Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet

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Note that I try hard not to divulge any key spoilers, but since so much of this show spends time building into a few key events, it’s hard to avoid any mention whatsoever. The events that I do mention, however, are ones that I deem either inconsequential to the overall story development, or ones that occur early enough in the show that it doesn’t really count as a spoiler. I don’t reveal any major plot twists that I think “give away” the show. Nevertheless, proceed at your own risk.

Prolific writer Gen Urobuchi is known not only for his dark plots, he also has a penchant for killing off main characters at inappropriate times and including copious amounts of shallow philosophy in his works. Urobuchi and fellow writer Kazuya Murata conceived of this project together, attempting to use the fish-out-of-water device to explain how young adults should try to integrate into society (according to an ANN interview). Urobuchi ended up writing only the first and last episodes. Even though Puella Magi Madoka Magica and even Fate Zero didn’t captivate me much, I can’t say that Urobuchi’s limited involvement is beneficial. The problem is that Murata’s Suisei no Gargantia doesn’t go far enough in its stated goal; rather, it doesn’t really enlighten us with any new ways of thinking that hasn’t been touched upon by countless other shows. Unlike the other shows however, Suisei no Gargantia spends so much time setting up its plot devices around this inconsistent, feel-good message that it inadvertently highlights its bad writing (whereas other shows have the good sense to gloss over these aspects).

Suisei no Gargantia — ironically translated to Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet despite there being no land in the show — features 16 year old child soldier Ledo, brainwashed by the Galactic Alliance in its eternal war against alien race Hideauze. After being knocked into a wormhole, he awakes within his humanoid mobile suit Chamber (a talking AI that acts mostly like a machine, making conjectures and calculations), having been salvaged by the people of the fleet of Gargantia. Confused of his situation, he escapes the fleet’s hanger and finds himself surrounded by oceans as far as the eye could see, a la Water World. It is there that Ledo meets and grows attached to Amy, a bubbly girl that would show him around the society of Gargantia. Amy has a sick brother named Bebel, which serves to highlight the concept of taking care of family. Other characters include a repairman and salvager named Pinion being the ambitious plot-mover, fleet second-in-command Ridget, and leader of the fleet’s excavation team Bellows. And it is over the course of these next few months that Ledo will ardently defend the efficiency of the Galactic Alliance as its futuristic society is structured, but gradually come to accept Gargantia, and at some point become offended by occurrences that he’s accepted for the past 16 years of his life.

Surprise, surprise!

Ledo initially mistakes Gargantia as a wandering tribe that has yet to join the Alliance, but is later surprised to find out that the place has habitable atmosphere, which Chamber confirms matches the only place in recorded history — Earth (which previously has been believed to be inhabitable). Presumably, the wandering tribe must have also ventured to space from Earth, although at a separate time than the Alliance… I digress.

I will hardly mention any of these characters for the remainder of this review, since they exist only to provide a face to sell Murata and company’s Shinto-esque ideology — and this is most unfortunate because as I turn off my brain for a moment, I am faced with most beautiful backdrops, wide-angle pans of idyllic scenery that allow me to stitch together these panoramas. The soundtrack, while technical and unfeeling, fits the setting well, contrasting two distinct moods between a light tune and the stereotypical sci-fi orchestral composition, representing the distance between Ledo and Amy. The OP and ED frames Suisei no Gargantia as a slice-of-life affair — which it is for the most part — rather than a science fiction thriller, but we are constantly reminded of the latter by cues in the script. Keep note that this doesn’t materialize until late in the show; Suisei no Gargantia tries to do two things at once, and at 1-cour (13 episodes), it has the time to do neither of them well.

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At the core of its philosophical repertoire lies two messages, and Suisei no Gargantia tries to convey them mostly by using extreme examples of one side to present a dichotomy — a false one, as if to ask, “Well, what can possibly be the alternative?” The answer to that question necessarily lies in the viewer’s imagination, since Suisei no Gargantia never credibly exercised this thought to begin with. The first of these points is the idea of coexistence leading to co-prosperity as opposed to subjugating one side under dominion of another. The second point is the idea of society being a bottom-up structure, where it is important for each individual to contribute for the good of the whole, as opposed to a top-down structure where leaders, and those who are capable, issue commands in which everyone else merely follow. Keep in mind that the show establishes a parallel between Ledo learning the ways of Gargantia and young adults navigating their way through the intricacies of society, therefore we can legitimately assume that the spiritual journey that Ledo goes through comprises Suisei no Gargantia’s message — that is what Kazuya Murata and Gen Urobuchi want us to understand, and anything presented in this show can, and must, be related to this theme.

