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Friday, 27 June 2014

Knights of Sidonia.

I think this is going to be a Thing. Since masterposts aren't really proper reviews, every time I do one I'll also post up either an actual proper review or an editorial. They only come around once every ten or twelve weeks (or more), so it's not exactly the greatest burden on my workload.

In that noble spirit of 'eh, got a schedule to obey', that one Muse song. Or the anime that sounds a lot like it.

Knights of Sidonia. 

 Wait, wait, wait. That's a Muse song. It's a really popular Muse song, except it's spelt slightly differently, and that song had slightly fewer gigantic robots. Slightly.

'Sidonia' is actually a female name, meaning 'of Sidon', but I'd be surprised if that's the etymology for the titular ship in Knights of Sidonia. Very surprised indeed. As it is, the name is suspicious, but only slightly, as the show's title in Japanese is actually 'Sidonia no Kishi', which I think might not also be the Japanese name of the Muse song in question.

Knights of Sidonia tells the story of Tanikaze Nagate, a 'moleman' who has lived with his grandfather in the labyrinth of tunnels and maintenance shafts that run through the great spaceship Sidonia all his life. Emerging to find food, he is swiftly arrested, and finds himself thrust into the strange society of Sidonia, where genetic engineering and cloning has led to identical clones, a genetically engineered third sex, and an immortal cabal that rules over everything. 

Random Clipboard Dude is so done with your moleman ways, Nagate.

It's at this point I note that I'm not sure if the writer, Tsutomu Nihei, was gunning for a point here. With the exception of the immortal cabal of unscrupulous immortals – one of which is a bear with a robotic arm – the genetic meddling of the Sidonia crew seems to not have produced any harmful effects. Humans now only need to eat once a week, there's a third sex, there's a family of about nineteen clones: It's all a little odd to our sensibilities, maybe, but none of it is actually harmful, and it's not clear whether Nihei just threw in these things to create the sense of a futuristic society for which the limits of biology are no limits at all, or if he is flapping his hands and loudly yelling 'JUDGEMENT' at us.

His previous work, none of it very well known but apparently fairly popular in Germany, has apparently dealt with similar themes in a cyberpunk setting, so there's that. He also wrote a Wolverine miniseries for Marvel.

Now a part of this society, Nagate is quickly pushed by his new legal guardian, the masked ship's captain, to become a pilot and fly the legendary antique Tsugumori against the horrifying fleshy flesh monsters that fleshily threaten them. 

Heh. I should make a joke about 'sins of the flesh'.

I'll be honest, I nearly didn't get through the first episode. The CGI animation is fine when it's animating things like robots, and space ships, and cthulhoid monstrosities, but when it comes to animating people, they end up looking rather clumsily done. The lines aren't sharp enough, everything is a bit too flimsy and soft, it's like watching octopi wearing human skin suits, flailing their way around the beautiful landscapes. The attempt to combine a hand-drawn looking style with CGI is not done well here. It's no Legend of Sanctuary, whose trailers I strongly recommend looking up for an example of how to combine the two to create something truly gorgeous, although possibly a little beyond Knight of Sidonia's budget, which does after all have to stretch twelve episodes. 

Why did you put an asteroid on your ship, guys. Guys.

The first episode is also slow. The series picks up the pace quickly, but until the end, the first episode is so turgidly dull that it feels like an entire television film of people standing around doing nothing. First episodes have often had a tendency to not accurately represent their series, though, and as a whole, the series is – good. I'll admit, despite looking forward to it every week, it didn't make the same impression that Nobunaga the Fool, which is objectively worse and which I was watching at the same time, did. 

It's tough to say exactly why. I don't like the animation, that much we've already established, and to be honest, the the world didn't seize my interest, save for some elements – I was and remain genuinely intrigued by the Gauna, the aforementioned fleshy monstrosities, for example. The worldbuilding often felt like it was taking itself too seriously, trying to shoehorn its fantastical concepts into the limits of 'hard sci-fi', and I have never liked hard sci-fi. 

I do like robotic rings, though, so.

I find the entire concept of hard sci-fi to reek of pretension. These fields of science are fascinating, but I don't think most writers understand them, I don't think most readers understand them, and only rarely do I encounter a hard sci-fi piece of fiction that doesn't take pains to try to explain just how much effort and research they put into this, at length, for paragraphs or minutes or what have you, to an audience which cares less about the actual science and more about saying that there's actual science there.

Knights of Sidonia isn't really that bad at all, although on occasion you do have a character cartwheel by and talk for thirty seconds about something I just don't care about, because the episodes are twenty minutes long and nothing would get done if it was. I almost fear reading the manga in case it is that bad, especially since the seriousness with which the world is treated clashes at times with the moments of quite banal and by-the-numbers humour.

As for the characters, I profess that none of them really interested me either. Nagate is just kind of – there, a very weak-willed and quite retiring character who doesn't really have any force behind him. That kind of character can be done well, and has been many a-time, but Nagate isn't done well, and he didn't hold my interest as a protagonist. Other characters, like Izana, Kobayashi, Hoshijiro, et cetera, I liked well enough, but also didn't find especially compelling or memorable. 

Spoiler: He drinks her urine. I'm not joking about that. It is
an integral part of their romantic arc.

Where the series really shines is in its action sequences, which are stunning, and its ability to build tension for those action sequences. The fights between the frames (the titular Knights of Sidonia) and the Gauna are never not amazing, and each one feels like a nigh-apocalyptic situation, with the knights rushing to do enough damage to a Gauna to stab at its core with their special spears – a task complicated by the Gaunas' absurdly fast regenerative factors, combat tentacles, and ability to assimilate anything they come across into them and take on.

The Gauna battles are also varied: The first few are against giant, flailing fleshstrosities, the next one against a massive structure of several Gauna, and the one after that against a team of three small, light Gauna, zipping about while using the voice and mannerisms of a dead pilot (and Nagate's sort of love interest) to wage psychological warfare. When the final battle of the series comes, against a gigantic mega-Gauna carrying a dwarf planet, protected by a light zippy speaking-with-the-voice-of-a-dead-pilot Gauna, there's a genuine sense of threat, since every battle we've seen has involved loss and the characters fighting desperately for their lives, and often finding themselves massively outmatched. 

Also, outcreeped.

I've been very critical of this series in this post, and to be honest, it didn't make the impression on me that I hoped I would (although it wasn't nearly the disappointment that Break Blade is, and oh we shall talk about that at some point in the future), and I am left looking back on it as an objectively good series that didn't really strike me or leave me with any particular sense of emotion or impact.

It has been renewed for a second series, though, and this makes me very glad. There is nothing I hate more than when a manga adaptation just stops, because it's run out of episodes. Attack on Titan did that, Accel World did that, and it's annoying, and people should plan out their adaptations better.

Also, this series has a great theme tune, so that's nice too. 

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