The Summer 2014 Anime Preview Guide

by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,

Hope Chapman

Rating: 4

Review:The most interesting thing to me about Aldnoah.Zero is what I don't know about it. Yes, there are mysteries galore and dangling themes of conspiracy, classism, and racism on a galactic scale that pits Mars against Earth. With a narrative that skips around between perspectives at least a dozen times in only one episode, it's anybody's guess as to who the show's real protagonist is, much less anything concrete about the story. Still, that's not what I mean when I say I'm intrigued by unknown elements.

What I really mean is, I don't know if Aldnoah.Zero is an Urobuchi product or a Faux-robuchi product. Gen Urobuchi is the hottest commodity in anime screenwriting right now, and everyone wants his name on their work, even if all he did on the project was come up with the premise and write the first episode or so. There is, for instance, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, which has one of the strongest first episodes I've seen in anime, followed by a meandering, disappointing show with an abrupt ending. Urobuchi wrote the first and last episodes, but his incredibly strong voice cannot be heard in everything in-between. He's listed as "concept creator" in Aldnoah.Zero's credits, but the showrunner/head writer is actually Katsuhiko Takayama, and no episode-individual credits are yet available. At the very least, it is crystal-clear that Boochi wrote this first episode of the show. It bears his trademark dialogue style: "pointedly emotional in an abstract way," so to speak. From the bunker conversation between a slack-off training captain and one of his insightful female students to the classist dismissal of a quiet young servant by a machiavellian martian with a fancy cane, it's all very Urobuchi.

So that's the trick with things like Aldnoah.Zero. How involved is Gen Urobuchi? For some viewers, this may not matter all that much if the story remains compelling, but for me, at this point a diehard fan of his writing, it's potentially a make-or-break detail. To put it one way, I don't think Psycho-Pass would have been anything special narratively without him. He handled every single episode of the entire show, and if he's not writing every episode of season 2, I'll be less interested, if interested at all, because the premise of Psycho-Pass was (seemingly) so tired and familiar. It was his characterization, subversion and profound theming that made all the difference.

Personally, I think he has some weird alien superpower that makes him able to work within any speculative genre or premise and imbue it with finesse. I'll keep watching eagerly to find out what this means for Aldnoah.Zero, but for me, it's undistilled Booch or Bust.

Aldnoah.Zero is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Bamboo Dong

Rating: 4

It isn't until the bitter, unexpected end of the first episode of Aldnoah.Zero that one might realize that there's something exciting here. Or at the very least, something that could be exciting. After all, interplanetary wars have been waged for as long as science fiction has been written, pitting souped-up warhawks against each other under the banner of freedom and longevity.

With Aldnoah.Zero, the brainchild of otaku darling Gen Urobuchi, the premise of interplanetary warfare is visited again. Only instead of just good versus evil, it's a mixed soup of various evils. Earthlings are in an uneasy ceasefire with Martians, though it's not until an unexpected assassination attempt against a visiting princess that we realize that the war is far more complicated than we thought. The Martians (themselves ancestrally Earthbound) are in an arms race with each other, valuing supremacy over the sanctity of life. We're left with a chilling sequence of scenes—warheads plummeting towards Earth, New Orleans getting wiped off the map, and children in faraway locales marveling at the beauty of it all.

Visually, the series is beautiful to stare at, with as much attention being paid towards swirling cocktail glasses as space ships, all contrasted with surprisingly featureless character designs. It emphasizes the non-human elements of the story, asking viewers to drink in the unsettling scene of cars trying to flee New Orleans on a rusted, weathered bridge; or a looming robot flickering to life. The warheads themselves look forged from a solid hunk of metal, only overshadowed by the sooty mushroom cloud that follows.

Of course, with series like this, there's always the possibility that Aldnoah.Zero will become too bloated with self-importance and collapse in on itself. It's the possibility that all End of Days stories face, in continuing efforts to distance themselves from Yet Another Interplanetary War Show. But given Urobuchi's track record, this is worth checking in on at least for the next few weeks. He certainly has a positive track record of working on provocative series, and hopefully this will follow suit.

Aldnoah.Zero is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Carl Kimlinger

Rating: 5

Review: Aldnoah.Zero is the first series, probably since Crest of the Stars, to try its hand at the sci-fi war epic and get it so beautifully, exhilaratingly right. The setup seems common enough, perhaps a little Gundam-ish—the series concerns a brewing war between Earthbound humans and technologically advanced Martian émigrés—but the end product is most uncommon. It's a sci-fi adventure of scale and intimacy, ruthlessness and humanity, spectacle and intelligence. It is grandeur and historical sweep coupled seamlessly with personal and emotional detail; grand action couched in political and social intricacies, witnessed through the eyes of soldiers and citizens, princesses and slaves.

Of course, this is still episode one, so there's plenty of time for the potential I see to betray itself as hot air and wishful thinking. But I'd wager it's the real deal. The episode moves with the grace of total confidence, with the effortless care of the storyteller who knows where they're going and how they'll get there. Like a well-honed athlete, you may not see the muscles on the surface, but you can sense them there, waiting to strike. And when they do—as they do at the first eruption of Martian racism and again at the episode's apocalyptic conclusion—it's with the emotional brutality and series-altering audacity for which creator Gen Urobuchi is known.

