Aldnoah.Zero through an international relations lens…
May 3, 2015 9 Comments
“You must stop the cycle of violence, the cycle of hatred.”
-Alfredo Bunye, around 1955.
|LET JUSTICE BE DONE, THOUGH THE HEAVENS FALL|
Aldnoah.Zero is a tricky show for me to review, because there is so much that I want to say about it. There are elements that I absolutely loved…and a few details that I have to gloss over… My own viewing experience was also rather mixed, straddled as I was between the Western and Japanese fandoms. It suggested to me something about original anime that I’d never really thought about before: that the marketing campaign can be a really important part of engaging a target audience, which conversely makes it more difficult for overseas audiences to appreciate. And that’s probably the main reason I really enjoyed A/Z, even though most of the discussion on English-speaking forums shifted in the opposite direction as the show wore on.
But what did I love about Aldnoah.Zero? I could wax lyrical about quite a range of things that I had fun with over the last nine months, but let me focus on just three in this post: the “real robot” vs. “super robot” concept that, to me, was pretty unique in the mecha sub-genre of anime; the fact that the show seems to have been tailor-made for someone of my (developing) expertise; and finally, the two protagonists. Of course, there were also things that threatened to ruin my enjoyment, one a writing or research issue that I really wish the creative team had considered a little more carefully, but also two others that were beyond their ability to address. Without further ado, let me begin.
First, I would have to say that Aoki and co. came up with a pretty fresh concept for what might be considered a saturated market. The way that main writer Takayama Katsuhiko took various super robot powers, such as laser beams, light/beam sabres and so on, and tried to figure out how they would operate in the real world courtesy of an unlimited power source, was absolutely fascinating to me. Admittedly, I never really sat down to try and figure out how to defeat each Vers Kataphraktos myself, partially because I had too many other things to think about, and partially because I only demonstrated just how bad my knowledge of science was when I did occasionally try. Nevertheless, although I only did Physics until high school level, and have forgotten a lot of it, I remembered enough to be suitably impressed by the tactics that Inaho and co. came up with. Of course, some were more pedestrian than others, but sitting down to figure out just how realistic some of those tactics were–given our technology today–was definitely one of the aspects I loved most about this show. You should have seen the grin on my face as I wandered through the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museums in D.C. a few weeks ago. If Aoki and co. wanted this show to appeal to Japanese teenagers, I can definitely see how this would have helped.
|All weapons have weaknesses, even superweapons.|
Another thing I really liked about Aldnoah.Zero was how it delved into what I do: politics and international relations. Admittedly, it simplified things quite a bit, and I know that a lot of other viewers weren’t happy with the ‘solution’ the show presented. But for me, it worked, because whilst the epilogue makes it clear that a few issues remain, it’s also not as unfair to Vers as some other fans are arguing it is. Vers remains the only party that can construct the drives that allow people to harness the Aldnoah power, and they’re also far more advanced in Aldnoah technology. As long as Earth respects that intellectual property, Vers will be able to obtain the resources its needs, as well as find scientists who may be able to help them develop their technology to further improve the situation on Mars.
More importantly, however, Aldnoah.Zero’s main theme was actually the foundation of the field I study: what causes war, and thus, what can we do to prevent it. Although scholars have gone back all the way to Thucydides to give this field a bit more history than it actually has under its name, the study of international relations was began and developed in the wake of the first world war, as people strove to prevent another total war. They failed, but the field survived—even as failures continue to pile up today—because the dream of preventing, mitigating and resolving conflict remains an ideal that people believe we can and should strive for, even if we need to be realistic about our means. In the series, this theme was first made explicit in episode 12, when Inaho asks Asseylum what she thinks would end the war between Earth and Vers. As I previously mentioned, Inaho’s answer comes straight out of Clausewitz, who is still regarded as having produced the best definition of war as ‘the extension of politics by other means’. The theme is made obvious again when Slaine gives Asseylum his answer in episode 21, and actually points to something that is often forgotten about the definition I’ve just quoted: it’s not Clausewitz’s final answer, which was that:
|War is “a fascinating trinity—composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason.”
