Management: This is a comprehensive review of own devising, where I go over a pro and con analysis of the material in an attempt to convince people to watch the show-in-review. Hopefully, in encouraging people in general to watch things I think are interesting, they’ll at least somewhat know what to expect while watching.
Curiously enough, the show takes a relatively short, but also relatively sizable amount of time chronicling the back story of Cadet Eiko Yamano leading up to her last mission, the sort of equivalent to one’s life flashing before one’s eyes.
When it comes to work, she’s an incredibly self-serious individual. She graduated to cadet school a midst the cheers of family and friends in the small neighborhood she grew up in. It’s from those expectations, in part, that’s made her to become as self-serious as she is, dismissive of everything and everyone except in cases related to defeating Gauna and defending Sidonia. She would not have anyone holding her back, and certainly no upstarts making a mockery of her hard work.
And despite her attitude, her convictions, and her history, she gets killed, eaten by the Gauna she’s vowed to kill several times over, in a rather sudden and unceremonious way. Granted, her portrait does get her day on the sterile-looking, minimalistic enclosure that is the war memorial, but only for a day. Her portrait needs to make room for the countless others that’ll follow hers. She’s forgotten afterwards.
This puzzled me at first as to why the show felt it should offer so much of this character other than a mere name and face, which is already pretty generous, if she was slated to die so soon in the series. I was about to chalk it up to emotional manipulation when I realized. How much of this kind of back story could be applied to the named and nameless, face and faceless others in the show that would fall in the line of duty. Others supposedly with dreams they would be sacrificing, and loved ones they would be leaving behind.
And yet nothing more for them is afforded than a day on the wall and a mention grave stones that they existed, in grave plots that don’t even house their bodies. It’s more convenient to offer them to the organic reactor converters instead, if their corpses aren’t already lost to combat or space.
Sidonia moves on because she has to. Sidonia moves on because it’s war.
And so we move on to the show’s main protagonist, Nagate Tanikaze. Found lurking within the bowels of Sidonia, a “seed” ship carrying what is perhaps the last of humanity, a underground array of alleys going left and right, up and down, that he’s pretty much been living in since his birth with his now deceased grandfather. Under his grandfather’s influence, he’s been evidently training in virtual garde combat all his life, gardes being the figurative and literal mecha of Sidonian defense against the Gauna, eldritch-looking space abominations that seem to incorporate aspects of the people it devours, when they decide to devour them. From there, he was brought up by one of the leading figures of Sidonia to become a garde pilot and, eventually, the premiere Knight of Sidonia, the decisive piece needed by Sidonia itself to forever secure her safety.
He’s an impressive figure tactically on the front lines, to be sure, but the show’s also careful not to make him overpowered. In the course of his bout on the surface, he would experience crucial triumphs and devastating travails on a progressively more deadly battlefield, in manners similar to the threat scaling of Neon Genesis Evangelion and the dynamic of desperation and defiance found in Attack on Titan, without the excessive melodrama. His crucial triumphs, in particular, would require his fellow Sidonians to do their parts, often at great sacrifice to themselves, those great sacrifices, of course, not entailing incompetency to artificially enhance protagonist competency. His devastating travails… well, even to recurring to the recurring staff, the show’s not kind to its characters.
In addition to well-paced threat scaling, the show demonstrates this sudden, suffocating, and nearly insufferable dynamic in spades. Singular deaths are compounded complete massacres in the event of a split-second breakdown in composure or chain of command. Overzealous cadets and cool pilots alike are susceptible to panics, enough to render themselves and everyone around them in mortal peril. Those who don’t die might end up too broken in mind or spirit to continue fighting. Inter-team prejudice and intrigue affect morale levels and survival rates. And yet, there are those that rise to the occasion, entering the tentacle lasers of death and the jaws of hell to protect squad and Sidonia alike. The stakes feel real. They feel meaningful.
The show’s sci-fi elements are plenty meaningful too in the way they indirectly or directly contribute to the war effort. Humorously quirky and seemingly exotic reveals of third sexes, human clones, and human photosynthesis, for instance, are tied to Sidonian survival efforts in regards to population growth. And immortality, a thing in the show, is reserved only Sidonia’s leading figures, her best and brightest, as means of optimizing Sidonia’s survival.
