Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere
In the far future, mankind's progress into space has been halted by mysterious means, forcing civilization to return to a devastated Earth, of which the only inhabitable land is the Japanese archipelago. In order to house the global population, pocket dimensions are formed, while humanity turns to reenacting human history (based on a text known as the "Testament") in order to find their way back to space. However, Japan is invaded by the pocket dimensions and forced into a nomadic existence aboard the city-ship Musashi; as the nations of the Testament Union ponder the possible end of times upon the Testament's mysterious cut-off date of 1648, the motley crew of high schoolers aboard the Musashi and their irrepressible student body president Tori Aoi plan the reclamation of their homeland in the name of world peace, and for the sake of his love interest, the mysterious Horizon Ariadust.
The first episode begins with a massive expository info dump, giving us the setup for a plot that rivals Legend of Galactic Heroes in sheer density and pomp. And then we are dropped into a clown car pileup of sci-fi / fantasy RPG character cliches, featuring what seems like every single character one could possibly come up with in a video game cast, and then some, in a battle royale with their teacher, with the final scene revealing that the student council president protagonist is a cheerfully unrepentant pervert who's skipped out on school to purchase a pornographic computer game.
By every right, with such an awful first impression, I could have dropped Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere ... in the middle of nowhere and probably gotten away with it, but as 2012 rolled around, I made a New Year's Resolution to myself to never write another "first impression review" and actually trudge through the other twelve episodes of this thing to see if there was any redeeming quality to the series. And sometimes, in rare occasions, first impressions can, indeed, be quite wrong. While Horizon clearly lacks the emotional depth, consistency, and focus that characterizes a quality series in my eyes, and takes a bit overlong to find its footing, this series has surprised me with some surprisingly heartfelt character work and a compelling story that at times struggles, but ultimately succeeds in transcending some of the worst direction and design decisions I've come across in a televised series.
One of the main initial problems is that at first glance, it appears the creators of Horizon have taken the opportunity to cater to every single otaku fetish they could possibly think of. Big boobs, small boobs, cosplay, kimono, crossdressing, android girls; heck, schoolgirl lesbian magical girls with wings and witches' brooms that double as sniper rifles? They're all there, and in multiple permutations. But there's also random characters like the fat in-denial lolicon guy (voiced by Minoru Shiraishi no less), the naked incubus guy, and the outright offensive stereotype of the Indian mystic prancing around with a gigantic bowl of curry, none of whom add an iota to the plot. This character list needed serious editing; at best, it's distracting, and at worst, it feels outright insulting and pandering. Oh, and let's drop in the whole aspect of the characters reliving the lives of historical figures, so that we get a perpetually drunken idiot savant in a mortarboard named Matsudaira Motoyasu - the name of a man who in real history became Tokugawa Ieyasu - one of the Unifiers of Japan!
What's more annoying is that the first half of the series is horribly directed, as if there were a bunch of folks in committee, each with strong opinions of what kind of show they wanted Horizon to be, and each of them decided to write their own ideal chapter, like a pass-on story written by a half-dozen different fanfic writers. For ten minutes, Horizon is a high school comedy, then it's a ghost story, then it's a romance drama, with no real sense of transition or proper plotting to tie these chapters together. And while it's somewhat interesting to conceptualize the initial episodes as being from different points of view a la Rashomon, the actual execution falls very, very flat. Frankly, the first half the series feels like a cheap and tawdry excuse to slap a bunch of fan service (both of the titillating and nerdy kind) on top of a great big pile of anachronism stew.
And then, somehow, magically, the plot begins to happen and characters begin to actually matter and be interesting. It does take almost eight or nine episodes, but Horizon switches gears and actually becomes an exciting, creative, and genuinely clever sci-fi action series and, for the most part, actually stays that way. Even Aoi, who spends much of the series being the most ineffectual protagonist in the history of anime, actually has a couple of scenes where he shines and even actually justifies his own life outlook and personality in the face of his position of authority. It's all rather bizarre, but Horizon ends up having you cheer on a loser protagonist whose great power is to get other people to do badass things for him, which really shouldn't work, but does anyway.
Technically, I can't ding this visually at all : the animation is crisp, the action sequences well-rendered, and the magic / high-technology of the setting lends itself well to action-series Crowning Moments of Awesome (with particularly creative uses of "mercantilism" and "erotica" as actually useful combat arts, and the scene with the two witches taking down a giant robot by themselves being a flat-out home run in my book). The music is well-placed and the themes are catchy and well-executed (particularly the opening song "Terminated" by Minori Chihara, which feels reminiscent in some ways of the best of Masami Okui's 90s anime themes). Horizon clearly has a budget, and it's made abundantly clear they know how to use it. And yet I get the distinct feeling that, with the richness of the setting and the humongous cast of sometimes intriguing characters, that the light novels have gotten seriously short shrift in the presentation of this series - and it's because of the direction. Manabu Ono (A Channel) has clearly gotten in way over his head, and in not editing out or sidelining extraneous characters (why does lolicon guy even have spoken lines?) and failing to rein in the first half of the series, he nearly wrecks the whole thing. Near the very end, there are again some weird design decisions that prompt me to question where the second series is headed (baseball-based artillery attacks? REALLY?) but overall Horizon ends up being a good bit of light, campy fun.
I came into this series feeling like I'd dredged up a true loser, but despite its massive flaws, when it has clear direction, the spirit behind Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere really shines through. I can't say this is an unqualified recommendation by any means - this is a series that demands either a great deal of patience or a good deal of appreciation of the finer nuances of fan service and dumb fun, but either way, against all odds, this highly inconsistent, yet ultimately entertaining series has me looking forward to its second season.
Despite questionable design choices and one of the rockiest starts in any anime series I've seen to this point, Horizon just manages to salvage an average rating. Fan service fans may add a star and add this to their viewing list; conversely, people who hate anything to do with RPG or moe cliches can safely drop this a star and skip the series altogether. — Carlos/Giancarla Ross
Recommended Audience: Lots of action sequences, and at least one character is torn in half on screen, though as that character is an android it's not quite as traumatic as it initially seems. There are a few minor character deaths, particularly near the center of the series, signaling a radical mood shift and change in direction. Lots and lots of fan service, particularly in terms of cleavage shots, and Aoi is not shy about expressing how much of a pervert he is (with at least one scene of rear nudity, though frontal nudity is thankfully censored out in all versions). This is not for younger children, but older teens and above should be fine.
Version(s) Viewed: crunchyroll stream, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (13/13)
Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere © 2011 ASCII Media Works / Bandai Visual / Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere Production Committee / Lantis / Sony PCL / Sunrise
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