(See this post for a more extensive discussion of Clausewitz.)
Personally, I felt that all of these elements were encompassed in Aldnoah.Zero, making the series ‘realistic’ in that sense. However, it was still unable to really answer that overarching question: how do we stop and prevent war? This is merely reflective of the field and practice of international relations, for no one has yet produced the one solution to this challenge, nor is anyone actually expected to produce it. The series did offer a framework for how people can continually work towards peace: what’s needed is contact between the two sides—Slaine and Dr. Troyard in Vers, and Asseylum and Eddelrittuo on Earth demonstrated this—and establishing a formal “Friendship Treaty” (as they are called) that also enables trade multiplies the opportunities for such contact. Of course, far more effort is needed, as Alfredo Bunye in the Philippines recognised 60 years ago: the point is that someone has to take that first step. But I’m not all that surprised that Western viewers in particular railed against this ‘idealistic solution’. People who subscribe to different views of individuals, states and the international system within which they all operate all have their own beliefs about what works best. We can spend all day debating how the series should have ended, but I can assure you that no one will ever agree.
To me, however, I find it more interesting to think about what Aldnoah.Zero implies about its creators’ views of Japan’s behaviour in the first half of last century. As the series was airing, one thing that frightened me a little was the idea that the show would present the ‘great cause’ that Saazbaum had laid out before Slaine as a viable justification of the actions that they took. The context that’s important here is the way in which Japan’s role in the Pacific War is understood domestically today. The idea that ‘It wasn’t an aggressive and unjust war—that Japan had to create an empire in order to secure the resources it needed for its survival’—is one that is held by revisionists, who also tend to deny the extent of the Japanese Empire’s wrongdoing. I understand the arguments and debates about ‘victor’s justice’, and I would go so far as to say that Justice Pal had a very good point. However, the fact that ‘everyone else was doing it, and it wasn’t a crime at the time’ does not mean that a particular action can be condoned, and I’m glad that the creators of Aldnoah.Zero, by all appearances, recognise that. There is a lot more to be said on this topic, but I shall leave this here.
|Polarizing protagonists? Perhaps, but I really liked watching both of them develop…|
Finally, the third thing I enjoyed about Aldnoah.Zero was what Aoki himself is most passionate about: the characters. Slaine is obviously the star in terms of the pathos of his character arc. It was incredibly difficult to watch him go through some of his experiences—I still have trouble sitting through a few of those scenes. And because of his youth and inexperience, Slaine arrived at the mistaken belief that coexistence is impossible, and that a peaceful world is possible only if one side was completely defeated. I know that a lot of people have criticised the ending for effectively ‘shitting on Slaine fans’, but that’s not how it came across to me. Personally, since Slaine did not completely throw away his humanity, I was most afraid that he would go out ‘in a blaze of “glory” in order to take responsibility for the war and thus precipitate peace, without anything positive ever happening to him. So I’m glad Aoki and co. chose a different path that opens the possibility for his happiness in the future. On the flip side, I was actually a little disappointed that Inaho’s character arc wasn’t quite as dark as it could have been…but in the end, I’m glad they didn’t take that path given the deaths it would have needed. The death count might be unrealistic…but honestly, the alternative really is far too depressing for a TV series. As for Asseylum, I thought that this ending–where she chose duty to all humanity over her feelings for the two people that had influenced her the most–was perfect for her.
That’s not to say that this series was perfect. To me, the biggest issue is the medical inaccuracy, which really stood out against the technological realism that Takayama largely succeeded in bringing to it. People will probably keep complaining about the mistake that everyone makes (you don’t shock a flatline!) but the biggest problem is really how ‘coma’ or ‘a person in a vegetative state’ has been depicted, even though they’re still better on that front that a whole lot of other shows. A coma results from an injury to the brain, and though there are exceptions, most people do not recover from them as quickly or as fully as was depicted in the show. And yes, I maintain that one of the characters should have died from the injury he received; it’s just that I love the rest of the show enough to be willing to ignore what they said the injury was.
