First Impressions – Aldnoah.Zero

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If the role of a premiere is to capture your attention, this one certainly did the trick.

There were a number of interesting questions going into the premiere of Aldnoah.Zero.  Most obviously, what would be the extent of Urobuchi Gen’s involvement?  Many Gen series (like Madoka Magica) featured him writing everything up to and including the lunch order – that was his m.o for much of his career.  Gargantia saw him step back a level, credited for Series Composition but writing only the first and last episodes.  And here we see Gen credited only as “Original Creator” – series composition is being handled by by industry veteran Takayama Katsuhiko.

Based on the premiere, it’s clear this is a Gen concept through and through – it bears all the hallmarks of his large-scale storylines.  Which is good, because another question in my mind is whether it’s really possible to find anything original in a story such as this after anime has done so many variations on it over the decades.  Generic LN adaptations with inane pseudo-clever dialogue and ridiculously long titles may be the current cash cow, but angsty mecha stories about planetary conflict and brooding teen pilots have been the stock and trade of the medium since the beginning.  It’s been done a lot, and there’s always the risk that a show can play as incredibly formulaic if it doesn’t bring a little spark, not least of originality.

Rest assured, Aldnoah.Zero brings plenty of spark – explosively so (pun intended) – even if it’s obviously built from tried-and-true raw materials.  In Aoki Ei (Hourou Musuko, Fate/Zero, which makes him an interesting bridge between Gen and character designer Shimura Takako) we have a very strong director, and it shows in the premiere.  I’m of two minds about the first part, which consists mostly of exposition and character introductions.  This is the portion of the episode that feels most generic, and I’m not crazy about the expositional style of characters telling other characters what’s happening for no reason except to make sure the audience gets the information – it’s lazy writing, and the A-part has a lot of it.  But the flipside of that is that this is a pretty detailed premise being laid out, with lots of permutations, and I did arrive at the end of the episode feeling well-grounded in what was happening.

The second half of the episode, however, was another matter – it was pretty gripping stuff.  But we’ll get to that in a minute.  I’m not going to try and encapsulate everything that’s going on in this storyline, because it’s just too much detail – the gist of it is that we’re looking at an alternative storyline where it’s 2014, but in a world where an alien artifact was discovered on the moon by Apollo 17, leading to the development of a human civilization on Mars.  Conflict grew between the two world, and in 1999 the Martian VERS Empire rained destruction on Earth and destroyed the moon (tides affected how?) in “Heaven’s Fall” using that alien technology.  15 years later, humanity is still struggling to recover and an uneasy truce exists between the two sides.

Earthlings and their offshoots on Mars at war with each other?  You could hardly get a more classic anime mecha premise than that.  But Aldnoah.Zero is shot through with the things that fascinate Gen-sensei – racism, politics, terrorism, despair. Gen uses whatever premise he’s adopting as a canvas, but the picture he’s drawing is always a musing on these themes.  The vibe and tone of the premiere is something like Gundam meets Psycho-Pass, and it really asserts itself in the second half, which is when the episode takes off and becomes truly engaging.

Key players to watch out for start with Kaidzuka Inaho (Hanae Natsuki), the so-far emotionless male lead who’s destined to be at the heart of the storm.  His sister Yuki (Ohara Sayaka) is a drill instructor at Inaho’s high school, where she works with Lt. Marito (Nakai Kazuya), – who’s playing the Kaji Ryouji role so perfectly he even looks like him – someone who knows how desperate the Terran situation is and resents being a part of a system that’s lying to and abusing the students.  There’s also the princess of VERS, Asseylum (Amamiya Sora) who’s coming to Earth as an ambassador and seems to genuinely want peace between the sides, and her Terran attendant Slaine (Kensho Ono) – who’s clearly in love with her, and of whom she asks many questions about the blue planet.  Her minder is Count Cruhteo (Sho Hayami) who seems destined to be a nexus point between the true hard-liners on the VERS side and those on both sides who want peace.

These characters are all fine without making a huge impact, but it’s when Asseylum arrives on Earth that things get riveting.  A terrorist group targets her motorcade with missiles and seemingly (I’m skeptical – maybe it was a dummy motorcade) kills her.  The crucial question here is whether these are Terrans who hate VERS and the idea of peace, or whether the whole thing was staged by the “Orbital Knights” – the 37 Clans of VERS nobles/warlords who’ve been orbiting the Earth in the wreckage of the moon and would clearly like any excuse to literally blow up the cease fire and take out an Earth they see as defenseless (for the record, my money is on the latter).  They make a pretty good head start of it on the pretext of revenge for the Princess’ death, starting with New Orleans (I suppose in an anime you’re not going to see Tokyo get it in the first episode, but I’ll miss beignets and chicory coffee – what they sell at Kyoto Station just isn’t the same).

