Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet
BD+DVD - The Complete Series [Special Edition]
Ledo is a soldier fighting a deadly war against creatures known as the Hideauze in space. His entire life, all sixteen years of it, has been devoted to this battle, so when something goes wrong and he is thrown to a mysterious water planet where no war is being waged, he doesn't know what to do. The planet, he finds out, is Earth, the birthplace of humanity long thought lost. But though it is entirely covered by water, people still live there, traveling on gigantic ships rafted together. Ledo finds himself on Gargantia, a cooperative city-ship that has a way of life totally unfamiliar to him. Slowly, with the help of a girl his own age named Amy, Ledo begins to make a life for himself. But when his enemies seem to return, will Ledo forsake his new peaceful life to return to battle? Can he learn to do anything else?
What makes us human? Can humanity be bestowed upon someone, or learned? These are themes that we have seen in most of writer Gen Urobuchi's works (Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Psycho-Pass, among others) but Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet (supervised by Urobuchi, who also wrote the series' first episode and the finale) makes them particularly interesting as they wind through the story of Ledo, an Ensign in the Galactic Alliance of Humankind. When the story opens, he is fighting in a war in space against giant squid-like creatures known as the Hideauze. We get the distinct impression that the war is basically endless, and Ledo has been so indoctrinated in his society's military culture that he finds it difficult to see the appeal in a month of leave. Little does he know that he's about to have much longer than that – during the battle he falls into a wormhole and awakens six months later on a strange, water-covered planet: Earth, post both ice age and major global warming. Chamber, his AI-enhanced mech known as a Machine Caliber, informs him that there is virtually no hope of their distress signal being picked up by the Galactic Alliance. For all intents and purposes, Ledo is stuck in what to him is a strangely peaceful world.
Thus begins a fish-out-of-water tale, although it feels rather more like the story of a feral animal becoming domesticated. Ledo's slow adaptation to life on Gargantia, one of the many huge fleets of rafted-together ships that serve as essentially countries on the water-logged planet, is very reminiscent of a dog brought in off the streets who desperately wants to be accepted and happy but isn't quite sure how to domesticate. Early attempts at helping blow up in his face, such as when he tries to help Bellows, who works as a salvager bringing up ancient artifacts from the ocean floor, when she is attacked by pirates. Soldier Ledo's reaction is to kill the enemies, and he doesn't understand why the rest of the people are so angry with him. Life has little meaning to Ledo, which is particularly interesting when you consider that his job is essentially fighting so that there can be life at all. This early gaffe is nicely paralleled later in the series when he learns the truth of the Hideauze's origins and how to appreciate what it means to be alive.
In large part this is due to his interactions with Amy, a courier his own age who is the first person to attempt to befriend him. While there is an element of romance to their relationship – the scene in episode six when he sees her belly dancing and suddenly realizes why boys and girls are built differently is priceless – mostly we see her slowly humanizing him. She is the reason behind his first real smile in episode five and ultimately proves his reason for living, not only because of her importance to him, but also simply because she is the one who showed him how. It's more heartwarming than if their relationship had been played as a straight romance, as it allows Ledo to discover more emotions.
The questions of humanity are perhaps best shown through the journey of Ledo's Machine Caliber, Chamber, which is interesting on two levels – one, because Chamber is, in fact, a machine, and two, because Chamber becomes by the final episode one of the best characters in the show, representative not only of fatherly love, but also of self-sacrifice (another Urobuchi favorite theme) and the cycle of life. Whether Chamber learns his humanity as Ledo does from the other humans or from Ledo himself, it is undeniable that he does become much more than an AI. There is evidence for him learning from Ledo provided at the end of the show, but in either case, he becomes a highlight, whether he is supporting his pilot or just questioning why he has to be used as a griddle.
Unfortunately there are some serious problems with Viz's release of the series. One of the more irritating is that the subtitles on the bluray are nigh impossible to read, being white and in a small font. The DVD subtitles are a larger font and have a noticeable black stroke around them, but the picture is, as you would expect, of a lesser quality. The Japanese language track on both bluray and DVD has sound issues, with the audio fading in and out a bit and the sound effects much louder than the dialogue in general. These sound problems are not present in the English language track on either type of disc, and the dub is really very good. Alan Lee and Cassandra Lee Morris make a very good Ledo and Amy (although Lee gives early Ledo a little more emotion than Kaito Ishikawa), and Patrick Seitz (is he in everything?) makes Pinion a stand out character. The animation is beautiful and fluid, although some of the CG stands out awkwardly in the bluray. Disc issues aside, Viz's release of this title in its limited edition is a nice package, with a chipboard box, an artbook with episode summaries and character information, and the two OAVs that form the “sequel,” both fully dubbed. They do need to be watched after the main series is finished to avoid spoilers, which is a bit too bad since the final episode leaves us in a very good place for happy ending buffs. Both are bittersweet in their content and seek to explain the issues of three of the side characters.
There is a lack of subtlety in some of the story as well that does not serve the overall show. There are some very blatant World War Two themes in the latter half of the series, as well as the least subtle use of “deus ex machina” I've seen in a while. The fact that underwater looks a lot like outer space is also a bit of a heavy-handed technique, although not as egregious as some of the other, aforementioned, issues. And for everything that Gargantia does wrong in its storytelling, it does something else right, such as Ledo's struggle to learn the language of Earth and the way his language (and theirs) sound like gobbledygook to the others. The use of mythology to create a sort of species protection order is also well done, as is the idea that humanity can be bestowed as well as learned, as anyone who has a pet can attest. An interesting, although perhaps not important, affectation to notice as well is the naming scheme. “Amy” is perhaps the only “real” name in the show, with most of the other characters being named after machine parts (Bellows, Flange, Pinion) and one fellow bearing the name of a delicious Jewish pudding.
Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet ultimately is a successful science fiction story, one that should appeal to both sci fi fans and those who are just looking for something really enjoyable to watch. The characters are well-developed, the plot, although it lacks subtlety in some places, is a nice combination of slice-of-life and action, and the main characters feel like people rather than anime tropes. If you haven't seen it, it is worth seeking out – ugly and beautiful by turns, Gargantia is a story that pulls you in and keeps holding on even after the final credits have aired.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Engrossing and intriguing story that melds slice-of-(futuristic)-life with action. Ledo and Chamber's development is well done, strong voices in both dub and sub.
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