Final Thoughts on and Evaluation of Aldnoah.Zero

Named as such because this will be longer than a typical Final Thoughts post. The focus of this post will be to, as the title implies, evaluate various aspects of Aldnoah.Zero, as well as to simply express my thoughts and opinions regarding character and plot progression, episode structure, and the ending.

Super-heavy Spoilers warning.

Aldnoah-Zero-Wallpaper

I’ll open with my conclusion: Aldnoah.Zero is a decent anime. It is a conglomeration of lots of Awesome with some Mediocre and the occasional What The Heck. Let me try to explain why.

My feelings about Aldnoah.Zero changed from episode to episode. If there was one anime that I should have written an episodic blog for, it would have been this one. Often times I would finish one week’s episode on the edge of my seat, while the next I would be casually calling each plot twist and relentlessly comparing the series to Mobile Suit Gundam Seed. Then a new development or twist would hit me from left field and I’d get all into it again until it switched back to being a Gundam clone. Repetitive cycle.

One thing I will say in this anime’s favor up front is that even during its low points (barring a couple truly questionable aspects), Aldnoah.Zero was awesome. I’m saying this as a guy who has been fervently enamoured with Gundam and with mecha anime in general for a long time.

Watching Aldnoah.Zero felt like watching a Gundam series, it really did. Group of normal school kids with mechs enter a war with other dudes with better mechs. From the cast of characters to the protagonist’s plot armor to the godly warship, so much of Aldnoah.Zero screamed Gundam that it became more of a nostalgic experience than a revolutionary one.

Maybe that’s what Gen Urobuchi was trying to do; maybe he was attempting to re-baptize the mecha genre with Aldnoah.Zero as he did the magical girl genre with Madoka in 2011.

It’s all there for him to use; everything in Aldnoah.Zero began / was introduced in much the same manner as in other popular mecha anime, with Gundam once again being our most shining and obvious example. It’s what happens to these characters in their setting, then, that makes this anime unique and helps it to stand apart from its fellows.

However.

Poor Urobuchi has for a long time now been in a position that I would never want to be. It seems like eons ago that he was merely the little-known author of the cult hit Saya no UtaPhantom of Inferno and Blassreiter both helped his popularity, and his Fate/Zero novels helped expand his reputation to a larger audience. It was Madoka that really kicked things off. Madoka was Urobuchi’s magnum opus, his one-hit wonder, his one-night stand. Basically everything he touches is good, but only Madoka was truly great. It stood out. It did things that hadn’t been done before.

The reason I say “poor Urobuchi” is that he is now living in his own shadow. Now that he has made something truly exceptional, everything he so much as sneezes on will be mercilessly scrutinized and then juxtaposed alongside Madoka. And try as he might, he can’t seem to turn the anime world upside-down again.

He tried mecha once before, with Suisei no Gargantia. Although that show more used the mecha genre as a unique way to create its setting rather than heavily rely on mecha aspects as a whole (though the entire ending was standard mecha… I dunno), the criticism came flowing in almost immediately. I was (and am) a critic of that show as well. I liked Gargantia, certainly, but it had its fair share of flaws. It was cool, but unexceptional.

(Then came Psycho-Pass, which I liked even though it contained an almost Elfen Lied-level of shameless look-at-how-edgy-we-are violence, but that’s a very different show, so I don’t want to talk about it much.)

Why is all this relevant? Well, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of Aldnoah.Zero.

Aldnoah.Zero is a master of cliffhangers and emotional manipulation, and the two often go hand-in-hand. Ending an episode right at the climactic moment is nothing unique, certainly, but it’s a little shameless as well. It’s less of an “ending” and more of a “be sure to tune in next week!” Lots of episodes end with big explosions, or characters seemingly dying but then actually being alive and well next episode. It’s normal, but distracting.

When I say that Aldnoah.Zero is emotionally manipulative, I mean it in a way similar to, surprise surprise, Gundam and friends. Lots of characters monologuing about peace and justice as the world blows up around them. Lots of moments where we know that if everyone wasn’t being such an idiot, half the problems would disappear and we could get a nice, cathartic conclusion. No character represents this more than Slaine. I mean, the poor guy literally shows up 30 seconds too late to reunite with Asseylum a good half-dozen times throughout the series.

Anyway, let’s segueway into my main beef, the topic of characters. I’ll put aside the fact that just about every even half-relevant minor is a Gundam regular, because it’s the mains that are worth talking about. Specifically, I’m referring to Inaho and Slaine.

