Monday, October 23, 2017

Anime You Might Not Have Tried #2: 'Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet'

There's something to be said for shorter shows. Our culture is so enamored with stirring epics and long-running franchises that we often undervalue works that come in, make a good impression, then end, leaving us to savor the moments spent with it. Given this, it's easy to forget just how hard it is to craft a memorable experience in just a few episodes. With little time to develop the setting or characters, a shorter show is required to catch the viewer's attention and make an impact on them immediately, as there is little time to make up for missed chances.

While in most western television a one- or two-season show implies poor ratings or executive meddling (see Firefly for further details), many Anime are created purposefully for 12 to 24-episode runs, often to draw attention to the ongoing manga or light novels that they support. Since the writers know how much time they have to tell a story, overall closure and structure for a series tends to be better in anime than in western works.

Enter Gargantia. Though this 13-episode show will never be considered the Citizen Kane of the giant fighting robot sci-fi genre, it nonetheless sports gorgeous visuals, solid characterization, and a strong theme that make it worth a quick Netflix binge.

The show centers on Agent Ledo and his pilot support system "Chamber," who find themselves in an endless war against giant squid-like aliens called the Hideauze. These creatures have pushed humanity to the brink, forcing people to serve most of their lives in military service in order to protect the giant space station that is the last bastion of humanity. Things go badly almost immediately for Ledo, as he finds himself on the losing side of a massive battle which results in him getting sucked into a wormhole. The result? He and his robot are transported to the now legendary planet of Earth that has been forgotten for centuries.

Much has changed since humanity took to the stars. Earth is now almost entirely covered with water with the humans left behind living as scavengers on large fleets of ships. Despite this, there is relative peace and no signs of the Hideauze anywhere. Ledo and Chamber are found by the fleet "Gargantia," with Ledo forced to integrate with the locals if he's to find any hope of making it back home again.

The Fleet in Question
The visuals and initial framing of the narrative immediately set Gargantia apart from other series, as the animators clearly intended to make a gorgeous show. Humanity's conflict and the brutality of the war they find themselves in is well-conveyed, and the viewer is immediately pulled into a compelling world. Backgrounds in particular are brilliant with scenes of the darkness of space contrasted with the clear blue waters and radiant sunsets of Earth. The visuals are stunning and the actual fleet of Gargantia has a decaying industrial feel combined with winding corridors and dark alleys reminiscent of some of Miyazaki's works. These industrial corridors give way to verdant pastures and green spaces needed to support the large population contained on the ship. The animation goes to great lengths to give the fleet its own style and there is a sort of strange beauty in the rusting amalgamation of ancient ships. Small touches such as sunburn on exposed skin and scuffs and dirt on old containers further set the animation and art apart from similar shows.

So much space. Gotta see it all.
Plot-wise, the show is enjoyable, but less revolutionary. The story of an outsider learning how to cope in a foreign society is not terribly original (see Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar, et al.), but the care the writers and animators took in portraying the characters puts the show above other examples of the trope. Ledo's society is one based on efficiency with no time for pleasures in a hostile world, and he finds many of the aspects of Gargantia strange. His friendship with a messenger named Amy (and her incredibly adorable pet flying squirrel) and her contrasting outlook help him to make sense of the world he's in. The show takes no shortcuts with the issues that come with differing languages and cultures and the initial adjustment is rough to say the least. Amy is Ledo's sole advocate on a fleet that has no use for a soldier and questions his value in the fleet. The friendship between the two develops naturally over the course of the series and the two share some sweet moments in the second half, with the authors doing justice to the relationship over the course of the show.

It's like a really cute squirrel
Various supporting characters such as the salvager Pinion and the ship's captain (along with the rest of the cast) are realistic and well-written, but unexceptional. Their motivations are sound in the context of the world they live in, but the world of Gargantia tends to outshine the individuals in it, aside from the few main characters. The other characters serve to move the plot along and to force Ledo to understand the world he is now in, confront his new life, and to try and uncover the darker secrets that forced humanity from Earth and into the war they now find themselves in. The plotting suffers a bit in the last few episodes because of this, as there are no more reveals to push things forward, with few supporting characters to fall back on, but the ending still results in a satisfying conclusion, even if the motivations of the antagonists don't fit as well into the world as one would like.

The show, through its various revelations, touches on issues of loss of humanity, revenge, and the value of life in an uplifting and memorable way. The contrast between the two societies highlights how the war with the Hideauze has taken away Ledo's humanity and how high the costs of "preserving" humans have been. In the end, people's actions create the world they live in and it is their choice to decide what is worth keeping.

While Gargantia doesn't necessarily bring much new to the table, what it does offer is fully-baked, in contrast to shows that launch innovative ideas at the wall and hope they stick. This overall refinement creates a more effective story in this short but sweet adventure. Gen Urobuchi (of Madoka Magica and Psycho Pass fame) had heavy involvement in the creation of the show and stated that it was targeted toward young people entering into society as a way to encourage them. Ultimately, he succeeds in this goal, with the result being a hidden gem that will likely last longer in the minds of its viewers than it will on any "top 10 greatest" lists.

Have I mentioned it's pretty?

Are shorter shows better? Does innovation trump refinement? Prove me wrong in the comments below.


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