Last year, I decided to start watching more foreign TV as a counterpoint to my excessive CW consumption. I wasn't out to watch a different kind of TV, mind; I just figured subtitles might lend an air of legitimacy to the usual faked deaths and Secret Babies.
I asked Netflix what they had for me, and Netflix was like, "We think you should watch some anime. Here's a well-rated SFnal thing called ALDNOAH.ZERO."
A this point, I’d watched one anime in my whole life (SKIP BEAT!, based on the manga of the same name) and that wasn’t even on Netflix, but I was like, "Okay." Because Netflix has learned what I like, and the whole no-anime thing was situational rather than preferential. When I was a young person, anime was super expensive and hard to find, so I didn’t bother. Netflix is relatively cheap and easy to access, so I figured it was time to explore the medium.
I generally give new shows two or three episodes to hook me. ALDNOAH.ZERO managed the feat inside of ten minutes.
ALDNOAH.ZERO takes place in an alternate world where the astronauts of the 1970s discover a portal on the moon. Said portal allows settlers to colonize Mars, where they stumble across the remains of the ancient Vers civilization. One particular settler bonds with the Aldnoah, a Vers technology that imbues machines with almost magical properties. Naturally, the settler names himself Emperor gets on with establishing the new Vers Empire, a technologically advanced but culturally baroque society where the Emperor and his appointed Counts use the Aldnoah to amass vast political and martial power.
But y’all know the problem with Mars: no natural resources (and also a sense of entitlement, because magical machines). Vers moves against Earth at the end of the 20th century, and everything’s going pretty well for them until they destroy the portal and an enormous chunk of the moon along with it, cutting off their easy access to Terran local space.
The two cultures have had an uneasy ceasefire in the fifteen years since then. The Vers Orbital Knights hover above Earth in their vast landing castles, while the Terrans push their martial technology forward so they’ll be equipped to fight back when Vers makes its next move.
Princes Asseylum Vers Allusia, the Emperor’s granddaughter, believes Earth and Mars should aim for a more peaceful relationship, so she embarks on a goodwill visit to Earth. Which--you guessed it--goes horribly wrong when one of her decoys is assassinated, and the knights hovering above Earth launch a retaliatory strike.
The series runs for 24 episodes spread over two seasons, and I tried to temper my expectations whenever I queued another one up. "This momentum can’t last," I told myself. "They’re gonna botch it somehow. There’ll be less action, or fewer emotional moments, or the writers will take things in a direction I simply can’t commit to."
Every single time, I was dead wrong. I watched each episode with bated breath and ended up screeching, "HOW IS THIS SHOW SO GOOD????" as the closing credits scrolled.
ALDNOAH.ZERO is the new show of my heart. It scores a whopping 6/7 on the Stuff Memory Really Loves And Wants To See In All The Stories test, and it does so while delivering an excellent, tense, deeply emotional story. I set out to discover some trashy, subtitled fun, and I got a serious show about war, loyalty, and the price of ambition.
A serious show about war, loyalty, and the price of ambition in which the main characters pilot killer robots (some of which can shoot fire from their hands) as they engage in explosive space battles and attempt the occasional daring rescue, while someone’s random half-sibling looks on.
Like I said, it’s totally me.
While the war and its many combatants provide the overarching story, ALDNOAH.ZERO’s emotional heart rests with two boys: Inaho Kaizuka, a Japanese high school student who’s trained to operate a kataphrakt (ginormous killer robot/mecha-suit) as part of his everyday curriculum, and Slaine Troyard, a Terran who’s transfered his allegiance to Vers out of love for Princess Asseylum, and who remains dedicated to his adopted home even though the rest of Vers society treats him like crap.
On the surface, Inaho and Slaine are very much alike. They’re both young, focused, talented kataphrakt pilots who believe deeply in their causes. On top of that, they both form strong bonds with Asseylum, Slaine through a childhood friendship and Inaho through his efforts to help her when she’s stranded on Earth.
As the show gathers steam, though, their differences leap into sharp relief. Inaho is a soldier; skilled and committed, but not particularly interested in personal power. Slaine, looked down upon for his Terran heritage, is determined to prove his worth by climbing as far up the Vers social ladder as he can, however he can.
The two of them put me in an interesting position, because while I rooted for Inaho and desperately hoped he’d come out on top, I found Slaine far more interesting. I can't think of another property where that was the case.
It’s not that Inaho’s boring, understand. He’s a strategical genius who recognizes how to get the most out of the tools at his disposal, and his battles always left me with my hands pressed to my mouth as I waited to see how he’d make it through this time. He’s also got a solid, impactful relationship with his older sister, who is herself a kataphrakt pilot, and with those of his classmates who survive their transition from students to soldiers when the war breaks out. And of course, his bond with Asseylum adds a quiet level of (not necessarily romantic) drama to the proceedings.
Inaho also continues to use his battered orange training kataphrakt long after the point where he’s earned a newer model; a telling choice.
Slaine, now, is one of those characters who could come down on any side. His emotions drive him, and he places few personal limits on his behavior. Yeah, he’ll play nice in front of the people he hopes to use, but on the inside he’s a writhing ball of rage and ambition. And he will do anything to achieve his goals.
