with some of the members sustaining critical damage, with Irisdina being one of the surface pilots who goes out of commission for a while. Theodore dicking a suspected spy doesn’t really go all that well within the squadron either. Despite all the action, the seventh episode doesn’t move at the pace that it should, having some dead air just after the midpoint despite trying to show how tightly knit the 666th Squadron is. All this while the Berlin Stasi is facing some unknown TSF units. Sadly, the seventh episode’s most important bit was left into the after credits sequence, which really hurts the unsurprising twist.

Somebody's dissatisfied how last night went
Somebody’s dissatisfied how last night went. Then again, she seems to get off seeing somebody being beaten

The eight episode just recaps the final seconds, but adds some more to it. All this really should’ve be done earlier in the previous episode, or left for later in this episode in order to give it enough weight. Well, at least Katia and Theodore bust out with a MiG-21.

All the players are now set up in their proper places and the end game of the series starts with Lise’s betrayal. Moscow used Berlin’s faction as pawns to move in deeper, and East Germany’s governmental elements are essentially under the Stasi’s finger. While Beatrix has been on and off the screen as a secondary element, this is when she steps into the limelight. Lise’s character design also goes under slight redesign, to accommodate generic evils smirks. Lise is also the one who enacts on Pham’s interrogation and beating. While Gretel believes in the socialist ideals, her belief is not blind to the faults of the Stasi and the government have. However, Lise doesn’t really care about ideals. She’s broken into being a cog in the machine and her only goal seems to be getting back together with Theodore.

Naturally, having been betrayed by your only living sibling, Theodore goes catatonic while Katia tries to drag him along. All three are rescued by the anti-government faction, essentially becoming the rebels. With majority of the 666th Squadron under arrest and beaten, the military elements that would otherwise resist the Stasi are standing down without Irisdina’s presence. In her place, Katia decides to stand up and take her real name; Ursula Strachwitz, daughter of the man who fought for East Germany’s freedom and was executed by the Stasi.

To again step outside the realm of Schwarzesmarken alone, Katia/Ursula’s belief that the Stasi is in the way of human cooperation. As long as people can’t unite and believe in each other, the BETA will win. A similar notion appears in Muv-Luv Alternative, though it is conveyed through less idealistic lens However the main difference here is the scale. Katia, coming from both side of Germany, could possibly unite the two sides together into a common cause. Fortunately, it helps that Theodore believes this as well and apparently has now reserved all his dickings for Katia/Ursula. This turns the tables in favour of fighting the Stasi, and the ninth episode opens just with that.

There really wasn't anything worth capping in the 8th episode, so have the BD's
There really wasn’t anything worth capping in the 8th episode, so have the BD’s “menu” screen. Gretel and Anett’s assets come out pretty nicely in this one

With all the things happening left and right, the ninth episode aims to start it slow, but steadily builds  upon previous episode’s events. Axmann is still alive despite Berlin faction being decimated by Moscow. The show has to stop for a moment to explain why Axmann would have any leverage in regards how to cooperate with the anti-governmental faction through the Stasi Files. Axmann’s intentions as someone who simply wishes for power rather than a believer of socialist agenda comes well through here.

We’ve seen Anett in her cell while her squad mates have been tortured, and perhaps this is worse than most care to think. Psychological torture of this kind can numb the mind to the point of breaking it.

A plan to use Axmann as a bait to draw out Lise and attack her Bebeerman to save the 666th Squadron base is enacted. However, MiG-23 Cheburuska is a step up from a MiG-21, especially when the pilot is more politically inclined than a fighter like Gretel. Theodor is tasked to release his squad. Pham also has her moment as a true “big sister” to Theodore, releasing him further from the weight he carries. However, Irisdina is nowhere to be found.

Remember when I said Lise didn’t care anything about ideals and how she’s broken?

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Licking Axmann’s boots sure feels nice. Boots, sure…

With the series establishing from the get to that Lise is the Stasi’s agent it undermines her character. If he had been showcased as somewhat destabilised person when she first was moved into 666th and then become normal around Theodore, her character would come through more sympathetic.

Love drives men mad, and Lise was no different. Their love was mutual without a doubt, but she was broken in with promises for a fulfilment of that love. She would abuse those who abused her back in equal terms, not giving a damn over Theodor. Ideals, Germany, the people, nothing else matters. By doing anything for Theodore’s sake, she ultimately became his enemy and a very definition of a Stasi dog.

