Giant robots. Kids piloting them. Dystopian future. Horrific alien monsters assaulting our way of life. These are all elements you're, no doubt, very familiar with when it comes to anime. Recent hits like Attack on Titan or even going as far back as the Neon Genesis Evangelion days (perhaps my personal favorite series next to Berserk) show that this is a well-worn yet lively subset of anime that fans gobble up happily.
There are wider implications as to why these more apocalyptic/combat heavy series with so many themes involving young people going to war, etc. are so immensely popular. Perhaps it is a slow burn move to push the younger generation of Japan (which is in the throes of trying to find its true identity again) towards a more militaristic and nationalistic environment? The right-wing hardliners of the government certainly are pushing that way but that is a discussion better placed in another article perhaps.
Netflix decided over the long July 4th weekend (great decision by the way) to release via its streaming platform the adaptation of, without a doubt, Tsutomu Nihei's most accessible work to date Knights of Sidonia (Sidonia no Kishi). If you've paid attention, at all, to Nihei's prior work you'll recall one important thing: his work isn't easy to follow. His plotting is intricate and he has always done a great job of building a universe within which his characters can inhabit yet time and time again the narrative can be a bit jumpy and hard to follow. BLAME!, for example, was very experimental in its approach to storytelling and married with the messy even grimy style of the art it made for a compelling story that was a delight to behold. His masterpiece, in my opinion, Biomega took things even further while dialing up the Cronenbergian body horror aspects and delivering a truly magnificent story to boot. So, when it came time for Nihei to tackle the oft-attempted giant mecha/kids sort of story it was no surprise that while he clearly dialed things back some there are still the glorious cyberpunk elements we've come to know and love from Nihei along with great hard science fiction components.
The story is summarized as thus:
This is, thankfully, a Nihei-crafted story with the composition by Sadayuki Murai (who scripted the amazing Kino's Journey and the quite good live-action Mushishi movie - a feat in itself). Nihei, as great a creator as he is, needs some deft direction and guidance when adapting over from the manga realm to animation. The mark of quality shows through in the plotting of each episode as nary a vignette or bit lagged for too long, comedic moments hit well and battles were grandiose in scale and, even better, the ruthless Gauna (the aliens the humans are fighting) are ACTUALLY INTERESTING. One thing that made Attack on Titan (sorry for the repeated reference but it really feels similar at times - surely not a coincidence but they actually came out in manga form around the same time) work so well was aside from character development it had antagonists that were interesting and enigmatic in the titular Titans. Here the Gauna are an awful mixture of Lovecraftian terror mixed with the best parts of the what directors like Cronenberg or Stuart Gordon do with the human form and the juxtaposition or morphing of it.
The main character, Nagate Tanikaze, is a bit more ho-hum compared to some of Nihei's previous protagonists (Killy in BLAME! or Zouichi Kanoe in Biomega for example) but two things elevated him past the typical character stagnation a lot of these giant mecha/teenager series suffer from. One was Johnny Yong Bosch's impeccable voice-work (Yes. I watched the dub and did not switch back to the subtitle as the dub was QUITE well done) and that as the first season wore on (an initial run of 12 episodes with more to come supposedly) the much more "primitive" Nagate is consistently run down on the basis of his biology yet he constantly proves that his innate ability might be the thing that saves us all. He could have easily been a very boring character or just devolve into the lesser bits of a Shinji Ikari-type character yet he doesn't. The foil to Nagate (or maybe love interest?), Izana, proves to be a complex and nuanced character that appears more male near the beginning of the story but (thanks to the weird biology of humans in Sidonia) isn't quite what they seem. There is a larger cast of supporting characters that don't always get the development they deserve in the interest of streamlining the story but that is to be expected.
It does also break some new ground as well for anime in fully embracing the 3D CGI that Polygon Pictures (Tron: Uprising, many episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and more) has flexed its proverbial muscle in fully rendered third-dimensional styling before but to apply it to Japanese animation (all along the way) is novel. If you've watched last year's mega-hit Attack on Titan you'll feel right at home here as there was quite a bit of CG layered onto the 2D (as has been used for years but to much greater effect in Titan). The result? Sweeping and operatic space battles that showcase terrific mech design and character aesthetics that are interesting if a bit uneven at times. One thing that I noticed right away was just how jarring it was whenever combat kicked off. It wasn't a bad thing, though, as the motion of the titular "knights" (giant mechas) was fluid and a visual treat. The quieter moments, though, and especially some of the more comedic moments did suffer just a touch from the complete digital sheen. We've come a long way from Re-Boot, sure, but there are still some problems here and there. Nothing that really breaks immersion greatly or soured me on the show but worth noting.
I think it has to be said that the dub of Sidonia is quite good. Bosch kills it as Nagate and Cindy Robinson doing a bang-up job as well. The lesser known VO's also deliver great performances, especially Joie Marlowe as Izana. The resources of Netflix show here as we get a dub that is far better than the treatment most shows get. The opening/ending themes (especially the intro) have an industrial yet bombastic feel to them that worked quite well. The sound design is fairly standard for this sort of dystopia/sci-fi adventure but delivers when it needs to.
FINAL WORD: The familiar elements of Knights of Sidonia will, no doubt, bring out sighs from long-time fans as this isn't exactly new territory. This is the millionth giant robot anime that has come down the pipe in the last so many years but what sets this apart is the Nihei storytelling chops, world building and the decidedly unique visuals Polygon Pictures brings to the table. If you're looking for hard sci-fi with that is far more grounded than what we usually get in anime, fan-service that is kept to a minimum and a world that is interesting enough to warrant further exploration? Sidonia is definitely worth powering through in a weekend (or longer if you so choose) as all episodes are available on Netflix right now.