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Oct 07

Anime Review – Aldnoah.Zero S1

Falala Auld Lang Syne

Falala Auld Lang Syne

As the past few years have gone by, there’s been one constant in anime. Gen Urobuchi, or “Butch Gen”, is a damn good writer. He created Madoka and Psycho-Pass. He adapted Fate/Zero into a masterpiece. He made the best Kamen Rider in years. All those achievements for one guy in the space of five years? Staggering.

But it isn’t always paradise. Thanks to his growing appeal, a lot of series bring him in just to look over things or write a few odd episodes. And it’s then things start to unravel a bit. Aldnoah.Zero is one of those series, where he came up with the setting and wrote the opening trio of episodes. But was that enough to ensure another all time classic?

Well, let’s start with appearances. Aldnoah looks good. Scratch that, it looks great. Not an explosion of colour, but the characters and animation look clean and crisp, gelling perfectly with the CG mechs and environments that travel around smoothly, and some of the special effects, such as the snowstorm at the end of the series, look amazing. A-1 Pictures and newly formed TROYCA did a great job in the visual department.

And then there’s the soundtrack. While the opening and one of the endings feel a bit too placid and serene for the show they accompany, aLIEz is brilliant, and the soundtrack used throughout the show really amps the tension and makes fights that much more thrilling. Hiroyuki Sawano has done a great job yet again, though you’ll probably recognise a few song snippets from his previous work on Attack on Titan. But hey, that soundtrack rocked too, so I’ll let it slide.

The mechs themselves were really visually cool too. From the blocky classic design of the Terran’s to the smooth, stylish and varied appearances of those belonging to the Vers Empire. Heck, seeing new Aldnoah mechs and their varied attack and defense styles was one of the best bits of the show, even if the “final boss” mech was more of a best of older encounters than an original design.

But now I can stall no more. We come to the biggy. The script and the setting. Aldnoah.Zero is set in an alternate reality where in the past, the first Martian explorers would come to discover a forgotten power called Aldnoah. Using it they started to attempt to terraform and cultivate Mars, and more people moved there to escape life on Earth. The Martians would come to call themselves the Vers, with Earthlings becoming Terrans.

But life on Mars? Kinda sucky, as it turns out, with population growth vastly outstripping the Aldnoah’s terraforming potential. So the royal family directed the people’s anger towards Earth, and as such the Vers Empire were just itching for an excuse to go to war against the primitive Terrans, who were clearing hoarding all the resources for themselves.

So on a goodwill visit, a bunch of renegade Vers assassinate the princess of Vers, Asseylum, setting off a war as the thirty-seven knights of Mars crash-land into the planet in their meteorite-esque Landing Castles, beginning the slaughter.

The story chooses to focus in particular on three individuals, though with a fairly wide supporting cast varying from being partially relevant to “who were you again”. First of the main trio is Inaho Kaizuka, a smart guy with a sharp eye for tactics and figuring out weaknesses in battle. He also has the personality of a brick, never really smiling or showing emotion (“he’s on cloud nine” says his sister, as his expression remains stoic) yet the crush of most of the girls in the show. Man I love Gary Stu.

Then there’s Princess Asseylum. No she didn’t die, who’d have guessed, she actually had a stunt double that day. Plus you never see her face before the missile explodes. Anyway, she finds herself at the mercy of Inaho, only able to reveal her true identity to a select few, and as such a spectator to the anti-Vers attitude of most Terrans. A girl who just wants peace from an empire that just wants war, her story is the most tragic, even if it plays a mostly background role apart from where a Vers citizen is required.

And lastly we have Slaine Troyard! A Terran who crash landed on Mars when he was younger, he was saved from death by… drowning (don’t ask) by the young Princess. The Royal Family took him in (again, don’t ask) and he became the Princess’s travelling companion and one of her closest friends, loyal to her highness to the end. Acting as part of Count Cruhteo’s fleet, he quickly discovers the truth behind the assassination and her survival, and tries to do all he can to protect her.

Funnily enough, I don’t think all three are ever in one shot until the last minute of the final episode…

And y’know what, for the first three or four episodes, I really enjoyed their intertwining stories. The Terrans tried desperately to react and fight a foe with vastly superior tech, with Inaho’s strategising being well thought out and executed. The mech battles were almost always well handled, with logic being employed making for an interesting “how will they repel this” dynamic. Slaine meanwhile, with no Princess to protect him, is mercilessly mocked and thrown around as the lesser thing they see him as while he starts to realise the truth, forcing him into increasingly desperate actions to save her. Heck, all the characters at this point showed potential as different world views and priorities collided in interesting ways.

But, sadly, after that the series started to implode at the seams. Without Gen’s guiding hand to keep things interesting, Katsuhiko Takayama instead tried to helm a ship which he had no clue on how to pilot, and as more time passed, more and more bizarre choices, both in the script and directorial style, popped up.

Where to start? There’s plenty of minor oddities like Vice-Commander Kaoru of the ship the characters travel on getting scolded for coming up with a safe and secure route to base instead of something more risky. Then there’s bigger issues, like the omission of Aldnoah tech, and the war itself, as the series goes on. It becomes so laser focused on that main ship containing all the characters, the rest of the war becomes background noise, if it’s even mentioned at all. Only at the end does it re-emerge. And while I won’t spoil said finalé, it’s a mess of bouncing around between characters, with little explanation given as to how they got where or why they’re doing such and such (especially for Slaine), with an added nonsense finish to force a second season despite there being no real need to.

Not that I should be surprised at Slaine’s treatment, he was catapulted from place to place as the plot progressed, with no real arc for him, despite being a lead character. Even when he’s outright told by Count Saazbaum “I tried to kill her once, I’ll do it again” he not just lets him live, but saves his life. At another point he helps the main cast, but is then shot down by Inaho because “we’re enemies”. The same Inaho who later protects Martian girl Rayet who tries to kill the Princess because “we’re not enemies”, and who in the final battle throws away his gun despite having never previously shown a tendency to want to fight “mano a mano”. Just what.

That’s not the only flipflop, in one episode the King of Vers, who hasn’t been informed of the war, calls an armistice to investigate his granddaughter’s death. Sensible. And Slaine finds a way to tell him “yes, she’s still alive”. At which point Saazbaum goes “see, told you he’d lie” and the King re-declares war wait weren’t you trying to get to the bottom of this why did you just ugh.

And then you have the directorial faults! From terribly done reveals like the ship commander being related to a soldier another commander had to kill, to poorly structured scenes with timeskips where you can’t tell if what you’re watching is set in the past or present, to plenty of moments (especially with Slaine) where you’ll swear you missed a scene because that doesn’t flow right.

It’s… frustrating. Frustrating because you can see past these to the great show beating behind it all. The story that Urobuchi wants to be told, but that the co-writer doesn’t have the skill to realise. Then again, maybe some of the blame lies on Gen for not helping the rookie along. I dunno.

But what Aldnoah.Zero does well, it does brilliantly. The show looks great. It sounds great. The mech fights are cool. It’s just the further into its world you go the more you notice the cracks, the more you start to question some bizarre choices, and the more you start to realise this show isn’t what it set out to be.

It’s a shame. A real, real shame. You want this to be good. It deserves to be good. But in the end, it never could be.

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Anime reviews! I’m aiming to write a new article every week, though I dunno what it’ll be. Probably October manga next week. Hope you’re all popping along to Anicom, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 6pm til 9pm in OL1. Or hey, why not follow / like / muck about on Twitter, Facebook and the forums. See ya there!