Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Problem in Sidonia

So, the print version of Mad Science is in the dreaded proofing process, and it looks like I will make Gencon this year, but that’s not what this post is about. Today, I am going to talk about anime, specifically, Knights of Sidonia and my thoughts on it.

Some Background
I am not an anime aficionado, nor am I a weeaboo or a japanophile. I was enamoured with some aspects of anime in my late teens and early twenties (sorry Kirk), but my tastes drifted away from anime with time. These days, a show has to really stand out to grab my attention.

It’s been a long while since any anime show caught my eye for any length of time, let alone an entire season. Knights of Sidonia managed this by shamelessly pandering to my interests. It has:
-Giant Robots
-Giant Monsters
-Space Battles where Giant Robots fight Giant Monsters.

If you follow my blog, or have read my RPGs, then you know that I am into these things pretty hardcore, so I hung in for all 12 episodes. Now, having watched the series, and in the spirit of my rants on Pacific Rim and Titanfall, here are my thoughts on Knights of Sidonia. Spoilers will follow, so read at your own risk.

The Cliches
Serialized anime is loaded with clich├ęs and Knights is no exception. We could dive down the TV tropes rabbit hole, and look at how the main character, Nagate Tanikaze, is a teenage (maybe 20 years old?) boy with superhuman mecha piloting skill who needs to use a special weapon to defeat the alien monsters attacking his home. But I am not too concerned with the plot and tropes here. I can accept that the show follows the typical Campbellian hero’s journey, and encounters the standard trials and tribulations along the way. I am more concerned with how well the series pulls these tropes off, and where it stumbles.

A Weak Protagonist
There are some serious problems with our hero, Nagate Tanikaze. In short, he lacks agency and has a weak story arc. We will tackle each of these in turn.

First off: agency. Nagate doesn’t do much. Instead, he has stuff done to him and he reacts. He is essentially forced to become a pilot, dropped into his first mission, and then is a pawn caught in the schemes of Sidonia’s captain and council, while being fought over by a small harem of love interests (more on that in a second). We never learn what motivates Nagate, nor how he feels about any of the larger issues in Sidonia. By the end of the season he manages to claim that he wants to defend Sidonia because he likes the people there, but he is still mostly incurious and passive.

Number the second: weak story arc. The very first scene of the series establishes that Nagate isn’t just a good pilot, he’s a great one. He has mastered the art of mecha combat. He is so awesome that the only time he makes a serious tactical error, it turns out to be a rival sabotaging him rather than a true error on his part. In later episodes we learn that he has special training (never mentioned up to that point) on weapons that no one else knew existed. So, as far as character growth is concerned. Nagate does not grow as a pilot. He starts off as the best of the best, and stays there.

So how about personal growth or relationships? Well, there isn’t much there either. Nagate is too passive to take any chances in his personal dealings, and despite multiple opportunities, never really makes any attempt to connect with the people around him. Oh, they all try to connect with him in some way. His bevy of girls literally fight to be with him. His rival tries to discredit him, the cook (who’s a bear, don’t ask) tries to mother him, and the ship’s captain tries to control him, but he is too imperceptive to catch that most of this is going on. Even when he almost forges a relationship with another pilot, Shizuka Hoshijiro, the series brutally kills her one episode later. She is resurrected as an alien mute creature captured by the humans. After that Nagate has the perfect companion. They just sit and stare at each other through a piece of armoured glass.

Portrayal of Women
At first glance, Knights of Sidonia seems to do a good job in the world of gender politics. Sidonia’s captain is a powerful, competent woman, Women can and do become mecha pilots and a woman is one of the main squadron commanders, and there is even a gender-swapping character who is genetically androgynous. Past that veneer lies a very sexist show.

First, there’s the character design. Every female character (except for the cook, who I once again remind you is a bear) has the overdeveloped proportions of typical male fantasy. They also have the high-pitched teenage girl voices that have become default for anime (I watched the dubbed version, I didn’t want subtitles distracting from the action). You could explain this away in-universe by talking about why would a world with genetic engineering accept anything less? Well, there are male characters in the show who have less than perfect looks, and wouldn’t a society that uses genetic engineering and cloning progress beyond such simple sexual aesthetics? There should be more characters like the cook with widely varied body plans that follow either practical function or whimsical invention. No, the girls in the show are pretty so the guys who watch it have something to look at. The show even throws fan service at its audience with characters having to get naked to photosynthesize. It’s strange how only female characters are shown doing this…

Next we need to talk about the purpose of the women in the show. They nearly all exist to serve Nagate in some way. In twelve episodes he has no less than 3 women that are madly in love with him. Even the androgynous character immediately falls for the guy. The weird thing is that we never find out why these girls find Nagate so attractive. It certainly isn’t his charm or warmth, or even his looks. My best guess is they like him because he is an outsider, and he’s a good pilot. These traits don’t seem like a good basis for a relationship, but these one-dimensional women are hard to read. So maybe his skills make him seem like the badboy transfer student who also turns out to be an ace football player? These are pretty shallow reasons to like a guy. But Nagate lacks depth, so I guess this is all we’re going to get.

Finally, we need to talk about a minor character, Eiko Yamano. She is only in episodes 1 and 2. She is important because: 

a) She does not give a shit about Nagate, 
b) We immediately learn through flashback that she is personally motivated, and has her own reasons for becoming a pilot, and 
c) She is immediately killed. 

My wife does not watch much anime, but she caught the first episodes of Knights. Her immediate reaction to Eiko, “I like her.” My immediate response, “She is so dead.” When I was proven right just minutes later, my wife stopped paying any attention. Knights took less than two minutes of screen time to establish Eiko as an interesting, driven, and conflicted character. It then killed her outright. This would be ok if there were other characters with comparable depth, but instead the series hamstrings itself by leaving less interesting characters alive. We could dig deeper and talk about how male writers punish female characters who dare to be interesting on their own merits, but I think I lack the background to discuss those ideas with authority, and there are some bloggers already doing a better job of it than me. 

Redeeming Qualities
Ok, I just spent a lot of words slagging this show, and its problems do run deep. But believe it or not, I liked it. The animation is beautiful. The mech and monster designs are well done. The setting is weird and interesting, and the central mystery of what the monsters are and what they want is compelling. I thought some of imagery was a little heavy handed in its attempts at symbolism (the neo-natal nature of the monsters and the spears that kill them pretty much screams “abortion”), but over-all I enjoyed the ride. 

What I really saw in Knights of Sidonia was a series of missed opportunities. The show has so many chances to make interesting and mature choices, but instead bogs itself down with mediocre execution of genre tropes that make it so much less than it could have been. It’s still enjoyable to be sure, but it was like hoping for a ride in a fighter jet but getting stuck playing a flight sim. Maybe things will pick up in season 2.