A reckless disregard for punctuation

A review of the first season of Aldnoah Zero

Gen Urobuchi has stated unequivocally that he had nothing to do with the ending of Aldnoah Zero. Washed his hands of it. So done. Once you see it, it’s easy enough to see why: divisive, to the point where it overshadows the rest of the series that, when all’s said and done, is entertaining but shallow.

imprisoned by gunmetal grey military vessels and featureless wastelands

It treads in familiar footsteps with its concept: mankind divided, the Earth threatened, a war fomented. A force with vastly superior technology attacks an unprepared populace, oh the humanity. This isn’t anything that you haven’t already seen before in numerous other mecha shows and, depending on the breadth of your experience with that genre, done better.

It’s not that Aldnoah lacks for excitement - it’s underdog battles are genuinely thrilling, making the heart race and tugging you towards the edge of your seat - it’s just that there’s nothing beyond that. At least not in this first tranche of twelve episodes. A lot of that has to do with robotic robot pilot protagonist Inaho who is the equivalent of Oreki from Hyouka if you plopped him, apathy and all, into the series’ flavour of mecha: Cataphracts (Katacraft? Kataphraktos?). Inaho is a being of almost pure logic, performing double duties as tactician and ace pilot, managing to repeatedly best the technologically superior but hubristic warmongers of the Vers empire.

Being the underdog has its benefits of course: every victory feels like a monumental achievement, a clockwork series of knife-edge decisions that result in success not through gumption or shounen-style “must get stronger” brinksmanship, but considered logic and strategy. These skirmishes provide the spine of this opening arc meaning that like other genre shows you get to pick the real world conflict you think the series best represents.

The Iraq war perhaps where a vast war machine tries to overwhelm the locals in pursuit of democracy or natural resources? Maybe the Vietnam war then, that was fought with smart tactics and guerrilla skirmishes rather than the clash of conventional armies? What about the Japanese theatre of World War II then with the iconic mushroom cloud imagery here all too telling? Or scrap the real world entirely, with the Cataphracts descending from heaven like bodhisattvas wreathed in steel, wielding swords of plasma or sporting limbs of righteous vengeance until they are slain by man. Fundamentally there isn’t a correct answer because with Urobuchi jettisoning himself from the project after episode three, it’s unclear just how much has survived from his original scenario.

It almost certainly doesn’t have anything to do with Piso’s Justice though which is heavily implied by the series’ tagline: “Let justice be done through the heavens fall” (“Fiat justitia ruat caelum”). Earlier episodes with an errant princess and a tortured prisoner could well have supported such a reading but the ending, that authentically shocking finale, puts gaping bullet holes in that theory. What does seem clear is the focus on the juxtaposition of Inaho’s cold calculating logic and the blonde haired and blue eyed Slaine’s emotively fuelled crisis of loyalties.

So whereas Inaho succeeds through reason and sound judgement, Slaine lurches from one bleak situation to another, led ultimately by his feelings, as conflicted as they are. We see his once idealistic but oppressed character eroded by the duplicity and vindictiveness that is rife amongst the Vers army until everything he held dear is twisted until, finally, he is left bereft. It’s an odd message to leave the series on considering all that goes before it and though it doesn’t completely rule out what would be a somewhat humiliating reset for the announced second series, it distorts what was up till then a by-the-numbers war series.

A completely straight-faced war series nonetheless, wisely choosing not to place its pants firmly on its head and dive down the rabbit hole like Code Geass did (Orange-kun notwithstanding) with plot threads like Koichirou’s PTSD or Rayet’s staunchly anti-Vers outlook grounding the series. Unfortunately there is brutally little world building done beyond the first episode.

We know, for instance, that the Earth has been ruined by a lunar disaster but the effects of this - loss of tides and marine life, wildly fluctuating solar orbit - are entirely unexplored. This results in a story which feels very cloistered, imprisoned by gunmetal grey military vessels and featureless wastelands - decaying and defaced but ultimately bland - and leaving us without a true sense of the peril the Earth is in from the monolithic Landing Castles. Likewise, despite the entire assault force coming from it, we see almost none of the most glorious Vers empire that is now sprawled across Mars. From what we glimpse of it we know that the streets are, almost literally, paved with gold and… Well, that’s about it really.

None of these detract from Aldnoah being huge fun to watch though. The opening theme by Kalafina sets the right tempo with the soundtrack by Hiroyuki Sawano (Kill la Kill, Shingeki no Kyoujin) bringing back Aimee Blackshleger and Mika Kobayashi for insert and ending song duties. Visually too A1-Pictures does a superb job aesthetically, rendering with arresting clarity backdrops and mecha alike, even the UIs (replete with a peculiar reference to science fiction author Isaac Asimov) used throughout are crisp and clean, a shame then the character designs are a little underwhelming.

The problem the first season of Aldnoah Zero faces then is not a lack of production quality or episode-to-episode action and suspense, but a lack of depth. All of the indicators are there and the concept has enough interest behind it, but it’s endlessly telling that the “quiet” episodes that sit between the thrilling escapes and David and Goliath battles feel like they’re spinning in place. Perhaps the foreknowledge of that divisive ending stayed the writer’s hand when developing the characters. Still, it feels like a wasted opportunity. The second season could conceivably elaborate and elucidate in equal measure but these first twelve episode I can only recommend with an indifferent shrug. Good fun but fundamentally lacking.