Last week, Netflix released Studio Bones' ambitious new original sci fi anime, A.I.C.O. -Incarnation-. This week, Nick and Jacob take a deep dive into this dizzying blend of action, mystery, and body horror.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead. Not Safe For Work warning for content and language.
Hey Nick, I don't know if you've heard of this new thing that's out now on Netflix. It's about a mysterious accident that causes a giant cancerous mass to start expanding and consuming the world gradually, so a team of scientists in protective suits, led by a woman with a mysterious connection to the biomass, go into the anomaly to try and reach the center and stop it from destroying humanity. It's full of creepy imagery and philosophical questions and a recursive soundtrack that spreads this atmosphere of wonder and dread...
Yeah I've heard some great things about Annihilation!
But I spent my weekend watching A.I.C.O. -Incarnation- instead.
Oh okay. Well, that's totally different.
Yeah, in this one it's an anime girl with the mysterious connection to the biomass. Totally different.
Gotta say, I came into this show not knowing what to expect at all, and I think that's the best way to go in. SO APOLOGIES IN ADVANCE, WE'RE GONNA DISCUSS THE SHIT OUT OF IT.
We'll try to save spoilers til the end, but I can safely say that I enjoyed the heck out of AICO by the end. Which isn't something I was expecting, considering I've been lukewarm on the stuff both its director and lead writer worked on before.
Right. The director and main brain behind this one as far as I can tell is Kazuya Murata, best known for dreaming up KADO -The Right Answer- and Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet. But you can kinda see commonalities in the guy's work. He likes weird fleshy alien things with a spark of spirituality to them and a few robots on the side. The art design in this definitely reminded me of Gargantia more than anything else.
Yeah, the shows have a pretty similar look, though AICO thankfully loses the weird elbow blush that covered all the girls in Gargantia.
Yeah when girls blush now, it's more bluish-black.
j/k that's not a blush, that's THE PLOT
Yeah, we should probably discuss the premise of this one since it's a pretty unruly beast...
So two years before the story proper, some real bad shit went down in a science lab developing artificial human tissue (cloning), and a giant mass of semi-sentient cancer cells called "Malignant Matter" started spreading across Japan and consuming any person it came across. This "Burst" has barely been contained since then, and the world at large is at a loss over how to deal with it. Meanwhile our heroine, Aiko (GET IT) is recovering from an accident that happened during the Burst, trying to start a new life after her family died.
And that's about 1/60th of the info you need to understand this show. Okay, that and the suits they use to survive in Burst territory are ~ALIVE~
it is truly adoragross
It's really fun too because they just leave those things hanging around in the background before introducing em.
Like somebody just hung their arms out to dry after the wash. Are skin suits machine washable?
I'm surprised that Aiko was able to process all that infodumping after getting kidnapped twice and then plopped down in a conference room with literal limbs hanging up like work uniforms.
The first 1/3 of the show is definitely the weakest. It has to do a lot of the heavy lifting in explaining the frankly convoluted setup, but the basic gist is this: Aiko was fatally injured in a car accident that took her father's life, so her dad's super scientist friend decided to plug her brain into a cloned body to save her. But it turns out that brain surgery using experimental semi-sentient skin tissue is a wee bit unstable, and her clone's brain went kinda crazy.
Like discovering you have an identical twin separated at birth, but the twin is really just you.
So Aiko, now in a clone body, gets conscripted by the Mysterious Handsome Transfer Student to go back to the epicenter of the Malignant Matter, get her brain back into her real body, and hopefully fix all this mess before the rest of the world obliterates half of Japan to destroy the threat. They are, of course, joined by a plucky group of gray market "Divers" who specialize in retrieving valuable information from the Burst-infected territories.
And this ragtag alien-matter-hunting crew conscripted for the world's most dangerous mission ain't crazy about it.
They are also dorks.
It's a tried and true sci fi action premise done anime-style, no misplaced comedy, no rabbit trails, no cutesy mascots—okay there is a cutesy mascot.
I will not hear a word against Gummi, the precious translucent clone hamster.
But yeah, if you like slightly old-school sci fi blockbusters with lots of big detailed weird concepts, AICO is here to satisfy you, and I can definitely appreciate its ambition for that alone.
Coincidental similarities to Annihilation aside, it's a pretty Hollywood setup all told. Get Girl A to Point B, plot and character development to follow. There's some simple existential questions about Aiko's predicament too, but the show never gets into more lofty philosophizing for better or worse.