Lise’s and Theodore’s fight is not without casualties, with Lise killing Pham in cold blood. With Beatrix’s Werewolves approaching, Theodore decides to save Gretel and leave the site, making everything Lise has done in her life for absolutely nothing.

The show manages to paint most characters in this sort of grey shades, and how far Lise is willing to go is perhaps the most extreme. Some characters however, like the higher ups of the Stasi’s Moscow faction, are portrayed as cartoonishly evil. Even Axmann has come through as a person who has more shades to him.

With three more episodes to go, there are numerous plot points to fulfil and mid-series upgrade to give Theodore. Despite failing to secure Irisdina, the anti-governmental faction has begun to move in. To counter this movement, the Moscow faction’s Schmidt makes a general announcement about the rebel movement and their intention to crush it. In the meanwhile, West Germany has sent Kírkē to gain solid information in order to convince the government to help against the Stasi. Episode ten really plays with the politics the most, even going as far as showing how Lise’s stance in her squadron is being undermined by Zersetsung. Funny that she was right about rebels setting up a trap for them.

And for not believing your team mate, who is a known Stasi informant, sold her friends, has probably killed as many defectors as she has let someone use her holes, you get a rocket-propelled grenade up your ass
And for not believing your team mate, who is a known a Stasi informant, sold her friends, has probably killed as many defectors as she has let someone use her holes, you get a rocket-propelled grenade up your ass

The fight actually shows how weak armouring TSFs have. In many ways, after the First Generation, they are glass cannons. Lise manages to escape by being smart and acting fast, but her eyes are only on Theodor when 666th Squadron enters the fray. MiG-21 ‘s are less mobile than the enemy’s MiG-23, and as such Theodore and the rest are having a seriously hard time. Doesn’t help that Lise gets power-up boost from being mentally unstable, leaving her commander to be executed by the 666th Squadron.

Lise’s demise is not through force, but trickery. DS-3 shield has directed explosives on its front, and by setting up a trap with a pair of them, Theodore is able to incapacitate Lise’s MiG-23, fatally wounding her with shrapnel. In her last breath, Lise establishes herself as the antithesis of Katia; people can not trust each other nor stand together for a common cause.

Lise’s death is probably the best handled emotional scene in the series, carrying the necessary weight of having to kill one’s own sibling, even if out of mercy. Despite Lise’s complete breakdown, she is not offered any warmth outside kind words from Theodor. Her death offers no satisfaction or joy. Her faith, above all else, was a tragedy.

Her final words are silent I love you
Her final words are silent I love you Sadly no, in reality she became one of the rebels and told Theodor where Irisdina is being held

With two episodes left, there we’ve still got the issue of shit going down in the government and Beatrix. Let’s not forget there’s still a BETA echelon running about. It goes without saying that Theodore’s a bit messed up for a while, but at least Katia/Ursula is there for him.

Beatrix is allowed to shine in TSF-TSF battle alongside her squad. Beatrix’s MiG-27 and the squad’s MiG-23s are another level up, and with the skill under Werewolves’ belt, not even the best pilot in a MiG-21 could hold against them. The fight is directly taken to the rebels’ core leadership, but it would seem that the West is willing to step in to support the rebels based on the fact of whose daughter Katia/Ursula is.

Beatrix gains her character growth not just as someone who would allow the Soviets to take over East Germany, but being the one who would create a new government. Axmann comes out as being her accomplice in all this, inviting Gretel to join their vision of a new East Germany. However, she is shot down in a fire fight between Axmann’s guards and the rebels within now flaming Stasi archives. She bitches about how terrible the Eastern bloc equipment is, before collapsing.

And hey, Theodor finally gets his mid-series upgrade in form of a modified MiG-23, that has MiG-23PF’s head bolted on to it.

Just call it Cheburushka Zwei,
Just call it Cheburushka Zwei

The theme of this unit is more important than what it is. The Cheburushka Zwei is cobbled together from Irisdina’s downed unit, and Lise’s MiG-23. This thematic juxtaposition in mecha anime isn’t rare, but rarely it’s done this way. In essence, this Tactical Surface Fighter is built from the tools of Irisdina’s ideals, but also from the machine that Lise lived her final moments in. Theodor seems to recognize this juxtaposition, and ties Lise’s bow to his left controller.

