Aldnoah.Zero through an international relations lens…

“You must stop the cycle of violence, the cycle of hatred.”
-Alfredo Bunye, around 1955.

Aldnoah.Zero_01
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.

Aldnoah.Zero_02 Aldnoah.Zero_03
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.)

AZ_Clausewitz_onwar

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.

Aldnoah.Zero_08 Aldnoah.Zero_09
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. (^_^)

Aldnoah.Zero_06 Aldnoah.Zero_10
I’ve also never really understood the hatred some people have for Asseylum. I feel that it’s born largely out of a misunderstanding of what Aldnoah.Zero is about, as well as a flawed understanding of how relations between states are actually conducted, but that’s something for another post.

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.

Aldnoah.Zero_11
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. 

About karice
MAG fan, amateur translator and political scientist in training. I also love musicals, photography, travel and believe it or not, the game of cricket. よろしく!

9 Responses to Aldnoah.Zero through an international relations lens…

  1. Pingback: For the record: Matare yo! | HOT CHOCOLATE IN A BOWL

  2. azurestratos says:

    That was an enjoyable read. That is nicely written review. Enjoyed the part about how Japan sees things and the perspectives on war.

    Also, something I found out recently; the scene where they shock Asseylum was actually medically correct. I’m studying CPR right now (medic course), and its written procedure to get AED as soon as possible and deliver the first shock when advised.

    Notice they are using AED, which is automated to assess patient’s heart activity, and decide whether shock is advised. The fact that they did the shock means Asseylum’s heart was not flat-lined, and the AED advises shock.

    https://www.resus.org.uk/pages/aed.pdf

    Also ILCOR (committee for CPR) states that “Palpation of pulse as an indicator of presence or absence of cardiac arrest is unreliable” thus the manual says pulse check is not recommended prior to initiation of first chest compression.

    Like

    • karice says:

      Thanks ^^ though I’m not sure how accessible it is to people who come from very different points of view!

      Ah…I knew I should have linked something about the flatline.

      The thing is, the procedure is entirely correct: the only problem is that the display on the monitor shows a flatline. If that actually happened, the defibrillator should NOT have told them to administer an electric shock, because Asseylum’s heart would not have been in a shockable rhythm. To be medically accurate, it should have shown activity indicating a shockable rhythm–irregular pulses, or really fast pulses. The reason for this is that a defibrillator is meant to shock the heart’s electrical activity so that it returns to a regular rhythm that’s not too quick, enabling it to pump blood properly again. If there is no electrical activity in the heart, then all it will do is cook it. (Try reading this or this.)
      🙂

      Like

      • azurestratos says:

        Ah right. My bad, I didn’t remember the scene the AED showing a flatline. The creators should really fix that detail for future releases. Shouldn’t be too hard.

        Like

        • karice says:

          Too late — the BD/DVD with that episode was released months ago. The main problem really is that they probably don’t know that it’s a mistake in the first place.

          That said, given how many other shows have done it over the years, including some actual medical dramas, I personally think some parts of the fandom went a bit overboard with their grizzling on that point… (^_^;; )

          Like

  3. Tir says:

    I don’t see people angry about vers getting an unfair treatment, at least in my circles. Vers haven’t been presented favorably in the show much. But the fact that they got away with everything scot free. Even the lies that the show states they have fed the populace to initiate the first war just get covered up in more lies and somehow they managed to reason some random terran boy tricked everyone and turning him into some genius mastermind. It doesn’t make sense and the show explains too little for any viewer to feel satisfied about the resolution. If extra material is needed to make any sense of it, it’s not good at getting across it’s point at all.

    Asseylum got everything delivered to her lap after her character was basically a vegetable for the whole 2nd season, so she as a whole was unsatisfying when she had potential to be much more. It’s similar to how unbelievable Slaine’s power rise was as well, but way, way worse because it felt rushed. Klancain suffers from being a huge plot device, but not a character, like how the show forgot nearly every supporting cast member could be more than just stage props and plot devices. Lemrina just stopped mattering after Asseylum woke up, like almost everything in the show. Slaine’s character couldn’t fill in the shoes of Saazbaum’s of antagonist because it felt like they couldn’t decide what they wanted for him to be when he kept wavering, it just feels like the writers are stalling to avoid having anything happen.

