Making First Contact with KADO: The Right Answerby Paul Jensen,
When visitors from another world show up in an anime series, it's usually not a good sign for the inhabitants of Earth. The typical chain of events involves a sudden burst of violence, a declaration of war, and a series of battles featuring apocalyptic levels of collateral damage. More often than not, at least one teenage mecha pilot is involved. That may be why this season's Kado The Right Answer feels so unusual. It tells the story of an otherworldly visitor showing up in modern-day Japan, but nobody goes crazy and starts shooting. Even the teenage mecha pilots are nowhere to be found; instead we get a cast of adult professionals who are legitimately qualified for their jobs. What in the world is going on here?
Kado is an example of a very particular kind of “first contact” science fiction story. It ditches the rousing speeches and big battles in favor of calm negotiation and thoughtful social commentary. Instead of using powerful weapons to level major cities, otherworldly visitor Yaha-kui zaShunina gives away advanced technology with the potential to revolutionize human society. The question facing Kojiro Shindo and his fellow negotiators isn't how humanity will survive a war between worlds, but rather how humanity should interact with this being from another dimension. At its core, this is a story about trying to understand an individual whose methods and motivations are completely alien to us.
In order to put Kado into context, I'm going to start by jumping all the way back to 1951, when The Day the Earth Stood Still was released in American movie theaters. The film features a humanoid alien named Klaatu, who travels to Earth in order to deliver a message to our world's governments. While some people see Klaatu as a benevolent visitor, his advanced technology causes fear and suspicion in a world that is already divided by the Cold War. Humanity's tendency to resort to violence when faced with the unknown ultimately proves to be our undoing, and Earth misses out on its chance to benefit from the encounter. Instead, we're left with a dire warning to either change our warlike ways or risk annihilation.
It doesn't take long to notice the connections here. Both Kado and The Day the Earth Stood Still include an otherworldly visitor who claims to come in peace and offers humanity free stuff. Conflicts between human countries are also significant in both cases: strained international relations interfere with Klaatu's mission, while zaShunina's gift of unlimited energy creates a diplomatic crisis between Japan and the rest of the world.
Before we judge humanity too harshly for being suspicious of these visitors, we should also look at “To Serve Man,” an episode of The Twilight Zone from 1962. Another influential tale of first contact, this story also starts off with gift-bearing aliens. The catch is that while the aliens really do want to “serve” man, they're less interested in helping us than they are in making us into a tasty part of a well-balanced breakfast. This time around, it's humanity's gullibility, rather than our paranoia, that gets us into trouble. As zaShunina's actions become increasingly suspicious in later episodes of Kado, one has to wonder if he's a peaceful messenger like Klaatu or just a hungry chef like the Kanamits.
The key link between all of these first contact stories is that the way the human characters interact with the aliens always reveals something about us as a species. The better parts of our nature give us a chance at reaching a positive outcome, while our faults threaten to send us down the road to catastrophe. As zaShunina points out, it's up to humanity to find “the right answer.” Contact with other worlds continues to be a useful way of holding a mirror up to our own culture: Close Encounters of the Third Kind explored how such a meeting might affect ordinary people, Contact delved into the potential clash between faith and science in a first contact situation, and last year's Arrival focused on the potential for miscommunication when dealing with an alien race. In each case, the extraordinary circumstance of meeting beings from another world tells us something about ourselves.
At this point, you may be wondering why I've been comparing Kado to American films and television instead of other works from the anime world. The simple answer is that this exact narrative formula is harder to find in anime and manga. There are plenty of stories about humans meeting aliens, and sometimes we even negotiate with them, but those interactions are often a single plot point instead of a central premise. For example, Crest of the Stars begins with a tense meeting between worlds, but the decision to surrender instead of fighting the alien Abh Empire is only the starting point for a story that evolves into more of a space opera. There are anime and manga series where negotiation and problem solving do stand front and center, but famous titles like Yugo the Negotiator and Master Keaton have a distinct lack of aliens.
Instead of serious drama, anime seems more likely to use peaceful first contact as a source of comedy. Take the 2011 series Level E as an example. Its hapless human protagonist meets a troublemaking alien and gets drawn into the humorously absurd world of extraterrestrials living on Earth. Visitors from space also have a habit of starring in romantic comedies, and bland harem heroes have been shacking up with beautiful alien girls since the days of Urusei Yatsura, if not earlier. Heck, harem comedies might actually give us our closest match to the traditional first contact formula; in Cat Planet Cuties, dorky teenager Kio sees his house get turned into the official embassy of a race of frisky alien catgirls.
Our best option when it comes to finding anime examples might be to bend the rules a bit and turn to fantasy and parallel world stories instead of science fiction. The 2013 series Maoyu starts long after the initial contact (and ensuing war) between humans and demons, but it does tell the story of a human warrior and a demon queen trying to bring peace to their feuding races. A couple of recent isekai titles might also fit the bill if we allow for some role reversal: shows like Gate and Outbreak Company feature humanity stumbling onto parallel worlds and trying to establish diplomatic relations. The situation definitely changes when humans are the ones with the fancy technology, but the key theme of learning about our own society by meeting another culture still remains.
When it comes to the old-fashioned man-meets-alien narrative, however, it's still safe to say that Kado The Right Answer is working in relatively uncharted territory for anime. This means it has the opportunity to do something genuinely unique, and that's exciting. We're nine episodes into the series now, and Kado has already asked some fascinating questions about humanity's response to extraordinary situations. How would we really deal with a being from another dimension parking his giant rainbow cube in a major airport? Do the benefits of advanced technology justify throwing our current society into chaos? It's hard to say exactly how this story will end, but I'm betting that mankind will learn some big lessons before all is said and done.
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