Again, the episode does the stupid thing and leaves significant character interaction until after the credits. Here we learn that while Irisdina has been carrying her brother Jürgen Bernhard’s ideals, so is Beatrix in her own way. Now, as the head of the Stasi, all she need to do is wipe what’s left of the rebellion and install a new government. Just like Irisdina is the face of the rebellion in many ways alongside Katia/Ursula, Beatrix serves the same role for the Stasi and governmental forces.

Final episode begins with the rebels, i.e. 666th Squadron enacting an act of civil war by attacking Berlin.

Beatrix also confirms herself to be a Char
Beatrix also confirms herself to be a Char

Beatrix’s ideals of a united people has the same end result. However, to unite people she intend to rule through total control of the Stasi. Everybody would be equal outside of the leaders, as all would be merely cogs in the warmachine to fight the BETA. While she is portrayed in a rather extreme light, her deeper connection with Irisdina adds some depth. Sadly, even without knowing origin and side materials, this is where Schwarzesmarken being an adaptation of a Light Novel series shows. Speaking of Katia, she’s on television making a speech for the unification of Germany.

Wait, is that a widescreen, full colour depth with a flat screen? Schwarzesmarken confirmed completely unbelievable and confirmed terrible
Wait, is that a flat widescreen TV with full colour depth? In East Germany in 1983? Schwarzesmarken confirmed completely unbelievable and historically inaccurate

The fight against the Stasi forces is not without losses for the 666th Squadron. Sacrifices are done to save Anett’s life and costs Beatrix her long-range weapons. More importantly, the people of East Germany take to the streets and move against the Stasi. The further these events move forwards, the worse the political situation for Beatrix becomes.

Axmann lives up to his character and betrays Beatrix, gaining the US as his backing power. It would seem that the US does not wish for a German nation to rise up, instead opting for Irisdina’s execution. Despite the rebels coming in to save Irisdina with Anett, she is fatally wounded. Beatrix is brought down only a moment after. The show really tells you not to challenge Theodor into a close quarter combat. She must work wonder with Anette.

Remember the BETA echelon? The last line of defence against them is broken and East Germany is to be evacuated. However, this is the best time for the West to move in, and Kírkē flies in with some American allies. With this, Irisdina’s work is over, inherited by Katia and guarded by Theodor, if you will. As the sun rises over the new Berlin, Theodor witnesses another of his loved one dying.

The Berlin wall would be broken up after this and Stasi disbanded
The Berlin wall would be broken up after this and the Stasi disbanded

Gretel is a surprising survivor in all this. Katia would serve as the mediator between countries, while most of the pilots would still serve in the battlefield. However, the road had not ended yet.

Schwarzesmarken, to put it simply, is a good show, but suffers from being a part of a more wholesome work. However, I would say it comes out better than most other shows that are required to be set in a certain world setting. As mentioned, its heavy on Eastern bloc politics probably turns a lot of people off, as part of the show’s enjoyment comes from knowing background details on the Stasi. While I may have given the view that the show is political, it really isn’t. It simply scratches the whole political issue and never takes full advantage of it, which leaves those who looked for a political thriller yearning for more. At the same time this element can turn a lot of people off. The show itself doesn’t really have a political message of its own, and elements are portrayed just slightly too black and white at times.

Some of the characters are largely left completely in their initial state, with Beatrix gaining very little background or growth outside one or two notable instances. The show does aim to show as much as possible when giving exposition, and largely manages this. It could have used an episode or two more in order give more room for better character portrayals and backgrounds.

The action is largely excellent and well choreographed and all the mechanical elements tend to have enough weight to them. The progressive introduction of new BETA strains was well employed for a forward moving drama. Evan Ward’s music gives action further impact, and I’d say the soundtrack is worth getting. The Japanese Limited Edition BD release came with it.

Schwarzesmarken is not exactly a typical LN adaptation, but it shares some of their problems. With some leeway given due to the show’s premise, it manages to stand on its own two legs without resorting to the larger franchise, and could spin its own sub-series off from Muv-Luv Unlimited and Alternative if necessary.

With this, who knows what Muv-Luv material gets animated next?

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