A thousand years after the alien Gauna destroyed the Earth, a small remnant of humanity still fights on to survive, fleeing on the gargantuan asteroid-based spaceship Sidonia. But centuries of flight and warfare have changed mankind in incredible ways: genetic engineering has allowed humans to photosynthesize like plants, reproduction occurs through cloning, and a third gender has been created to balance the population. Even though it's been a century since the last encounter with the Gauna, military service is mandatory, with all those able enough enlisted to pilot the Garde robots that stand as Sidonia's front line of defense. For Nagate Tanikaze, whose grandfather secretly hid him in the forgotten bowels of the asteroid, it's a strange new world as he's forced to come to the surface and join the ranks of defenders. Yet his recruitment comes just in time, for the Gauna have suddenly reappeared, and what could be man's last battle will require every resource humanity has left. And what no one knows, yet, is that Nagate is not exactly what he seems, and a secret buried in his past may change the fate of all mankind!
Having an enclosed system of development has served Japanese animation well over the years. Not having foreign backers to please for the most has meant that anime crafted its own voice and style. But there are drawbacks. Increasingly serving an insular market has meant that any breakout success outside of Japan has either been accidental or as a result of the show or film being deliberately made in a Western manner. Inside of Japan, nobody gives a hoot if your show caters to a foreign audience. Then you have those shows that by design or implementation, reach an outside audience and win over local viewers too.
Set in 3394, aboard the seed ship Sidonia, the show follows the adventures of Nagate Tanikaze as he emerges from the underbelly of the enormous ship. A generational ship, the Sidonia has been alone for over 600 years, constantly under attack from the enemies of humanity, the Gauna. An amorphous creature, the Gauna cannot die in the strictest sense until their inner core or ena is pierced by a special type of spear. Able to fly in space, grow piercing tentacles and take on the form of a human it has absorbed, Gauna can form complex machinery out of their bodies in order to tackle humans in their Garde mecha. The Gauna arrived in the solar system in the late 22nd century, waiting 200 years before attacking and wiping out the Earth. Seed ships like Sidonia were fashioned from the remains of the planet and humanity simply fled the system. At the start of the show, the Gauna have not been seen for 100 years. So Sidonia travels space, caring for its crew and trying to find a home safe from the Gauna. But the arrival of Nagate will change all of this. Nagate is the grandson of Hiroki Saito, one of the greatest Garde pilots in Sidonia's history. Just after it's discovered that he's not able to photosynthesize like the rest of Sidonia's crew (a change to the crew's biology that a crisis forced them to do), he is "adopted" by the Captain of Sidonia for reasons that are revealed later in the season. From there, he joins the Garde cadet corps and rapidly rises through its ranks in the fight against the Gauna.
OK, enough backstory: I am really impressed by this show. I had avoided it for some time after it was released online just because I was too busy to sit down and enjoy any anime at the time. Now that I have seen the show, it is everything I'd hoped it would be. The character interplay between Nagate and the crew (including a suspicious amount of girls) starts off very awkward as Nagate simply doesn't know how to interact with anything. After a while, he settles in and starts to figure his surroundings. He, like the audience, sees everyone as innocent until they change their behaviour. Soon enough, he finds allies (Izuna, Hoshijiro, Yuhata) and an enemy (Kunato). As we learn more about the ship, we live that life is not the war of attrition against the Gauna that we've been told at the start. There's power struggles going on between the Council and the Captain. The Captain (real name Kobayashi) gives the orders, but the council has the power. There's something about Nagate that makes the council nervous. They want him gone but the Captain deals with them. On top of that, there's an undercurrent of anger against the military and the council for keeping the war going (the series leaves it ambiguous as to who's really right) and not discarding the weapons of war that the Garde fight with. There are a number of people among the half a million crew who want to settle down and leave the ship. There's a rivalry between various military companies who build the tools and Garde used in Sidonia's defense. Into this, Nagate seems like he'll drown. But for the young man, the hardest thing he has to deal with the loss of his new friends. Despite being a rookie, as the series goes on the amount of people we're introduced to who then kick the bucket is alarming. While some are standard casualties in any war, others are personal losses for Nagate and the rest of the cadets. One in particular will haunt Nagate forever and is also is the main driving force behind the second half of the season. There are also unanswered questions about Nagate and what he actually is. As the season progresses, we find out that he's not the mere underdweller the crew thinks he is. Add to that, the fact that there are non-sex crew like Izuna, a bear with a cyborg hand and that he's the only one who needs to eat on a regular basis.
The show itself is animated in CG rather than typical anime fare. In this, there is wisdom as I don't think I'd be half as drawn to it if it were the later type of anime. The artificiality of the CG actually works in the show's favour, crafting a near perfect synthesis between the mecha combat scenes and the dialogue. The characters live and die by these machines and they are as important to the plot as the events and decisions of the people piloting them. The Sidonia itself is a masterwork of design, having a lot of futurists views on what a generational ship would look like. From the inside, it's a brightly lit cocoon of buildings and trusses held together in a central core. It took me a while to figure out the buildings were the "spine" of the interior. It gives the impression of the shanty towns that used to exist in Hong Kong until the 1990's, fused together contraptions with no design or architectural form in mind. But get into the structure of the ship and it becomes clear there's a design in action, there's a clinical uniformity to proceedings. In the military sections, like the Garde hangers, the pilot's level and the command deck, there's a severe lack of lighting, with lots of underlighting casting huge shadows on people. From the outside, space is depicted as a hell, from which there is little hope of rescue. People are mercilessly killed by the Gauna without thought or purpose. The only things that protect you are your squad, the Sidonia and if all else fails, your wits. The Sidonia from the outside looks like a straight, rectangular slab of pewter with an asteroid two thirds the way down, presumably as some kind of radiological countermeasure. Despite its ugliness, it looks like it should be in space and that's something that sci-fi makers rarely get right first time.
The show has a fine cast, both in Japanese and English and they get through a lot of dialogue and moments of pause and consideration. I won't say it blew me away but it was technically proficient. Animatsu deserve great credit for releasing this with a fine presentation of the DVD's I was sent. The discs also come with some behind the scenes and cast Q&A material which should keep those of you without Netflix going until the second season is released, hopefully soon.
Knights of Sidonia is the sci-fi show I've been waiting for. A more grown up version of the standard mecha show, it takes risks by bumping off the cast as it sees fit but always has a justification for it. I can't wait to watch the rest of it.