The ship has already sailed on Suisei no Gargantia being a masterpiece, or even the best series of the season – both of which certainly seemed like strong possibilities after the brilliant fourth episode. But I still have high hopes for the show, because it has a world of things going for it – gorgeous animation, a great twist on mecha tropes, and some of the best characters of any Gen series (and some of the worst, in fairness). Most importantly it has a central dilemma that, like so many (unsolved) ones that Gen proposes, is a catalyst for real intellectual discourse and debate. That alone makes Ganrgantia a rarity among anime.
There are brilliant impulses behind much of what this series does, but it makes an awful lot of missteps that seem rather shocking for a show with this kind of potential. I won’t rehash the ones that have been discussed at length here already, but for my money Lukkage (I still say it should be LaCage) and her sex slaves or whatever the hell they are were one of the most egregious. Because their appearance was mercifully brief they don’t constitute one of the biggest stumbles for Gargantia, but I had an ugly suspicion they’d be back – the rule of thumb with anime is that if there’s no body, they’re not dead (and even then…). But to see them inserted in the middle of the crucial turn in the plot as we begin the final arc is pretty disheartening, I have to admit.
There are other problems with this episode, too, and they speak to the larger problems with Gargantia as a series. Pinion has never been especially helpful to the show trying to be special – he’s as stock as they come, a classic butt-monkey who’s role as a crucial plot-driver has never been a strength. This is that split personality in its most blatant form: Gargantia at its best is one of the most dignified and thoughtful anime around, even elegant. But it’s also prone to crude, crass, and outright silly displays that undermine that dignity and leave me wondering just what sort of show this is. Perhaps Urobuchi Gen’s celebrated lack of daily control over the series is the problem, and it would have been much more consistent if he’d taken his usual approach. That would bring its own set of problems with it, of course, but I have no doubt some of the lowbrow would have been mitigated.
Where this episode really struggles is in seemingly painting the final struggle in such broad and melodramatic terms. Gen is certainly capable of subtlety but what we saw this week wasn’t very subtle for the most part, though ever here some of the inherent intrigue in the scenario shone through. I very much like the debate Gen has created here. On the one side we have the Hideauze, who’ve surrendered their bodies and the most obvious signs of their actual humanity. On the other we have the Galactic Alliance, who’ve surrendered their individuality and their human dignity. And now their conflict has extended to a planet where their forebears were, plain and simply, getting along. I won’t go so far as say thriving, because it’s not as if life was easy for the Gargantians, but there was no war – and what conflict there was is between humans, not between humans and whalesquid. Both in terms of the larger philosophical divide and the problem of Ledo’s presence on Earth, it’s a rather brilliant construct.
Sadly, though, for most of this episode it was made to look trite and contrived – neither of which it is. This whole notion of a band of cultists facing off against noble savages isn’t how I wanted to see this story play out – this shouldn’t be a black and white tale. So why is it? I won’t speculate on how things might be different if Gen were writing these episodes, but I haven’t given up hope that something of the potential Gargantia has can be salvaged, mostly because the last few minutes of this episode were the best. Ledo is the heart of this series and one of its greatest strengths, and the way he responds to the situation he’s facing is going to tell a lot about whether we get a finish that the series looked for a long time it deserved. Gen will be writing the finale, presumably, which is also a good sign in some ways, but does suggest we’ll get the usual punt on actually choosing a side and offering any answers.
As to the mechanics of what’s really going on here, I’m inclined to believe what I initially thought last week – Kugel is dead, and Striker (Fujimura Ayumi – a long way from Neferpitou here!) is acting independently. It’s no sure thing – Kugel is probably capable of doing what he’s seemingly doing here, and while the disease story is almost surely a lie Chamber’s theory that he’s hiding in the cockpit to make himself more mystically terrifying is certainly not unfeasible. This plan just feels more consistent with the machine caliber thinking Chamber has spouted than human reasoning to me. I’m especially struck by “Kugel’s” choice of the word “dignity” to describe what he’s brought to the humans in his fleet – not just because of the irony, but because it mirrors what Chamber said so closely. There’s a fundamental disconnect here, on the very definitions of happiness and what it means to be human. Kugel’s dismissive claim that the Hideauze have given up on their humanity because they “live and reproduce as they please” is also a pretty damn ironic one, and whether the product of an A.I. or the soldier of a military dictatorship reflects the huge blind spot in the G.A. way of thinking.
It all comes down to Ledo, I suppose, and I hope Suisei no Gargantia doesn’t drop the ball in showing us how he responds because it’s the crucial moment in the entire series. Kugel (Striker?) certainly overreached in showing him Gargantia as a target to be made an example of, but I’d like to think Ledo would have seen the hollowness of Kugel’s plans anyway. Ledo is in a tough spot here – he’s a child soldier who’s never had to think for himself, and seeing Kugel’s face was a huge burden lifted from his shoulders – at last, someone to tell him what he should do. Yet he’s grown enough to know that what Kugel-Striker is suggesting is an abomination, though not enough to know how to respond. The key, I think, is that conversation he had with Bevel in episode 4 and the memories it sparked – as he sees the Social Darwinism of the G.A. being enforced on Kugel’s fleet, all of his better impulses are triggered and urge him to resist. If this show is a metaphor for young adults facing a world of their parents’ making, in which they feel alienated, this is the crucible moment for Ledo – whether Kugel is alive or not, he has the choice to reject that reality and make one of his own, or to play along and make the best of it.