By Hugh David.
In an alternate 20th century, humans colonised Mars after the discovery of an ancient alien Hyper Gate on the Moon. But on the Moon, they found another ancient piece of tech, the Aldnoah, permitting the colonists to advance faster than the Earthlings they left behind. They came to see themselves as the Vers Empire, a separate race with those who possess Aldnoah activation genes at the top. During an attack on Earth at the turn of the 21st century, the Hyper Gate exploded, warping the Earth’s crust and creating cataclysmic damage from the falling pieces; this became known as Heaven’s Fall. With restricted to Earth cut off, the Vers military retreated, instead setting up space stations around the debris belt and engaging in a ceasefire with the United Earth.
This background emerges over the course of the series, but enough is revealed in the first three brutal, exciting episodes to demonstrate the size of the stakes when a Vers Princess visits Earth in 2014 on a goodwill mission. Sudden terrorist action leads to the Empire’s 37 Clans of Orbital Knights attacking the planet, with devastating consequences. The series follows both sides of the conflict, although the scheming amongst the Knights and around the Emperor are less likely to engage the viewer’s sympathies than the characters on the Earth’s surface, as high school students/military trainees and their commanding officers try to save civilians and fight back.
One would be right to have high expectations of an original SF mecha show from creator Gen Urobuchi (Expelled From Paradise, Psycho-Pass), especially when teamed up with his Fate/Zero director Ei Aoki. Whereas recent American earth-invasion stories are focused on a metaphorical approach to terrorism and undemocratic forms of rule, Aldnoah.Zero offers a range of metaphors. The Vers see themselves as the superior race not just thanks to the alien technology, but also their feudal structure. Given the samurai armour-like designs of the Orbital Knight mecha, one could well see a conflict between modern youth and an older set of Japanese social traditions. Certainly one of our ostensible lead characters, the young and possibly on-the-spectrum Inaho, with his constant processing of online information for application to real-world scenarios, is about as close to a modern-day IT-tech personality as we’ve seen for a while. Not driven by honour or tradition or even family (for the most part), he seems to be chiefly practical and scientific in his approach. This makes a healthy change from either the original 1970s gung-ho types or the post-Evangelion whiny emo leads.
Later on in the series, one of the Knights talks about how the Martians depleted their planet of all resources, how they came to resent the relative abundance on Earth, and how he is looking forward to indulging in it. This seems to offer an environmental reading of the conflict, with the younger generation trying to defend their world from a rapacious, wealthy elder class. Aldnoah.Zero’s divergence from our reality is in 1969, when the American Dream achieved its peak as Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. That was moment was the triumph of Western civilisation, but later generations might be forgiven for seeing it as downhill all the way ever since. Industrial civilisation has been found to be undermining the stability of the planet; unrenewable resources are depleting, amid runaway climate change, delivering a problematic, disastrous legacy to future generations. No wonder the young are fighting back. But amid such subtexts, Urobuchi, Aoki and writer Katsuhiko Takayama offer us potential romances and old family enmities amidst thrilling battles that abound, even devising a new take on the old “rocket punch” that is original yet scary when seen from the target’s point of view. Without giving anything away, a fine nod to Leiji Matsumoto and his Captain Harlock suggests the type of adventure the series makers aspired to with Aldnoah.Zero, and they succeed in rendering that spirit and honouring Matsumoto’s creative legacy far, far better than the recent big-screen remake. Best of all, there’s still a second season after this one!
Aldnoah.Zero, season one, is released in the UK by Anime Limited.