Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Blu-Ray - Set 1 [Limited Edition]
In 1972, humans found a mysterious form of technology on the moon which allowed them to colonize Mars. On Mars, another form of technology was discovered, which gave the Martian colonists great power, the aldnoah drive. The Martians began to see themselves as a separate race from Terrans, and in 1999, they attacked the Earth. Now, fifteen years later, normal relations with Mars are still something of a dream. The princess of the Mars civilization, calling itself VERS, yearns for peace between the two planets. She plans a visit to Earth, specifically to Japan, to promote her vision of peace, but upon her arrival, terrorists attack, throwing the two planets into all-out war. A group of high school students are caught up in the evacuation efforts and conscripted into the army as the VERS forces prove to be a bigger threat than anyone ever saw coming. War is deadly enough between two countries. Between two planets it stands to be far more destructive.
What sets people apart from each other? That's a question that gets asked almost everyday, with various answers like “color,” “religion,” or “country of origin” all getting tossed around. In the world of Aldnoah Zero, the answer according to the people of the planet Mars is “ability to use special technology,” and it makes almost as little sense in practice as any of the other listed responses. Aldnoah Zero uses a science fiction/mecha framework for its story of twisted ideals and violence, and while it can be heavy-handed with its symbolism, these first six episodes still begin a story that holds your attention.
The story takes as its protagonist a young man named Inaho, who possesses a brilliant tactical mind and apparently very little emotion. This makes him somewhat problematic as the “hero” figure in a war story – the underlying theme of these first six episodes is really the juxtaposition of innocence with violence, a message laid bare in the scene of the VERS Empire firing missiles to Earth, which are mistaken for shooting stars by little girls watching from their rural home. Inaho does not appear to have any innocence to lose; we do see him express grief verbally and try to save others, but he does so with little outward show of distress. While his friends do seem aware of his deeper feelings, they are something of a mystery to the viewers, which hinders the delivery of the show's message at this stage. Other segments are so very overdelivered that it almost beggars the imagination; the peace-promoting Princess Asseylum's character design is practically the embodiment of purity and innocence: pale blonde hair, white gown reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth I (the so-called Virgin Queen), just a little hair escaping from her up-do to remind us of her youth. As a character she is far less one-note than Inaho, but she is essentially the Innocence to his Violence, making them the physical manifestations of the story's key themes.
This does make for an interesting parallel with two of the other characters, neither of whom could be described as “innocent” or “emotionally lacking:” the solider Marito, a veteran of fifteen years ago and the sole survivor of his unit who now suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Slaine, a sixteen-year-old Terran who has been living on Mars yet has never been viewed as one of them. Both Slaine and Marito are distinct Others, with Slaine serving as a living demonstration of the VERSian disdain for their Earth neighbors. The way that Marito is blamed for his survival may not sit well with some viewers, but it is interesting to see he ans Slaine in a similar light: both rejected (to a degree) by those they live with, the war offers them an opportunity to make changes. Their Otherness also allows for Inaho and Asseylum to remain unquestioned figures who don't seem inclined to change their world views or tasks.
The theme of honor through battle is one which embodies the VERS knight characters, nearly all of whom appear to have had a firm sense of their own superiority instilled in them. They see themselves as worthless without a battle to fight, which speaks to the kind of culture that would have separated itself from others in the first place. A great store appears to be set in appearances, as we can see through the use of holographic glamors to change appearances (the Emperor's is especially worth noting), as well as by the amazing volume of double-crossing that goes on within the knights' ranks. Mars may be technologically superior, but Earth is, at this point, better at working together, a dynamic that should be interesting to watch as the story progresses.
This set of episodes takes us halfway through the first season of the series, though it doesn't necessarily feel like it. There is a lot of fighting and violence, with a few scenes achieving a visceral quality that the show really needs (the Slaine/Trillram scene in episodes three and four is especially powerful), but for all that it doesn't feel like there's very much actual progress being made in terms of plot. The animation, fortunately, looks pretty slick (although the CG could be integrated better), and the music tends to be used as it is in action films, to emphasize and desensitize the major battle scenes. Characters were designed by slice-of-life mangaka Takako Shimura (who wrote Wandering Son and Sweet Blue Flowers) and therefore are much simpler than we often see in this kind of show.
The English dub is a mix of relative newcomers, such as Zach Aguilar (Slaine) and Max Mittelman (Inaho), and old standbys, including Cristina Vee and the inevitable Patrick Seitz, and is generally strong. Mittelman's Inaho has a hint more emotion than Natsuki Hanae's, which I do prefer, as it allows for a slightly more interesting character, likewise I slightly preferred Bryce Papenbrook's Calm to the Japanese. Other characters, like Slaine, are very closely matched in both dub and sub. Really, the infusion of slightly more emotion into Inaho's character is the standout difference; it isn't much, but it is enough to make a difference.
As is the norm with Aniplex of America's releases, this set comes in a decorative box with two postcard size pieces of art. The highlight of the physical extras is Takako Shimura's sketchbook of character designs, with notes containing her thoughts about the different characters and what inspired her to create the designs. On-disc extras are original commercials and promos, and “Count to A/Z,” which is a behind-the-scenes look at the show's creation. This one is worth watching, as it talks with both creators and actors.
Aldnoah Zero's first six episodes are a mixed bag. The story all but hits you over the head with its intentions and themes, and the attempts at levity don't quite work in a show that takes its darker aspects so seriously. But there's enough going on and more than enough intrigue and backstabbing among the characters to keep you watching, and while the themes are laid almost embarrassingly bare, the plot itself is not telegraphed. The story isn't quite well-told enough, but other aspects of the show help to make up for that.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Dub gives lead some much-needed hints of emotion, interesting use of music during battle scenes. Good parallels between several of the characters, villains you can really dislike.
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