The first message is summarily illustrated in Episode 7 when Chamber elucidates that there exists a concept on Earth — one that highlights the difference in survival strategies between those on Gargantia and Ledo’s Galactic Alliance — that doesn’t exist in the Alliance’s dictionary: “coexistence and co-prosperity”. The Japanese word for coexistence used here is 共存 (pronounced kyouzon); strangely this word was first uttered in Episode 2 by Chamber conveying to Gargantia that coexistence with the Hideauze has proved impossible, and later by Ledo himself indicating that he wishes to coexist with Gargantia for the time being. But let’s forget this technicality and keep in mind that the essence of Ledo’s confusion arises from his belief that reconciliation with the Hideauze have been impossible. Whether this is actually true, whether there might be some theoretical method to reconcile with the Hideauze or the possibility of it having succeeded in the past is irrelevant here. What matters is that Ledo believes so, and if we are able to trust in the narrative — which we must if we are to believe that whatever conclusion Ledo arrives at by the end of the show is a genuine ideological change instead of the result of a some mistake; if we are to credibly accept that the overall message of the show has to do with genuinely believing in coexistence rather than the follies of brainwashing — then we must believe so too. Suisei no Gargantia, however, attempts to persuade us that coexistence and co-prosperity is possible several times, each contrived: the argument always relies on unfounded assumptions that the enemy would either never be the aggressor, or that when they are, they would do so only with reasonable objectives (that do not include, for example, total annihilation).

Suisei no Gargantia haphazardly answers to the Libertarian problem of self-defense by suggesting that arms should only be a tool of negotiation against those that transgress, but should never be used with intent to kill — which it calls “murder”. Presumably what this means is that one should only return fire in an unfocused manner, lacking in intent to directly inflict harm, in order to make the opponent think that the transgression is more trouble than it’s worth; this perspective not only assumes rationality on the part of the enemy, but it also forgets that surely part of the negotiation value in arms is its lethal capabilities. It is at best inefficient (and at worst hypocritical) to pretend that, when push comes to shove, killing would play no part in that negotiation. Indeed, Gargantia has had to defend itself several times throughout the show, and make no mistake that people are killed in collateral regardless of intent. Underlying this issue is a problem of mental weakness: instead of taking responsibility for deaths in order to save more lives, one makes the choice to avoid direct killing but more people end up dead in consequence. For lacking the intent to kill does not free one of what could be supposed as moral responsibility when he engages in actions of gross negligence. Is it wrong to deliberately kill in order to protect, even when the one being killed is the aggressor, and how is that so different than indiscriminately returning fire knowing that it is sure to kill? In the show, Ledo saves members of Gargantia from impending enslavement and rape by instantly liquidating the enemy, and Gargantia responds with the wrath of a self-righteous hippie. Their future plan of self-defense: to engage in long battles of attrition wherein both sides would suffer severe injuries and deaths until the enemy surrenders. In fact, Suisei no Gargantia even goes as far as to suggest that the deliberate decision to kill must always be coerced, that no one in his right mind would kill unless for food. Of course they shrug it off when Chamber, in an attempt to catch fish, manages to mince a couple hundred of them — it’s comedic relief! But when Ledo kills a whalesquid that’s attacking another character, they call it “murder”. There are a couple scenes which are most infuriating that instantly destroyed the virtues of two of the main characters to me: Amy and Bebel presume against Ledo’s warnings of impending danger that Ledo’s threats could not have possibly come from within, and by threatening aggression — “murder” — Ledo must not really care about himself.

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If the first message contrasts two different survival strategies, then the second message contrasts two paradigms in which one could perceive society. The Galactic Alliance’s take on this is top-down, consisting of a leader and a presupposed purpose for society; utility in accomplishing this goal defines not only value, but the people’s well-being. Naturally, according to this model, people who cannot efficiently work towards this goal have no value, and are therefore sacrificed; however, people who do work are compensated proportionately to the value of their work. While the citizens of such a society are described as having their eyes glazed over, I could just as well conceive that people who have the skills conducive towards fulfilling the stated goal would feel more drive (Ledo being an example), being the breadwinners of society. However, such a nuance might appear too ambiguous for Suisei no Gargantia’s chiaroscuro dichotomy. And if this isn’t dystopian-fascist enough, this society in Suisei no Gargantia is depicted to be run by a religious cult. This is all very interesting if Suisei no Gargantia is just another science fiction thriller, but remember that it strives to make social commentary as well, and such extreme examples are extremely poor for the task. Any potential virtues of such a top-down system, such as proportionate income to utility and synergy over competition, are bundled in with the extreme, characterized as soulless, and summarily dismissed.

But have no fear, Suisei no Gargantia proposes a solution to dystopian fascism: modern-day Capitalism! But how will it sell the status quo, which we all know does not promote the proletariat, and is far from the bottom-up society that the show is selling us? Aside from posing the aforementioned extreme alternatives and committing the fallacy of bifurcation, Suisei no Gargantia frames money of all things as the proof of mutual benefaction. Amy cheerfully tells us, “That’s how we support each other!” Whereas in the Alliance, a sick Bebel might have been executed, how does capitalism deal with this situation — what is Bebel’s role in Gargantia? He neither works nor makes money, but he supposedly gives Amy emotional support, because in Gargantia — and in real-life Japan — people support their families. But at what cost? Money. If money is the gratitude we give to people who contribute and people need money to live, then essentially someone who is a net loss like Bebel receives no gratitude, and doesn’t deserve by the standards of society to live. Once we toss this idea around for a bit, we realize the ingenuity of framing the earning of money as mutual support when it is money that holds support hostage, and the irony of pinning the Capitalistic middle man as a symbol of our freedom.