Right, the focus remains on the action, and the action looks uniformly great! Not only does the production remain consistent, but wonder of wonders, they traditionally animated a lot of the Malignant Matter stuff instead of going all 3D blobs. There's a great blend of CG and hand-drawn techniques throughout that doesn't distract from the story at all.
This is the first of several planned originals from studio BONES, and the results are pretty solid. It's polished and solidly directed, though I'd say the music does the most work of anything in establishing the series' tone.
Right, the music really stands out for...being repetitive? That sounds like an insult, but it's more that the show sets up a series of standout melodies that get denser and fuller as they push further into The Blob. The composer also did work for KADO the Right Answer which had a similar approach. (And whose concept was also created by Murata, though he wasn't as hands-on with the production side that time.) Beyond Aiko, whose personality is basically "nice teen anime girl", these are not terribly emotional characters; they're professionals who spend most of their time kicking ass at their specific scientific discipline. Since there's not much emotional expressivity here, the music does all the work setting the tone for how they might be feeling between the copious action scenes.
Frankly, if I was stuck in this world, my only emotion would be SCARED SHITLESS.
This show is not for anyone who has a flesh-phobia.
It gets very uh, visceral about its subject, which I'm all for. I love me some gross, organic body horror and that's not something we see all that often in anime.
ugh why'd I share that gif, i'm eating a chicken pot pie right now, RIP
Even if by the end I was a bit tired of seeing people in power suits fire guns into giant red blobs,the design of the Matter-infested world really did sell the feeling of familiar urban surroundings turned alien by its presence.
That said, if I had a complaint about AICO, it'd be that its first half feels too slick for its own good. It's totally functional, everything makes sense and follows a pretty understandable flow of character choices, and the action scenes still move the plot forward while they keep the audience's attention, but it felt kind of cold to me.
Yeah for as much as I admire what the show accomplishes overall, there was plenty of stuff I felt lacking too. Given the "what makes a human" subtext throughout, I did want more soul-searching and messy humanity and in-depth character development. There's a lot of sci-fi gobbeledygook to explain, but the actual PLOT of the series is pretty simple. They could have made room for more warmth and introspection, but they angled for spectacle instead.
Like the most interesting character in retrospect, just psychologically speaking, was definitely Mysterious Transfer Student boy here, but in the moment he's the least interesting, because the show frontloads all its exposition and action for a long time, saving all the big twists and hidden character motivations for the last quarter. So he spends all his time calling emotionless shots and obfuscating the truth in infodumps. There's plenty of great action in that last quarter too, but hoo boy were they holding onto those Obvious Secrets for a while, trying to pretend there were no Obvious Secrets and not succeeding at all.
I guess we do need to get to that third act, which is easily my favorite part of the whole thing, because it finally starts to let the show's rather grounded setting indulge in more wild imagery.
CLIMB INTO YOUR REPLICANT'S GIANT, HAND-FILLED CERVIX, CHILD
I would have just
shit my entire soul out
You can't accuse AICO of holding back on abyss-gazing imagery, for sure.
Can the abyss gaze back at you if you ARE the abyss?
So should we just drop The Shoe at this point? Extra special big fat spoiler warning for the end of the show?
Mysterious Transfer Student was lying about the mission the whole time! WHO'S SURPRISED?
Turns out Mysterious Transfer Student wasn't a student after all. He's the guy who invented all this super-science stuff in the first place, the very doctor who performed Aiko's brain-transplant-turned-apocalypse. AND the Aiko we've been following this whole time was actually AICO, the cloned brain that said scientist had been trying to swap out.
It's frankly a little convoluted so I made some helpful visual aides to explain:
Right. Aiko's body was real all along, it just had copious grafts of fake tissue on it, so she thought it was fake. Her BRAIN itself is the duplicate. Frankly, this makes way more sense than what we're told at the start, because a science-made body reacting to a foreign brain by exploding into The Blob makes a hell of a lot more sense than a run-of-the-mill body made boringly stable by eons of evolution turning into The Blob. Which is why I called this switcheroo from the second they explained the situation to Aiko, waiting nine episodes for them to just say she was the copy already. Ditto on scientist-man being the transfer student, because Nobody Could Shut Up About How Clearly Dead He's Been For Years, Yessir Absolutely Dead. I'm not trying to pat myself on the back at all; the show actively makes its twists way too obvious because its runtime is almost completely devoted to action and plot. There's no little character scenes or quiet sideroads to distract us from thinking about all that suspiciously reinforced exposition. There's no misdirection in the magic trick.