Urobuchi's Fate/Zero collaborator Ei Aoki keeps the sinuous plot moving artfully, hopping nimbly between characters as a royal visit and an assassin's plot conspire to plunge Earth into chaos, all while serving up plenty of ravishing sci-fi imagery and rapturous filmmaking technique. He brings with him his Wandering Son collaborator, minimalist mangaka Takako Shimura, whose designs lend Urobuchi's characters—from upstanding princess Allusia to conflicted slave Slaine and affectless pilot trainee Inaho—a quiet, potently visual humanity. It's a creative team made for greatness, something that, for all his trying, has arguably eluded Urobuchi. But maybe, just maybe, not this time.

Aldnoah.Zero is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Rebecca Silverman

Rating: 3.5

Review: The moon is down. As both Shakespeare and Steinbeck have told us, when the moon isn't shining in the sky, that means that there's war on the horizon, at least in literature. In this case, fifteen years ago the moon was blown up when, as humans were colonizing Mars, they ran afoul of an alien race, albeit one that originated on Earth many years ago, sparking a war. Things seem to be at a stand-still now, and the Princess of Vers, Asseyleum, is about to descend to Earth on a diplomatic mission. Most people are hopeful, but there are those on both sides who would prefer to see the war continue rather than abate. On the Earth side, they are terrorists who blow up the princess. In retaliation, the people of Vers rain down hellfire on the Earth, beginning with dropping a nuclear bomb on New Orleans. Disaster rains from the sky like shooting stars.

Aldnoah Zero is a little too caught up in trying to hammer home the horror of interplanetary war, trying to shock us with the sight of New Orleans disintegrating, the lights of the American South going out, and children wishing on “shooting stars,” in an almost too perfect case of juxtaposition. The symbolism in general is rather too obvious – the princess' name is a bit too close to the word “asylum,” and the apparent Earth protagonist's name is Nao, which, with the letter re-arranged, is “Noa.” Given the visuals, it seems likely that this is all deliberate. None of that really takes away from the fact that it is horrible, and if you don't like graphic war imagery, it looks like this will not be the show for you.

Character designs are very basic, but nicely animated. The princess is the perfect Victorian symbol of good – blond, blue eyes, white full-skirted gown. Nao, on the other hand, is utterly bland, with the least interesting appearance of all of the characters and a deadpan personality. Seeing how he develops should be worth watching, assuming that he moves beyond emotionless statements of impending danger. This episode does a good job of shocking us and pulling us in, and there's real potential for this to develop into a well-done, albeit heavy-handed, war story. We'll see how long it can keep from being too much or if it can show some more restraint with the symbolism in future episodes.

Aldnoah Zero is currently streaming on Crunchyroll and Daisuki.

Theron Martin

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: From Nitroplus and A-1 Pictures comes one of this season's few anime-original projects. The time is 2014, but it is in some important ways a very different world than ours. Decades earlier the Apollo 17 lunar mission discovered a Hyper Gate on the Moon leading to Mars, where a human nation called the Vers Empire, which was built on alien technology tens of thousands of years old (the Aldnoah of the series' title), could be found. Conflict and eventually outright war arose which in 1999 led to the partial destruction of the Moon in the explosion of the Hyper Gate and a devastating bombardment of Earth in what became known as Heaven's Fall. Despite a cease-fire, both sides have been preparing for war ever since, with Earth students who are not college-bound being trained in mecha operation and Vers' Knights aching for a shot at Earth from their orbital Castles. Few on Earth beyond one boozing lieutenant, who is in charge of student training, are willing to admit that, should hostilities arise again, the Earth forces would be hopelessly outclassed, however. Warmongers get their opportunity when a peace mission to Earth by an idealistic Vers Empire princess ends in apparent assassination.

The course of events here is almost completely predictable, as scenarios very similar to this one have lain at the foundation of numerous sci fi (especially mecha) series over the years. In fact, all that is lacking is suggested male protagonist Inaho hopping in a mecha to rescue the princess. (Although he is curiously nonchalant about missile strikes, to the point that one has to wonder if he isn't emotionally stunted.) The one mystery is exactly who the people who staged the apparent assassination are affiliated with, and if they are connected to the seemingly-too-prepared Knights, whether or not Count Cruhteo, the Knight who tries to discourage Princess Asseylum, from going on the mission, was actually in on it. Whether or not the princess actually died in the missile attack is also uncertain despite appearances, as the way the scene was portrayed left the writers a couple of outs.

Such doubts are not enough to sell the series, though. Neither are the efforts to establish what looks like a pretty broad cast. No, what sells this series from the start, and what may get viewers to keep watch it, are its action and atmosphere. The missile attack on the princess's convey is well-staged and beautifully carried out, and the scenes that set it up and follow give a great sense of grand events in motion. A lot of credit goes to the well-used musical score, which conveys a sense of gravitas that a lot of mecha series aim for but too few achieve. So far that is enough to elevate a premise so retread that its ruts run deep.

Aldnoah.Zero is currently streaming on Daisuki and Crunchyroll.

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