That’s all a lot to take in, but it really works a treat – the tension in the second half (helped along by Sawano Hiroyuki’s driving soundtrack) is thick enough to cut with a knife.  Again, this is all prime territory for Gen – children being exploited by cynical masters, a hopeless situation, the clear bigotry felt by both sides (especially the VERS-ians).  It’s classic mecha (though we see no mecha action at all and only a few seconds of mecha, period) filtered through an Urobutcher lens.  Of course my history with Gen is that his record is virtually perfect as far as coming up with interesting beginnings, but he struggles to see them through to the end.  Perhaps, then, it’s not such a bad thing that he reportedly told an Anime Expo audience that he’s not working on any episodes past the third.  We reportedly have two cours to work with here – they’ll be split between Summer and Winter – so there should be plenty of time to get into the subtleties of this premise.  The introduction is always the easiest part for a Gen series, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Aldnoah-Zero nailed this one.

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OP: 「heavenly blue」 by Kalafina

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23 comments

  1. w

    If there's ever a class called "How to make a good first episode", Aldnoah Zero would make a great reference. Holy shit I am completely bought in on this one!

    I actually quite liked the first half as well. I think Gen may have finally cleared one of his major hurdles; creating likeable and engaging characters. Natsuki's lead is pretty bland for now, but I like the rest of the cast already. Though it's possible I'm just dazzled by the fantastic character designs. By the mid-point I was actually saying to myself "Wow, the Butcher has finally gotten the hang of characters. It's going to be genuinely saddening when he eventually whips out the cleaver." And yeah, not for a second do I believe the princess is dead.

    Also, looks like the Mars dwellers have a sort of a Victorian society going on. Lords, powerful family names, that whole shtick.

  2. R

    This wasn't my top pick, but the premier was engaging. I can see potentials, and the animation and ED aren't bad. I'm going to stick for a while to see what actually comes out.

  3. s

    Goodness is this summer of anime taking off…it truly is….exactly as i thought it would all those months ago. When in doubt, look at the pedigree. I think premiere worked mainly because of Ei Aoki's skillset

  4. t

    I still wonder if they ever thought about airing the first episode last week. It would have coincided with the 100 year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Also, I believe that the time of the destruction of New Orleans was given as 20:05, which I think is a reference to Hurricane Katrina. I thought that it was probably the best first ep of a Butch Gen anime that I'd seen.

  5. Nice catch on the Katrina thing.

  6. t

    explosive first episode. although nothing actually surprised me at the end when they invaded after the assassination, but the production and execution of it were really good throughout the entire episode. it really is hard to make such a good and coherent start to a series like that. very good.

    it took half of the episode to connect everything of the story so far. it wasn't easy, but not too complicated as well. it's still weird to me that they let us lots of info in one episode, but in fact it built the foundations of the story so we won't get lost. glad they did it.
    I still wonder what the exact connection between the space-humanity and the "old" one. I believe it's a bit different from Gargantia but probably not too much (though who knows..it;s Urbouchi. maybe they are totally aliens).

    after the episode I felt something is somewhat familiar to me with this episode, then I realized that it reminded me code geass with the princess and other two aimed to be MC (Slaine and Inaho). of course, this is something very different so far, but it really felt for a moment familiar with it.

    speaking of characters, something still not connected to me here. since most of the episode was dedicated to bring the premise clear to us (which was done successfully), I haven't seen or felt a satisfying interaction from characters, but that's OK I think. maybe from Slaine's side a bit, but not from Inoha. we'll probably get into this in the next eps but it's a bit different story after the invasion. I wonder about the effect it'll have on characters next episode. we'll see about that.

    all in all, after quite an explosive start, Aldnoah Zero looks really promising and good in all aspects. that's what you get when you have such a team consist of some the best names in the industry like Urobuchi, Ei Aoki, Hiroyuki Sawano and a good studio like A-1.
    I can't wait for the real Mecha and other stuff starting to stir up in next episodes!

  7. R

    I'm speechless. First episode was just… boring. I really don't understand "the hype" generated.
    well, the names involved make some difference but outside of that…

  8. M

    We stopped watching a few minutes in….hubby and I were like huh? This got good previews. Bored. But now, I'll give it another shot. Sometimes, it's just the wrong day or time of day to watch something. The interchange on the ship bored me shitless.

  9. m

    This was a great premiere, I'd say the best yet, not only did it seem to fly by, but at the end I was dying to see what happens next. Even without Inoha saying much, and seeming a bit emotionless, I get the feeling that he's going to come out of his shell so to speak and wont end up as a boring emotionless character. I also like how Slaine seems to be up to something on that ship, or at the very least clearly harbors a lot of hatred towards Cruteo and VERS.

    I was confused by one thing after reading your post, are you saying that VERS is made up of people who colonized mars? It seemed to me, though I'm def not certain, that when Earth colonized mars they discovered there were already Versians? there. Assuming colonization wouldn't happen immediately after Apollo 17 (1972) then how could there be any sort of distinction of them being different races in less than 1 lifetime? Maybe I got it wrong, or maybe I just read your post wrong, but it seemed like you were saying the Vers empire was started by Mars' colonists from earth.