It's a pretty obvious twist, but to the show's credit, I didn't get the impression it was meant to be this huge shocking discovery for the audience. It makes sure everyone understands what's going on, but the drama comes more from the characters' reaction to this and how it re-contextualizes Yura (scientist student) spending the whole trip trying to convince Aiko that her clone isn't a "real" person. (Meaning he was trying to convince the clone that her original wasn't real.)
Right, to its credit, the show immediately becomes better once it just gets all that stuff off its chest. It feels like now that no one's trying to hide the truth all the time, they have time to process their feelings about all this.
Turns out that Yura's motive wasn't Cold Scientific Logic at all, but trying to convince himself that his plan—pump Clone Aico full of poison before the brain switch and kill his past mistakes—wasn't a horribly selfish plot to murder a teenager.
First his good friend, Aiko's father, couldn't be saved, and then his attempt to bring Aiko back resulted in losing her AND destroying her mother and brother. So he feels incredible guilt and shame in assigning any humanity to the failed thing he made to save the girl who's now a Giant Blob. Even though he wanted to love it, now he just wants to erase it.
Aiko meanwhile has her own crisis about, y'know, being a clone and basically the catalyst of this whole mess. It takes a heart-to-heart with her original self to come to terms with all this, and in probably the show's most unguarded sentimental moment, she meets her (miraculously preserved) family and decides to make the sacrifice on her own.
Fortunately, when Aiko confronts Yura with all these feelings, he finally relents and makes the right decision. It's a surprisingly emotional climax for a show that felt lacking in emotion most of the time.
So while I wish the show had been more thematically rich considering all its exciting concepts, if it can be said to have a theme, it's that people are defined by their choices and actions, not their identity or memories. Dr. Student put so much stock in his noble mistake that he thought his only chance at redemption was undoing it, when really he just needed to embrace his creation and do right by her, classic Frankenstein stuff. And of course, this had to be proven to him by his own creation, who proved her humanity by making empathetic choices even after she knew the truth about herself, not by sharing enough human memories to be defined as "Aiko", which Dr. Student had been analyzing and overthinking to further separate the two girls in his mind.
Oh and there's an uninteresting sideplot about Dr. Student's shitty coworker trying to make his daughter immortal, but that's only in there to have a ticking clock threat, because this is a good
sci fi anime where the plot isn't
driven by the heroes being irrationally stupid.
Yeah, I can't say I was ever riveted by Dr. Second Place and his quest to wake up his comatose daughter by...I dunno. Becoming his own minor version of Instrumentality?
Frankly, his part still doesn't make sense to me outside of mirroring Yura's misguided quest to atone for his sins. But it does make for some rad as hell imagery in the final episode.
Okay. So. I kinda get what they were going for. In keeping with the "what you do in the present is what matters" theme, they explain that Dr. Student succeeded in making artificial brains where Dr. Second Place failed because unlike artificial bodies, brains can't endlessly regenerate the same tissue. They aren't eternal and indestructible like the ideal body tissue might be. In order to function, they have to be able to change, destroy, recreate, evolve. Dr. Second Place wants an eternal perfect daughter frozen just as she is, and he presumably wants that same fate for himself too. But that's antithetical to humanity, which is about growing and adapting and leaving the past behind. But he's still a shitty dumbass villain in a story that might have had more room to develop its central characters and themes without him. :'D
Wouldn't be a sci-fi anime without a disappointing villain, TBH. But Dr. Second Place aside, I do actually like how AICO concludes. Its cast weren't the most interesting or layered characters, but they're all pretty likable in the moment, albeit not super memorable. And if nothing else, it features maybe my favorite cut of animation of the year so far.
It's definitely worth checking out if you have a thirst for high-concept sci fi with great animation. I certainly wanted more by the end, but I wasn't unsatisfied either. "Leave 'em wanting more" is good, right?
It's not anything groundbreaking, but it's solid genre fare for a genre that doesn't get much material these days. It's consistently entertaining and coherently told at least, in contrast to the rollercoaster of B: The Beginning.
Oh man, and we have Children of the Whales coming up now. And Sword Gai. And Violet Evergarden. And Aggretsuko-chan. And AAAAAAAAAGH NETFLIX SLOW DOWN FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!
Jake, either we kill Netflix or it's gonna kill us.
Speak for yourself, I'm all binged out. I hope you and the rest of the crew enjoy those anime whales.