Lost in Animeland: Summer Season’s Picks

I’m back! It’s been a while — lots of cons, book stuff, and other exciting happenings on my side. I’ve got a new John Golden novella out (and a paperback with both stories), plus I’m in a cool Kickstarter anthology.

Also, I’ve had some time to catch up on my anime! We’re about three-quarters of the way through the summer season now, so rather than go through the first episodes I’m going to skip right to talking about the show I’m actually liking a lot. Summer season is usually pretty lackluster, but this time there’s quite a few! (As usual, I’ll try to confine spoilers to the first episode or so.)

For some reason, the moon seems to take it really hard in these SF shows.
For some reason, the moon seems to take it really hard in these SF shows.

The story thus far, at least as far as the show has told us: Early astronauts discovered a portal on the moon leading to Mars, where they found super-technology from a dead civilization, which the called Aldnoah. Using its power, the Martian colonists set up their own nation, eventually declaring war on Earth and destroying the moon to create a devastating asteroid bombardment. Fifteen years later after a negotiated peace, a new generation of Martian “Orbital Knights” hangs over Earth, itching for an excuse to go back to war.

Princess Asseylum, grand-daughter of the original discoverer of Aldnoah, visits Earth as a peace representative, but is seemingly assassinated by agents of traitorous Martians, giving them the excuse they need to restart the war. The Earth military (as always) is easily defeated, except for a small group of trainee mecha pilots who manage to defeat one of the nearly invincible Martian mechs.

The only thing better than a cute princess is a cute princess with a grenade launcher.
The only thing better than a cute princess is a cute princess with a grenade launcher.

There’s a lot to like here. First and foremost is the setting — while it’s not hard SF, with magical “Aldnoah drives” providing unexplained powers, it’s a lot better thought out than your average mecha show. The societal effects of Earth’s terrible defeat are obvious (the high schoolers have mandatory military training, and are drafted once the war starts). The Earth forces use reasonable-looking mecha with conventional weapons, produced in large numbers, while the Martian Knights with their super-technology have unique, one-man-army mechs.

The fights are excellent, with high production values and good animation. Instead of generic “fighting spirit”, the heroes use cleverness and even SCIENCE to stop the bad guys. Since each of the Martians is different, it has a puzzle-solving aspect to it, as they try to figure out the enemy’s magic trick before getting killed. (I was very satisfied when early on, one of the practical objections I raised to a mech design while watching turned out to be one of the clues to defeating it!)

The United Earth Forces.  Motto: "Well-Meaning, But Totally Useless."
The United Earth Forces. Motto: “Well-Meaning, But Totally Useless.”

Character-wise, it’s more of a mixed bag. Inaho, the main character, is really interesting — he feels like a halfway-realistic attempt to depict someone on the autism spectrum. He has a flat affect, to the point where the other characters comment, and an obsession with checklists and detail. Very much not a typical protagonist, which I welcome. Some of the side characters are good, others are irritatingly one-note. (One, who we dubbed “Captain Buzzkill”, just goes around telling everyone how doomed they all are.)

The script creator is Urobuchi Gen, of Madoka Magika fame, so it’s unsurprising that the storyline takes some sudden swerves and does the unexpected. This is definitely one I look forward to every week, and my only serious regret thus far is that the planned run (12 episodes) is too short to really dig into the story unless they get another season.

Something tells me a lot of the imagery in this show would not fly on US TV.  Probably not going to air this one on Toonami.
Something tells me a lot of the imagery in this show would not fly on US TV. Probably not going to air this one on Toonami.

In roughly present-day Tokyo, two mysterious boys (they have fake names, but call each other “Nine” and “Twelve”) begin a campaign of terrorism directed at the Japanese government and police. They take precautions so that no one is actually killed during their bombings, and release videos (on YouTube!) with elaborate riddles in them. After the regular police are made fools of, the government brings in the Evil Americans from the FBI, including a woman who knows the pair, who they call “Five”.

This is a really interesting series — terrorists, even “heroic” terrorists, as protagonists is not something you see much outside of an SFF setting. The nature of the pair’s mission and their ultimate goals are as yet unrevealed, although flashbacks provide a few hints, and that mystery is the driving force of the series. As characters, they’re solid and interesting, and the dynamic between them is a lot of fun to watch.

Shibazaki has something really avant-garde going on with his beard.
Shibazaki has something really avant-garde going on with his beard.

The police-procedural side of this is pretty solid, too, with a lot of realistic (or semi-realistic) touches. Characters make use of the full range of modern technology, including Google, for solving riddles, and there’s even a bit of plausible computer hacking. (I think maybe the first I’ve ever seen in anime?) Nine and Twelve are perhaps a bit hyper-competent, in that their brilliant plans sometimes require predicting things they really couldn’t rely on, but it’s enjoyable to watch in a Sherlock kind of way. The hero among the police, Shibazaki, is also a nice character, with a bit of depth to him.

From the beginning, the series follows a high school girl named Lisa, who ultimately ends up joining the pair. For me, she’s the weak link in show so far — she’s totally incompetent, and seems to be heading in a love-interest-y direction, which would be a really disappointing way for them to go. I’m hoping that the writing is good enough that they’ll do something cleverer than that, though.

Overall, the plotting is extremely strong, and I’m constantly left eager for more to find out the next twist. It also feels like the plot is appropriately sized for an 11-episode series, so I’m hopeful that they’ll be able to deliver a satisfying ending by the end of the season instead of a “To Be Continued, Maybe”.

One of these characters is a girl.  Guess which!  (The other characters can't tell either.)
One of these characters is a girl. Guess which! (The other characters can’t tell either.)

This is the third season (the followup to a 26-episode run) of Sword Art Online, so I can’t say much about that isn’t spoilery. I just wanted to note here that this new season has so far been excellent, which I didn’t expect. I liked the first 13 episodes of the show a great deal, and found the second 13 very disappointing by comparison, but the new season equals or betters the opening one. So, if you haven’t watched any of it, it might be worth looking into! I wouldn’t start here, though, watch the beginning.


New from Django:

The sequel to The Thousand Names, The Shadow Throne, is on the shelves.  Order now!
The sequel to The Thousand Names, The Shadow Throne, is on the shelves. Order now!

Django Wexler is the author of fantasies The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not watching anime, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.

12 thoughts on “Lost in Animeland: Summer Season’s Picks”

  1. I strongly agree on the second thirteen episode of Sword Art I, Django. It took a dive in so many ways. It’s heartening to read the new series is stronger.

    Zankyou no Terror is the most interesting series of the year for me. Knowing it has a short run, I’m considering just saving it up and marathoning it the weekend it ends.

    1. Zankyou no Terror doesn’t appear to be on there, it may be on another streaming site. The other two definitely are. That’s generally the best source for current-season stuff.

  2. I’m really enjoying Zankyou no Terror so far. I was a little disappointed at the introduction of Five (I was enjoying the back-and-forth between the sphinxes and Shibazaki, and I did not feel the show needed what still appears to be an anime-clich√© villain), but the story seems to be holding up so far. I’m hoping there’s more to Five than meets the eye.

    Aldnoah Zero I have also mostly liked so far, but it is a little bit too combat heavy and a little too weak (in some places, as you also noted) with characterization for my tastes. I am hoping they elaborate a little more on Slaine’s story!

  3. I was kind of hoping you would address Psycho-Pass. I’m only a few episodes in, but I’m finding it very promising. Very SF, kind of a BladeRunner & Minority Report mash up. But. . . what do I know? You’re the expert. What do you think?

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