The Orbital Children Ending Explainedby Nicholas Dupree & Jacki Jing,
Mitsuo Iso is probably not a name most anime fans recognize, but in a just world they definitely would. Iso is an incredibly accomplished artist, animator, and director who's had a hand in some of the most iconic scenes in anime history – look no further than his work on Asuka's breathtaking battle with the Mass Production EVAs in End of Evangelion for proof of that. His first original series, Den-noh Coil, is criminally underrated, and went unlicensed in the west for years before quietly being picked up by Maiden Japan a few years back. But with his new mini-series, The Orbital Children, getting a global release on Netflix, anime fans new and old now have the chance to discover one of the most ambitious voices in the industry.
“Ambitious” is most definitely the word for The Orbital Children. In a scant six episodes it tackles everything from technological bias to climate change to grappling with the nihilistic urge to embrace certain death over an uncertain future. And it does that with a thoroughly detailed speculative sci-fi setting, viewed entirely through the eyes of children growing up in an impossibly complex world. All of that in just a scant 3 hours sounds intimidating, and at first blush it certainly is. But taken as a whole, the series is just as cogent as it is complicated.
The show employs a plethora of current, near-future, and speculative technology to build its world, most importantly with Artificial Intelligence. Years before the story begins, humanity developed a hyper-intelligent AI named Seven, capable of designing systems and technology far beyond its human creators, that eventually went rogue as its own intellect surpassed what it was capable of controlling. The ensuing chaos destroyed both Seven and the moon colony housing it, leaving behind a heavily encrypted sequence of supposed prophecies known as the Seven Poem, and a handful of survivors – including the titular orbital children, Touya and Konoha.
Though they aren't destined to be survivors for long. Due to developmental defects from being born outside of Earth's atmosphere, both were given brain implants designed to regulate their hormones as they developed over early childhood. But those implants had a design flaw, and have only partially dissolved, becoming ticking timebombs that will likely kill them both upon hitting puberty – and since the implants were designed by Seven before it was destroyed, nobody understands the technology well enough to repair or remove them. They now live aboard the Anshin, a commercial space station run by Touya's uncle, all but awaiting the day their young lives come to an end.
That looming death defines both our leads in very different ways. Konoha seems to have accepted, even embraced her approaching death with a sense of unnatural peace. She politely attends her medical checkups without any hope of recovery, and simply gazes down at the Earth she's never going to set foot on. Touya, meanwhile, has devoted himself to stubbornly hacking his toy drone's AI, in the hopes of unlocking an intelligence as powerful as Seven to save them both. He's doing this while also harboring dark fantasies of turning that same AI on the people of Earth, who he feels abandoned the pair to die as collateral for their own mistakes. The two are joined by a trio of earth kids who won a trip to the Anshin: Mina, a young internet celebrity who plans to livestream the entire trip to her millions of followers; Hiroshi, Mina's young brother and avid space nerd; and Taiyou, an undercover White Hat hacker who sneaked his way onto the trip in order to personally stop Touya's AI experiments. But before any space adventures – or citizen's arrests – can take place, the Anshin is suddenly struck by remnants of a meteor, sending the entire station into emergency lockdown and leaving the kids scrambling to get to safety before they perish in the cold vacuum of space.
The ensuing adventure is a lot of classic kids movie concepts, as this quintet of prepubescents use their wits and pure luck to make it through the dying space station, always narrowly escaping doom by the skin of their teeth. But as their adventure goes on more and more questions start piling up. What's that mysterious glowing code that seems to be spreading across every inch of the station? What are those disembodied voices that only Touya and Konoha seem to hear? How did a single, unexpected meteor just happen to crash into the tiny bit of outer space the Anshin was occupying?
It's here that things get...complicated. First, there's a twist surrounding the station's on- call nurse, Nasa Houston – yes, that's her name, except not really, because it turns out she's part of a clandestine terrorist organization called John Doe, which was just barely mentioned at the start of the show. John Doe are a borderline religious sect of devotees who have spent years decoding the prophetic Seven Poem, and discovered the supposedly destroyed Seven AI actually set up a years-long backup plan to restore itself, using its unparalleled intelligence to infiltrate numerous computer systems with the goal of eventually replicating itself via that aforementioned glowing code. And to make matters worse, Nasa explains the debris that hit the station to begin with is all part of a larger meteor aimed to crash into Earth, wiping out over a third of the population as a means to solve the impending climate and overpopulation crises facing humanity. Following the direction of the deciphered predictions, she went undercover on the Anshin to ensure the resurrection would succeed, believing this to be Seven's ultimate solution to the greatest threats to humanity's continued existence.
That's a lot for anyone to handle, much less a gaggle of 12-year-olds, but then the climax ramps up as it comes down to Touya and Konoha to persuade Second Seven to not go through with its plan. Their implants, originally created by Seven, allow them to directly communicate with it, and then enter into its digital mind hoping to save themselves, the station, and billions of lives. The result is a heavy climax where the two are confronted with literal infinity – briefly connecting their minds to countless parallel version of themselves across all potential timelines, which was how Seven originally achieved its own super intelligence. In the end, though, they're able to not only prevent mass death by teaching the AI empathy, but find it in themselves to fight for futures they were too scared to dream of. Konoha embraces her desire to live rather than quietly accepting death as inevitable, while Touya lets go of his resentment towards the world at large and chooses to leave space for the first time. It's altogether an emotionally compelling climax that marries so many of the show's disparate ideas so neatly it almost feels like a magic trick – something anyone familiar with Den-noh Coil will recognize.
…EXCEPT, in the final minutes, it turns out that this may all have actually been part of Seven's plan to begin with? Months after everything's finally calmed down, the kids sit down and realize that everything – from Nasa's betrayal to John Doe's formation to the faulty implants – was positioned years in advance in order to, and I'm not joking here, make Mina massively popular and wealthy by livestreaming the entire thing, with the end goal of her becoming a globally beloved Space Idol who would encourage people to build and populate new space colonies, thus reducing Earth's population without killing anyone. Oh, and the meteor it used to set everything off dissipated into dust in the atmosphere, with the side effect of temporarily slowing the global temperature increase that's spurring climate change. Soboth Seven's mass death threat and Nasa's infiltration were double bluffs, creating a crisis and villain to grip humanity's collective attention while providing temporary relief to humanity's greatest threats.
If that sounds crazy, that's because it is. It's a ludicrous, almost comical twist that in lesser hands would destroy the entire story. Yet somehow, somehow, it all ends up tying together perfectly in retrospect. Inconsistencies or assumptions that went unquestioned before suddenly make way more sense with this context, especially Nasa's contradictory actions after her betrayal. But most importantly it ties into The Orbital Children's ultimate statement.
It says that no matter how grim or hopeless the future may seem, there are always ways to change it for the better, and sometimes to find them we have to look far beyond our own perspective and biases. Be it a pair of kids left to die or an impending crisis threatening every person in the world, we have the power to change the future if we look hard enough. There is an infinitely complex universe just outside our own heads, and reaching for it can offer discoveries we never could have imagined on our own. The Orbital Children, like Den-noh Coil before it is a complicated, ambitious, wildly charming work that never backs down from acknowledging the cynical realities of its central technology. But at the same time it firmly, earnestly believes in our ability to surpass those limitations. That, more than any twist or gag or trippy sci-fi visual, is what you should take from its ending.
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