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.
OP: 「heavenly blue」 by Kalafina