Inaho is definitely not your typical Gundam protagonist, and that’s what really hooked me from episode one. As soon as he bluntly and absentmindedly called the assassination attempt that would kick off the entire series with a perfectly monotone, “A missile is coming,” I was sold. He’s not a crybaby like Kira Yamato. He’s not an angsty mess like Setsuna F Seiei and Heero Yuy. He’s not a conniving genius like Lelouch Lamperouge. He just is. Just there. And I liked that.

The problem with this portrayal of his character is that after his first mecha victory and once the initial excitement wore off, he became a pretty boring dude. It’s hard to emotionally connect with and invest in a character who has zero personality. The cool thing about certain really well-done robot characters like Rei Ayanami is that we know there’s more to them than they initially let on, and it’s finding the little quirks in their speech and actions which subtly reveal their humanity that helps us identify with them. Inaho has none of that; there is no complex human spirit buried beneath his machine-like exterior. He never shows emotion, and he never cares.

He starts out fighting the Martians (Versians?) because it’s his duty. He helps people escape because it’s his duty. He gets in a cockpit because it’s his duty. He goes toe-to-toe with the more advanced war technology of Vers because it’s his duty. He saves Asseylum so that he can use her as a political bargaining chip. He allies with Slaine in one battle to take advantage of Vers technology. And he enters the final battle following a bluntly-deliverd monologue about how war is basically inevitable, futile, and really no big deal.

He’s so boring.

And it really doesn’t help that he’s a completely needless dick on top of it. After defeating a Vers mech with Slaine’s help, he shoots down Slaine’s plane because “all Martians are the enemy.” While simultaneously playing emotionless buddy-buddy with Asseylum, making uneasy peace with Rayet, and then in the final episode noting how he would never hate a Martian simply for being a Martian. He’s all over the place, but we can’t even chalk that up to a complex character (he’s not) or an inexperienced writer (he’s definitely not).

Inaho feels like a failed prototype of Ledo from Gargantia, except Ledo came first.

Which is really ironic, because normally the anime community complains whenever we get a normal, whiny, emotionally-unstable shounen crybaby protagonist. People also complain when the protagonist is some God-spawn Gary Stu with superpowers and a huge harem of women as well. I guess taking these perspectives into consideration Inaho successfully avoided either trope, but the result isn’t exactly worth bragging about. Just goes to show that though we often sneer at tropes, they became tropes for a reason.

It’s worth mentioning that I’m not going to discuss Asseylum because there’s really nothing to discuss. She is Lacus Clyne. Well-meaning but naive princess beloved by most of her people, cast out and targeted for elimination by a minority faction, who eventually becomes besties with her former enemies and does an abrupt about-face to fight against her own people in the name of love and peace. Same character.

Let’s take a look at our second male main, the ex-Terran kinda-Martian Slaine. Slaine is very different from Inaho. I spent the first three-quarters or so of the anime wondering exactly what the point of Slaine’s character was. He’s the first dude we see, he’s the princess’ friend and potential love interest, he’s a Terran who was basically adopted by the Martians. He’s driven to righteous fury when he believes Asseylum to be dead and becomes hell-bent on exposing the truth behind the assassination conspiracy once he learns she’s alive.

But he doesn’t really do anything. He doesn’t really matter.

He should have been Aldnoah.Zero‘s most complex character, its Athrun Zala. But he wasn’t. He fights in one battle and then is randomly shot down by Inaho. He reports that Asseylum is alive to her grandfather and is meaninglessly brushed aside. He’s imprisoned due to a misunderstanding, rescued from the good guys by the princess’ would-be assassins, given the Big Bad’s Classic Monologue, and then left to his own devices.

And here’s what he does with that opportunity:

After learning that Asseylum and the Terrans who have been helping her have invaded Count Saazbaum’s lading castle in an attempt to end the fighting, he in a roundabout manner sides with the rebel Vers forces and fights the Terrans. He then saves Saazbaum from getting killed by tackling Inaho, watches as Saazbaum kill Asseylum, freaks out for a moment (doesn’t actually kill Saazbaum), then kills Inaho.

And this is where we come full-circle to Urobuchi. So he’s here, with his awesome Gundam clone, and he wants to continue the ol’ Urobutcher legend and do something crazy. He psyches us out by pretending to have Rayet kill Asseylum and then bringing her back the next episode, but that wasn’t enough. He had to end it with a bang, too.

I spent the first eight or so episodes wondering what the heck the point of even having Slaine’s character was. Then once he was captured by Count Cruhteo I realized that he was Urobuchi’s little tool and that he was going to be super relevant to the ending, but I wasn’t sure exactly how Slaine was going to twist the outcome of the series. I really wasn’t expecting this mess.