Several manipulative plot devices have been inserted purely for the sake of drama; they don’t inform us in any way. To be sure, all drama seek to emotionally manipulate, but good drama should manipulate subtly without the audience being made aware that they are being manipulated. It is not a bad thing for a show to try to increase the pitch of the drama, but these devices shouldn’t stand out so much so as to distract, either due to logical or plot inconsistencies. For example, in one scene, Bebel runs out to Ledo despite having been bedridden and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of the show. Another scene shows Bebel inexplicably playing a tune that’s the exact same tune as one in Ledo’s memories: what are the chances for such a tune to have survived across two different cultures, for hundreds of years in the least — but more importantly, what significance does it really bring to the plot besides pedantically establish some metaphorical connection that we’ve already understood? At one point, Ledo becomes disgusted and angry at the sight of an occurrence that he has taken for granted during his time with the Alliance; it’s as if Suisei no Gargantia momentarily forgets that Ledo doesn’t have the same values that it wants to impose on the audience, in a hasty bid to create drama. Chamber once momentarily forgets that it’s a machine, regurgitating some corny punchline that must have made it here from the 80’s, as if to elicit applause from theater-goers. There are a few more inconsistencies of this caliber but I won’t spoil it. I will inquire about one contention of mystery: Who made the executive decision to paint all the women in this show with perpetual blushes and shiny skin? It’s an odd choice of art, one that perhaps some hentai should’ve been the trailblazer for instead of a show trying to be a contender for serious sci-fi.

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In the end, there is much that anime does, as a whole, to placate young adults feeling the pressure of society, and here it is no different. The entirety of Suisei no Gargantia could be seen as a metaphor for Japanese society: Suisei no Gargantia wants you to be the docile lamb, working your ass off to contribute to your company or fleet, just so you could be permitted to spend the fruits of your labor, the proof of your contribution, on alcohol, barbeque sauce, and belly-dances. If you’re cute or can talk a good talk, you might even catch yourself a cutie or a half-naked pirate girl.

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Heavens forbid if you’re looking for independence, the pursuit of knowledge or power! Perhaps it isn’t too surprising given that Japanese culture is relatively mono-ethnic — there is more of an expectation for people to support each other. But I wanted Suisei no Gargantia to go further than this; especially for a show that purports to speak out to young adults, I wanted it to have a message of greater value, greater specificity, to give more relevant examples that seek to inspire rather than preach. There could have been much more creative play around this fish-out-of-water concept if it is presented with more nuance: Ledo could have been made to grapple with the change himself, grasping incremental understanding of his new situation through introspection and exploration of his own accord instead of having the ideology forced down his throat by an idealistic love interest — and collectively, Suisei no Gargantia shoves it down our throats. This show is replete with missed opportunities, and whether someone is able to enjoy it would ultimately depend on how much they agree with the messages rather than what they think or feel about the actual plot or the character developments — and for that reason alone, Suisei no Gargantia deserves no higher than a 3.3.

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L-Bound/U-Bound represent the worst and best, respectively, that I expected Suisei no Gargantia to end from watching it up until the point in the chart. The first episode of Suisei no Gargantia starts off with a fight in space, but doesn’t explain very much of what is going on. All we know is that the Galactic Alliance is on its last leg, giving a last ditch effort to take out a Hideauze nest with an untested weapon, and despite generations of experience, they vastly underestimate their enemy. What plays out is an uninteresting light show, leading up to an event when Ledo, who has been in service with the military for the whole 16 years of his life disobeys direct orders to ignore a unit that has fallen to the Hideauze and ends up getting knocked to Earth. Suffice to say, the Earth part of Suisei no Gargantia has far more potential — unfortunately potential that it rarely lives out. The end of the first episode had me wagging my tail for more — though it barely registers a 6, I gave it a high U-bound of 7 to reflect the potential upward movement in the event that they pushed the envelope with that fish-out-of-water feel. Unfortunately they never did; and by the end of the second episode, Suisei no Gargantia is already hard-selling us what it feels about coexistence with an irreconcilable enemy.

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Warning: This pie chart is unscientific.

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One thought on “Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet

  1. This was a great review. I like the show, but I couldn’t agree more about the infuriating and hypocritical morals it throws out. These pirates are clearly evil, existing solely to prey off the innocent, and are more than happy to go above pillaging straight into bloodshed, enslavement, and rape.

    In a world with virtually no government, it falls on these fleets to stop and prevent threats for good, and they use a half-assed non-solution that will never solve the issue, and call it right? What the hell is that!?

    I also was less-than-amused by the return of the pirate queen and her largely being played as both a “not THAT evil” villain and comic relief. The same sex-slaving murdering piece of scum who personally killed several members of Gargantia is now being welcomed into their flock? Ugh. If not a gunshot to the head, I’m pretty sure the brig is where criminals like that are put, but I guess the show couldn’t let such a fine piece of fanservice stay out of sight.

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