NB: As for the other huge complaint about a certain development that came out of episode 7: it took me a while to figure out why it makes sense given the characters and context, the latter of which I feel most viewers tend to forget. So I’m game for a debate should anyone want to try me. Same for the complaints about any of the other twists and turns. (^_^)
The other problems I had with the series were, however, out of the control of the creators. I’ve already written about the translation several times, as have others (although Dark_Sage mostly pointed out issues with style). It’s interesting to note that Crunchyroll fixed the episode 19 errors, but many other examples I noticed–some of which I haven’t seen anyone point out–have not been fixed (as of approx. two weeks ago). So yes, the CR subs remain riddled with errors, some of which will continue to mislead Western viewers about what the series is about. Honestly speaking, I’m cool if other viewers are not content with a series that I like; but it’s somewhat irritating if at least half of that discontent could have been averted if the translator had done a better job.
The second thing that annoyed me was the English-speaking fandom. They complained about a whole range of things: the set-up, about plot developments, about characters, and about not being able to access canon content that were being released as extras on the BD and DVD releases. Some of the issues regarding the plot developments can be debated (honestly, try me ^^), but for the rest, I personally think that the root of the problem lies with how original anime tend to be marketed in Japan. In this case there was an intense marketing campaign where in-universe material was released at semi-regular intervals alongside promotional images and interviews with the creators. Even though someone posted and translated about half of the in-universe material, these A/Z Reports were only available in full to Japanese fans who bothered to track them down. And no one has, to date, translated all of the early interviews, which indicated what the series would be focused on. This presents a barrier to anyone who’s not Japanese from fully understanding what they’ve tuned in to. It’s not insurmountable, but in my own experience, the discussions in the Anglosphere demonstrated how differences of focus or interpretation that might arise out of audiences having different values and different conceptions of history. In fact, I only fully understood what they were saying in the interviews after around episode 21, which is when I finally picked up on the main theme of the series. My educational background helped, but I do wonder if I’d have picked it earlier if I’d just avoided the forums.
That said, I contend that viewers do not need to be schooled in international relations to understand what Aldnoah.Zero is about. The details and debates are there, and some are included so subtly that viewers will only catch them if they’re very observant, or if they’ve read at least some of the publicity material. But this is not unique to anime: it also applies to any film or TV show—original or otherwise—released in the West. Hence, this is probably something that viewers need to be more aware of, something that they need to learn how to deal with especially for foreign shows that are not made based on their own understandings of the world. It’s not easy to let go of the basic assumptions that inform the way you see the world, which often prevents us from fully appreciating perspectives that are very different from our own. It is especially difficult in this internet age, where it is so much easier for people to gravitate to or surround themselves with like-minded views. Having largely backed out of the Animesuki discussion in the second cour, I personally found that Aldnoah.Zero was a series better watched alone, as that gave me the space and time to think through what it was actually about.
|If nothing else, well, I thought that last shot was perfect.|
So, in essence, this has been my experience of Aldnoah.Zero. I know that most Western viewers have a completely different perspective, and most of the bloggers that followed it didn’t seem to be aware of the academic and political debates that underwrite its major theme of how to prevent conflict. To be honest, I’m not sure most Japanese fans do either: about a third of the reactions I’ve seen echo the ‘WTF?’ vibe in much of the Western fandom, and most of the others are centered around love for this or that character. But Aldnoah.Zero sings to me because it is literally about what I do: international relations through a Japanese historical lens. The closest equivalent in the ACG world would be Gundam, and I do remember reflecting on both the SEED franchise and Gundam 00 when I switched to this career path around the time that the 00 movie came out. But for some reason, A/Z speaks to me in a way that Gundam never has…though I will have to see what happens when I finally find the time to watch all of Tomino’s earlier works!
p.s. And in conjunction with this review, I’ve finally started putting together a Master Post on Aldnoah.Zero. It it remains a work in progress, but perhaps it’ll be useful if anyone’s actually interested in finding out about the Japanese fan experience.