But don’t get out of your seats yet, we’re just getting to the real clincher. There have been a lot of Urobuchi jokes recently. Lots of comments on “suffering” and whatnot. Lots of analysis about how and why Urobuchi kills his characters. This show came so close to a true Urobutcher ending, where basically everyone is dead and the one dude left alive is mindbroken and horrified. Make Slain shoot Saazbaum in the head, have him crying and screaming or something, then cut out to a short epilogue during the closing credits about how Earth and Vers have declared a ceasefire and are working towards a permanent peace treaty. That would have been a good ending.

But it wasn’t. Slaine freaking out and shooting at Saazbaum I can understand. Slaine going crazy with despair and killing Inaho in a sort of meaninglessly-spiteful vengeance move I can understand. Slaine nonsensically leaving Saazbaum alive I cannot understand. That little detail alone quite possibly ruined Slaine’s character, if not the anime as a whole.

What’s worse, it’s not done. A second season was green-lit for January 2015. Which takes literally everything that happened and made it even worse.

Because now the writers can go two routes. We can have Slaine as a tortured protagonist doing God-knows-what on Vers or Earth, or alternatively they could play the “Psych! Revival Magic for Everyone!!” card. In the first case, we have a sequel starring an underdeveloped and poorly-written character that now we all hate. In the second, we have a bunch of ticked off fans who feel cheated by cheap tricks and maliciously-deceptive writing.

The biggest hint pointing to some silly revival magic is the Aldnoah power. Only Asseylum, gramps, and the Vers nobility have access to Aldnoah drives. But Slaine suddenly powers his up because magic. If this is karma, power of love, power of friendship, secret Coordinator powers, long-lost relative status or anything similar, then it’s eye-rollingly contrived, not well explained, and altogether meaningless. It turns a mostly realistic-feeling series with futuristic technology into something fantastical and magical. On the other hand, there are different ways this event could be explained. One theory I saw being discussed is that since Slaine was resuscitated by Asseylum prior to the start of the anime, he now has the power as well. If that’s true, then Inaho also has Aldnoah magic, and the scene with Rayet in the bathroom suddenly has a ton more plot relevance than we originally thought. But of course, that would all be wasted if Inaho stayed dead, wouldn’t it?

Join us in a little over three months to watch the return of Jesus Inaho in Mahou Shounen Inaho★Mecha.

Sorry, that was all pretty heavy. Remember that an anime is more than just plot, setting and characters. Let’s touch on some other aspects that help show the quality of an anime.

Animation. Beautiful animation everywhere. Oh wait, the mechs were CG? Who cares? It was cool! Movements were fluid, fights were choreographed expertly, and the backgrounds were pretty. Character designs were standard anime casts, but that’s normal.

The mechs were awesome, definitely one of my favorite parts of the show. It was like someone crossed Code Geass with Armored Core and then added Gundam tech. One mech had an energy shield. Another rode on a Justice-esque hovercraft. Yet another had giant rocket arms as a funnel system. I felt like I was watching a Sutherland fight White Glint just about every battle, which is nothing but candy to a mecha junkie like me.

Sound was just about as good as sound can get. Kalafina on the opening, which is practically the norm these days but that’s because they’re good, and I’m not tired of them yet. Hiroyuki Sawano did the background music, which was nice and mood-enhancing, as well as the ending theme. Voice acting was top-notch, especially considering Natsuki Hanae and Sora Amamiya are both relatively new to their careers. Sounds effects were great.

I would like to touch briefly on pacing. The episodes themselves were structured wonderfully, keeping me hooked from start to finish. However, I spent most of the series feeling as though there was too much to cover for a one-cour anime; I anticipated either a rushed ending or a season two. This resulted not so much in a rushed feeling as a feeling that there was no way the anime could conclude in a cathartic manner within the confines of a single season, which was somewhat distracting during the episodes. I certainly wasn’t expecting both a rushed cliffhanger ending and as season two.

All in all it’s a fun mess, a fantastic package with a couple of questionable directional decisions and a questionable ending. Depends on whether this malicious cliffhanger is a prelude to something dark and fitting or a death-knell heralding the arrival of My Little Aldnoah: Suffering is Magic.

Keep in mind that despite my criticisms, I loved Aldnoah.Zero from start to finish, and the reason I have so much to say regarding it is precisely because I hold it in high esteem. I am also quite eager to see what awaits us in the second season this upcoming winter 2015.

Here’s a TL;DR one-sentence summary of this post:

“I’m really bummed that the princess got shot.”

Final MAL score is a 7/10. The original score derived by following my rating system was a 7.5/10, but I’m rounding down rather than up due to the inconclusive cliffhanger ending which prevents solid conclusions regarding aspects such as characters and plot.

Look for a post in the near future with some silly predictions for season two!

Rick out.

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