Friday, September 25, 2015

Knights Of Sidonia S1 Ep1: Commencement

"It's been a thousand years since the city was founded.
They say the tunnels under the base are so confusing that if you get lost in them you'll never get out."
-A female citizen speaking directly to the great space within the ark ship that is Sidonia-

The clashing opening moments of Knights Of Sidonia (2014) officially establishes the reality of its human survivors. This is in fact a war between the Garde (or Guardians) of Sidonia and the alien enemy combatant known as the Gauna, a strange, gangly, indefinable, shapeshifting creature---a creature not easy to kill, but indeed vulnerable. The tone of the series is indeed one of survival.

The action is indeed intense and the animation of 2D and 3D digital work is aesthetically pleasing and striking to the eye.

The opening minutes launch us straight into combat. Such a maneuver reminds us of the kind of thrills that launched us straight into the opening of Star Wars (1977). Knights Of Sidonia wastes no time plunging us directly into its world.

Those exhilarating minutes establish a Garde warrior destroying a Gauna by stabbing it through what is referred to as the placenta leaving the Gauna vulnerable and thus susceptible to attack by humans.

In the end, what appeared real, our introduction, is nothing more than a flight and combat simulator or Virtual Garde Training System as its referred, for lead protagonist Nagate Tanikaze. He is the first character we meet in the series as we begin with Knights Of Sidonia, Season One, Episode 1, Commencement. Our story, though populated with stunning action sequences, is indeed a generous character-driven study of survival.

It is clear early on, by his handling of the Mark 17 Tsugunmori Model, Nagate is an expert in handling the humanoid-styled weapon as he exits the simulator. It will have more resonance later, but here, below ground, alone, where it appears he spends a good deal of his time whiling away the days, Nagate's score ranks him number one with 99999. He scores higher than Hiroki who is 99th with 92583. Nagate is perfect.

Nagate's stomach growls.

This introduction takes us into the opening theme song for Knights Of Sidonia.

I've never been a particularly big fan of these J-pop opening pop songs and quite frankly Knights Of Sidonia (KOS) tragically continues that trend. I say tragic, because KOS deserves better than that, but as traditions would have it, there it is---J-pop!

Fortunately the series is gifted by a much less spastic approach to its scoring lending itself to a very specific ambience and mood alternating between spare, quiet, bleak moments and percolating thrills where required. The exceptional, sophisticated instrumental soundtrack comes compliments of composer Noriyuki Asakura.

The story begins inside the great space arc vessel that is Sidonia built and implanted within a great asteroid. Shots indicate a ship of massive scale and depth. The suggestion is that there are layers and mysteries within the cavernous ship that one couldn't possibly fathom. The images of the ship are filled with details. Cables and pipes adorn its inner walls and corridors. It is a work of real imagination. There is indeed a great deal of thought and care that went into the simple things denoting a sense of splendor and space within.

The use of shadows and color within Sidonia's artificially-infused, detailed inner world is magnificent.

The series opens in an almost desolate place within Sidonia. Nagate is in essence awakening. He even passes a sign warning him not to go beyond that point likely written out of love or protection for Nagate. It is signed by Hiroki. Hiroki Saito was Nagate's grandfather. Nagate's isolation within the massive ship is about to end.

Again, the notable musical compositions truly accent this character's journey into the unknown. There is an eerie sense of mystery and caution to this protagonist's story.

Worth noting too throughout the series is the design work. The space suits easily rank among science fiction's best. They are simple yet gorgeously considered and rendered on the screen. The suits themselves are both practical yet futuristic and otherworldly.

When Nagate essentially crawls to the surface from his cavernous, but safe, underground dwellings he is seeking food. He stumbles upon some rice silohs. There is such immense size and scale to everything reminding us just how big the inside of this spacecraft truly is.

The series is also riddled with gorgeous pillow shots of items and everyday cracks and corners aboard the Sidonia. Each still is a glimpse of information and a snapshot of this amazing inner world.

Animation portrays events with great fluidity filled with surprising detail and quality for a TV budgeted anime. The character designs and design work in general is simply stellar based on Tsutomu Nihei's manga of the same name. They are some of the finest character designs I've seen since Range Murata's work on the likes of Blue Submarine No.6 (1998-2000) or Last Exile (2011-2012).

