Sorry, Haters – I’m not jumping ship. I still love AO, and that’s just the problem. For some reason the overwhelming negativity I see towards this series really bothers me, more so than with just about any series I’ve covered. It’s not as if I’m unused to disagreeing with most fans about a series, and it’s not as if the general reaction to AO has been negative. The show does quite well on MAL and Anime Planet ratings, and the comments on this blog have generally been positive. But the negativity has been so loud, so shrill, and – in my view – so wrong. And maybe because I have a special place for E7 in my heart despite it’s flaws, that really depresses me. This is a show that I love to watch and find exhilarating, and one where the experience of being a fan should be overwhelmingly positive – but instead, my mood is dragged down by all the hate. It’s enough to make me wonder whether I really should be doing this – it’s not like I’m getting paid for it. I do it for love of anime, and Eureka Seven is an elemental part of my love of anime.
If I might vent a bit, let me just state why I think the criticism of AO is misguided – bearing in mind of course that opinions are just that, and art is subjective. I could compare this to another beloved series getting a sequel in the past year, Last Exile. What I see here is a series by BONES trying to be true to its predecessor, yet expand beyond it. With Gonzo, I see a series blatantly casting its core values aside to try and cash in on the flavors of the moment. AO is a series with a talented writer and director trying to make a statement, with animation drawn by hand. This is anime created by people vs. anime created by a committee, and the contrast couldn’t be more stark.
So what is AO about, really? Well, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that there was a Madoka Magica reference early on, as this show owes as much to that one as it does to any (though with Aikawa Shou rather than Urobuchi Gen I expect less overt hopelessness and despair) apart from the original Eureka Seven. Look at the track record of Aikawa Shou – Martian Successor Nadesico, UN-GO, OER. This is a writer fascinated by politics, by generational betrayal, by the untrustworthiness of our five senses. His stories feature a fundamental distrust of authority and often dip their toes into illusionary worlds. In the 1950’s Eisenhower (a former 5-Star General) warned Americans about the “Military Industrial Complex” – a warning I wish Americans had heeded more closely – and this is the root of what Aikawa-san is depicting here, and in UN-GO. As with Madoka, he’s doing a kind of deconstruction here – not of E7 per se, but of mecha anime and sci-fi anime in general. He’s exploring the core assumptions of child soldiers in the same way Urobuchi Gen did with mahou shoujo. That’s why you see elements from not just the original Eureka but also other pillars of these genres, like NGE (and sometimes even direct references to them).
The trickiest part of all this is that Aikawa and director Kyoda-san have to do this while maintaining the spirit of E7 and linking to it, and so far I think they’ve walked the tightrope brilliantly. But I hear complaints that it’s too different from E7, that it’s confusing (seriously, after E7 to complain this is confusing?). The kerfuffle over Naru’s supposed betrayal (about which we know next to nothing) reminds me of the uproar over Nagi’s virginity when Kannagi was airing. I don’t feel the need to have everything explained a third of the way through the series, and I think the links to E7 have been suggested and teased quite smartly. For me, E7 was all adolescent rage against the machine – disrespect for authority, surfing, club music… AO is E7 grown up (ironic, given that the hero is younger) – rather than teenage angst it’s dystopia. Rather than a fantasy setting it’s our own Earth in the unsettlingly near future. AO is it’s own show, and I don’t want a copy – I want something that feels like E7 but moves beyond it, and that’s exactly what we’re getting from BONES here. And I’m just sad that more people don’t see it that way.
Which brings us after that roundabout introduction to this week’s episode which, apart from a dip in animation quality, provided another example of the superb writing this series has consistently provided (screenplay was by the esteemed Kawasaki Hiroyuki, who wrote the adaptation of Hyouge Mono). Once again Astral Ocean displays a philosophical similarity with it’s predecessor handled in much different style, and that’s the moral ambiguity of the authority figures (and power figures too – not necessarily the same thing). In some ways I think E7 was told from Renton’s POV – it was that world as seen from the POV of an angry 14 year-old boy. Well, we have an angry 12 year-old boy at the center of AO, but the narrative perspective here is more reflective – in a sense, it’s as if the story is being told by an adult Ao looking back at these events.
