Friday, July 11, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Knights of Sidonia, season 1

J.J. Abrams is splooging all over the screen while looking at this photo.
Every Friday in "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week," I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. This week, there were a dozen of them instead of just one. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

Knights of Sidonia, a CG-animated adaptation of Tsutomu Nihei's space manga that first aired on Japanese TV in April and was brought to America exclusively by Netflix Instant in both dubbed and subtitled versions on July 4, has been described more than once as "Attack on Titan in space." That's kind of true, but a more accurate shorthand description would be "Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica for Japanese viewers who thought Galactica didn't include enough harem storylines."

For those who aren't up on their anime subgenres, the harem subgenre is any show where three or more girls fall for the male lead at the same time. It's like the Bogart/Bacall version of The Big Sleep, where every lady throws herself at Bogie, from leggy Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood ("She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up") to Dorothy Malone as a bookstore owner who's the world's first sexy librarian. On Knights of Sidonia, female mecha pilots are constantly spitting game to (or inviting to dinner) inexperienced but diligent teen pilot Nagate Tanikaze (Ryōta Ōsaka; former Power Rangers star Johnny Yong Bosch in the American dub), a new recruit in the military who's like a lost puppy dog they all want to take care of.

The corny harem material is the least effective part of Knights of Sidonia--it's the most evident sign that the show is based on a manga for teens--but fortunately, it's only a tiny piece of the show's first cour (a.k.a. season), which can be streamed from start to finish on Netflix. Because when Knights of Sidonia is focused on either space battles or the politics aboard the Sidonia, a giant spaceship where survivors from a destroyed future Earth have rebuilt their old homeworld within the hull and are debating the military's insistence on pouring all the ship's fragile resources into continuing to battle an unstoppable alien menace, the show is on a par with Galactica in terms of gritty and genuinely nail-biting military sci-fi. The world-building on Knights of Sidonia is impressively handled (as are the show's visuals of a lived-in future world), and as long as it doesn't turn one of its pilot heroines into a guardian angel, Knights of Sidonia, which has been renewed for a second cour, is in tip-top shape.

The orphaned and socially awkward Nagate--who spent all his life being raised and taught to pilot mechs by his recently deceased grandfather below the surface of the city in the ship, so at the start of the show, he has no knowledge of the world above ground--works nicely as an audience surrogate into this bizarre and intriguing future world where humans have genetically engineered themselves in order to survive the rigors of space. People can now clone themselves and photosynthesize just like plants, so they don't need to eat as much (it results in my favorite background sight gag that has gone unnoticed by critics and Knights of Sidonia viewers: the dining hall where Nagate, who was born without the ability to photosynthesize, eats his meals is always empty).

In her off-hours, the bear likes to chase around Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in the woods and fuck with their heads.
But wait, there's more: Nagate's androgynous new best friend Izana Shinatose (Aya Suzaki; Stephanie Sheh in the American dub) is a member of the third gender, which means that when Izana chooses a lover, Izana's genderless body adapts to whatever kind of lovemaking is required. Female Sidonia captain Kobayashi (Sayaka Ohara; Cowboy Bebop's Wendee Lee in the dub), who rescues Nagate from the gutter and upon first meeting him, bizarrely embraces him as if he were her son (for mysterious reasons that are gradually unveiled throughout the season), is one of several veterans on the Sidonia who are hundreds of years old, thanks to scientific advances that somehow don't involve drinking the blood of young virgins. To assert her authority as the highest-ranked officer on the ship, Captain Kobayashi wears a porcelain mask both on duty and in public, rendering her face immobile. Joan Rivers would call Knights of Sidonia the feel-good animated show of the year.

"Feel-good" would be odd to apply to Knights of Sidonia, because a lot of the show is more on the side of feel-bad. I like how a small bit of humor like Nagate's awkward adjustment to his gravity belt early on in the season later takes a turn for the dramatic in the fourth episode, where the ship's death toll becomes shockingly enormous due to inhabitants who were careless about their gravity belts during one of many wartime emergencies. Death affects the ship's inhabitants as early as the first episode, but it isn't until that fourth episode, "Sacrifices"--the best of the 12 episodes--when the show really raises the stakes. The intense "Sacrifices" proves that Knights of Sidonia isn't a kids' show take on war that cowers from depicting the brutality and unpleasantness of war, and fortunately, it doesn't do so in a really forced, "look at me, I'm edgy and all up in your face" kind of way that brings to mind either the worst and most puerile of DC's New 52 relaunch or Torchwood's mostly dreadful first season (although fan service occasionally turns up on Knights of Sidonia in the form of nude female photosynthesizing scenes).

The Gauna, the Lovecraftian alien race that destroyed Earth and resurfaces after a 100-year absence to attack Earth's survivors again, are distinctive for not having any dialogue and remaining non-communicative through the entire season (they don't have a mouthpiece character who speaks for them). All these shape-shifters do during the first season is mimic their human opponents and their Garde mechs to outthink and outgun them, without any mundane explanation or exposition. The lack of dialogue and discernible motive makes the Gauna especially menacing (if you prefer your villains to be a lot talkier, Knights of Sidonia frequently pits Nagate against a jealous rich-kid pilot named Kunato, but he's boring and one-note as an antagonist in comparison to Benisuzume, a Gauna that assumes the form of a dead female pilot's Garde and communicates only in creepy anime giggles). The Gauna bring to mind the Mimics from Edge of Tomorrow, with a little bit of the body horror of the titular menace in John Carpenter's The Thing. Their force-of-nature intensity as an adversary results in Nagate and the military's attempts to defeat them being especially impactful and meaningful in the last couple of episodes (when the show isn't concentrated on its thrilling space battles, the jerky, TV-budget frame rate by the animators at Polygon Pictures, the Japanese studio behind Transformers Prime and Tron: Uprising, is more noticeable).

I'm making Knights of Sidonia sound like it's misery porn a la another Netflix exclusive, the as-unkillable-as-the-Gauna cop show The Killing. But unlike The Killing, humor is occasionally deployed to keep Knights of Sidonia from turning into a complete slog. The aforementioned harem hijinks, which feel out of place on Knights of Sidonia, aren't so effective in injecting levity (by the way, not all the female officers want to bang Nagate; Sasaki, the Gardes' female lead mechanic, is seen giving Nagate a hard time for being allowed to fly the most sophisticated Garde despite his inexperience). Instead, the character I expected to be the most rote form of comic relief fares a little better at comic relief than the harem material, and it's the most Japanese part of the show: Nagate's dorm mother Lala Hiyama (Satomi Arai; Jane Carroll in the dub), an ex-Garde pilot who, without any explanation so far, chose to live forever in the body of a bear.

I never expected this cross between Guinan and Hagrid who's in the form of a talking bear to work at all both comedically and dramatically, but Knights of Sidonia somehow pulls it off. In fact, almost everything else about Knights of Sidonia itself is a risky move too, from the choice of 3D animation, which some Knights of Sidonia viewers have found to be wonky-looking, to writing its alien antagonists as speechless. But like Nagate, the show fights to assert itself and eventually wins you over, but not to the point where you want to make out with it like all the girls who are smitten with Nagate.

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