He’s clever and ruthless, and he excuses his inventive lack of ruth by telling himself everything he does is for Asseylum’s benefit. When he thinks she’s dead, he seeks revenge against her murderers and manipulates the Counts who would defy her wishes. When he realizes she’s alive, he sets out to remake himself so he can better serve her.
Only, the viewer sees a pretty stark divide between what Slaine does and what Asseylum believes. We’ve gotta wonder how long Slaine will be able to lie to himself about his motivation, and what he’ll do when he’s finally forced to admit how little Asseylum wants any of this.
Slaine is not a nice person, but he’s not a nice person in a seriously fascinating way that pits him against himself as often as it brings him into conflict with those around him.
While the boys' rivalry rests at the series’ heart, they’re far from the only characters with vital roles to play. The rest of the cast leads full lives of their own, and the most important secondary characters are girls and women. Deucalion, the battleship Inaho comes to serve on, has a female captain and XO. Nina, one of Inaho’s female schoolmates, becomes the ship’s pilot. Her two close friends--Inko, another former schoolmate, and Rayet, a Martian spy who’s defected in the wake of her family’s murder by the Count they served--man kataphrakts, as does Inaho’s sister, Yuki. The girls are all highly trained soldiers who discuss battle plans and fighting techniques, but the show doesn’t demand they avoid topics like suntanning, cute outfits, or dating advice. There’s no need for them to abandon femininity just because it’s wartime, and neither their gender nor their extracurricular interests inhibit their ability to fight. They’re excellent at their jobs.
The only other important men on the Terran side are Marito, a veteran of Heaven’s Fall who suffers from intense PTSD he can’t seek treatment for until the new hostilities effectively declassify his trauma; Okojo, Inaho’s close friend and fellow kataphrakt trainee; and Calm, another schoolmate who serves as a mechanic.
Vers lives up to the Evil Empire persona by fielding far more plot-essential men than women, but the ones we do get are more than satisfying. Asseylum is a ruler and an idealist, determined to delight in Earth and in her new friends on the Deucalion even as she recoils from the horrific war waging around her and searches for a way to end it. She’s less of a politician than she might be, secure in the knowledge that her royal blood compels people to listen to her whenever she chooses to speak. The show continually places her in positions where her voice alone isn’t enough and she must fight to amplify it. And fight she does, every step of the way.
Asseylum’s sister, Lemrina, is far more political and far less optimistic. Lemrina is a wheelchair-user with a different mother from Asseylum, and she's been marginalized her whole life. She carefully deploys her limited choices to obtain the sort of status that’s always been withheld from her. Jealousy often drives her in particular directions, but it isn’t the sum total of who she is. Lemrina learns as she goes, and adapts her manoeuvres to fit the situation in front of her.
On the male side of things, the Counts are far from a monolith (though their standard uniform of burgundy jodhpurs and vaguely eighteenth century frock coat tends to make them blend together, visually). They use the war as a means to jockey for political power, continually adjusting their strategies, forming new alliances, and turning on one another as they assess each new piece of intelligence. The show often leaves their loyalties in question until the last possible moment, with occasionally surprising results.
All these characters slot into a seriously exciting framework. The battles are tense and well-choreographed, not to mention well-soundtracked. (Most of the battle music has lyrics, but I don’t know enough about Japanese music to say whether it’s an original score or something sourced from an artist’s existing repertoire. I’m guessing the latter; hence "sountracked" over "scored.") Even the characters who initially seem the most predictable stand ready to surprise the hell out of the viewer. The writers refuse to play things safe, continually placing even the leads in life-shattering positions, to the point where the game-changing S1 finale shook me right to my core and left me wondering what in the hell S2 would be like.
(Excellent. It was excellent.)
As with any longer work, there are a few potential downsides. Some of the secondary characters fade into the background as the show races towards the finale, so not everyone gets closure. I’m not sure I find Asseylum’s attendant, Eddelrittuo, entirely plausible in her choices unless we assume she’s really not very bright, and how’d she get to be Asseylum’s personal maid without a fair measure of brains? I also imagine the main kataphrakt pilots’ survival rate is rather unrealistic when we consider how many minor characters get blown up over the course of the series, but I’m gonna chalk that one down to Our Heroes being demonstrably talented individuals.
I also strongly urge you to go with the subtitled version if it’s both available and accessible to you. I tried to start S2 on someone else’s dubs-as-default-setting Netflix account, and I was bitterly disappointed with both the translation and the English voice actors. Perhaps they're all right if you approach them before the subbed version.
Be aware, too, that this is a war. People get blown up, tortured, shot in the head at close range, strangled, and any other number of things that may prove difficult for some viewers to watch. This anime ain’t for little kids, or for anyone who’s especially sensitive to violence.
If this sounds like it’ll be as much your thing as it was mine, though, I strongly urge you to seek it out. It’s on Netflix Canada, so I assume it’s also on various other countries’ Netflixes. If not, you’ll find it on Crunchyroll, where you’ll have to either do a free trial or become a member.