Studio: A-1 Pictures (Anohana, Shin Sekai Yori), TROYCA
Director: Ei Aoki (Fate/ZERO, Kara no Kyoukai)
I am not a big fan of the mecha genre. There have been some exceptions, but in general, politics plus giant fighting robots just isn’t that exciting for me. However, I was pretty addicted to last year’s Aldnoah.ZERO which dumbed down your normal mecha tropes and still managed to be entertaining. Was it actually good? Yeah, well, I’ll get to that.
It would be an understatement to say that Gen Urobuchi has become pretty popular in the anime community over the last several years, churning out three solid shows in very different genres, so it’s not surprising that companies have started sticking his name on shows, even if he’s minimally involved. Honestly, Aldnoah.ZERO would’ve flown under my radar if Aniplex didn’t stick Urobuchi’s name all over the promo material, but he only wrote the first three episodes before bailing on it, which explains a lot about Aldnoah.ZERO‘s magnificient crash and burn. By the time I learned that though, I had invested too much time in the show and decided to stick with it to bitter end, in the vain hope that it would somehow get better.
Set in the year 2014, humans have separated into Terrans, who live on Earth, and Martians, who (obviously) live on Mars. Thanks to a unwieldy exposition dump in the first episode, we learn that relations between the two are tense due to a war several years earlier, resulting in the destruction of a hypergate between Earth and Mars on the moon. The explosion killed many Terrans and Martians and started a cold war between them. Asseylum, the Martian princess of the Vers Empire, hopes to repair her nation’s relationship with Earth by making a royal visit, but an attempt on her life throws Earth and Mars back into war again. It seems pre-determined that Vers will triumph as they have Aldnoah, a mystical power discovered on Mars that pretty much gives unique abilities to the Kataphrakt mechas. It makes it almost impossible for the Terrans to fight against until Kaizuka Inaho steps in. Like all children of Earth, Inaho has been trained in combat in case Vers attacks, but for some reason, Inaho is particularly effective at fighting and manages to find the weaknesses in each of the Martian mechs and lead Earth forces to victory countless times. The whys and hows of Inaho’s proficiency in battle are never explained; he’s literally smarter than every other officer just because. If Inaho was at least an interesting character, I could have forgiven his god-like battle status, but he’s a kid of few words and only one facial expression, so he was as bland as a piece of white bread. I just couldn’t empathize with him as he approached everything calmly and without question and even when he was pushed into a corner, there was never any doubt that Inaho would come out on top. It sucked a lot of the tension and fulfillment out of the fights as it was par the course that Inaho would succeed without anyone’s help. Thankfully, we have another protagonist in Slaine Troyard, a Terran that resides on Mars. Perhaps it’s because all the other characters were so underwritten and forgettable that Slaine stands out because thinking back on this show, there really isn’t that much to him other than his single-minded devotion to Asseylum, but that motivation is what drives his consistent, if predictable, character development throughout the series and made him easy to empathize with. Because if I have to pick a team, it’s Slaine all the way. Asseylum rescues Slaine after his father sends him to Mars to escape the explosion on the moonbase and naturally he’s smitten with this kind-hearted and beautiful girl. However, Slaine’s life on Mars is a harsh one due to his Terran status as all the Martians look down on him and the only reason he’s allowed to live is because of Asseylum’s mercy. When the princess is killed, Slaine is the only one who suspects something is up and flies off to Earth where he eventually comes into conflict with Inaho, who is, of course, traveling with the very much alive Asseylum. And so begins the showdown between Inaho and Slaine.
So, this is my major problem with Aldnoah.ZERO because outside of the rivalry between Inaho and Slaine (which is on some pretty shaky ground), everything else just feels so shallow. I mean there’s battles, multiple assassination attempts, and lots and lots of Slaine pain, but in spite of all these things going on, nothing’s actually happening, at least for the first half. There’s no consequences, no setbacks, no character exploration; things just happen because there’s twelve episodes to fill. All the flash and gimmicks is fun, I will give it that, but I just felt like I was waiting for the other shoe to drop and it never did.
We spend a lot of time with the Earth forces, who in spite of being nearly wiped out by the invading Martians, act like they’re in a slice-of-life anime. The show does try to flesh out some of the characters like Marito, who’s suffering from PTSD from the first war and Rayet, a Martian who’s lived on Earth, but their storylines are half-baked, lack emotional punch, and just don’t go anywhere. There’s just no depth to these characters and I don’t know why I should care about what happens to them, not to mention that they’re unbelievably incompetent for a planet who’s been training for war for years. To be fair, the Inaho-Asseylum romance is pretty decent, though slightly lukewarm due to Inaho being Inaho. Oh plot device Asseylum, at least you were cute.
The Vers side of things was significantly more intriguing than what was going on with Earth. In spite of all their high-end technology, Martian society is hierarchically archaic, leading to a lot of power jockeying and manipulation among the Orbital Knights that viewed Earth as another prize to be won. It’s an eat or be eaten type of world and as seen through the eyes of Slaine, who was on the very bottom rung, it was pretty vicious. Unfortunately, character depth is not something that can be found here either as most of the Martians served as nothing more than villains of the week for Inaho and company. At the very least there was the well-crafted, somewhat morally gray Count Saazbaum to keep things from ever getting too dull.
What Aldnoah.ZERO lacked in story it at least made up for in action. Ei Aoki shows a deft hand with the fighting sequences and while I’m still not one for CG mechas, I can’t deny that every fight between Earth and Mars had me riveted to the screen. The character designs are pretty uninspired, but the animation is better than what I’ve expected from A-1 Pictures. Nothing amazing, but it’s passable.
Hiroyuki Sawano, as usual, pulls through, putting out one of my favorite anime OSTs from last year. It’s hard to pick just one song from Aldnoah.ZERO, because they’re all so great, but come on, keep on keeping on was an awesome battle song.
And because Kalafina’s amazing, here’s their performance of the opening heavenly blue.
Aldnoah.ZERO had some good ideas, but just didn’t know where to go with them, something that became painfully obvious with the much slower and anticlimatic second cour, and it was hard not to compare it to similar and slightly better shows like Code Geass and Gundam Seed. Like many a mech show, Aldnoah.ZERO walked a fine line between serious and ridiculously stupid, but unfortunately it never knew when to embrace the ridiculous making it a long, slow trudge to an unsatisfying finish. 6/10