It’s rather surreal how much the sci-fi genre lends itself to pushing the bounds of the traditional war narrative. These elements of transhumanism, combined with this constant drive to for the human race to survive, could be compared as akin to the Gauna, who display remarkable capacities of adaptability themselves in the face of their own struggle with humanity. This comparison is apt when referenced to humanity itself. At what lengths is humanity willing to go for its survival? Is it possible that humanity may become something less human as a result? How far can humanity go before it reaches that stage? Or is there even a clear-cut stage at all?
Genetic manipulation’s something that’s rather commonplace among Sidonia’s inhabitants in regards to photosynthesis, though even the more unusual examples of clones or sexes seem to raise very few eyebrows, and those people seem normal otherwise. The conflict, however, of dehumanizing such individuals as mere tools is something that’s still very relevant to the story. Immortality produces a more noticeable effect for some who possess it it, ostensibly to encourage less emotionally colored counsel, but, perhaps, at the detriment of real human concern. Perhaps war itself causes humanity to decline, and all the aforementioned sci-fi’s just one expression of that, the other being plain old egotism and anxiety? Or perhaps war also causes humanity to progress, to as much diversify as well as innovate?
Take the Honoka sister clones for instance. As ethically controversial as the issue of cloning may be, those clones were born, and it’s implied they enjoy life as much as other people in Sidonia do in trying times.
And even the issue of the Gauna in terms of the enemy unknown lends war narrative weight. Human and Gauna have fought each other for centuries without either coming to fully understanding why, and when where war’s concerned, attempts at full understanding by one warring faction of another, especially in the cases of survival and significant communication barriers, are not readily encouraged. And so the Gauna are just readily classified as evil, which is understandable. To match the seemingly single-minded threat of the Gauna requires society working together collectively almost as a single-celled organism, in complete and efficient control of its body. Captured and observed samples of living Gauna question the irrational aggression that’s supposedly endemic to Gauna. Sidonia’s anti-war movement suggests that such a war’s the result of a security dilemma, and that only through Sidonia’s disarmament of anti-Gauna weaponry can bring peace, as only then, they believe, would the Gauna feel safe enough to leave them alone.
I’m probably more tolerable than most when it comes to the use of CGI, and unless one has millions of dollars… err… hundreds of millions of yen to spend, a production composed entirely of CGI, even when balanced by competent cel shading, is going to suffer in some aspects as opposed to a production that relies squarely on cel animation. Most notably is the lack of richness in regards to facial expressions. In other aspects, it can be spectacular, with Knights of Sidonia in particular featuring incredibly fluid fights that are able to illustrate clawing moments of desperation or just crowning scenes of sheer spectacle-laced grandeur so well.
It’s proved it can compete with the best of cel animation when it comes to animating the distraughtingly surreal.
It also lends the world and the Gauna especially a sort of uncanniness, which is helped by the show’s general and often constrastly dark and bleached color palette and scratched, gritty, tired, or sterile exteriors.
The Gauna, in particular, have a visceral similarity to muscle and innards surrounded by a flesh or tentacle matrix, especially when it decides to mimic the looks of the people its… consumed? Assimilated?
The industrial-look of Sidonia’s interior edifices, in addition to their sheer scale, provides an extra layer of oppressiveness or majesty, depending on the context.
Space itself can look voidless, black and bleak, though it can act as a wonderful palette for some rather colorful shots. And those stars.
As ambitious as its subject matter is, the show lacks its equal in characterization. This isn’t to say the characterizations are majorly flawed in any way. They’re simple and straightforward, rather classically fleshed out for the most part. There isn’t anything wrong with simple and straightforward itself, so long as it doesn’t preclude people from feeling love, joy, fear, or grief or anything that makes them not people, and it can be argued that war tends to make people’s priorities simple and straightforward, but in the midst all of this series’ thematic richness and epic spacial scale, the characters themselves can seem comparatively underwhelming. This, of course, maybe due to the series’ limited amount of broadcast time, but the possible compromise the adapters made was still a heavy one. The audience will likely remember the CGI, the spectacle, the sci-fi, the themes, and maybe even the she-bear (the original creator apparently likes bears) before they’re likely to recall who so and so was.
But in spite of these bumps, the show is as entertaining as it is sobering. It’s as much about the thrill of combat as it is when that thrill goes horribly wrong. And when great sacrifices are unavoidably made to achieve temporary respite from looming destruction, or when everything turns to ashes in one’s mouth, when the outsides of buildings and the insides of helmets are splattered crimson and people shit and piss in their breeches because they’re spooked or dead, Sidonia must move on, for everyone’s sakes.
Sidonia moves on because she has to. Sidonia moves on because it’s war.