#1 Future space war
After years of expansion across the stars, humanity became over-extended and its people and resources were split between two factions: The Union and The Deague. These two titanic entities commanding billions of people are now locked in a war with a frontline that stretches light years.
The setting for Strain isn’t the most developed, but it gets a lot done with just 13 episodes and is a delicious bit of sci-fi action to indulge in and fill the void that was left behind by Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Much of the show follows a training vessel that is unexpectedly dragged into the war and which becomes dependent on its army of cadets to protect the ship and lead them to safety against an overwhelming enemy. If you’re getting some Mobile Suit Gundam vibes from that, then you’re not the only one.
Of course, no good sci-fi anime is complete without some sick-ass mechs to engage in epic battles between the stars. Strain has its titular Strain robots alongside a cast of weaker mechs to support them. Battles are plenty entertaining with some novel scenarios, like an assault on the ship while it’s traveling at sub-light speeds.
#2 The absolute train wreck of an MC
Sara starts the anime as a young girl, who lost both her parents and was then left all alone when her brother had to join the war on the side of the union. Knowing she’d otherwise never see him again, Sara confidently pursued an army career as well and became a Strain pilot. However, as her training neared completion, her brother made a return to their colony and massacred the population and military staff. He even saw Sara again and still cut her down, leaving her for dead.
After this incident, Ralph Werec became the greatest traitor to the union ever. Sara changed her last name and started her education anew, only to be forced to start as just a support unit. Her high marks leave her classmates envious and her traumatic experiences left her distant and disinterested in her peers. All she wants is to reunite with her brother, and not knowing why he turned traitor or why he didn’t think twice about killing her eats her up inside.
A lot of the early portion of the show is a heavy storyline about bullying, as Sara is tormented by her fellow cadets, but never tries to assert herself, talk to somebody, or even retaliate with force. The bullying intensifies to increasingly dangerous levels, especially after they are attacked and fellow students begin dying. When Sara then reveals herself to be a Strain operator, all her bullies are given extra reason to be livid. The lives of their friends could have been saved had anybody known earlier, but she kept everybody in the dark to protect her identity.
When Sara is moved to a different team and meets people who seem to be actually supportive of her, she handles it poorly and completely retracts into her shell. She becomes fascinated with a doll and locks herself up with it in a tiny room, grooming it and designing dresses, even taking showers with it.
I can’t go much further without getting into spoiler territory, but Sara is a disaster of a main character. I started out not liking her personality much and thinking she was rash and stupid, but it all started making a whole lot more sense when keeping her trauma in mind. It’s worrying to see how close Sara is to the edge of sanity and how even successes and friendly gestures only seem to worsen her mental state. Fascinating stuff.
#3 The time-dilation idea from Gunbuster
I wasn’t the biggest fan of Gunbuster and did see some similarities between that anime and Strain, but if Hideaki Anno had one great idea when making Gunbuster, it was the concept of time-dilation. A concept that makes a triumphant return in Strain as well.
While Strain doesn’t have much time to really explore the idea, it does keep it in mind well and constantly includes little nods to it. Basically, spaceships have access to sub-light speed travel in which tremendous distances are crossed within a matter of days, which for everybody on planet surfaces compares to months and even years. Sara already comments in the first episode that, if her brother were ever to return home, the effects of time-dilation would mean she is long-dead by then while he would still be a young man. At least, until he decided to take an earlier-than-scheduled return flight.
I am not going to spoil every novel inclusion, but I like how Strain handles this idea.
#4 Colorful cannon fodder
People get completely gored in this anime. Burned alive in explosions, sucked into outer space, torn apart by robotic arms, crushed by debris, or death in honorable mech on mech combat. Terribly little of the cast makes it through this show alive.
Strain is no Another, however. Death scenes are frequently unspectacular affairs or happen off-screen with some juicy sound-effects to fill in the mental blanks. What it lacks in visual impact, it makes up for in contextual impact. The various cadets are given interesting personalities and development, which make it less obvious who benefits from plot armor.
Especially the second team that Sara joins up with I took a real liking to. They aren’t amazing characters, but they get a lot of screen-time during combat practice, actual battles, and even during some of the downtime between all the stress. The characters are likable and you see them change over the course of the story, if they make it that far. The deaths of their friends and other students also have real impact on the characters, which I feel too many anime neglect.