There’s no doubt that Aldnoah.Zero is airing in the right season, because this is a summer blockbuster if anime ever produced one – a popcorn flick that’s easy on the eyes and ears without being too demanding on what’s behind and between them. Gen Urobuchi’s involvement here (supposedly minimal beyond the scenario and first three episodes) is an interesting factor, because the show feels like a hybrid of sorts – there’s a lot of very stock mecha stuff going on here, but just a hint of Gen-like machinations in the political side of things. It puts me in mind of an what happens with an art-house director gets hired to direct a big-budget Hollywood goliath.
I will say this much – whatever concerns I had about Gen not being directly involved (which flared up after last week’s somewhat disjointed episode) are partially alleviated, because narratively at least this week’s was much better. We were very much back in the rhythm of the first three episodes, with much better pacing and scene transition, with the concurrent dramas and Sawano Hiroyuki’s insistent soundtrack giving the ep a non-stop air of tension and anticipation. While there are some interesting outliers with Aldnoah.Zero, ultimately in order to succeed I think it has to build on a base of executing unexceptional material exceptionally well, and that means more episodes like this one and less like #4 are crucial.
Right now what’s working best for me is that execution – the series is quite exciting and consistently engaging – and the emerging subtleties of the Martian political situation. What isn’t working as well for me is Inaho and the general scenario with his supporting cast, which a lot more routine and predictable. As to Inaho himself, at least to my tastes he’s starting to take on a bit more of a Marty Stu quality than I’m comfortable with. His ridiculous level of strategic genius is like his flatline personality – there’s nothing wrong with it on its own merits (his use of explosive armor to deal with Vlad’s plasma weapon was quite ingenious), but without some explanation or embellishment it feels rather unsatisfying.
I can accept a teenager making everyone on both his own side and the enemy’s look incompetent in battle – it’s a trope as old as mecha anime. But I want to know why he is the way he is, how he got that way. And his robotic demeanor isn’t especially interesting without some context to understand it (though his puzzling question to his sister about his pajamas – the armor, perhaps? -was certainly eccentric, and his slow-mo salute to Lt. Marito was the funniest moment in the episode). I know this much – if the action sequences in Aldnoah.Zero are going to come down to Martians kicking Terran ass every week until Inaho suits up and schools everyone, that’s going to get old fast, no matter how well-done those sequences are (and so far, they really are).
On the other hand, I find things with Slaine’s storyline quite a bit more interesting. I liked the way Aoki Ei and screenwriter Takayama Katsuhiko rapid-fire switched between the events on Cruhteo’s ship and the Terran warship, each growing steadily more tense as the episode progressed. Will Slaine and Inaho’s paths intersect, or will they continue to influence events separately for the entire length of the series? It’s an interesting thing to ponder, and there are many interesting things to ponder on the Martian side of the equation this week.
In the first place it’s now crystal-clear that Cruhteo was indeed out of the loop on Asseylum’s assassination attempt, which I would have bet against before this episode. In hindsight it does make sense, and the likeliest scenario is that he’s more or less a dupe, being set up by Saazbaum’s faction as a fall guy in case anything goes wrong (as indeed it’s starting to). Even as Cruhteo sets up his own investigation as to what really happened with Asseylum’s assassination, Saazbaum sets up his own investigation of Cruhteo – struck by reports about Trillram’s death that don’t seem to jibe with his dying in Saazbaum’s own meteor bombardment (which in itself made little sense, as Trillram would have known it was coming).
The upshot of that is that Saazbaum has realized that something is up with Slaine. This proves crucial given the dynamic with the Emperor (Ogawa Shinji), who’s declared a temporary armistice based on his doubts about why the Terrans would have perpetrated or even been complicit in his granddaughter’s death, knowing the consequences. All of the Knights including Cruhteo are outraged, and Vlad goes so far as to immediately disobey by going on a mission of revenge against Inaho. Slaine eventually sneaks into the “audience chamber” – which is actually a form of holographic projection – to tell the Emperor the truth and try and stop the war. But Saazbaum has gotten to the Emperor first, telling him that Slaine was a Terran spy who would be trying to poison him with lies. For now, the Emperor seems to be a fairly moderate but easily duped figure, and frail to be point of being bedridden. That implies that his public “appearances” are no more than holographic projections – and prompts some interesting questions about what’s really going on with Asseylum.
There’s a lot of really fascinating stuff going on with this side of the story, all the more so as the details are filled in. The so-called “kiss scene” in the preview of course turned out to be a troll, but it did show us how Slaine came to know Asseylum – she saved his life after he seems to have crash-landed on Mars. He has a long-dormant personal connection to the Emperor as a result, and Saazbaum makes reference to “Dr. Troyard”, who’s no doubt Slaine’s father. My sense of the Orbital Knights is that they’re a bunch of political extremists hell-bent for leather to take the Earth by force, militarist and nationalist by temperament and philosophy, and loose cannons that the Emperor couldn’t control even if he was inclined to.
That’s both a strength and a weakness for Aldnoah.Zero, as it certainly sets up an interesting dynamic on the Martian side, but makes it hard to have much respect for them as adversaries. The one’s who’ve gone down to directly engage Earth (Trillram and Vlad) have been stock cartoon villains, bullies and sadists humiliated by an opponent who still smells of mother’s milk and now dead as a result. Cruhteo – generally sympathetic to the Knights’ cause but unaware of what they’e done to further it – is the figure who seems destined to emerge as a key, as his reaction when he discovers the truth will impact the story significantly Most of the intrigue on the ground comes via the secrets and lies among the young cast members and how they’re going to impact the story going forward, with Rayet seeming to be a real flashpoint in that respect.