Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet
In the distant future, humanity has forgotten its terrestrial origins and lives under the auspices of the Galactic Alliance, an Orwellian government whose sole purpose is the extermination of the Hideauze, a squid like race of alien marauders. Leto, a rank-and-file soldier who has never known any world beside this, is one day separated from the rest of his platoon along with his sentient mecha, "Chamber", following a disastrous battle. Badly injured and in an induced coma, he drifts until eventually coming to on a previously unknown ocean planet, where the inhabitants of a fleet christened "Gargantia" have salvaged his craft from the sea bottom. Upon leaving his craft and first encountering them, he is thrust into an alien world for the first time in his life, learning that this planet is the forgotten Earth of lore, once frozen over and uninhabitable but now entirely covered in seas. In spite of his initially strong language barrier and complete ignorance of their society, he soon begins to understand that in spite of seeming outwardly "primitive" to him many of their values are far more admirable than his own, a difficult reality to accept for one raised solely to fight, kill, and die without emotion.
Lately, it seems that the anime industry has largely lost interest in science fiction, once a mainstay of the medium. Aside from some remakes and the various continuations of Gundam, the series that do air nowadays tend to either be heavy on action and light on plot or be slice-of-life anime using scifi as a convenient backdrop, and as a fan of the genre, I find this dismaying, if unsurprising. Refreshingly, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet is something of an exception to this trend, for while it is neither flawlessly constructed nor devoid of the genre's cliches, it takes the time to fully explore the details of its setting and tell its story of culture shock and failed ideological warfare with relatively little distraction. Hampered slightly by a confusing beginning and overblown ending, it is nonetheless surprisingly successful at depicting the frustration of acculturation and admitting to the flaws of one's society, neither preaching simplicities nor glossing over the difficulties of the transition.
Gargantia's basic plot represents an example of the "Lost World" theme common in science fiction, although it thankfully avoids the dreadful mistake of portraying the inhabitants of Earth as any sort of "noble savages". It is, interestingly, a show that handles the details of its universe that directly involve the main characters and their current situation quite well but glosses over the big picture: at first glance, indeed, its premise appears to be anime's answer to Hollywood's atrocious Waterworld. For example, the mechanics of how exactly the Earth froze over and subsequently became entirely submerged in water are unclear, and what little of the science we see behind it appears to be unsound, as we never, for example, learn exactly how humans and a host of other species could even plausibly make it through this climactic catastrophe. Indeed, Gargantia's premise feels arbitrarily constructed at times, and what scant exposure we do get to the war and the Galactic Alliance itself is disorienting. At the beginning, for example, we are treated to a brief and hurried monologue and then thrust into a violent and badly-filmed space battle in which we have little sense of who the combatants are and which, if any, point of view we are meant to side with. While this thankfully doesn't last, the show's weakest moments come when it is forced to deal with questions surrounding the political situation of the Galactic Alliance, as it simply doesn't have enough episodes to explain the relevant history or science properly.
When Gargantia focuses on the more intricate details of its universe, however, it does so quite successfully. Ledo, the only representative of the Galactic Alliance that we have time to latch onto, is effectively depicted as a character defined by the purpose he was essentially bred for, neither truly good nor evil but lacking several concepts that both the inhabitants of Gargantia and the viewer would consider commonplace. Indeed, the show trivializes neither the significant cultural barrier he encounters nor his difficulty with their language, especially with idioms expressing concepts that his society has essentially stricken from existence. Throughout the show, he is somewhat alien to everyone else in spite of their acceptance of him, a depiction that, coupled with his slow realization of his society's flaws, is quite a poignant one. While we never really learn enough about the Galactic Alliance, what detail we do get is presented in the context of Ledo's encountering, for example, a sickly person whom everyone else looks after, a person who would be tossed aside as useless trash in his own society, and beginning to realize that he hails from a world where the value of life is no longer understood. He is a compelling main character for the situation, empathetic but appropriately as difficult to love as it is difficult for him to do so; calculating and impassive but not such a sociopath that he is irretrievable.
