Out came the children running.
All the little boys and girls,
With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls,
And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls,
Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after
The wonderful music with shouting and laughter.
As discussed in the last post on AO two long week’s ago, this chapter’s subtitle was “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”. That gave a pretty good idea what this episode was going to be about, and indeed the theme of that fairly tale were at the heart of the episode – as indeed they’re at the heart of the entire series. Generational betrayal is the main course here, but AO continues to take an interesting and challenging approach to it. I wasn’t necessarily expecting the spotlight to fall so heavily on Ivica here, but I’m glad it did – and to have a little more background on Rebecka as well. It was also great to see an episode stylishly storyboarded by the great Igarashi Takuya, who’s worked on numerous legendary series dating all the way back to the original Sailor Moon.
I wonder if one of the reasons this series is proving so divisive with the audience (the main one obviously being that it’s quite different from its beloved predecessor) is that it’s an odd combination of anime archetypes and very non-traditional anime elements. Indeed, there’s a conscious effort here to deconstruct the mecha and sci-fi genres and elements of those genres are proudly on display, but the storytelling itself is very unusual. What’s happening here is that these weekly encounters with The Secret all over the globe are being used to uncover elements of the story like peeling away the layers on an onion, surely but patiently. It’s not the encounters themselves that are ultimately most important but what they tell us – about The Secret, about the pasts of the characters and the powers that be in this world, and about the characters today and what they’re capable of. Some things are very subtle, and some the writers are going out of their way to make sure are obvious.
We’ve learned a lot via this approach – not least of which that the world we’re looking at is not a hypothetical future version of ours, but a completely different one – and this week the focus was on Ivica. As the leader of Pied Piper he seems to be the middleman in everything that happens with the team. and it’s he whose loyalties and moral standing have been hardest to pin down. If indeed this is a story of adults ruining the world for the next generation of trying to use them to fix their mistakes (as I believe it is) Ivica is critically the one adult in a position of real power whose motives are uncertain. Is he the one figure who truly cares for the children in his charge, or is he just another cog in the machine?
With this ep, I think we have what looks to be a pretty clear answer. Ivica is himself The Pied Piper – so much so that he bestowed that name on the team himself – but as a kind of macabre form of self-loathing. Not only was Ivica a soldier in a Balkan nation wiped out in a civil war in which is was isolated by the international community, but that isolation was a direct result of the parent company of Generation Bleu spreading false information about that nation’s supposed ethnic cleansing. There are hints from Ivica that there may actually have been some truth in those lies, but at the very least Ivica considers his nation no more innocent than the one that wiped it off the map. He’s joined Generation Bleu as a form of atonement for his own sins, but to what end? Perhaps in seeing the inevitability that children would be used as soldiers, he insinuated himself into the power structure to try and act as a buffer – one last line of defense to try and save children’s lives when it all hits the fan. Or perhaps I’m giving him too much credit – but if he’s not truly on the kids’ side I despair for them, because they’re truly on their own.
Then we have Rebecka, about whom we’ve already seen evidence of duplicity (she’s working with Stanley behind their boss Blanc’s back, if you recall). I suspect she’s been placed as Ivica’s assistant in Pied Piper in order to keep an eye on him and make sure of his loyalty – which would surely have been called into question this week when he and Ao went into the combat zone where a scub burst had occurred outside Phoenix (BONES seems to love depicting the American Southwest) without getting permission from the US military. Rebecka was a big part of the parent company’s power structure, it seems, using it’s long reach to destroy nations and create new ones, and her boss was the current Governor of Arizona (Sakurai Takahiro). She and Gazelle have been sent to negotiate a request for Pied Piper to intervene, but the Governor seeks to use the scub burst as an opportunity to extract conditions from GenBleu. Rebecka has her ways of dealing with old friends, but she’s clearly pretty full of self-loathing herself. She screams out as a character who’s eventually going to have to face a massive, clear-cut decision about her personal loyalties and doing the right thing.
This ep was also quite instructional about Ao himself. We know he’s a brave kid so it was no surprise that he volunteered to accompany Ivica on his unofficial foray into the scub zone where The Secret was attacking. When The Truth appeared, we saw a blind charge from a furious Ao, screaming for Naru’s return – but the interesting thing here was that he seemed to possess some resistance to The Truth’s control (though not enough to actually reach him). We saw a lot of why Ao is a strong lead in this entire sequence. For the first time he sees death graphically and first-hand – not the aftereffects of a Secret attack, but the up-close and personal loss of life. He loses it, not because he’s terrified for his safety (though he certainly is) but because he’s horrified and outraged at seeing lives taken right in front of him.
This is all illustrative of why I think Ao works so well as a MC. He’s 12 – he’s scared, he’s reckless and he exercises poor judgment. But courage isn’t never being afraid – that’s stupidity – but in being afraid and doing what has to be done anyway. Ao possesses no preternatural wisdom a child shouldn’t have, and he’s not immune to fear, but he’s an idealist who has the courage to fight for what he thinks is right, even when it’s not safe or wise to do so. He’s also clever enough to think of non-traditional strategies on the fly, such as using a tent to camouflage himself after realizing that The Secret were responding to humans as threats based on their shape. That results directly in the saving of what looks to be close to a hundred civilians who’d been trapped in a shopping complex, set up as a “noble sacrifice” by The Truth. There’s interesting new information here about The Secret – they learn quickly, identifying humans as threats after the US military (with a spectacular lack of success) tries to attack them with human fodder rather than fighter jets and IFOs. As well, they lack the sophistication to tell a human from a mannequin – it’s only shape they relate to here, not body heat or chemistry.
I can understand why some are impatient with The Truth and his seeming omnipotence, but I think he’s a sort of Pied Piper himself – leading the humans where he wants them to go, though for what purpose it’s not yet possible to say. I don’t think it’s destruction, because clearly he could have done a lot more of that if it was all he wanted – but I see a larger goal in mind with him. His comment that “The Secrets aren’t what you think they are” is obviously a relevant bit of foreshadowing, and my growing sense is that he’s not humanity’s enemy, but merely someone for whom individual lives are meaningless in pursuit of his larger goal. He seems to be out to force humanity to discover “the truth” as he sees it, and the implication is strong that the entire world in which Astral Ocean takes place is a false one, a lie. It’s somewhere down that road that the direct link to the original Eureka Seven universe is going to be reached, if I’m guessing correctly.