    There isn’t anything to really like about Asseylum because she’s really never had any development or fun traits. She stayed the same, telling people to have peace from beginning to end and somehow it worked because they need a conclusion. She is kind, but so are other characters, but they have more nuance. Inaho may be be underdeveloped as well but he has his quirks and action. It is easy to see why Yuki or Rayet are preferred females.

    As for Slaine’s end, most people I see comment on it find it cruel, even those who don’t like HIM. There is nothing in the ending that even vaguely hints he’ll find happiness while rotting in jail with periodical visits from the dispassionate Inaho. Going out in a blaze of glory for something good would probably have been much better and what he wanted and for his fans.
    If japan is also displeased and the majority of the west is also then maybe it…just wasn’t good.

    But for a war show, yes, the death count is unrealistic indeed. If you don’t want to kill off cast members, don’t make a war show. Everyone on the deucalion surviving was dumb, so all the attempts to make the viewers think anyone would die(like the deathflag scene in 23) just feel laughable.

    Like

    • karice says:

      I’m sorry I haven’t replied yet. I’ll need the headspace for it, so it might have to be on the weekend…but I will reply!

      Like

    • karice says:

      Thank you for commenting, and I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to reply — had to focus on RL for a while, and so had no headspace for this, but let me try to make some now…

      Let me start with something that I guess I didn’t manage to get across in my post:

      If extra material is needed to make any sense of it, it’s not good at getting across it’s point at all.

      I don’t think extra material is necessary to make sense of AZ. When I talk about the marketing campaign, I’m talking mostly about what the producers et al did to help generate interest in the show from February to July 2014. The early AZ reports were interesting in setting up what happened in the very first episode, but any other important background was actually covered in the show (e.g. brief overviews of history; the fact that Saazbaum and Cruhteo were the Emperor’s two closest advisors etc etc). The early interviews briefly indicated what the show would be focused on (= war), but in the end, I didn’t really need them to tell me that–when episode 21 came around, I realised that this show had always been about ‘what causes conflict, and thus, how can we mitigate / stop / prevent it’. And none of the things I cover in my review come from the post-series interviews: they’re all based on how I read the show based on my own knowledge of modern Japanese history.

      I don’t see people angry about vers getting an unfair treatment, at least in my circles. Vers haven’t been presented favorably in the show much. But the fact that they got away with everything scot free. Even the lies that the show states they have fed the populace to initiate the first war just get covered up in more lies and somehow they managed to reason some random terran boy tricked everyone and turning him into some genius mastermind. It doesn’t make sense and the show explains too little for any viewer to feel satisfied about the resolution.

      I’ve only really seen the reactions on AS, and a little bit here and there on twitter and tumblr, so it could certainly be biased in a certain direction. But one of the arguments that I kept seeing was along the lines of ‘Asseylum is stupid because her decision will mean that Vers will lose out’. So it’s not really about whether it’s fair for Vers or not, it’s all about criticising Asseylum.

      With regards to the leaders of Vers getting away with everything scot free…with Gilzeria dead, the only leader that matters was actually Saazbaum, who fanned those flames in the intervening 15 years and then plotted the assassination so that Lemrina could take Asseylum’s place. The only characters that are shown to have been fully aware of the plot from the start are Saaz, Trillram and Wolf Areash’s team…and all of them died in the course of the show. So, as Saazbaum’s heir, especially given that he was aware of the deception involving Lemrina, Slaine was always going to take the fall. And unfortunately for Slaine, Saaz was the only one who really knew the circumstances of how he became involved in this plot. After his death in episode 15, there is no one who can believably testify that Slaine hadn’t been involved from the start, not even Lemrina (who a co-conspirator anyway). So it all makes sense to me, personally…

      Asseylum got everything delivered to her lap after her character was basically a vegetable for the whole 2nd season, so she as a whole was unsatisfying when she had potential to be much more. It’s similar to how unbelievable Slaine’s power rise was as well, but way, way worse because it felt rushed. Klancain suffers from being a huge plot device, but not a character, like how the show forgot nearly every supporting cast member could be more than just stage props and plot devices. Lemrina just stopped mattering after Asseylum woke up, like almost everything in the show. Slaine’s character couldn’t fill in the shoes of Saazbaum’s of antagonist because it felt like they couldn’t decide what they wanted for him to be when he kept wavering, it just feels like the writers are stalling to avoid having anything happen.

