Aldnoah.Zero took some very interesting turns story-wise this week. I like the dynamic that’s being set up here, with all of the teen heroes in the act of hiding their own secrets – some of which are known to the audience, and some are not. But somehow the episode itself seemed a step down for me in purely mechanical terms – there wasn’t much flow. For the first time in the series we got an ep that was rather uneven and disjointed, and while it’s also the first not under the direct supervision of Urobuchi Gen I don’t think there’s enough there yet to assume the one is a direct consequence of the other.
One of the most interesting elements in the story for me is Asseylum – or “Seylum” as she asks to be called when posing as a Terran refugee (that pseudonym is such a clever ruse that I doubt anyone could connect the dots…). She’s a character whose screen-time practically begs us to read between the lines for hidden meanings, and there was a lot of grist for the mill this week – much of it coming from Eddelrittuo. In the first place it’s now clear that Asseylum knows there was a conspiracy among the Martians to assassinate her, which makes her behavior in Episode 3 much more logical.
Watching Eddelrittuo offers other interesting possibilities, though. Her panicked interruption when Asseylum was explaining her existence to Inaho is a clear sign that something is up, and there are many inconsistencies with Asseylum’s situation. Some have been suggesting all along that Asseylum actually did die, and that this is in fact the double – perhaps taking it upon herself to try and stop the war because she knows it’s what Asseylum would have wanted. I’ve resisted, but I’m starting to warm to the idea. Why was the “Princess” left with no entourage except a little girl if indeed she was too sick to join the motorcade? The costume changes are the result of holography we’re told (which makes more sense than mahou shoujo, though it’s less fun) – could they be hiding something beyond simple wardrobe? A different appearance altogether, or serious injuries Asseylum is trying to conceal? Something is definitely more than it appears here, even if it isn’t 100% clear just what that is yet.
Secrets are a major theme in the story at this stage. Inaho knows Asseylum’s secret (at least the one she posits as the truth) and must decide whether to act on it – his choice for now is to conceal her identity (and his growing crush) and try to help her contact her grandfather, the VERS Emperor. Rayet knows, too, and she of course is hiding a secret of her own. But what’s also secret is what Rayet’s true feelings are. How informed or even complicit was she in what her father was doing? And even if she was a willing participant, how does she feel about the Martian plotters after seeing her family slaughtered to protect their secret?
And then there’s Slaine, whose loyalty is surely to Asseylum above all else – he knows she’s alive (or at least someone that looks to be her is) and he stops himself just as he’s about to reveal that to Cruhteo, correctly sussing out that his master was involved (and perhaps the mastermind) of the plot. Slaine is now playing the game of pleading to be allowed to “avenge” his mistress – which earns him repeated physical abuse from Cruhteo – but what is his true endgame? Does he intend to launch a rescue mission under the cover of a revenge strike? Slaine also carries the secret of Trillram’s true fate, and I doubt he’ll be revealing that anytime soon. Slaine’s chosen course still strikes me as arguably the critical question in this phase of the series – he sits at the nexus of the story both in personal and practical terms.
The action side of the episode isn’t as engaging, for some of the reasons suggested above, as well as the fact that the animation this week wasn’t quite up to snuff with the first three episodes (an A-1 Pictures trademark). As the survivors wait for a warship to arrive a meteor bombardment wreaks havoc, and communications remain basically shut down. This is the opportunity for sub-knight Vlad to take to the scene with his kataphrakt, Argyre. We see a repeating pattern here – he makes mincemeat of the regular military, and it’s up to Inaho and his teen titans to step in and save the day. This kataphrakt is different than Trillram’s, though it seems to rely on the same “Aldnoah” power source – this time it manifests in the form of a katana of light which he uses to slice through the kataphrakts opposing him. Inaho once again concocts a clever plan and gets the best of Vlad with Calm and Inko’s help just as the reinforcements arrive, but Vlad and his Argyre survive to fight another day.
There’s still very much a sense of preamble to Aldnoah.Zero at the moment. For all the devastation they’ve caused, the Martian kataphrakts we’ve seen do battle on Earth’s surface are strictly shock troops – we don’t appear to have seen any actual Knights dirty their hands yet, only their flunkies, and it seems safe to assume their weaponry is that much more overpowering. As far as the mecha element goes this seems like a very traditional show, albeit one with unusually good execution – where it has a chance to be exceptional is in the way it breaks down the personal side of the story. What all the main cast is hiding from each other (not least Inaho behind his stoic exterior) and how its reveal will reflect on the themes of racism and colonialism – that’s what offers up the possibility for some really interesting development.