It’s the Anti-Gundam Mech series – Anime Critique: Aldnoah.Zero

60263Title: Aldnoah.Zero (Aldnoah Zero, Arudonoa Zero)
Format: TV anime
Genre: mecha, sci-fi, action, war
Series Creator: Gen Urobuchi
Series Director: Ei Aoki
Studio:  A-1 Pictures, TROYCA
Series length: 12 episodes (first series half)
Original Airing dates: July 5 – September 20, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

In 1972, an ancient alien hypergate was discovered on the surface of the moon. Using this technology, humanity began migrating to Mars and settling there. After settlers discovered additional advanced technology, the Vers Empire was founded, which claimed Mars and its secrets for themselves. Later, the Vers Empire declared war on Earth, and in 1999, a battle on the Moon’s surface caused the hypergate to explode, shattering the Moon and scattering remnants into a debris belt around the planet. Cut off from Mars, the remnants of the Vers insurgents established several massive orbital space stations within the debris belt and a ceasefire was established. 15 years later, in 2014, an attack on the Vers princess during a peace mission causes the Empire to launch a new attack on Earth, this time determined to conquer it once and for all.


Review:

Ever since the original Mobile Suit Gundam franchise launched in 1979, most mecha anime series have stuck to a simple formula. A powerful militaristic force attacks a pacifist nation/colony/organisation seeking hidden super technology, male teen who is passionate yet otherwise conflicted over the war is drawn into battle by having to rescue someone, male teen discovers hidden super powered prototype mecha which immediate responds to him, male teen fights to save home by killing enemy, male teen is taken by the military unit who originally ordered the mecha despite his reluctance to fight/kill outside of initial rage fuelled hissy fit, male teen becomes good at killing, male teen is driven by conflict & teen angst to become a better person & gets over trauma of killing people, teen male wins overall war.

The Heavens Fall
The Heavens Fall

It’s all pretty simple & so many other series (such as the afore-reviewed Buddy Complex) play on variations of this. Changing the circumstances of how the uber mecha was discovered or their individual reasons for fighting. Yet Aldnoah.Zero is one of the few series which almost completely scrapes this formulaic construction, replacing it with a slightly more original narrative.

It still deals with the tropes of invasion to a superior force that permeates the genre (a lingering remnant of Japan’s loss at the end of WW2) as well as some pretty standard character archetypes. But these are nigh inescapable factors within the mecha & sci-fi based war genres. They can be overcome with a good creator but they do stand for a lot of narrative shorthand for the audiences. Despite these tropes & cliches, Aldnoah.Zero does strive to be as far from the Gundam formula as much as they can.

Inaho is the one in the middle with the bondage choker.
Inaho is the one in the middle with the bondage choker.

In place of the passionate, driven conflicted hero in his uber mecha, we have Kaizuka Inaho -who is cold, calculating, detached & attached to his basic orange student Kataphracts (also spelt Cataphracts, the series name for humanoid mech units). Instead of using guts & fiery testosterone driven passion, Inaho uses cool intelligence & team work to destry his enemies. Weighing risk & reward, making solid plans based upon observation of the superior enemy Kataphracts; beating them with his basic unit & superior tactics.

In fact, only the enemies have super powered Kataphracts & the explanation as to why the Terran forces can’t steal is woven well into the overall narrative fairly well -even though the separation of the Terran & Mars/Vers humans is a touch confusing at times since not enough time had passed to allow for an entirely new cultural identity to be formed as well as new social structure to emerge in the Vers kingdom.

Unfortunately, in this half season so far, because Inaho is so cold when don’t actually get much access to him as a character. You just get the smarts on the surface, not the emotions below as well as his overall motivations. He comes off as apathetic, doing what is best in any given situation. Lacking any drive & passion. Usually in such a genre I’d find this a welcome change but unfortunately we don’t get to see anything deeper within him.

This is a general issue of the overall characters & their tropes.

