I think Suisei no Gargantia is a good answer to the question, “What if an anime basically did what’s been done a thousand times before – only way, way better?”
It would be hard to overstate the affection I’m feeling for Gargantia after watching that episode. Truly, it was wonderful – I don’t use the word “beautiful” to describe anime all that often, but it really fits here. Not just in terms of the animation and cinematography, but the ideas expressed and the skill used in depicting their expression. This was simply “Anime 101” – classic in every sense, and just about as close to perfection as an anime episode could ever hope to be.
Interestingly, Gargantia has stylistically been all over the map in the first four episodes – pure science-fiction, swashbuckling pirate battles, political intrigue – and this one was reflective and deep. Yet they all feel consistent, because the same intelligence and perspective runs through all of them. Remarkably, this brilliant episode – which relies almost entirely on dialogue for its power – was written by a complete newcomer, Nanase Toriko. We all know Gen Urobuchi has said he wants this to be a less despairing work than he’s done to date, and none of really knows exactly to what extent he’s charting the course of the narrative on a weekly basis. But it feels as if we’re seeing all the glorious possibilities of Gen turning his sensitivity and brilliance towards a contemplative, balanced study of the human condition that doesn’t wallow in our depravity and subvert its characters to the archetypes necessary to forge a larger point.
I won’t for a minute argue that Gargantia is re-inventing the wheel thematically. We’re seeing many things explored that have been grist for the anime mill since the first Gundam series and even earlier, to the likes of Tezuka and especially Matsumoto Leiji (to whom this series owes its greatest stylistic if not thematic debt). But the moral dilemma of child soldiers and a “victory at any cost” mentality for the human race has rarely been broached with this kind of restraint and subtlety. Every character comes alive as a complex individual – which is rare for Gen – and the sense of displacement and alienation Ledo feels in this strange new world is beautifully portrayed. He says little, but needs to say no more than he does – his feelings are expressed in his eyes and in the understated and brilliant performance by Ishikawa Kaito.
It’s unusual for even the main characters in a Gen series to transcend their role as avatars, but in Gargantia even the seemingly minor ones make every moment count. Amy is the most cliched character of the bunch, but my fears that she would be used as the usual GAR-moe eye candy have been unmet (thought we did get a cleverly staged pantsu shot this week, of course). She’s quite believably normal – bright, kind, a bit naive and overeager, sometimes to comedic but never to ridiculous extent. She has no superpowers whatsoever, though what she possesses in abundance is moxie and a love for her brother Bevel, who represents the first emotional pivot point in the series.
It’s no exaggeration to say I’ve been pointing towards the moment when Ledo and Bevel speak since we first met Bevel in the second episode, because I could sense just the sort of dilemma it would present for Ledo. But not only didn’t that meeting not disappoint, it exceeded my expectations. Ledo is still very much the fish out of water here, his dilemma very much a metaphor for a lifelong soldier’s difficulties in adjusting to civilian life but taken to the extremes that mecha anime make possible. He’s been presented a bill for the damage he caused the hangar – the first time I really felt anger towards the Gargiantian authorities, given how much he’s already done for them. He’s living in said hangar, a dirty and depressing place, and sitting idly by while Chamber is put to use as the world’s greatest stevedore. In short, he can’t really make sense of this place or the people living in it. They lack discipline, their organization seems slipshod, and the children don’t even seem to attend formal schooling.
That’s all preamble, though, to the moments made possible by Ledo’s sidelining and seeming uselessness. Amy takes him to meet first with Dr. Ordum (Umezu Hideyuki), who may be the most learned man in Gargantia but is obviously helpless when Ledo asks him how to return to the Galactic Alliance. Ledo’s reaction to every proposed meeting is “Will I gain useful intel from speaking to that person?” and when he asks Ordum that after the Doctor suggests he speak with Bevel, Ordum replies “You’ll have to decide for yourself whether it’s useful or not.” Bevel represents a dilemma for Ledo in that he’s the living embodiment of everything about Gargantia that makes no sense. He suffers from, in Amy’s words, a “chest disease”, and Ledo notes to her that where he comes from, Bevel would have been eliminated as a useless drain on society. She’s shocked by this, obviously, but she’s smart enough to realize that the comment is a sad reflection on Ledo himself more than anything else.
For Bevel, this is surely the most exciting moment of his life – a chance to speak with a man from space, where he always argued that mankind must have fled, long ago. It’s his vindication, and he’s clearly thrilled – but Ledo is nothing if not deeply uncomfortable in speaking to Bevel. There’s a rather heartbreaking tone to both of Ledo’s conversations with Bevel in the episode, as relates to both characters. Bevel is a very smart and self-aware little boy, but that only makes him more aware of his encroaching fate. In contrast, it’s actually Ledo who seems more the child – with his halting grasp of Japanese and the confusion in his mind, he’s a very sad sight to see. In a terribly gut-wrenching moment he even says to Bevel that in the Galactic Alliance, Bevel would have been “weeded out long ago” – an incredibly cruel and insensitive thing to say to anyone, never mind a sick child. But Bevel responds like someone who’s clearly thought this through at great length, telling Ledo that he goes on because he’s needed. Amy needs him, and “most of all, I need myself – so I live on.” There’s a simple and elegant truth to that notion that goes far beyond what most anime aspire to.
I’m certainly taking liberties with the symbolism here, but the whole exchange between the young man and the boy puts me in mind of Gen himself. Ledo tells Bevel that all he can do is “be on stand-by”, even if the war with the Hideauze were to end – he knows nothing else in life but to fight or wait to fight. Bevel’s notion is that living is being on stand-by – that it’s enough to exist and struggle onwards when there are no grand purposes calling to us. In a way it seems as if that’s what Gen is doing with this series, setting aside his agendas and simply exploring people as they live their lives – and it’s liberated his story and characters as I haven’t seen in his work before. I don’t think the notion is that either the Galactic Alliance – which is struggling to save the human species – or the Earthlings on Gargantia who band together to survive and disdain military discipline are right or wrong. Rather, they’re each responding and adapting to the environment in order to survive, which is what humans do. The engine driving the story is the collision between Ledo’s perspective and that of the people of Gargantia.
This episode is full of wonderful, cinematic moments, such as the joyous rush of the folks on Gargantia to gather precious water during a brief downpour (assisted ably by Chamber). But the small moments are no less stellar, and all of them are in effect the experience of opening Ledo’s eyes to a world that’s totally alien to him. He’s barely more than a child chronologically, but emotionally he’s very much one – a young man who’s never even heard of the concept of family. When Bevel plays the flute Ledo has made from a Hideauze claw, it triggers some memory inside Ledo – a repressed memory (even the creation of the flute itself was a repressed memory expressing itself) whose significance we can only guess at for now. Is it merely a friend (or brother – or clone) going into cryogenic sleep, or something more sinister and more directly connected with Bevel? Whatever its nature, it’s a powerful moment both for Ledo – who displays the strongest emotional reaction of the series – and the audience, a reminder of what an innocent Ledo truly is. On balance it might just be the strongest scene in anime so far this season, and Gargantia is proving with each passing week that it’s a series of great depth and sensitivity.