It’s a real shame that the idiocy of TV scheduling caused these final two episodes to be delayed for close to two months, because irrespective of how you feel about a series, having to wait that long for a conclusion is undoubtedly going to dull the impact. And if you’re as big a fan of this show as I’ve been, it’s tantamount to torture. Already facing an impossible task in pleasing its audience, the last thing in the world AO needed was to be left hanging for two months after a classic cliffhanger.
I think it should be pretty obvious by now that Astral Ocean has split the audience in a big way, and it’s fair to say a good chunk of the original fanbase was disappointed with the show before these two eps even aired. I’m not going to rehash all those old arguments, tempting as that is, because they’re circular – I don’t see any minds being changed. Suffice to say I’m a big fan of AO and I think Aikawa Shou has delivered something bold, challenging and faithful to the original while daring to be very different. That was based on the first 22 eps of course, but I think the best thing to do is to try and judge the finale on its own terms.
I’m actually writing this portion of my post before having watched the final episode, because if I’m going to be try and be even-handed I may as well go all the way and give the penultimate one a chance to impress in its own right. By its very nature this is mostly a setup episode, but often the next to last ep of a series – especially a multi-cour one – is actually better than the finale. I can’t say yet whether or not that’s true here, but I thought this was an outstanding setup episode – it certainly didn’t create any anti-climaxes for episode 24, because almost nothing got resolved. It leaves a lot of work for a very busy finale, but it’s plenty action-packed in its own right.
What we can see based on episode 23 is that “our” world does indeed exist, and appears to be running in a sort of parallel to the ones we’ve seen in the series. As for Truth, he’s on what amounts to a suicide mission to bring reality back to reality – as he sees it, anyway – a reality where the Scub and Secrets don’t exist but nuclear annihilation and the cold war does. This, of course, is where his path finally diverges with Naru’s, and he turns on her and shoots her out of the sky (she’s rescued by
Nitorin Rajkumar) before turning his sights on Ao.
For Ao’s part, his path seems to have come down largely where I expected it to. He’s seen the fallacious nature of the choice being presented to him – Secrets or Scub – and realized that in order to achieve happiness he needs to try and find a third option (though we still don’t know if that’s possible). Ultimately Ao ends up having to use the quartz gun – exactly what Truth wants. As to the world that’s created by the use of the gun, it’s clearly not ours – but a lot has changed, including the political landscape. Truth seems to have disappeared from existence altogether. Ao has apparently won a great victory – over Naru, in part, who’s been fighting with the Allied forces against the Secrets. Ao can clearly sense that things are still very wrong here, and when he sees what he thinks is Eureka’s arrival, he races to her – only to find a Nirvash that looks like his own, yet different.
Without any question Renton’s appearance is the highlight of the episode, and I was quite pleased with the way it was written. Eureka has appeared too, in astral form, and it’s interesting to note that Renton was quite surprised to see her in that form – “You had no other choice?” is his question, and the implications are obviously crucial. Eureka tells him that Ao has grown up well, he’s “Such a good boy – and much more upfront than his father was.” How true that is – and when she disappears again to continue her vagabond existence wandering through time, we’re going to find out at last how father and son relate to each other.
And now, to try and sort out my feelings about the ending.
To be honest, I’m not especially looking forward to publishing this post because there have been so many people shitting all over this series since somewhere around episode 4 (though not everyone gave it even that much of a chance) that there was no way this finale was going to avoid a shitstorm of mockery and derision from those people, no matter what it did. And since it declined to deliver a happy ending tied up with a pretty bow, I can only imagine the reaction is going to be tantamount to torches and pitchforks. Certainly nothing I can say is going to change that, but I long ago decided that I was going to let the criticism of AO be water off a duck’s back – in the end it’s a case of Anthropic Syndrome. The only opinion that matters is your own.