The use of color and shading throughout the animation is nothing short of gorgeous. The rays of orange light appear to penetrate and bask the residents of Sidonia. Garde pilots are bathed in stunning blue in space.

Nagate is knocked unconscious while attempting to flee after taking some rice. The "under dweller" is all the conversation outside of his hospital room between a group of clone sisters referred to as the Honoka sisters. All are beautiful. The scene illustrates visually that cloning is in production on Sidonia. There are twenty-two in all. We are introduced by name to the seemingly hard-nosed Ren. The girls are awash in an orange hue and the image behind them is of a rusted or old Garde unit seemingly no longer in use.

The Garde is a Mark 17 lunar white model referred to as the Tsugumori. It was once used at the end of the Fourth Gauna War and piloted by the now legendary Hiroki. All of this suggests a long and seemingly unending war with the Gauna. Through this conversation we are introduced to pivotal characters to the narrative of KOS, the adorable Shizuka Hoshijiro and entitled Norio Kunato. Kunato wishes to one day pilot the Mark 17 and protect Sidonia. It is his dream. Hoshijiro perks up, "It's nice to have a dream." Kunato is the heir to the company that develops the Mark 18 Garde.

The episode cuts to a secret place where six Immortal Ship Committee members, six embedded stone like figures, reside and cede audience to their physical connection to the men and women who pilot and guide Sidonia in the form of Captain Kobayashi. Kobayashi is often graced with a mask, similar to a Guy Fawkes disguise, to offer a level of unemotional detachment.

The furtive group pulling the strings of key characters behind the scenes is a familiar convention in anime. A group like the nefarious Seele from Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996) comes to mind. Ergo Proxy (2006) employed a similar component or concept in the form of four entourages, statues made of stone, referred to as the Council, the Collective or the Administration Bureau.

Without much fanfare we are introduced to this particular convention in KOS in the first episode.

As it happens the Immortal Ship Committee is stunned to discover there are people that still live underground within Sidonia. It is believed that Nagate's grandfather Hiroki was found below in a mummified state.

The Honoka Sisters discuss the Gauna with Hoshijiro. KOS drops us into the story at the beginning of a new phase in the war with the Gauna. It is said to have been 100 years since a battle with the Gauna last occurred. It's about to begin again.

Revealed by the Honoka Sisters is what becomes of life on Sidonia following someone's passing. A body is ultimately sent to the Organic Converter Reactor to essentially fuel the ship, a crafty that thrives on biological material. Ship Sidonia offers us a portrait on the circle of life or food chain.

KOS delves into the state of politics reflecting our own state of affairs globally. "Radicals" stage anti-war rallies and speak out against the Immortal council. The protesters believe the Immortals desire war only to extend their lives. Others, Garde pilots included, represent those in society who believe the cause is just and that war is waged ultimately to protect Sidonia essentially snubbing the, fittingly, "occupy" movement on the streets.

After a radical move by Nagate who jumps from a window out of fear he is injured. Commencement sees Hoshijiro essentially rescue Nagate and bring him to a police station for care. She has a kind heart. Nagate, who clearly lived and fed underground even after the passing of his grandfather is a bit like a wild animal forced to adjust quickly to this new reality.

A man named Ochiai accepts Nagate in his care on behalf of Captain Kobyashi. He notes Nagate is not a genetically modified human in that he is unable to photosynthesize like most on Sidonia---because he must instead constantly feed himself orally. Ochiai introduces Nagate to Kobayashi.

Kobayashi removes her mask and extends her arms to embrace Nagate informing him that he will be in her care or stead. She will be his guarantor. This is another popular anime convention within the mecha genre. Kobayashi asks that he become a Garde pilot. "Will you do it?," she inquires. The moment and relationship echoes the relationship dynamic of one Shinji Ikari and Misato Katsuragi on Neon Genesis Evangelion. Of course Shinji was something of a reluctant warrior as the pilot of Evangelion Unit-01. Will Nagate exhibit a similar reaction to such a role? Often we see a dynamic between a wiser, older character and a more youthful pilot. In this case, like Neon Genesis Evangelion, it is again a female/male dynamic. Female empowerment and male submission is a theme that often resonates in Japanese anime, a kind of inversion to traditional Japanese culture.

