I don’t think this show knows what it is doing. Well – it does know what it’s doing in that it got Urobuchi to write the first 3 episodes to lure people in, but after that it’s a total shitshow.
On one hand, it’s incredibly perfunctory – it has all the requisite components of a typical mecha title (including child soldiers – sorry, teenage pilots) that it brings in slightly different directions than expected, while at the same time it still falls back on the traps of unfortunate fanservice and cramming in a ton of empty spectacle. With Psycho-Pass you know it’s saying something, the writing and pacing and the rest are imbued with the conviction of intentionality; with this it’s more going through motions, phoning it in, so much so that Urobuchi’s signature (killing a ton of major characters off) is either softened or absent. For a change, this is actually a bad thing.
What kept me watching was partly that it’s almost word-for-word an aggressively subdued Code Geass, to the point that the evil emperors look downright related (and there are the references; Inaho is nicknamed ‘Orange’ and gets a cybernetic eye; who else is nicknamed Orange-kun and gets a cybernetic eye…). There’s a Lelouch, an Euphemia, a Suzaku, even sort of a Kallen. It’s slightly bemusing to watch, though unsurprising seeing that Urobuchi’s had experience doing ‘What if Show X, But My Way’ (Psycho-Pass being a Ghost in the Shell with Urobuchi philosophy, and no fanservice).
But unlike Code Geass there is very little sense of forward movement, which is strange because a lot of things happen rapidly, but so much of what’s ‘happening’ is endless combat sequences, nearly all of which follow the script of Inaho figuring out the weak point of an apparently invulnerable enemy mecha, and then they beat it; later the ‘beating it’ sequence is expanded to include the battleship firing a lot of cannons at said enemy mecha. Though stock footage is for the most part utilized with care, practically they could have gone all-in with stock footage (and stock script, for that matter); each episode features this same repetitious sequence, with the same characters fulfilling exactly the same functions over and over or, distressingly, repeating the same lines. Among so much empty spectacle there’s nearly no downtime for characterization, and pretty soon everyone is reduced to their one issue (Morita’s PTSD) or catchphrase/in-joke (Darzana making fun of Kaoru’s dating life), and that’s assuming they have an issue or complication. I like to think the writers gave up and admitted this is a sad shitshow when they have Count Sauzbaum (sp?) yelling the other counts’ mecha catchphrase while piloting a super-mecha that’s a combination of all those other mecha.
It’s a cramped show, with a cast at least as big as Code Geass but with only half the number of episodes to work with. Filler characters like Inko, Nina, and Calm* have neither personality nor issues to work past, and therefore no characterization to speak of (Nina is around mostly to provide fanservice that, I’d like to hope, titillates precisely nobody). Out of them all, I’d say Rayet fares the best, but that’s still not much to speak of. The Martian knights are similar to the Britannian nobility in Code Geass, which is to say they’re poncy and bigoted, in a boring sort of way, and wear ridiculous collars. The Euphemia stand-in, Asseylum, is a disastrous cipher from episode one until the very bitter end.
*Like most anime, this show gives its white characters the absolute most hilarious names: Slaine Troyard, Calm Craftsman, John Humeray, Darzana Magbaredge. I’m not sure any of those are real surnames.
I’m not going to get into how silly the military aspects are – with that rate of attrition (each Mars vs Earth skirmish results in heavy casualties for the latter, and a ton of wrecked mechas) the Earth forces shouldn’t still be able to operate (let alone build bases in the satellite belt) and they hinge absolutely on Inaho’s tactical genius, plus the fact that Darzana and Kaoru are the only two competent commanders on all of Earth. Two! It’s as silly as it sounds. Not that the Martian forces are staffed by geniuses by any means – each Martian Knight commands their own army (??) and they attack Earth by randomly bombarding the shit out of everything without any regard for coordination or, er… friendly fire. We are to understand that the knights are locked in a feudal system and competing for territory/imperial favor, but it’s still – as said – kind of stupid. (It’s very possible for one knight’s forces to be hit by bombardment launched by a different knight.) So all told, maybe it’s about right that Earth forces can survive by having only three competent people on its side since the Martians have just the one (Slaine, whose genius is in that he offers up the novel suggestion that the knights should coordinate their forces. Yeah, I got nothing). I think Earth may have the advantage of numbers – much bigger population – though Martians still have loads of infantry; I’m not sure how precisely they are maintained or fed.
The pilot seats in the Martian mechas have no seat belts, by the way. And it’s not because the cockpit is shock-proof, it very much isn’t. Who built these things? Now that I think about it, why doesn’t anyone think to have independent computers that work like Inoha’s cybernetic eye, since it confers incredible computing advantages that might have been really useful on, say, a battleship? Or even as its own unit instead of the bizarrely primitive laptops we do see in the show. It all plumbs depths of stupidity I hitherto couldn’t even imagine. Yes, mecha shows tend to have a power creep issue (‘new unique weapon becomes mass produced so newer, even more ridiculous weapons – i.e. mecha – must be trotted out’) but, honestly, mass-producing weapon tech that’s proven reliable is common sense. I appreciate that Earth mecha can get no better but there’s no excuse for the ‘analytical engine’ being unique. For a show that’s so in love with its military guff, it doesn’t even try for internal consistency.
Many a mediocre show has been redeemed by its finale. Is Aldnoah.Zero?
It comes slightly close to it at the last minute when Slaine orders his forces to surrender while he self-destructs the moon base (with himself on it), but as you might expect, we’re force-fed one last mecha battle. It proceeds, nearly frame-to-frame, the same as all the other mecha battles in this extremely tired show and the dialogue reaches a new height of nonsensical where Inoha tells his nemesis ‘There’s nothing to be gained by continuing to fight’ even though they’re fighting because of an exchange in the opening episodes where Inoha himself (for absolutely no reason) declares ‘You’re my enemy’ to a Slaine as dumbfounded as I was. The ending sequence shows ups Earth and Mars at last joined in peace, with Asseylum as the new ruler of the latter and ambassador to the former, just as she’s wanted all along. Inaho keeps on being Inaho. Slaine is kept a prisoner – stripped of dignity and, as far as I’m aware, everyone thinks he’s dead – out of what comes across as sheer sadism more than anything (but Asseylum wants him alive, so it’s ok, I guess).
I liked Inaho all right as a character, but Slaine – despite undergoing the change from pacifist to embodiment of terrorist state foreign policy – proves to be painfully weak, his shift from naive child to what he hates (a titled aristocrat who commands armies) never rising to be anything more than rote. It’s not very compelling, even taking into account that we’ve seen all this before in Code Geass. Neither does it help that the unsustainably bloated cast never gets thinned even once: in Aldnoah, if you have a name then chances are good you’ll survive until the end, however incidental you are. It’s not that a show can only be good if a bunch of characters get killed off, but in this case it means that very little has changed from episode one interpersonally. We are fortunately spared the compulsory heterosexuality in that we don’t see the characters paired off, the show ending instead on where it’s always been about – Slaine and Inoha locked in their nonsensical relationship.
When I started watching this, I thought that everyone was way too harsh on it – it may be a bit flat and slow at characterization, but I thought it was decently watchable, with minimal fanservice (this changed in season two). By the beginning of the second season I started to see what they meant. What few compelling characters it has are quickly squandered. The best you could say is that, by and large, Aldnoah is inoffensive. This is a show that had a lot of potential but no spark; it’s perfunctory from the word go, and has nothing whatsoever to say. Not even the rote things of most anime or Hollywood blockbusters. It is just that empty.