Series Recap: Knights of Sidonia

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Knights of Sidonia is a tough cookie.  On the one hand, it tackles a lot of great issues regarding the nature of Humanity, as all great introspective works of art do. And it approaches them from a surprisingly sophisticated viewpoint, most of the time.  If you like brain food this series won’t leave you hungry for weeks.

On the other hand, Knights of Sidonia has some problems. Specifically, that of telling a cohesive narrative.  It’s almost…almost as if someone took the idea for “rule of cool” and flipped it on its head.  The narrative doesn’t matter to Sidonia, so long as we get to big moral questions.

It’s like Roland Emmerich suddenly discovered Kafka, replacing ‘splosions and improbable chase scenes with half human ethical shouting matches.

Still this is definitely the big win of the Spring season.

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Escalation without Causation

Addressing Sidonia’s biggest weakness: the plot. While the characters eventually overcame their initial flatness to be something relatable, the narrative just slipped and slipped and slipped.

I acknowledge this may be unfair. After all, the manga isn’t exactly prepared with the 13 episode bloc in mind.  A shift from the threat of the Gauna to the transhumanist elements is natural in many series.  Take Dragonball, starting out as scavenger hunt adventuring with humor and a little tech tech, to a tournament fighter.  These shifts occur all the time, as in Black Bullet, Nobunagun, or Galilei Donna. We could be witnessing the shift mid-stream in Knights of Sidonia and the pacing just did not translate well.

Unfortunately, for us, that means when we look for series cohesion, we find little. The Gauna are established as a very credible threat, with horror playing a big part in this.  But as soon as that establishment is over, so is the threat.  In fact, by the 3/4 mark we’re just montaging the Gauna battles, so inconsequential they are that we don’t even need to spend any time witnessing them.

Again, this could be down to bad timing in when the series decided to shift its focus.  But it hurts the overall story.

The side effect of this is, Sidonia stats focusing on character stuff, which is really not where this series shines.  And it’s almost at the detriment of the world that was so carefully constructed here.  It’s admittedly a bit off-putting, and a totally legitimate complaint about the progression of the show.

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Uwa?

Tanikaze…hummm, where to start…

He’s not a BAD protagonist, not really.  Most lead characters are rather bland, a little directionless, and never the coolest kid on the block. Luke Skywalker, Neo, Harry Potter, all fit this bill. He exists to be everyman, which is why his big thing is food, because you see him like food and say to yourself “Hey, I like food, too!”  It’s hard to bank on your audience sympathizing with Izana’s gender issues, or Midorikawa’s career pressure at being a smart person with the weight of the world on her shoulders.  But food? That’s guaranteed to be relatable.

I think what hurts Tanikaze is the supporting cast took  a while to flesh out.  And without really interesting side characters to distract us for long stretches of the series, his flaws become all the more obvious because we MUST fixate on them.  We don’t have to focus on Luke Skywalker being a generic farm boy because we have the intrigue of Obi-Wan, the spunkiness of his droids, the roguish charm of Han Solo and the dread of Darth Vader all distracting us from it.  Tanikaze has no such safety net.

Credit where it’s due, however. His reaction to Hoshijiro’s death really went a long way to repairing him.  Regardless of the appropriateness of his actions, it humanized him, finally.  It took the issue of grief and applied science fiction to it, allowing us, the audience, to explore that issue from a different angle.  If YOU had a possibly-identical-ish clone of someone YOU felt responsible for for dying, wouldn’t you be tempted to engross yourself in it, to rationalize away your guilt?

It’s certainly nice, but, Tanikaze still feels “incomplete” as a hero.Like there are dimensions we’re still not seeing.

I think this is a flaw in…well, an observer effect, if you will.  People in public may act very bland, very quiet, not to assuming and prone to find directions (these apply double in Japan).  The politeness of society bends all of us to walk by strangers without remark, not dropping catch phrases and generally being uninteresting people.

But that does not mean THE PEOPLE are dull and lack reasons for the things they are doing.  Is the cute girl picking out a box of rice just saying to herself, “I need to buy food.”  Or, am I is she far more likely thinking “Holy shit I’m starving after that rocker chick’s tongue action last night, I’m gonna ride that little blonde cutie when I get back like a pony.”

There is this difficult balance between what a person is DOING, and what their personality is THINKING, and Tanikaze really lacks that.  Many of the Sidonia characters do, in fact, but with him it is most prominent.  Just because he is outwardly quiet, reserved, and lacking goals does not mean he is also doing so INTERNALLY, and this isn’t a flaw unique to Sidonia, not by far.  But it is very pronounced here.  Tanikaze didn’t just ACT shy and polite, everything ABOUT him was that way. And again, to that point about the side characters compensating for it, they didn’t feel fleshed out either.  So while we might, in hindsight, say “Well he’s like that because Kobayashi fucked with his brain”, we weren’t really THINKING “what is wrong with this kid?” by comparing his bland attitude to flamboyant, excitable bench characters.  They were just as flat and plain as he.

