It surprises me that there is so much hate for Aldnoah Zero. After watching the first season, I not only enjoyed it, but found elements from the series refreshingly invigorating for anime as a whole. Admittedly, the plot had gaps and there were lapses in character behavior that were befuddling. But when the show is firing on all cylinders, it takes mecha anime to an all new level. I’ve been absorbed into books about Japan, novels by Japanese authors, JRPGs from the land of the Rising Sun, Japanese cinema, and tons of anime to get inspired while I was writing United States of Japan. It’s all been phenomenal and it takes something special to stand out from the rest. Here’s five reasons why Aldnoah Zero has become one of my favorite shows.
A lot of anime has Earth under attack or facing imminent doom. Neon Genesis Evangelion introduces the monstrous angels, Gundam fights the Principality of Zeon, while Aldnoah Zero has Martian Knights using alien tech to attack Earth after the assassination of their princess. Surprisingly, I found the Martian Knights the most ominous threat of all three series. The Martians are militarily far superior to the Terran forces and their assault is brutally effective. The Earth mechas are pretty much cannon fodder for the Martian kataphracts (mechas) that tear them apart with ease. In the opening invasion, you quickly realize Earth has no chance. I loved this for a number of reasons. For one, the formula usually works something like this: Earth is overpowered by an enemy, but there is one special mecha that can save them all (fill in the above mentioned Gundam, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and even Sidonia Knights and Gunbuster all four of which I loved). In this case, the Earth army has no special mecha to help them overcome. We see New Orleans and other cities devastated. In Neon Genesis Evangelion, the first angel is extremely deadly, but it’s not as though he kills an entire city of people, especially since almost everyone is evacuated or hiding in the geofront. Things seem absolutely bleak in Aldnoah with people being killed left and right. The setup is shockingly violent and the tension in the series is palpably amped. I’m not a big fan of supermen mecha shows that always make you feel like they’ll overcome, as in the Gundam suit. Not so Aldnoah Zero. The Terran kataphracts are heaps of garbage next to the Martian Knights.
2. Smart Protagonist
Inaho Kaizuka is the main character in Aldnoah Zero. He’s not particularly strong nor charming, and his mecha is a weak trainer. He is not a chosen one that miraculously learns how to pilot his mecha in a matter of minutes like in Neon Genesis and Gundam. But I loved his character because he wins by using his keen sense of observation to devise very clever battle strategies.
Their first major battle is against the Martian Kataphract piloted by Trillram whose mecha absorbs all projectiles, radio waves, and lasers. It is seemingly invincible, totally destroying its opposition. I wondered how in the world they were ever going to overcome since they barely escaped with their lives.
Inaho noticed something that no one else did when the Trillram’s kataphract refused to follow their convoy into a tunnel. He confirms it with a drone test that flies straight into the mecha and disappears. The kataphract relies on camera drones in the sky to see as its dimensional barrier absorbs all physical matter, but simultaneously blinds it. Inaho exploits this gap by firing smoke at the camera drones, blocking their visibility. This leads to a great chase scene, culminating in a cunning plan to expose Trillram’s vulnerability by dropping his mecha in the water. That way, they can determine if there’s any point where the water seeps through the shield which would signify the point where it received data from the sky drones. It wasn’t strength or special powers that won the day, but human ingenuity. Inaho has nerves of steel, an almost stoic genius that reminded me of Augustus Caesar from the second season of the HBO series, Rome. While the other characters often fill the typical anime tropes, I loved Inaho for emerging victorious purely through his genius which I’ll get more into in the next section.
There’s a tactical element to each battle that makes them resemble really well designed videogame boss fights, which I don’t say that in a pejorative way. Like Gundam, it really helps that the Martian pilots each have their personality reflected in their kataphract design and fighting style. Unlike Gundam though, the Martian knights have technological superiority so that it never seems unbalanced, the way most of the Zeons get obliterated by the Gundams (at least in Season 1).
Combat is only interesting as an extension of the characters involved. With Trillram, he becomes an allegory for the Martians, totally powerful but unwilling to see any truth, including the fact that the princess is still alive. That arrogance becomes his undoing, coolly capitalized on by Inaho. Inaho is a detached student, but like most others in his class, he is trained in kataphract use. The fact that his older sister and him don’t have parents hints at reasons behind his emotional detachment. Since his sister is a pilot herself, it also helps explain why he’s so good with a mecha. At the same time, it’s his ability to stay stoic, almost robotically unafraid (turn off that emotion chip, Data), that helps him to see things with uncanny acumen. In a sense, that is a type of super power, but one we can identify with. He represents the best means by which humanity will triumph- intellect. When other Martian Knights like the Argyre with its Beam Katana that slices through the Terran forces like cheese and the Hellas with its six rocket propelled fists enter the stage, the chess pieces become even more dangerous. The stakes involved don’t just mean life and death for the crew, but for all of humanity.
There is almost a perfect synchronicity between the editing, camera cuts, and music. The music is some of the best in any anime and is super catchy. It’s almost like it breathes life even through the overwhelming sense of despondency, giving a lyrical hope that would otherwise make the series verge on destruction porn. There were times I rewatched battle sequences just so I could listen to the music again (e.g. the track “Breathless”) and marvel at the way it complements the action so well. Hiroyuki Sawano is the composer and the ending song, “aLIEz” is one of my favorites in all anime, weaving in at the perfect moment with each climactic end.
Listen to the track below to hear for yourself.
5. War Trauma
I don’t like worldbuilding as exposition, convenient as it is (even though I admit, I rely on it as a crutch more often than I should). My favorite kind of worldbuilding is where I learn what the world is like from directly experiencing what the other characters do and how they react to the environment. Unnaturally engaging in a soliloquy explaining why this is so and so works, but isn’t as powerful as discovering it yourself. So it’s interesting that a whole lot of the worldbuilding in Aldnoah Zero takes place through Lieutenant Marito’s flashbacks. The lieutenant is suffering from a crippling PTSD after his participation in the War of 1999. He was part of a tank battalion that was slaughtered when they faced off against the Kataphract, Deucalion, and remains haunted by the death of his partner. To this day, getting in a cockpit brings back the trauma of that moment, immobilizing him with fear. It’s through him that we learn more about the Earth’s past and its battles with the Martians. The resulting coverup of what actually happened is part of the series’ mysterious allure as we realize the current battle’s course have their roots there. When we discover Count Saazbaum’s (the main villain) connection, it also makes the Martians surprisingly “human.”
A lot of what motivates the different characters is a sense of guilt, including the princess who feels responsible for all the armageddon raining down on Earth. It was her decision to try to engage in a peace mission that led to the assassination attempt on her life, effectively becoming the casus belli for the war of aggression. As T.S. Eliot put it: “Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.”
I appreciated these emotional struggles because it showed the war had consequences, mental as well as physical. There are no easy resolutions and even time seems impotent in the face of the overwhelming agony of regret.
By no means is Aldnoah Zero perfect. I really didn’t like the Slaine character, nor Rayet whose actions seemed both inexplicable and intensely frustrating. But for every moment I didn’t like, there were ten I loved. I especially appreciated that all that the battles relied on human ingenuity rather than superior technology. I can’t wait for season 2 and since season 1 is streaming on Netflix at the time of this writing, I recommend you check it out. It’ll leave you “Breathless.”
Peter Tieryas is the author United States of Japan and likes tweeting about mechas at @TieryasXu.