Science fiction has remained a favorite genre for anime series to pull off, but doing it well enough to be hailed as something at least well done is another matter. Among the selections of the year however, last season’s Knights of Sidonia stood out as a fantastic reminder as to why science fiction, if done in an engaging and spectacular manner, can still be a genre that can line out a most breathtaking sight in anime.
Before we continue, spoilers will be around in this post if you have not watched the series, so you have been warned. This post represents only my own views and should be taken as another subjective opinion, not objective fact. I never intend for any of my posts to be anything like that.
The story begins in a seemingly erratic way, showing us our protagonist, Tanikaze Nagate, having to make his way up to a more populated area to get food. He fails and is caught, but is allowed to live and asked to pilot a Gardes, a kind of mech made to defend Sidonia from humankind’s primary enemies, the Gauna. We learn that Sidonia is a seed ship, one of many who left Earth when it was destroyed by the mysterious alien lifeform, the Gauna, a thousand years ago. Knights of Sidonia, or シドニアの騎士 (Sidonia no Kishi) in Japanese, follows the tale of Tanikaze as he makes his way into the society he and his grandfather first shunned from, and his and Sidonia’s battles against the Gauna.
Sidonia seems to have a rather straightforward story – a mysterious alien lifeform destroys Earth and forces humanity to flee to the distant reaches of the stars. A hero is somehow selected from within the ranks of the colony, and distinguishes himself. Yet, Sidonia is more than that. Sidonia does not allow Tanikaze to ever get comfortable with the way things are. That does not mean he himself does not find comfort – rather, he manages to, through his own sometimes rather naive ways, get through to others and protect Sidonia. Neither does he do it on his own – the Captain, Kobayashi, assists him a lot in the dark, and meanwhile, he finds trustworthy teammates that he lives to fight for, even as he was first seen as an outcast.
The Gardes are not infallible either – they are mere machines, and the Gauna are terrifying foes. While the Gardes themselves are replaceable, the only thing that can eliminate a Gauna is the Kabizashi, a weapon of unknown origin wielded by selected Gardes pilots. Losing one is akin to losing a light in the deepest reaches of an abyss – the things you could do with it are suddenly made so much more clear the moment you lose it. This is made painstakingly clear in one of the episodes when Sidonia has no choice but to let one go as it was out of reach of the seed ship, but another was within reach and the whole ship had to turn back to get it.
Tanikaze does get his own Gardes – Tsugumori, a 17th-generation Gardes. The current generation is the 18th, but he has always trained with the 17th and is amazing in it. Despite his prowess in one, however, Tanikaze is not a one-man army and never gets to really be one. It is shown as well that he cannot do this by himself, but with the help of his teammates.
I mentioned the Gauna briefly as a mysterious alien lifeform. I do not give more clues as to their identity not because I am trying to withhold information for fear of spoiling people, but because Sidonia has done a superb job of keeping them mysterious. This is referenced several times in the series, with Hoshijiro Shizuka (above), Tanikaze’s love interest of sorts, speculating once about what they might be and why they invaded Earth. We are never really able to find out what the Gauna really are – they are just enemies that would destroy humankind given half a chance. That is what the people of Sidonia, and the viewers indirectly, are told about the Gauna. The battles with the Gauna never deviate from that stance, but the nagging question is always there – are the Gauna truly enemies of humankind, or are both just misunderstanding one another?
Sidonia never lets the grim reality of just how precarious the state of humanity is slip out of sight of the viewers’ minds either – shocking deaths are shown in an episode where Sidonia itself must make a huge turn in a small period of time, and people not latched properly to rails are flung with great speed against walls, ending up as mere splatters of blood in a horrifying display of disregard for human life. Kobayashi, who made the decision, knew better – losing a percentage of lives was better than letting any Gauna aboard, and possibly losing the seed ship itself in the process.
One of 11 genetically created sisters is captured early on by a Gauna, and later Hoshijiro. Having to battle and kill what were previously teammates was something both Tanikaze and other Gardes pilots had to deal with as well. Hoshijiro was no mere pushover either – her skills were second only to the top of the class when she was captured, leading the Gauna to later copy her Gardes and piloting skills, killing many pilots until an amazing last battle with Tanikaze took out the Gauna-Gardes version.
While the story is something that should certainly be applauded, the animation and the music are top-notch as well. In particular, the quality of the animation is not something you would see much nowadays in anime. Some people seem to loathe the 2.5D way in which the series is drawn, but I personally find it very fitting for the way the series is portrayed in. There is definitely no moe in the show – save for certain points where either Hoshijiro or Tanikaze blush, there is little that you will often find in other anime series nowadays.
The battles are largely well animated, though the 256-Gardes formation was still the most astounding sight of the series by far for me. When Hoshijiro and Tanikaze were stranded early on in the show, the defending crew of 256 Gardes all disobeyed orders to form a very powerful ring formation. Through the use of their combined thrusters, they were able to reach both Hoshijiro and Tanikaze, and bring them back to safety. The animation of that sequence was simply wonderful, carrying over into the next episode as they returned to Sidonia and broke formation from there.
Sidonia’s quality however does not stop there – the real deal in the science fiction arena are the ethical issues and scientific advancements it brings into light. We meet Shinatose Izana, a kind of bisexual triumph who is able to change sex according to the partner later on in life. Then there is the issue of photosynthesis – everyone except Tanikaze Nagate is able to photosynthesize their own food, thus allowing them to store a lot less rations and consume less food. On board a seed ship with no alternative ways to make food and limited space, that is certainly a huge step forward in the conservation of resources.
There is also the darker side – unethical experiments trying to combine both human and Gauna. People who die within the ship are also sent to the thermal reactor to produce energy even with the last of their material leftovers. Ultimately, most of the choices that would be deemed unethical in our contemporary society were made in accordance with the circumstances Sidonia found itself in. It cannot be argued that while it seems grisly at the least sometimes, the advancements were definitely a necessary step forward to keep Sidonia, and its inhabitants by extension, alive.
There is, of course, much food for thought for us, the viewers – one cannot help but contemplate if we can indeed achieve photosynthesis in the future, or the likes of Shinatose Izana. Izana’s concept, by the way, is not new – Ursula K. Le Guin also wrote about it in The Left Hand of Darkness, which was published in 1969.
For a science fiction anime series, Sidonia is an experienced to be lived, not a series to be watched. Even the opening theme song, Sidonia, sung by angela, is a masterpiece. I may not have shown much else in the screenshots besides the Gardes formation here, but that is also something that you can look forward to as you watch the series for yourself, and judge whether the science fiction genre has indeed found itself revived. As Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear fame praised, “Japanese culture has lost its ‘cool’, and Knights of Sidonia will be the white knight that saves it.” I may not go that far to agree entirely with his views, but I can tell you that Knights of Sidonia has certainly etched itself into my memory as one of the better anime series I have ever watched.
The second season will be out this October, so if you are keen on catching the show, do finish the first season before you continue with the second!