Aldnoah Zero

As Aldnoah Zero shuffles off the broadcast schedule, it’s going to become increasingly difficult to find reviews that aren’t bloated with spoilers and speculation about the obtuse ending of the series. In the interest of separating rambling speculation from actual review, any explication on that front will be reserved for the space below the Series Info at the bottom of the article. For those who have not seen AZ yet, read ahead with no fear.

Aldnoah is a mecha space opera the likes of which the newer generation of anime-watchers has not seen in a great while. However, if you grew up watching after school specials, you’ll probably get a feeling of deja-vu. Aldnoah‘s Princess Asseylum is similar in almost every way to Gundam Wing‘s Relena Dorlain. Inaho Nao of Aldnoah is also practically a direct port of Gundam W‘s Hiro Yui. Slaine Troyard? Yeah, he’s Treize Kushrenada.

Hey look, it's Orange from Code Geass.

Hey look, it’s Orange from Code Geass.

This can all be chalked up to the limitations of character development in anime. At best, we can simply say that it’s an homage to the underappreciated space opera genre, which hasn’t had a shining star in quite some time. Aldnoah does its best to correct this by giving a grand battle between earth and the inhabitants of Mars — who have discovered a technology enabling them to generate energy and manipulate quantum fields. The only problem is that Mars has no resources to flourish, so its militant, feudal leadership wants to pillage earth to literally combine the best of both worlds. An assassination attempt is made on the pacifistic Martian emissary, Princess Asseylum, and the war is kicked off full tilt.

That's no moon.

That’s no moon.

What’s missing from the W homage are a slew of characters with distinct personalities pulling the plot in multiple directions. With the exception of Slaine (and Rayet, who ceases to be important in season two), almost all of the characters come out of the gates fully developed. The minute you meet Nao, it doesn’t take an analytical engine to figure out how he’ll behave in every single situation. In many ways, Aldnoah plays out like a Greek tragedy. We all know how the plot will unfold and the entertainment value is watching someone fall from grace in a spectacular way.

And by "someone" I totally mean the little girl who can inexplicably drive a military humvee like she's The Stig's daughter.

And by “someone” I totally mean the little girl who can inexplicably drive a military humvee like she’s The Stig‘s daughter.

Despite their transparency, every important character acts in very human ways. The Princess makes decisions (yes, crybabies, including who to marry) based on her station and not personal desires. The military people make logical, tactical moves until the chaos of the final episode. And in the villain’s case, we see shortcomings emerge largely because of a betrayal of his station in favor of emotional responses. However, there are a plethora of characters who are given backstory that amounts to nothing terribly important while other, quite central characters simply disappear and have no resolution. Season 1 comes off as a bit disjointed, while Season 2 is focused quite well but doesn’t have time to make up for the omissions of the first half of the series.

"Sure is fun watching all these people die for no fucking reason. Whoops, was that out loud?" -Princess Lemrina

“Sure is fun watching all these people die for no fucking reason. Whoops, was that out loud?” -Princess Lemrina

There’s a lot of politicking to wrap up in very little time and the final episode of the series created a bit of controversy as a result. It’s a long journey to an ending which absolutely beautifully pitches back to symbols from the very first episodes. Still, it goes out with a sputter rather than a bang and it’s hard not to step away wishing there were just a little more to it all.

The animation itself is masterful. CGI is barely noticeable, the backgrounds are almost all done with ridiculous detail, and light sources are consistent and provide shading gradients instead of bi-color paint swatches. Every environment looks and feels exactly like what it is. If anything, the standard anime look of the characters themselves is the most hindering art in the series.

All this beautiful background work and most of the people in the shot don't even have faces.

All this beautiful background work and most of the people in the shot don’t even have faces.

