This is a pretty good season on the whole, and certainly presents a crowded field of shows, but things are starting to clarify themselves. For me it’s become clear that Suisei no Gargantia and Dansai Bunri no Crime Edge are far above the rest of the field in terms of overall quality. The fact that the two series are so thematically different is, if anything, that much more of a bonus – because what they both have in common is technical brilliance, compelling premise and characters, concise, incisive writing and brilliant direction.
To my perception Gargantia, thus far at least, is quite different from any other Gen series. As has been pointed out he’s not exerting the same level of fine control over this show as he normally does – Gen appears to be more focused on the overall concept here than the minute details (and that may not be a bad thing). His presence is still the elephant in the room, and like most people watching the series I feel a sense that it’s a ticking time bomb – a massive explosion of angst and despair could come at any time. But I hope not, because while Gargantia so far isn’t the bleak experience Gen series usually are, it’s no less serious as a show. The difference is that this time it’s the horse before the cart, and not the other way around: there are important ideas on the table, but they’re acting as developers for the characters and the story rather than those elements merely being devices for Gen to think out loud.
I think this is the week when I knew Gargantia was truly special, and that’s because it’s this this episode that’s seen fan reaction started to splinter about the series. It’s been obvious since the beginning that Gen was using this series as a chance to offer his own take on some classic mecha anime concerns: the child soldier system most obvious among them. But what this episode proved is that Gargantia is also a disdainful thumb-in-the-eye to the usual simplistic anime approach of destroy the enemy before he destroys you. Other mecha series (even the sometimes-but-not-always-justifiably ridiculed Gundam AGE) have of course tackled that issue before, but generally lacked the literary and intellectual chops to cut to the core of the matter the way Gen is doing with Gargantia.
We started the see the divide in the audience with the conclusion of last week’s episode, which saw Ledo annihilate the attacking pirate fleet. Many saw that as a straightforward GAR moment, while others realized Gen was setting up a conflict but saw no problem with Ledo’s actions. The shit hit the fan big-time this week, both on-screen and off. As always seemed likely the leaders of Gargantia were horrified at what Ledo did – not just because of the loss of life, but because of purely practical concerns. With their fleet annihilated, the pirates would surely come looking for revenge – as indeed they did. As Bellows (Itou Shizuka, who really had a breakout episode) explains to the puzzled Ledo, “The drawn weapons themselves are a type of negotiation.” The essence is this – the fleets like Gargantia and the pirates are the residents of Earth, and even if they don’t play by the same rules they have to co-exist in order to survive. Ledo is an outsider, a visitor at best and an intruder at worst. He’s not likely the one who’s going to feel the full brunt of consequences for whatever he does.
The bottom line: war is messy, and there aren’t always neat answers. No revelation there of course, but Gargantia is presenting the problem in a believable and compelling way. Ledo isn’t at fault for what he did – he acted as any military man from his civilization would. They’ve been taught that the only good enemy is a dead one, and he made a lot of dead enemies. What this highlights is the huge gap between Ledo and his hosts both in terms of technology and perspective. Some are decrying their attitude as hypocritical – they don’t want Ledo to kill unnecessarily, but they also openly consider handing him over to the pirates as blood payment for what he’s done. I don’t see the hypocrisy here because neither Bellows or anyone else suggested that the Gargantians (Gargantuites?) are pacifists – they’re certainly not. They’re merely doing what they have to do to survive in a world where survival is tenuous (“Give the fresh water to the one who catches the fish” exemplifies the necessarily practical nature of their viewpoint) and the tenuous nature of that existence has given them an impulse not to take any life unnecessarily, even that of an enemy.
One of the messages here, no doubt, is that life is full of contradictions and moral compromises we’re often not even aware we’re making. Ledo himself thinks nothing of wiping out a fleet of pirates he knows are human, but is repulsed at the notion that the Earthers kill animals for food and keep making him eat their carcasses (and what’s with a carnivorous squirrel?). When the full fleet of pirates comes on a revenge attack under the leadership of their lusty and busty Captain Lacage (Tsunematsu Ayumi) the full breadth of the dilemma becomes clear. There’s a delicate negotiation over what to do next, within the human community and then with Ledo, which results in him being asked to defend the fleet without taking any lives unnecessarily. Well, just ask the troops who fought in Iraq just how hideously difficult that is, and not even Ledo’s huge advantage in firepower makes this an easy task. Lecage is a smart and well-weaponed enemy (in more ways than one), and under any reality she could reasonably have expected she’d have won easily. As it was she managed to inflict damage and casualties on the “allied” (Chamber’s term) side before Ledo was able to put an end to the battle.
That was an ugly battle, too, with Ledo fighting with one hand tied behind his back at the request of the Earthers, putting his own safety at risk – though more so the safety of those he was protecting – to avoid superfluous bloodshed. Was it ideal? No, certainly not – but was it the wrong approach? Many viewers are hooting and hollering that it was a preposterous mistake, but I’m not sure there was a better course. This is a dilemma often faced when superpowers intervene militarily in conflicts between less-powerful forces – to some extent they can keep a lid on the powder keg as long as they’re present. But Ledo is going to leave one day, and the Gargantia will have to deal with the repercussions of whatever he does. Just how many would he have to kill to prevent reprisals in the future? How preemptive does he have to be? As is so often the case Gen may be better at asking the questions than offering answers (we’ll see) but if so, in this instance I think he has a pretty darn good excuse since there are no good answers.
I might quibble with some small things here: given how beautiful Gargantia’s backgrounds and cel animation are (for example, the gorgeous starscapes visible on a planet with virtually no artificial light sources and no land), I wish it relied less on middling CGI than it does. Some of the choices with character design (see Lecage and her half-naked slave-girl concubine lieutenants) are a bit too pandery for my tastes. But on balance they’re meager flaws – this is a series that both delivers up a terrific plot and characters who behave recognizably and believably in fantastical situations. I’m always on-edge to see where the story will go next, and this week is no exception: with the reveal that Ridgett (Ohara Sayaka) is the daughter of the former leader “Chevron”, it seems likely that the old Fleet Commander will give way to her (most likely through a heroic death) soon enough. The alliance between Ledo and the Gargantia is a tenuous one – and Ridgett gets right to the key question: if Ledo can do that to the pirates, can’t he also do that to us? This series presents a scenario that’s overflowing with possibility, and that’s one of many reasons why it’s such a joy to watch.