I’ll throw a little bloody meat into the water, just for fun. This final episode did have problems – as 97% of final episodes do, and about 90% of those have similar problems to this one. Namely, this would have been a great 24th episode in a 25 episode series. It frustrates me that shows leave so much plot left to resolve in a finale that they aren’t able to give a proper coda to the characters, yet I see it happen over and over and over, even in multi-cour series where there’s really no excuse. A really good ending is getting most of the plot heavy lifting done in the penultimate episode (I’ll refer to my shining example of anime greatness, Seirei no Moribito) and allow time in the finale to properly wrap up the character arcs. The arcs of those connected to the original E7 did have a well-defined conclusion here – whether you liked it or not – but the “new” characters were largely shortchanged, and that’s a shame.
As to the mechanics of the plot itself, as convoluted as it was it largely holds water in terms of the mythology as far as I’m concerned. Effectively you had the Scub traveling to different times to avoid the Secrets, who viewed them as antithetical to “correct” existence and pursued them to exterminate them. Renton and Eureka fought to protect the Scub, but they paid a heavy price for it – and so did the universes they interacted with. Ultimately a lot of what happened in Astral Ocean comes down to Eureka and Renton’s decision to have a child despite being told it was unwise and selfish to do so – and to have a second, despite the tragic way the story of Ao’s older sister ended. It was really from that – and from the activities of GekkoState and the notion that it was possible for human and scub to co-exist – that the conflict that drove AO sprung.
Yet, strangely, I can’t view what Renton and Eureka did as a mistake because I can’t see Ao himself as a mistake. He is, as his Mom says, a good boy – brave and empathetic and in many ways a combination of the best in each of his parents. Isn’t that what any parent would want their child to be? In the end Ao’s decision – which I’ll dig into in more detail in a minute – validated his parents’ decision to have him, because he sacrificed himself to create a better world for the friends he left behind, and to keep the mother he loved and the father he learned to love at the end from having to endure any more suffering for what they’d done.
As to why things were exactly the way they were in the “Third World”, after Ao used the gun the second time, I’ll freely admit that there are certain aspects that I can’t explain. For example, why Truth re-emerged as an Archetype powering Ao’s Nirvash after having been erased as a Secret in the prior world. Given his unique nature and the fact that Secrets are basically physical manifestations of the universe itself given a will, it certainly isn’t impossible within the confines of the premise. I would argue that the larger superstructure holds up. It casts a rather pessimistic view on the open-ended way E7 concluded – If I could pick a song to summarize the message of E7 it would be “What’s so Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding” while Astral Ocean might be “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – but it was always a distinct possibility. Simply put there are limits to existence that no beings, no matter how advanced, are exempt from. Ultimately what the Scub Coral believed was possible was impossible, and someone had to pay the price for that.
The lack of a 25th episode to fully wrap up the arcs of the new characters cast a shadow backwards, and suggests that in hindsight it would have been wiser to trim the world-building back by an episode or two and spend that time at the end, on the world-deconstruction and the impact it had on the characters. If that world was important enough to construct in such detail despite its impermanence – and I’d argue it was – than I would have liked to have seen more focus on it as the series concluded. Everyone was absolutely necessary – Elena was a crucial character, even if she acted mostly as a misdirection in the end. Characters like Ivica, Stanley and Hannah were vital in shaping Ao’s view of the world and presenting the different aspects of responsibility – and culpability – among adults. Gazelle and his crew were the central pillar of the political sub-plot that gave the story much of its impact in the early and mid-game arcs.
Fleur, I think, most deserved more closure. Even her father had a GAR death at least, but Fleur was destined to be left behind – I think that was obvious as soon as the second ED aired (much of the ending was, in truth) but she was always secondary in Ao’s heart to both his mother and to Naru. Naru’s ending was another that needed more attention – her importance in the story was obvious from the beginning, but after a strong comeback in the final stretch she was largely forgotten in the last episode. This might very well have been intentional and it’s a defensible choice, but not one I fully agree with.
In the end though, things came squarely down to Ao, Eureka and Renton – and no one should be surprised by that. The themes that drove much of the series – the failure of adults to provide for the children, and Ao’s evolution towards escaping the box his circumstances had placed him in and finding his own path – were the focus of the finale, as they should have been. Ultimately father and son each chose to sacrifice themselves, but Ao believed that Renton’s decision to do so was based on a faulty premise. He took matters into his own hands – literally – and chose to act without deferring to or waiting for the adults around him. For Ao, the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the one. Both he and his father wanted to “end it” in their own words, but only Ao’s way would definitively do so in such a way as to protect both the world he was born into, and his parents.
