Reviewby Theron Martin, Jul 15th 2013
Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet
Episodes 1-13 streaming
In a distant future, the Galactic Alliance of Humankind has long been at war with an alien race known as the Hideauze, large creatures which can survive in space and use organically-based technology and whom the Alliance sees as obstructing humanity's necessary expansion. Ensign Ledo is a 16-year-old figurative foot soldier in the Alliance, one who pilots Chamber, a Machine Caliber (i.e., mecha) with an advance “pilot support” AI. During a retreat from a crucial battle Ledo fails to make it safely into a wormhole, resulting in him being flung an immeasurable distance across space. Months later he wakes up as someone – humans of a breed, language, and clothing style neither he nor Chamber recognize – is vainly trying to pry open his mecha. He soon discovers that he is actually on a waterborne ship that is part of a massive linked fleet called Gargantia, and that living on such fleets is the norm on this water-covered world, which Chamber deduces probably has to be Earth, the legendary abandoned home planet of humanity. Left without reasonable means to contact the Alliance, Ledo chooses to try to acclimate, but the cultural and language barriers are initially steep. Fortunately the spunky messenger girl Amy takes a liking to him and helps him out, so gradually Ledo adjusts. The water-covered ruins of the world's previous civilization offer some disturbing truths about Ledo's past life, however, and some of the things that he knew in the Galactic Alliance turn out to not be as far away on this new world as he had originally thought.
Due to the involvement of Gen Urobuchi (the acclaimed script writer for Puella Magi Madoka Magica and the source novel writer for Fate/Zero) and a production effort by Production I.G., Gargantia came into the Spring 2013 season as one of the season's most anticipated titles. The series meets those expectations early on as it gets off to a strong start, in part by emphasizing some factors which commonly get largely overlooked in series with similar “stranger in a strange land” premises and thus giving a more realistic-than-normal feel to a situation which is wholly beyond the comprehension of any currently-living person. If certain minor elements seem incongruous with that realism – such as needlessly sexy/flashy clothing or certain practices which seem too quaint to be practical in a society with limited access to resources – then they can be written off as style points. As the series progresses, though, certain parts show bigger concerns.
For the most part the series aims to be a serious, august sci fi tale about a young man who was indoctrinated into a very rigidly orderly space-born, war-focused society and now finds himself struggling to adjust to life in an environment where humans also live in ships but in diametrically opposing circumstances; they are most definitely not orderly, aren't warlike beyond what is needed to protect themselves from pirates (except for Pinion), use a foreign concept called “money,” and have a radically, almost incomprehensibly different value system, such as loving and cherishing individuals whose health problems or genetic defects make them invalids rather than disposing of them. The series maintains a language barrier early on, which is represented by having the character whose perspective the viewers are seeing from speak in Japanese and the character(s) using the alternate language speaking in gibberish, and does not make the transition out of it easy, as Ledo at least partly relies on translation help from Chamber (who is also learning the language) for about the first two-thirds of these 13 episodes. The people of Gargantia are hardly automatically accepting of him, either – some want to kill him at first, in fact – but as one might expect, some are willing to approach him, and also as one might expect, Ledo becomes popular with the teen girls once they see that he is a handsome young guy near their age. Until the business with the whalesquids starts in episode 7, which sets in motion the more dramatic course of events which dominates the final third, most of the series is about how Ledo gradually adapts and what he learns about Gargantia's people and the environment of the flooded Earth. During this time the writing takes great care to develop the setting, though it also conveniently leaves out things like how schooling is handled, how the colorful textiles get made on a purely waterborne setting (a drab vision like Waterworld this definitely is not), and so forth. It instead dazzles with other details, like the electricity-generating nanomachines in the water which power everything, the parasails which can turn into gliders that are used by Amy and the other messenger girls, the much cruder mecha which get used for underwater exploration and heavy lifting, and the occasional odd bit of old-school high technology. On Ledo's end Chamber is also a technical marvel by any standards, and the rather droll personality which comes through in his AI suits the series well. We also get a bit of a taste of the the behind-the-scenes power structure and politicking that goes on, which shows some interesting results when a change of leadership happens at one crucial point, and a funeral scene for one prominent character has some neat touches. The series is also not subtle about which lifestyle – Ledo's or Gargantia's – it intimates is the preferable and superior one.
Occasionally, though, the series does some head-scratching things. Amy being a perky, curvaceous type with an obligatory pet (mascot!) squirrel simply reflects a typical anime flavor and appeal to fanboys, as are the subtle shots where the camera lingers a little too longer on a female character's chest or butt, but many viewers may look askance at some belly dancing routines in sexy outfits that she and her friends do in a festival episode. Yes, they are used partly to illustrate Ledo's first exposure to overt sexuality, but they go farther than that, and some may be uncomfortable with watching adult males hooting and hollering over sexily-dressed 15 year old girls. The sexy swimsuits in another episode and the voluptuous pirate queen and her kinky female minions in an earlier episode offer further awkwardly-inserted fan service departures, too, and the drag queen business in the swimsuit episode also feels oddly out of place. Other bits of humor, such as an unconventional use for Chamber, work better. Given that Gargantia is apparently heavily dependent on rain for fresh water, that the fleet does not have some more efficient water-collection system than the haphazard methods shown here also strains credibility but was doubtless done for effect.
Production I.G.'s artistic effort ranks this one among the better-looking series so far this year. The CG design involving Chamber is sharp and is integrated into the other artistry remarkably well, and the animation in both action and regular scenes is a definite grade above the norm. Character designs are consistently distinct, aesthetically pleasing, and usually well-rendered, though Amy and some other girls have this odd, perpetually rosy-cheeked sheen going on, and background and ship designs are usually sharp and loaded with detail, down even to realistic-looking rust patterns. The musical score is used effectively to support the content but never especially sticks out and the opener and closer are both pleasant but unremarkable numbers.
The late episodes go in more predictable and formulaic directions even while managing to deliver some interesting surprises. Those do not keep a final climactic battle from losing some of its zing or the ending from being vaguely unsatisfying even though it does resolve the major storyline and plot elements. These are disappointments given the potential showed early on. Thus Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet is more an example of a series which fails to be spectacular than one which fails to be good. Despite significant stumbles and eventual reliance on some trite storytelling elements, it still tells a solid story backed by high production values.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Artwork and animation, setting development, cultural contrasts.
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