Aldnoah.Zero

(This is my review of the first season for Neo magazine, Uncooked Media; my Neo review of the second season is below the first.)

Aldnoah.Zero is set in an alternative present, after humans found a “Hyper Gate” on the moon left by aliens who’d presumably seen 2001. Using it, humans reach Mars and colonise a dead alien empire; the story starts with these human “Martians” attacking a contemporary-looking Earth, as Gundam meets Independence Day. Part one has an alien vessel slamming New Orleans and obliterating it in a mushroom cloud, a spectacle from the Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich playbook.

Then Aldnoah switches to the Gundam template, with youngsters fighting back in robot suits, led by one precociously gifted boy. Among the survivors they protect is a beautiful girl with a secret; she’s the princess of Mars, presumed dead in a terror attack. We also see the fight from the Mars side through another boy soldier, despised by his peers and obsessed with the lost princess.

As in Gundam, the contrast between the central boys is the show’s pivot. The boy on the Earth side, Inaho (voiced in Japanese by Natsuki Hanae, who was the main boy Hikari in A Lull in the Sea), is eerily calm, unnaturally imperturbable, an unusual hero with no melodramatic backstory explaining him. The conventional hero duties are given to the Mars boy Slaine (voiced in Japanese by Kensho Ono, who dubbed Harry Potter), who loves the princess who once sensually saved his life, and will endure ghastly trials to rescue or avenge her. Slaine’s trials include disturbingly intense torture scenes. Factoid: Aldnoah.Zero was broadcast in the same anime season as the torture-happy Tokyo Ghoul.

It’s later suggested that the boys both reflect the show’s view of war as a fundamentally cold-blooded affair, where rationally pragmatic leaders like Inaho use hotheads like Slaine as cannon fodder. But the thunderous action plays to our inner Slaine (Inaho would be watching Sky Crawlers). Aldnoah runs on the wave of its exciting, bombastic invasion scenes, owing much to the first Gundam battles on a space colony.

However, Aldnoah’s visuals by A-1 Pictures are far brighter than classic Gundam’s. This is a cinematic presentation with sleek, refined colours and designs (the characters are by Takako Shimura, who drew the transgender manga Wandering Son.) There are obvious differences between the CG mecha and the 2D elements. A set-piece in part 2 with a mecha suit chasing a tank looks especially synthetic, though the action speeds over such technical bumps thanks to our complicit goodwill as viewers. This is action we want to enjoy.

Aldnoah is easily likeable, with solid trad action and good humour, though it stumbles often. There are faintly risible “woah-oh” musical vocals in the action scenes, while the info-dumping of Aldnoah’s backstory is so badly written that a Star Wars text scroll would have worked better. There’s some overt serial formula, with a succession of boastful Martians for Inaho to take on (though it’s easy to enjoy the mad bitch-queen with her fleet of flying metal fists). Later, Aldnoah seems about to go into dark, exciting character territory, then chickens out and takes it all back.

The climax is disappointing, with poorly-staged battles that are more white-noise effects than genuine excitement, up until a shock last scene… but we’ll have to wait for season 2 to see if that gets taken back as well.

(Review of second season)

Skipping nearly two years after the end of the first series, Aldnoah.Zero’s second season continues the saga of interplanetary war between Earth and (human-colonised) Mars. On the Mars side, young Slaine is now a central player – but did anyone else survive that shoot-out?

Aldnoah.Zero’s first-season cliffhanger left more than one central character seemingly dead, a cunning story hook to get viewers to tune back in and see if that was the case. Well, here’s the non-spoiler review: the second season’s an excellent continuation of the first, with the same visual and story virtues. If it’s not as exciting as the first season at its best, then it’s more consistent, and benefits from our prior investment in the characters. And yes, it brings the whole story to a satisfactory end.

Spoilers follow, so if you want to go in blind, stop reading… here!

Slaine, unsurprisingly, is back, and has the lion’s share of the character drama this time. Once a spat-upon filthy Earthling, he’s now a mecha-riding Knight of Mars (or Vers), and the adopted son of… you’ll see. The show continues to follow Slaine’s upward path, as he collects new friends, enemies, and pursues his very private agenda. Slaine now has clear tinges of Char, the most famous anti-hero in the Gundam universe.

As for Slaine’s calm adversary Inaho…. he’s back as well. Yes, he miraculously survived Slaine’s bullet, but it cost him an eye… though he has a handy cybernetic replacement now (shades of ‘80s pulp anime Goku Midnight Eye). As for the fair Princess Asseylum, who was seemingly another first-season casualty, her status is more ambiguous. Let’s just say there’s a Princess back with the Martians, who’s fully committed to the conquest of Earth.

Of course, Slaine’s still obsessed with Asseylum, whether alivc or dead; it’s also now established that Inaho loves her too. It’s another echo of vintage Gundam, with its tragic love-triangle between male foes Char and Amuro, and the bewitching woman Lalah. Aldnoah is an overtly romantic mecha series, complicated by love rivals and family ties, and the question of whether pure romantic feelings may lead a person to doom his soul. (And as in the first series, a supporting female character finds something hateful in Asseylum’s fairytale goodness.)

Aldnoah is also, gratifyingly, still very enjoyable as an adventure. The action switches between Earth and outer space; highlights include mecha swinging on asteroids, a frantic high-speed space duel to the death, and preposterous but inventive enemy weaponry. Viewers may have gripes with the ending, but at least it’s spectacular and the outcome for the main players isn’t obvious. The conclusion, as noted, seems final, although loose ends could allow a sequel. Hey, if they’re bringing back Code Geass