      There isn’t anything to really like about Asseylum because she’s really never had any development or fun traits. She stayed the same, telling people to have peace from beginning to end and somehow it worked because they need a conclusion. She is kind, but so are other characters, but they have more nuance. *snip*

      Personally, I saw Asseylum’s character arc as being one of learning about the military and political power that she needs to have to work towards the peace she wants. That she had to take the reigns of power instead of relying on her grandfather.

      Hm…and I’m not sure what you think Slaine’s arc was meant to be. Aoki and co. make is clear that what he was doing was wrong – it’s just that he believed he had no choice but to take those actions in order to achieve what he wanted, a world without conflict. Slaine was wavering because he knew that the means he had chosen were’t something to be proud of (e.g. deceiving both Vers and Earth in order to perpetuate the war; deceiving Lemrina about Asseylum’s status). Are you suggesting that it would have been better if he’d thrown away all of his morals?

      As for Slaine’s end, most people I see comment on it find it cruel, even those who don’t like HIM. There is nothing in the ending that even vaguely hints he’ll find happiness while rotting in jail with periodical visits from the dispassionate Inaho. Going out in a blaze of glory for something good would probably have been much better and what he wanted and for his fans.

      If japan is also displeased and the majority of the west is also then maybe it…just wasn’t good.

      I can understand that sentiment, especially from viewers who were more invested in Slaine. I find that scene where Inaho visits him in prison really difficult to watch, especially given that a few months should have passed since the end of the war. The thought of Slaine hating himself and his fate for those few months has me wanting to shake Aoki and Takayama for it — couldn’t Inaho have conveyed Asseylum’s message earlier?

      Nevertheless, there are two reasons I don’t like the ‘going out in a blaze of glory’ idea. First, it’s been done in other series, one of them in a way that I don’t think could have been topped. And second, because that would have meant that everything Slaine had tried to do in the series had been meaningless. He’d been dead inside since the start of the series (as indicated by his blank eyes), and the fact that they’re clear now is enough of a hint for me that he may be able to find some salvation and happiness in the future.

      I’ll also admit to being impressed that Gen and Aoki dared to write such a tragic character, and more importantly, gave him ‘2mm’ of salvation rather than killing him. Most other mecha anime I’ve seen give us antagonists who, like Slaine, have understandable reasons for their views of the world and the questionable actions that arise from that. However, they’ve always died at the end, and I’ve always thought that was fitting. Slaine is the first character that I wanted to see live despite all that he had done–I really did not want a Michael Corleone ending for him. So I do applaud Gen and Aoki for writing a character who took a questionable path, but whom so many people still wanted to see survive and even find happiness. The crux is whether you believe that ending leaves room for happiness in Slaine’s future, and in my opinion, it is the only one that did. Since he’s officially ‘dead’, no one will think it’s unfair or unjust if and when he’s eventually released. And I honestly don’t see either Asseylum or Inaho wanting him to stay in prison for the rest of his life.

      I know that I’m pretty unusual in that regard–most other Western viewers are like yourself. But I’m not sure where you’ve been reading about the Japanese reaction from… There was some outrage, and the final episode’s rating on Nico was a fair bit lower than the other episodes. But over half of the viewership still thought that it was either ‘excellent’ or ‘pretty good’. Many core fans remain relatively happy with it too (even Slaine fans) — just under 6,000 copies of BD 7 have been sold. So there is a dip in sales, but it’s still doing ok.

      But for a war show, yes, the death count is unrealistic indeed. If you don’t want to kill off cast members, don’t make a war show. Everyone on the deucalion surviving was dumb, so all the attempts to make the viewers think anyone would die(like the deathflag scene in 23) just feel laughable.

      I understand this sentiment too, and I agree that it would have been more realistic if at least one named character on the Earth side had bitten the dust in that finale. However, I also understand why they chose not to kill someone: because that death and the cast grieving over the person lost would have overshadowed the main theme of the show. AZ isn’t a war show in the sense that it’s about the soldier’s experience of war (as most Western films and TV shows are), in which case, a more realistic death count is indeed highly important. Rather, it’s a show about the causes of war and thus what people can do to prevent and stop conflict. In fact, AZ follows its predecessors in the mecha genre–like Gundam and Macross (and some other mecha too…though not Evangelion)–in this regard…

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  4. Pingback: The truth behind Urobuchi Gen’s involvement in Aldnoah.Zero | HOT CHOCOLATE IN A BOWL

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