You have the loyal servant/friend, looking to find the truth behind what confronts him. The idealistic princess who hides her pain & naivety behind her smile as she hides her true identity from those around her. The taciturn girl looking for revenge. The over-loyal assistant who ends up revealing too much because they believe too strongly in decorum & social rank. The bubbly female friend who secrets loves the hero & will fight by his side. The loud male friend who wants revenge but is too distracted by a pair of tits to be serious. The overprotective big sister who’s devotion borders on the incestuous. The outwardly cold commanding officer who is devoted to saving all under her command. The able but slightly thick 2nd in Command. The fallen hero, hiding his pain & humiliation in bravado & drink. The overly noble villain looking to right all injustice. The true villain who actually can justify his cause. Et cetera, et cetera.

These are merely the surface affectations of these various characters. There is more to most of them, since they are given some motivation & personal agency. The trouble is that they aren’t given enough time to develop or shine -apart from a few of the Vers nobles. Who are given a bit of context but since the background of Vers is kind of flubbed over, it’s hard to ground them in your mind & understanding.

I do truly hope that the 2nd season develops the characters & the universe they inhabit a lot more. Because it’s very interesting, with humans leaving Earth to take control of alien technology & finding that with all of their new found power, they are still helpless in the face of an uncaring universe.

Smashy! Smashy!
Smashy! Smashy!

The motivations for the Versian aggression actually speak close to the reality of how wars begin. Leaders scapegoating other people, blaming them for the lack of resources & all the hardships that the soon-to-be aggressors suffer under. All to placate, distract & stir up the populace so they won’t look at the real causes of their misery -such as the failings of their political system, environmental issues & overall inequality. It honestly reflects Japan in both its past & present -with echos of how the Japanese military stirred up the people to march out in invasion as well as showing how the current government under Prime Minster Abe are sabre-rattling with China to distract from many national economic & environmental issues.

The political stuff aside, the series tries to bring the macro down to the personal in terms of motivation. Using justifications for revenge as an impetus to whip people into a bloodied frenzy -even if they have to stage these justifications themselves. This all plays into the class system of the Vers people as well as the seething resentment of the Terrans after the Moon was destroyed by unknown means & the environmental chaos that followed.

Ideas of justice play strongly into the ploy of the series. With the motto under the title being taken from the old Latin phrase “Fiat justitia ruat caelum” –Let Justice Be Done Though the Heavens Fall. Basically, it means that justice must be sought out anywhere, regardless of the damage that hunt may do. All must be answerable before the greater Law.

Yet Justice does not equal Revenge & visa-versa.

Even if one does confuse & conflate the two, Justice must stand above the pettiness of Revenge. All must be answerable for their actions.

It is this ideal to which the characters become polarised. Inaho & his mirror/rival Slaine Troyard stand for justice & exposing the truth, whilst there are entire political machines build to perpetuate the ideology of revenge -be it personal pride or some sense of greater, invented injustice for a near crippled yet still superior people.

The other good thing about Aldnoah.Zero is that is doesn’t bog you down in endless political diatribes, but rather makes the ideas of Justice & Revenge more personal for the individual characters (those who are allowed to develop).

It all plays back into the notion of Fiat justitia ruat caelum. Because the idea of heaven falling isn’t a metaphor but a reality of when the fragments of the Moon rained down upon the Earth, killing Terran & Versian alike. All being equal under the Wrath of Heaven.

The animation is good, if a little dull in terms of colour palate. It fuses traditional cell animation for background & characters with CGI for the vehicles & Kataphracts. The designs of the Terran mecha are pretty bog-standard but the Versians have some interesting designs, especially how they use their weapons. Unfortunately you kind of get a villain of the week formula, so you don’t see many Versian mechs in the space of the 12 episodes but how they are dealt with are as well rendered as their designs.

The soundtrack is also well done. With Kalafina providing the opening track & another group providing the inspiring semi-pop song (alla KILL la KILL) during some of the battle scenes. It’s been doen before but it’s still highly affective.

Overall, Aldnoah.Zero is a great antidote from a lot of what plague the overburdened Mecha genre. It is unfortunately that is is more focussed on it’s beautiful battles then any character development but I honestly hope this will be remedied in the 2nd half of the season (which screens the start of 2015). There is so much to recommend this serious, over its aforementioned failings.

If you love light sci-fi war anime as well as the Mecha genre, this is your best bet for something truly original in a long long time. If you aren’t so invested in those genres, then why are you reading this critique when you could be out there doing other things?

Truly, like the Fist of an Angry God!
Truly, like the Fist of an Angry God!
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