The differences between Ao and Renton are an interesting element of the two series. Ao is an angry boy, but (and bear in mind, I like Renton) the anger is born more of righteousness – a trifle grandiose, but genuine – rather than self-pity and sullenness. Gazelle makes reference to Ao hating his father of course, but what does that mean, exactly? Ao presumably doesn’t even know who his father is (we of course assume it’s Renton), so perhaps he simply hates him in absentia – and hates him for being absent (or even more, for abandoning his mother). Bear in mind too that Gazelle is a young man who hates his father himself, and for good reason. Hatred of fathers is hardly a rare subject in mecha anime, but it’s certainly very much at the heart of this one.
Then there’s the father who’s very much present in this story, Christophe Blanc. Fleur hates him because, effectively, he saved her life at the expense of that of her mother – certainly a defensible action. Or perhaps there are deeper reasons and that’s just the one she tells herself is true because it’s straightforward and easy to get a handle on. What’s clear here is that there are multiple axes of power at Generation Bleu, each with their own agenda, and it’s not clear which are “good” and “evil” yet – and most likely, all are somewhere in-between. Blanc is kind to Ao when he tries to take the Nirvash and go after Naru, when Rebecka is pressing for severe punishment – but then he makes sure Ao knows he’s under his thumb by sending Gazelle, Popo and Han to obviously shadow him Keystone Kops style. He apparently cuts a deal with the Americans to remove Pied Piper from dealing with a Secret attack in the nation of “Feisal Arabia”, an enemy of the United States – then used Gazelle and his team (who seem to have become Blanc’s odd jobs squadron) to fake a news report to force America into relenting and letting Pied Piper save the day.
I don’t think Blanc wants anyone to know just where he stands – perhaps he even knows that Stanley and Rebecka are keeping their own counsel behind his back. It’s an inescapable fact that GenBleu is both a military rescue outfit and a money-making corporation and that Blanc must ultimately answer to his stockholders. I’m also intrigued by where Ivica stands in all this, and right now my sense is “caught in the middle”. I’m convinced that he really does prioritize protecting the children on his team – but not convinced that there isn’t a more sinister reason why that’s such a priority. Like all the other adults he knows more than he’s letting on. I’ve seen numerous complaints about this being yet another mecha series where the pilots must be children – but for me, that’s akin to criticizing Madoka Magica because the mahou shoujo are all little girls. AO is exploring the very nature of the premise here, and digging deeper into the consequences of it – the stuff that most series skate right over.
Meanwhile Aikawa and his team continue to pepper the story with intriguing mentions of Secret events at key moments in our history – in this case, Philadelphia 1752, where Benjamin Franklin supposedly discovered electricity by flying a kite in a lightning storm. The implication here is that The Secret have played a critical and perhaps even intentional role in human development. There’s also a very obscure and clever reference by Elena as she opens fire – “A Hot Day in Little Russia”, which is the overture from Mussorgsky’s opera “The Fair at Sorochyntsi” – which is about a demon and temptation. She also makes reference how Ao and Fleur should “Gattai” – which would no doubt please Rika from Hagani. Universe!
While the scuttling of Ao’s plan to rescue Naru took her character out of the mix this week, the other pilots were very much at the center – especially Ao and Fleur. I enjoy the banter between the three of them which (perhaps because of the youth of the seiyuu) rings quite true – they behave as adolescents quite naturally would in this strange situation, or so it feels to me. I think Elena’s imagination (“Elopement!”) was running away with her, but there’s no question that Ao and Fleur found common ground – and in the same way teenagers often do, complaining about their parents. Indeed, the Fleur flags were raised proudly this week, but I don’t think they trump Naru’s even more prominent flags. This is proving to be an area of distinction between the two E7 series though, as there was really never any doubt about the potential pairings in that series (though there were certainly more of them).
So at that, we’re officially a third of the way through the series. Astral Ocean has done exactly what I hoped it would do – carve an identity of its own, while still strongly hinting at the direct connections to the original series. It certainly isn’t a series that’s taken the safe route for a sequel, and I’m happy that’s the case. Going for edgy and difficult is always riskier than giving fans exactly what they expect – not that there’s anything wrong with that if you do it well enough – and it remains to be seen whether BONES will be rewarded for taking this approach. Given that the negativity is so much louder than the opposition it’s tempting to believe AO will fail commercially, but I still have hopes that won’t be the case – not just because BONES is in dire need of a hit, but because I want studios to be encouraged to take chances and challenge their audience, even with beloved franchises like this one. For my part I’m going to do my best to be objective and not let my enthusiasm as a fan get the better of me, but also to not let the negativity spoil the experience of watching the series. In the end things like BD sales are out of my control, and the only opinion that really matters is my own.