  10. C

    I was under the impression that the Martians were Earth colonists.. Versians are the human colonists (and their descendents) that discovered ancient alien artifacts

    But yeah, I think the timing is severely messed up. Even if humans had developed flight in 1900, for there to be a civilization that big in Mars by 1997 or whenever it was in the anime is practically impossible. It's one thing to colonize a continent (and that took hundreds of years of immigration), but another planet when space flight is so difficult is… yeah. Making the year 2200 would've made more sense, but then they couldn't have the typical turn-of-the-century Japanese setting they can never refuse…

  11. m

    Did they get up to the moon and discover the artifacts in 1900? Because if the premise is based on Apollo 17 that was in Dec 1972. So there would literally be no one born up there old enough to hate earth without hating their parents. If it was 1900 it still begs the question as to how you can have the oldest citizens be first generation born there, and youngest 3rd generation (4th if they are a family of hussies) hate anyone from earth, or consider themselves a different race after such a short amount of time. Though tbh none of that matter to my enjoyment level. I'm willing to accept that they hate each other for no reason (as would be the case either way) but I was more curious as to what the Vers(ians) are: new colonists descendants within 40-114 years) or a long lost civilization's descendants who the Mars colonists were killed by.

  12. I don't know how to justify the timing, but the episode made it plenty clear that the VERSians were human emigrants from Earth using Martian technology.

  13. m

    I knew they were from Earth, but the timing seemed so strange that I thought that they may have been emigrants from the original time of those artifacts. As in their ancestors built that stuff and they had been living on Mars or somewhere off Earth for hundreds maybe thousands of years at that point, and that it was the recent colonists that met them on Mars (thus slaine being a servant and maybe others too) and the Moon when they got pissed at us trying to use their technology. I didn't think it was the recent colonists gaining use of that moon tech that became VERSians 40-100 years later. But like I said I don't know either way, but my question was more about when did the VERSians ancestors leave Earth.

  14. Yeah, said that in the post…

  15. K

    sorry missed that

  16. m

    I think that could work out well. I would think he would have some sort of input as to where the story is heading in a general sense, or at least be there when it's being decided. Sometimes it seems like the worlds he imagines and trying to get his beliefs and messages into the story make him forget about his characters development and maybe having other people handle details later on or even just episode scripts can help fix that. Most of the top episodes of NagiAsu were the ones Okada didn't write.

  17. Especially as Gen tends to be better at coming up with interesting ideas than giving them good endings.

  18. R

    I am a bit late on this, but definitely got excited with all the things that I am seeing here. They definitely gave an interesting twist on the classic Earth vs. Mars scifi theme by setting it as an alternate history rather than the typical "in the far future" storyline.

    And yeah, there are plenty of themes here that Gen has explored sevedral times already. No I wonder how he (and Takayama( will explore these anew.

    As for the OP, it seems that songs sung by Kalafina fits in well with anything Urobuchi.

  19. H

    This was a bit underwhelming for an opener. Bland exposition and (seemingly) blander characters. I feel like they should have just shown us the premise rather that talk about it on a school bus. Towards the end it ended up feeling like Code Geass except not so fun… although the last scene with the kids was kinda unintended hilarious. I'll give it another chance since warring Mars factions have kindled some interest.

  20. m

    I thought the episode was just.. okay. Only liked the last few minutes, when the music kicked in and there's no dialogue. Like you said, too much exposition, maybe a few more shots of the war would have worked better cos it really does play out in a cliche manner. And the main character is typical for a mecha anime.

  21. m

    Haha yeah that's for sure. There's nothing inherently wrong with the idea of leaving questions unanswered, or presenting the notion that there's no right and wrong and it comes down to perspective and choosing for yourself, but you almost feel like you want Gen to just come out with a clearly defined position on the issues he brings up. It's true that most of the things he presents have no true right or wrong, but it still feels like it would be better if he would "choose a side" so to speak. Almost as if he's too involved in the raising of questions, or pointing out flaws in things, but has no talent for resolving those issues or coming up with solutions. He's a very typical philosopher in that sense. Able to bring up ideas and easily point out problems in society or human nature, but unable to think of a concrete solution, and it sometimes comes off like those pseudo intellectual college philosophy class debates where people act like raising a tough question and saying "there's no right or wrong everything is grey" is intelligent. It would be nice to finally see what he thinks about all the stuff he brings up instead of just asking questions and leaving it to the viewer to decide their own opinions. Even if he took a side I completely disagreed with I feel like it would be far more interesting than the unanswered endings of shows like Psycho Pass.

  22. R

    @maverick

    "but you almost feel like you want Gen to just come out with a clearly defined position on the issues he brings up."

    The only Gen series I remember that he did have a clear position with the issues was Gargantia. And you know how that went, it wasn't bad but it just felt a bit heavy handed. I dunno if would be the same ways with Kamen Rider Gaim (which has only 15 episodes or so left), considering that this is supposed to be a kids' show (really, Gen is writing a kids' show). You ought to watch this one though, cause it is quite interesting.

  23. m

    @Roger

    Hahaha Gen is writing a kids show! I looked it up and saw that it's live action too. From what I read it seems like it's pokemon meets power rangers. I might have to watch this show when it finishes airing. Do you know if it's typical dark UroButcher stuff or is it actually for kids?

    Pokémon + Power Rangers + UroButcher = kids show? Yeah, that's a great idea……

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