With the even, fast pace of the series and the wonderful balance between combat and exposition, Aldnoah is a very easy series to recommend to a friend. It’s a master of cliffhangers and gives you just what you need when you need it. However, it’s afraid to get its hands dirty. Almost every character with a name, no matter how tangential and unimportant they are, will never be in any real danger. While Aldnoah is very much a fallen villain’s story, it would have been served well by developing the central characters more. It straddles the line between making one wish there were another season and the understanding that a third set would’ve simply been too much to stay interesting. It’s sufficiently complex while staying on task and not becoming pretentious in its presentation of the mind vs. heart theme.

Asseylum develops a "bitch please" expression, which is the pinnacle of her character development.

Asseylum develops a “bitch please” expression, which is the pinnacle of her character development.

Aldnoah Zero is an anime you can safely suggest to anyone looking to marathon away a weekend. The planning and effort that went into making this a great show are all very evident from the very first episode. At the same time, it’s probably something you’ll watch once and never feel the need to revisit.

Rating: 8.0

Series Info:

Title: Aldnoah Zero
Original Source: Animation
Source Writer: Gen Urobuchi
Source Publisher: N/A
Director: Ei Aoki
Producer: N/A
Writer: Gen Urobuchi and Katsuhiko Takayama
Music: Hiroyuki Sawano
Studio: A-1 Pictures, TROYCA
Run Start: 07/2014
Review Date: 03/2015
Episodes Reviewed: 01-24

Here there be spoilers! Discussion of the ending below! Proceed with caution! Yarr!

There’s a lot of speculation about the ending and what it all meant for the characters. Obviously, we don’t really know in most cases. Lemrina is a shining example of just poofing out of existence. She was essentially a conspirator and a traitor. Does Seylum forgive her? Does she send her to a penal colony? Is she removed from the line of succession? There’s so much speculation to be done about, well, everyone. We don’t even know if Seylum is aware Slaine isn’t dead. That’s very clearly the way things were intended to be.

I would posit that this is the story of Slaine Troyard’s rise and fall more than some kind of grand politics, Inaho, or any of the Terran crew. Seylum acts logically despite thinking with emotions. She does what makes sense to do, including brokering peace, sharing technology, and her choice of husband. Inaho likewise repeatedly brushes aside emotions — Inko’s, his sister’s, and his own — to do what is best for the most people. Together, they’re reflections of simple humanitarian utility. Seylum is a politician, Inaho is a military man, and they behave as such.

Then we have Slaine. He’s clearly the most impulsive of all the characters and acts out of emotional response to most of the stimuli in his world. Slaine, above all the other characters, acts the most his age. While he’s consistent throughout most of season one, we see a particular thing happen in certain circumstances with Slaine where his intense emotions overtake him: he very symbolically clutches his heart. It’s easy to miss, but look what he does when he sees Seylum shot:

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Trying to hold the pieces of his heart together.

From this moment onward (i.e. all through Season 2) we see Slaine become a bit of a conniver. His heart broken, he plots how he’ll use his adoptive “father” and his rise to power at the expense of Lemrina’s affection for him. He justifies his horrible transgressions through his fanatical devotion to the incapacitated Seylum only to be rebuffed by her when she finally wakes up to the world he’s created. When Seylum refuses to be his prized plaything, Slaine opts for what he feels is a sure death. His anger and despair lead him down a path of self-destruction as he realizes he has failed to adhere to the vision of the person he loved most.

Denied death and sentenced to live for potentially decades in solitary confinement, Slaine finds salvation through the forgiveness of his betrayed princess. While he turned his back on Seylum’s ideals, she held faith in his goodness as a person and asked Inaho to save him. When the gravity of the situation hits him, Slaine performs a familiar act as he repents and his tattered soul is mended. This time, the motion has the locket of Seylum at the center of it:

The broken pieces coming together again.

The broken pieces coming together again.

We’re left with an image of Slaine looking out of his cell, seeing the gulls flying over the ocean just as Seylum did on her first visit to earth. He smiles in the light of the sun and with the understanding of his absolution in Seylum’s eyes, and the credits roll. We see a man endure heartbreak, the consequences of his human emotions, how easy it was for him to lose sight of what he valued most, and ultimately his transcendence from his own pit of torments back into the person he believed himself to be the entire time.

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