At the midway break of Commencement we are presented two pillow stills further aiding viewers in their assembly of knowledge regarding Sidonia's inner workings and layout. This concept would be employed throughout the twelve episode run. Like a puzzle we are given bits of information that serve to inform us of Sidonia's inner complexity.

Still one is a shot of the North 93rd Apartment Complex. Still two is an image of An External Stairway for Pilots. The pilots are held in considerable regard, like those valued to protect a nation should.

As the second half of Commencement continues Nagate meets for the first time Lala Hiyama, a talking bear and dorm mother. Huh? If that wasn't unusual enough she also has a mechanical arm/claw an injury she incurred while very young. The series is so awesome you get caught up in the moment and disregard the preposterousness of it all. It speaks to how effectively KOS weaves its tale and characters inside its own universe that we never really think to ask about that bear. Nagate certainly rolls with the mild shock too. Is it acceptable to encounter a talking bear? Where exactly does such a breed come from? There are questions of course but hardly a distraction from the overarching narrative and warm characters.

Nagate finally introduces himself in a round theatre-styled meeting room for pilots where he says "hello everybody." Much discussion ensues as to the etiquette of such a salutation. Oh the horror of it. These under dwellers are clearly lacking in surface dwelling manners.

Following the meeting Nagate is reintroduced to Izana Shinatose. She is disappointed he does not remember her but that he remembered Hoshihiro. As I watched the two characters walk I was simply awestruck by the beauty and detail of this TV animation. I've not heard critics speak rousingly of the work here, but perhaps many anime fans have set their bars so high that they cannot recognize an artistic beautiful work like this one when it lands. KOS is truly an animated delight.

As Nagate and Izana walk the movements take the viewpoint of Nagate who looks closely at Izana's attire. The director takes special care to note in close up the details of her uniform. A badge number. A special metal cable around her waist. What is the significance of these things? We find out more later.

Izana informs Nagate she is a special third gender human. We are introduced to this new information about these future humans. She is neither male or female and her partner is of little consequence when one is chosen. Her body will simply undergo a change naturally when she chooses her given male or female partner so that she may achieve conception accordingly.

At a virtual training center Nagate jumps into a mock Mark 18 module. He declares to Izana "It's not what I'm used to" suggesting his knowledge base is more attuned to the Mark 17 we saw earlier in the episode.

A scoreboard indicates long, white-haired Guardian pilot Norio Kunato is ranked first place with Hoshijiro a close second. Nagate stands before the board later and his is unranked indicating he did not perform well in his simulation. His poor showing echoes the opening minutes of Commencement whereby Nagate is clearly an assassin within the Mark 17. He is as much in tune with that unit as Shinji Ikari would be connected to the Evangelion Unit-01 in Neon Genesis Evangelion.

In the pilot's conference meeting round the Gauna is discussed. We learn more about the creature's physiology. Its main core is located where the human spine and brain would be located. The main core must ultimately be penetrated to destroy the Gauna. This is achieved by way of a material called kabi. It exposes the ena which allows the core to be struck handled by way of a special spear dubbed the Kabizashi. The material is rare and there are just twenty-eight spears remaining in Sidonia. The weapon is indeed a specialized commodity.

Elsewhere, Norio Kunata is angered to discover the Mark 17 Garde Lunar White Model, the Tsugumori, that was seemingly rusted but on display is now missing.

On wrist watches, the kind popularized in Science Ninja Team Gatchaman here, Nagate and company receive a deployment order. They are being sent on their first sortie, a simple mining expedition. Uh-huh.

Eight cadets are assembled. Two squads of four fall under Norio Kunata  and Shizuka Hoshijiro respectively.

When the pilots do arrive at the Garde bay the Tsugumori is there shining and waiting for Nagate. Norio is less than pleased by this development. But Nagate has clearly been chosen to handle the Mark 17 by the captain.

What impressed me about the Garde units themselves, apart from the use of shadows and lighting, was the realism of the design work. There was something sleek but practical about these crafts of war. The Garde don't boast a gaudy, showy, cartoonish appearance like the mecha of Mobile Suit Gundam or even my beloved Gunbuster (1988-1989) or Neon Genesis Evangelion. The Garde in KOS is believably crafted for real world execution. Its appearance is more akin to the practical real world designs of Mamoru Oshii's Patlabor units. It's clear a great deal of thought went into the manga series on which this anime is based. It should come as no surprise given this is a science fiction work from the mind of the creator behind manga series Blame! (1998-2003) and Biomega (which also included a bear) (2004-2009).