The question for me, then, is not whether the ending is consistent with the series – it is – but what to make of it emotionally. There’s no doubt that Ao did what he did out of love, but he’s a child – and perhaps, because of that, didn’t fully understand that his parents would probably have sacrificed themselves rather than go on living knowing their son sacrificed himself for their happiness. That was the crux of the situation, and the effect of the selfish decision Eureka and Renton made, though admittedly for the right reasons – Ao shouldn’t have existed at all, and something had to be sacrificed to restore the balance. I think Eureka and Renton might have been able to prevent Ao from doing what he did – it’s hard to say with certainty – but in the end they realized that it was due to their judgment that Ao was in the situation to have to make the decision he did, and they had no right to take that decision away from him. In short, Ao had the moral authority to decide the future that they lacked.
It’s a bit of a heart-wrenching thing, really – those scenes of Ao and Eureka together, the beautiful mother and beautiful child, achingly call to mind how unfair it is that they could never have a normal life as a family. Eureka and Renton made so many mistakes but they made them because of love and faith, and that’s the tragic aspect of their story. As for Ao himself, it appears that he found himself “outside time” in a somewhat similar situation to the one Eureka exiled herself to, with only the Archetype Truth for company – though he was able to see the visual proof of Renton and Eureka’s love for each other in the end. He managed to go back to save his mother – and to clue her into his own eventual existence – and return eventually to the world that was the same as the one he’d left, but different – changed for a third time by the firing of the quartz gun, and two years into its future.
Indeed, I see many similarities both between what Ao did and what his mother did to save a universe, and between their fates for doing so. Rather than dying Ao became a wanderer in time, as Eureka did, and it seems in the end he reverted back to “his” universe – though presumably now one that has forgotten he ever existed in it – and with the disappearance of Nirvash and Truth, it seems trapar is likely to disappear too, and Ao is coming back to a world without Scub and Secret. So he can continue to exist in this world, now as a long-haired (possibly) 15 year-old – though he’s going to need to learn how to surf in the ocean, seemingly. But he at least has a clean slate, and can now forge his own path and even his own identity – and one suspects that path will take him back to Iwato Island (now part of a fully independent Okinawa, with Gazelle as head of its Department of State), and to the girl he loved since he was a toddler. Given that Ao is a boy who should never have existed in the first place, this was his loophole – the universe found a way for him to exist after all, by erasing his identity and starting fresh. In that sense it’s a happy ending for Ao, and one that’s richly deserved.
That’s certainly the longest episodic post I’ve ever written, so that gives me even more imperative not to wade at length into the question of this series’ worth on the whole. You believe what you wish, and so will I. I think Astral Ocean stands up as a daring and risky sequel, one that was altogether more subtle and difficult than its predecessor. BONES certainly didn’t take the path of least resistance here and no doubt they’ve paid a price for it commercially, but I dismiss out of hand the carping about this not being a “legitimate” sequel. It expounded on the mythology of the first series, and answered many of the questions that show punted on in the end. I loved E7, for all the glorious mess of contradictions and indecipherable BONES plot twists it left tangled, but ultimately it became a very narrowly focused story at the end and left its larger plot unfinished. I won’t deny that the answers AO found were more pessimistic than hopeful in many ways, but they were answers – and ones that were philosophically and logistically in-line with the mythology.
I have no illusions that this finale is going to escape the negativity that’s been a constant in the fan community, but that was inevitable as soon as the series laid out the type of sequel it was going to be. There were certainly flaws, as there almost always are with endings of multi-cour series, but it was true to the series and to the franchise, and emotionally it hit the mark for me. As indeed did Astral Ocean as a whole. Ao was one of the best main characters of the year, the music was excellent and while there were some inconsistences in the visuals, it delivered some glorious hand-drawn mecha animation in a way we rarely see it in this day and age. I’m very glad that the only opinion that matters when it comes to art is our own, and mine is this: Astral Ocean is one of my favorite series of 2012.