I was a bit worried about the Spring season after the first batch of premieres, but this weekend has brought a pretty impressive crop. Some of that is the power of sheer numbers, of course, but among that group are quite a few shows that seem to have the potential to be exceptional, and Suisei no Gargantia definitely counts among that number. It grabs you in a way few series do in their first episode.
There were two series among the biggest-in-years crop of sci-fi anime that stood out in looking at the schedule. The first was Shingeki no Kyojin, which delivered with a very strong, gripping opening episode. Suisei no Gargantia was the second, and it too delivered with a premiere that was equally strong in quite different ways. Seeing Gen tackle a mecha anime holds a lot of appeal in the first place, and the premise behind this one was intriguing as well. With the might of Production I.G. behind it there was really nothing on paper standing in the way of Suisei being a very notable show.
This premiere reminded me a bit of Saving Private Ryan, in that it launched directly into the action with an extended and brutal combat sequence. Combat in space is quite different than on the killing fields of Europe, of course, but Gen and director Murata Kazuya do a splendid job of showing us that death is the soldier’s one constant companion, no matter the battlefield. We’re dropped right in the middle of a story where a galactic human alliance is in extended struggle with aliens called Hideauze, all to preserve a future for the idyllic homeworld of Avalon. Solders spend most of their time in cryogenic sleep, and if they survive long enough to build up servie time they’re granted the privilege of a few weeks away from the front to go to Avalon and do all the things that make us human.
Such a soldier is mecha pilot Ledo (an excellent Ishikawa Kaitou, a clear rising star in the seiyuu world), but his leave will only come if he survives the current battle – for which he’s woken a mere 5 minutes before commencement. It’s a kind of all-in attack on a Hideauze base using wormhole technology, and the entire sequence – like the opening of SPR – is stunning. It’s about as good an extended space battle as you’ll see in a TV anime, but as with that Spielberg film, there’s a feeling this isn’t going to be typical of what the rest of the show is going to be like. Indeed, when the attack goes disastrously wrong, Ledo is forced to retreat and only survives thanks to the sacrifice of his commanding officer Kugel (Ono Yuuki) who memorably tells him, “You’re younger than I am. You’ll be able to kill more of them than I will.”
This is all pretty much perfectly executed, but the real seemingly story seemingly begins afterwards – as we join a ragtag salvage operation trying to make sense of Ledo’s mecha. He’s awoken after a six-month slumber by his A.I. unit, Chamber (Sugita Tomokazu), to a strange world (later revealed to be the mythological origin planet of Earth) where the language makes no sense (Chamber busily starts to work trying to make sense of this). We get a sense of Ledo here in his unwillingness to risk the lives of the strange primitives outside his mecha in order to escape – he’s not socially adapted, but he has integrity and a soldier’s well-drilled concern for civilian collateral damage. I love the chemistry between Ledo and Chamber, and the salvage crew seems as if they were ripped from the pages of a Matsumoto Leiji story. Most important among them for our purposes is Amy (Kanemoto Hisako) who, with her pet squirrel and spunky nubile sexuality, is easily the most conventional part of the episode. Gen always includes at least one character of this type in every story – it seems to fill a sort of security blanket role for for him as a writer.
I would say that, on balance, this premiere was about as close to flawless as you could want. It was gorgeous to look at, well acted, briskly paced and immediately sucks you in to the story both in space on on the ground. The dialogue is witty (Sugita, typically, gets the best lines) and the sci-fi side of things holds water. Gen has a very interesting mix here – combined with the larger struggle of galactic survival and returning to his people, Ledo is going to be dealing with a classic lifelong soldier’s struggle to integrate into a non-military social structure for the first time. It doesn’t need to be repeated than Gen struggles to take shows across the finish line – he’s always been better at introducing interesting situations than resolving them. But for my money this is as good a start as he’s ever gotten off to, and all the pieces are in place for Suisei no Gargantia to be something special.