It is also in the action sequences within KOS whereby the director has seamlessly blended 2D and 3D computer animation with modeling work from those systems. It is a flawless blend.

As the Garde units launch there is indeed a great strength and power to them as they soar into space. The camera pulls back into the void and the mighty Sidonia begins to fall away as we get our first glimpse of this mighty vessel and world. We see Sidonia through Nagate's eyes who seems to catch his breath at this majestic site that, while massive and unexpected, is also seemingly small against the backdrop of endless space. Further, the whole sequence is so artfully handled between the scene's energy and this gorgeously applied score by Noriyuki Asakura the sequence is both epic and breathtaking.

Also of note is Nagate's journey from within to withouter space. It's a bit like birth being thrust into a new world, his second new discovery in just one episode. He was first in awe of the great city of Sidonia within the vessel only to be further enlightened with his release into space. This is indeed a new day and a new life for the seemingly cautious Nagate. Though he is not to be mistaken for a mere milquetoast.

Together the squads join hands to form something called a Clasp Formation. The formation allows the Garde units to travel extended distances at much greater speeds together. The distance alone would be much slower as a single unit.

Whilst on the mining expedition for ice extraction (you guessed it already) the unthinkable occurs. The Garde units unearth a Gauna and the cadets are under intense attack. It is violent and even bloody as these new cadets are seemingly ill-equipped mentally for such an event this soon. As this large unruly, shapeshifting creature rears its ugly head, the emotionless Kobayashi mutters the encounter as "our first in a hundred years." When the command and control group declare "Gauna!" the scene certainly echoes the kind of emotional trauma that was so inspired in a series like Neon Genesis Evangelion. There are indeed murmurs of NERV and the Angels here, but where other series seem to ape the classics KOS is clearly carving its own path and telling its tale with great effect where so many have failed before it. KOS respectfully takes its beats from the best of science fiction and builds on that. And thus things look terribly grim and dark for our young cadets in the same disturbing fashion Ridley Scott would deliver his science fiction encounters in space where seemingly no one could hear you scream. The first casualty is Eiko Yamano, a female pilot who briefly gave Nagate a tongue-lashing in the Garde bay. She is believed dead (though that is debatable given more information that appears to place her death squarely in Episode 2, Oblivion). Who will be next? To be continued.

It is impressive how well-paced KOS is here in Commencement moving plot and character at just the right speeds. Yet it manages to introduce a great deal of information in its short run time whilst involving us exponentially with each new scene.

My reaction to first seeing KOS, Ep1, Commencement, was met with a feeling of elation and revelation. It was indeed the kind of emotional investment I look for in a series. My reaction was much the same to Neon Genesis Evangelion and its first episode Angel Attack. That's a rare thing. It's also no small compliment. I also don't reference that classic Studio Gainax series to suggest KOS copies it, but only to compare that this is a series that is as inspired and effective in conveying its story and character with the same kind of conviction. I couldn't wait to see more. KOS pulls us in and leaves us pining away for the next installment. This is a sensational work, a classic in the making.

Based on a wonderfully penned and drawn manga, the TV series boasts equally stunning credentials in the scripting department. Would it surprise you to know that contributing scriptwriter Sadayuki Murai is behind this work of pensive quality. Dig a little deeper and you'll find Murai had a hand in some of the finest in anime notably Perfect Blue (1997) and Millennium Actress (2001) by Satoshi Kon, two wonderful films and easily among the best in the medium. The great news is clearly KOS is in terrific hands.

I won't apologize for treating KOS with such precious, fawning affection, but alas I cannot help myself. It is a beautifully rendered anime, story, with thoughtful concepts, gorgeous character designs and directing touches that left me thoroughly moved. This work of art deserves special attention and will be receiving such here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic. It will be slow but it will happen.

This is one of those special anime rarities that comes along once in a blue moon and must be savored. Knights Of Sidonia is an atmospheric, brave, bold and new science fiction classic.

Up next: Oblivion.

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