I would say that the other characters of Gargantia, largely a tough bunch of weather-worn but lively people, are quite empathic on the whole; even such genki characters as Amy, the first person he encounters and, later, his closest friend on the ship, turn out to be far more clever than one would guess at first glance. Though we don't spend as long with all of the characters as I would have liked, I nonetheless felt that the show maintained a careful balance between the stoic Ledo and the much more emotive (if no less capable) denizens of the ship, and while the show very briefly dips into harem territory with some of Amy's friends, it is otherwise fairly deft at steering clear of the characters' potential archetypes. Indeed, I remained invested in them and their fate throughout, a successful effort that helped me weather the grandiloquent ending, a somewhat unconvincing "I must save these people from what I once was" storyline that arises as some of Ledo's comrades reappear. My favorite side character, however, was not actually a human at all but Ledo's sentient craft, Chamber, whose too-literal "scientific assessments" of Gargantia, its people, and their daily lives are quite amusing and whose deadpan delivery makes him (perhaps unintentionally) into an effective foil for Ledo.
Gargantia's visuals, meanwhile, are an impressive effort courtesy of Production I.G, and the show is a fantastic example of artistic precision being employed to explore and expand upon the setting. The Earth of the future is one of omnipresent oceans, teaming with life and lit with phosphorescent creatures by night, and rusted fleets of city-sized barges that, though squalid, are as lively as the oceans surrounding them. Indeed, these shipborne cities are incredibly fascinating to look at, what with their networks of passages, hullside dwellings built akin to those on a Greek isle, and bustling markets, and luckily, the artists and animators behind this series know how to capture the best angles of this city and include enough detail to rival that of the bustling towns seen in Hayao Miyazaki's works. Such small touches as the steampunk-esque goggles and Amerindian-style shawls that the ship's inhabitants wear contrast with the sleek, modern, and virtually featureless attire of Ledo and his people, and the use of careful detail to hint at the contrast in living situation and philosophy between the two worlds is quite clever. The character art, too, is quite nice, even if I had to chuckle a tiny bit at how the female characters constantly appear to be blushing, and while there is light fanservice throughout, the only unwatchable bits occur in what amounts to a "beach" episode midway (if you're transgender and find the "horny transvestite" trope offensive, you might want to skip it). Those watching this for the mecha battles may be disappointed, unfortunately, for while Chamber himself is quite amusing, his design is not especially innovative, and there is relatively little in the way of mecha-driven action, with the scenes being brief and, in general, not especially well-animated. Indeed, while the animation and the remainder of the visuals are quite impressive otherwise, Gargantia neither looks nor feels like a show made and directed by those familiar with the mecha genre, and while I watched this show for other reasons, some might construe that as false advertising.
Like any successful science fiction story, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet thrives whenever it successfully connects its reflections to the humans involved, only seriously flailing when the situation is discussed in abstract and the need for more background becomes apparent. The ratio of the former to the latter is great enough that I came away happy, and since I was more than pleased with the art and characters, this is a show I can easily recommend, in spite of it not necessarily breaking new ground. Though imperfect, it is, in my view, one of the better science fiction series to come out lately, and amidst the overdose of harem and slice of life present in today's anime industry it was an encouraging find.
Knock a star off if you don't like sci fi, think this doesn't have enough mecha battles, or don't think you'll be able to handle the background information being a bit scant. Otherwise, this gets a very solid recommendation from me. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: Violence occurs throughout, some of it graphic, some of it less so but no less disturbing (as in, a laser zapping people into non-existence), while the Hideauze suffer even worse dismemberment than the humans. In addition, the show explicitly discusses euthanasia, eugenics, and several other controversial topics in the context of Leto's society. Finally, fan service is present throughout, and while the least family-friendly examples of it are contained in one episode, that episode is definitely not safe for kids (and, as a side note, depicts stereotypes that will likely offend transgender viewers). This is fairly safe for teenagers, but it's definitely not for children.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of crunchyroll.com
Review Status: Full (13/13)
Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet © 2013 oceanus/2013 Gargantia on the verdurous Planet Committee
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