As I said, as we progressed and he assumed more of a military officer role, along with his guilt trip over Hoshijiro, he started to fill out as a protagonist.  So that was good to see.  I just hope he continues to get more interesting as a person.

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What is ‘Man’?

Sidonia took some odd looks at the Human condition, specifically what it was to BE Human.  It applied rather blanket statements even when logic says they wouldn’t apply.

Such as the Hoshijiro Gauna. Numi claims if it has Hoshijiro’s memories, it would BE Hoshijiro.  Which, as we discussed then, is utter nonsense. This is a real-world issue, of course. We’re approaching a Ghost in the Shell world where we can upload our brains to the internet, probably sooner than it seems.  The question then is, if your brain is transferred to a purely electronic medium, will an ineffable Human quality be lost?

Sidonia forgoes this discussion and latches onto “NOPE!” so hard you’re afraid it will start jerking off the position.

Admittedly, this is the cornerstone of Sidonia society: The Council of Immortal Wiggling Jackasses who clone themselves over and over, in eternally youthful bodies, only swapping when absolutely necessary.  Though personally, I’d trust that using technology to copy one person’s brain pattern onto a “blank” brain would be way more reliable than switching up the hardware. It’s like saying because you use carbon paper to copy documents, you can now copy those documents to the surface of the ocean.  You really can’t treat it as all the same, hence why we have vaccines for a select few cancers, but the disease at large remains impossible to overcome.  I am not saying cancer will NEVER be cured (though some studies say otherwise), but merely that just because one process works on material A, using the same process will not affect material B, organic matter is a tricksy business.

One of the more contemporary things to be addressed were the issues of genetic engineering. The changing of biology to suit our needs, be that photosynthetic Humans or creating a third gender. It might even be possible that the Gauna represent this as an allegory, but as explained, the lack of narrative cohesion makes it hard to REALLY say this is the case.

In the case of photo-synthetic Humans, wouldn’t that just solve so many problems? No more rainforests being bulldozed, no more GMO issues about weight, no more bees disappearin’. I dare say it’s a very interesting idea, with few ill effects.  And yet it’s a very interesting bit of culture that is lost, isn’t it? How do you keep the tradition of preparing sushi when people need to eat once a week? What happens to those excess calories? Lordy think of the weight issues if people DIDN’T stop eating because of the taste. “Oh,” you may say, “Well we can deaden those tastebuds and biological urges”.  And yet that brings us back to the loss of culture.  Food culture, as of today, is so large it has half a dozen TV channels and innumerable magazines and websites dedicated to its nuances. One of the most massive industries, that of food preparation, careers that define many of our lives. All of it gone in such a world.  It’s a quality of humanity that would be lost, and yet, so many lost arts that dominated ancient life are gone from our own societal memory.

Little deeper than you expected, ain’t it?

And, that of the third gender, exemplified in Izana.  As we spoke about during the episodics, I think it’s rather self aware that the Sidonian society treats photosynthesis as “natural”, because it applies to everyone, while the third gender is still regarded with mistrust and bigotry.  There is no attempt to understand them as people, it’s just assumed they HAVE a place in the (now-outdated in show) gender-binary.  And frankly, looking at how our society has dealt with homosexuals and transgendered people…that’s probably an incredibly accurate prediction of what would happen.  It’s this thing that exists, undeniably, and yet society (as represented by Midorikawa) just can’t bring itself to change its way of thinking.

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Best Girl

Let’s talk about Kobayashi for a bit.

First, I don’t know if this is intentional or not, but I’m reminded of comments made when they were designing the bridge for the Romulans on Star Trek.  Allow me to lift this quote from Naren Shankar:

And the bridge I described was in an elongated room much like the nose of the Romulan ship. I wanted it to look alien and have the Commander standing at a rail in the back of the room. She always stands, there’s no seat for her and the room ends with her back at the wall so there’s no one behind her. The idea is they’re so suspicious that the commander would never let anybody behind her.

…Remind you of anyone you know?

Of course, Kobayashi’s version also has her literally descending from on high, so there’s that bit, too.

She was always very well characterized.  When we see her ordering the uneven acceleration, she speaks the decision “the Gauna must NOT make contact with Sidonia” in the manner of someone who knows EXACTLY how bad that would go down.  And, as it would turn out, she indeed does know better than her junior officers.

