Aldnoah.Zero Episodes 1-8
by Theron Martin,
In 1999, conflict between the Martian Vers Empire, whose power was fueled by exclusive access to alien Aldnoah technology found there, and Earth forces resulted in the partial destruction of the Moon in a Hyper Gate explosion, which devastated the Earth in a calamity which came to be known as Heaven's Fall. 15 years later, an uneasy truce which has existed ever since is shattered when Princess Asseylum, granddaughter of the Vers Emperor, is apparently assassinated by Earth radicals while on a peace mission to Earth. The united Earth forces soon discover that even their 15 years of preparation for a Vers attack is nowhere near enough to oppose the awesome might of the Aldnoah-empowered Martian Kataphracts (read: mecha) and Landing Castles. In fact, the only forces which have any success against them are a group of student trainees, tactically directed by the brilliant but unexpressive Inaho, who analyze the weaknesses of individual Kataphracts and are able to exploit them. Inaho also has another problem he eventually learns about: Princess Asseylum isn't actually dead, but is using holographic technology to pass herself off as a refugee, and it seems that some warmongers among her own people may have tried to assassinate her in order to trigger this war. (In fact, unbeknownst to anyone, the daughter of a sleeper agent responsible for that attempt is also amongst the refugees, having lost her father to a double-cross.) Combined with a communications black-out instituted by the Vers and that some Terrans want all Martians dead, that makes revealing the truth about her difficult. But she is willing to take the risk of revealing herself to protect those around her and try to bring an end to what she see as an unjust war.
Meanwhile, in the Vers camp, Slaine, a young Terran man who is completely loyal to the princess, laments that he failed to dissuade her from going on what he saw as a dangerous mission. When he discovers that she is still alive and that one of the Vers Knights may be behind the attempt on her life, he surreptitiously tries to navigate through the Vers minefield, wary about who is loyal to her and who is a traitor, while trying to locate her. Naturally he and Inaho do not get along when they finally meet even though they do briefly work together, because what is a mecha series involving a princess without two young men coming to blows over her?
Because Gen Urobuchi's name is attached to this anime original series (he created it and scripted the first three episodes), Aldnoah.Zero was one of the most anticipated titles of the Summer 2014 season, and as it turns out, not without reason. Its early episodes showed a deft touch for dramatic flair, one supported by a potent soundtrack, (sometimes heavy-handed) irony and symbolism, and compelling tales of desperate struggle against seemingly-overwhelming forces. It showed scrappy forces winning battles not through over-tech, supreme skill, or ass-pulls, but by carefully analyzing opponents for weaknesses and exploiting them with existing equipment. Attractive character designs, excellent use of CG in mecha animation, brisk action scenes, a strong opener courtesy of Kalafina, and a great (albeit only occasionally-used) techno-beat closer also contribute to a positive impression which can make this a tremendously fun view. So this should be one of the top series of the season, right?
The problem is that, as the series progresses, flaws emerge in the writing and rise to the level that they can no longer be completely overshadowed by the dramatics of the main story. Holes start to show in the storytelling, ones that can somewhat be explained away but should not have to be. While some parallels to fanaticism in our world can be drawn (especially in light of the recent onset of the so-called Islamic State), some elements of the timeline behind the formation of the Vers Empire do, at the least, strain credulity. Tactical decisions on both sides can, at times, be called into question, at least one character suffers an illogically sudden attitude reversal, and as diligently as the writing tries to disguise it, conformity to very standard mecha storytelling patterns does underlie the story progression so far.
The biggest problem, and the one that most threatens to sink the series, is a critical dearth of character development. One of the two leading characters, Inaho, is impassive to the point that one has to wonder if he has a mental defect. To even call him coldly analytical might be giving him too much credit, as through eight episodes he has only given the barest hints of having any kind of personality or reacting much to anything. This might still work if he had someone to regularly bounce off of, but he doesn't; the princess simply cannot be around enough to fill that role, and Slaine (whom he does seem to clash with very nicely) seems destined to have only brief encounters with him. Various characters on the Earth forces side get some minor bits of development – a Lieutenant who suffers from PTSD tracing back to Heaven's Fall, a stern female Captain who teases a subordinate about why she cannot get dates, a horny classmate of Inaho's, the orphan girl who has turned her “assassinate the princess” fervor into “kill all Martians” fervor upon being bloodily betrayed, and the princess who feels that this whole mess may be her fault because she wanted to visit Earth – but all of it together does not amount to much. The Vers Empire forces fare a little better, with Slaine getting the lion's share. Granted, this may not be a character-driven piece, but at least a little more (especially from one of the lead protagonists!) could reasonably be expected.
Despite the problems, though, the series continues to rumble merrily along through episode 8, which ends with a major (though not entirely unexpected) dramatic twist. It does eventually have to give up on purely relying on clever tactics and resort to an ass-pull, but it does get as far as the late stages of episode 7 before finally having to resort to such a gimmick, and when its pure tactics do work they can be intensely satisfying moments. The show also continues to have some nice touches, like a scene which shows the deafening nature of being near a mecha's gun as it discharges. The major concern has to be whether the series has enough momentum to allow it to continue to power its way past its flaws, as it is hardly doing anything daring with its storytelling, but even if it ultimately fails to be a quality series, it is still quite entertaining.
A virtual high school teacher by day, Theron (Key in the forums) has been an anime fan since the early '90s and a reviewer for ANN since January 2005.
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