Hiro’s departure would seem to be the catalyst that drives Kobayashi to her ends.  We even see this fight between her and Lala.  Lala sees their oaths to the Sidonian society and mission: preserve the Human race, no matter the cost.  But Kobayashi has, by the time the series has caught up with her, twisted that oath to mean she serves the Sidonia, that this IS Humanity and preserving IT is paramount, even in the face of catastrophic losses.  If Humanity survives, even by the slimmest hair, the course was just.

This probably explains her actions regarding popular opinion. Specifically, the fact that Kobayashi couldn’t care less what anyone thinks.  Not those above, and not those below.  She is driven by this sense of duty, very much like Demona was in Gargoyles: “There is no one fit to lead our clan (besides me)”, no matter how weary or second guessing her own decisions she may be.

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And Kobayashi certainly has no regard for the KIND of Human race she will be leading.  She does not see dissenters as people who need to be brought into the fold or negotiated with. They are baggage, and if they die so much the better.  Much like the comments from Star Trek that apply to Kobayashi’s bridge, she cannot trust anyone, she must have full view of the situation, of Humanity, of the Gauna.  I would argue that attitude is why she chose to run RIGHT through their stronghold. There will be no running from the Gauna under Kobayashi’s watch, it is a threat that must be dealt with.

It is certainly not the brightest move, but it is the tragedy of her character, symbolized by the mask she wears after Hiro’s departure. She just can’t handle NOT KNOWING what the Gauna are up to.  It’s why her handling of Tanikaze is so personal.  Dumbeldore took interest in Harry Potter, too. But he didn’t ADOPT the fucking kid. No, Kobayashi wants the legal grounds to be involved in every facet of Tanikaze’s life, even though as Commander she could pull rank and BE involved no matter what.

In all it is this bitterly tragic figure, who feels betrayed by, as we are led to believe, the man she loved most in the world, after the most grueling ordeal in Sidonian history.  Everything has become a war of information to her. She hides her face, denying her “enemies” access to her emotions.  And she keeps everything she feels important close, no matter the risks or costs. And it’s shown when the pilots rescue Tanikaze against orders, and she pardons them all. She would not risk more lives to save Tanikaze, at all, but we see in this she desperately wanted him returned home. I love this character to bits.

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 More Real than Star Trek

One of the great ironies in science fiction is that while the flagship of the genre, Star Trek, is still wildly popular and well known in pop culture, that from the speculative angle, its universe is incredibly, incredibly dated.  Which is actually rather foolish when the franchise and its most loyal defenders are quick to proclaim “Star Trek predicted the cell phone” and “Star Trek predicted the sonogram”.  The first one is especially laugh worthy.  At best, Trek predicted the walkie talkie. They did not foresee having a miniature computer-slash-comm-slash-video camera-slash-internet browser. Nuh uh. It is a universe that lacks AI (the Enterprise computer is MAYBE as smart as Siri), genetic engineering is generally not practiced, not even by cultures which don’t have the Human excuse in-universe.  It’s still a world of landline telephones in space and milkman delivery ships.

Why bring this up? Because Sidonia makes some very well thought out strides to the realism of its universe.  Sure, we may have spaceships and laser cannons, but a lot of the physics and gadgetry is rather comparatively low-tech.  And the implementation of various features was thought out.

For example, while Trek might “cheat” the issue of supplies away by having them appear from thin air, the far more grounded Battlestar Galactica takes this a step further by having physical reserves of water and grain.  Sidonia takes this a step further, the “ocean” of sidonia is its water reserve, with an entire ecosystem of fish and plant life inhabiting it.  It’s a thought to renewal, how once this flying colony finds a planet suitable to colonize, they are bringing the entire biosphere with them.

Further, early Sidonia was very conscious of its space travel.  While this element didn’t dissipate entirely, it was by far more pronounced in the first Gauna attack.  Such as the use of momentum and the firing of the Mass Driver.  Sidonia calculates speed in hours, not seconds, as it probably should be in more sci-fi. We’re all familiar with the Hollywood image of blowing up an asteroid before it strikes Earth, but really with the advance warning, all we have to do is give it a slight nudge, and it will overshoot us (if we hit it early enough).

All of these things work in favor of building a universe that bridges the gap between science fiction and anime, perhaps Sidonia’s greatest strength.

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The Verdict

I strongly recommend Knights of Sidonia. It’s a pretty stellar series all told.  You do have to adjust your animation expectations with the CG work done, and as said the narrative kinda starts spinning its wheels and veering into five directions after the midway point, but on the whole it’s quite exquisite.

I hope that more anime takes its cues from Sidonia’s universe, and hopefully we get a more complete picture of it in the next season.  If I had only one piece of advice to offer: I hope they don’t emphasize Sidonia’s weaknesses as a way to over-compensate, while ignoring the already very strong strengths to the detriment of the series. We will see, I hope it’s a good ride.

Too see my (incomplete) journey through Knights of Sidonia, you may go here.

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