So far, this anime is incredibly bland. It’s bland enough that I have to actively force myself to pay attention to what’s happening onscreen or I’ll just find myself browsing the internet on my second monitor for extended periods of time. It’s bland enough that if the cat decides to just wander on by and cover up the subtitles, as cats are seemingly wont to do – seriously, cats are assholes –, I wouldn’t even be mad. Okay, okay, it’s bland, but why? Here’s where I’ll try to explain just exactly why Suisei no Gargantia has, in seven episode, failed to tickle my fancy.
It isn’t because Gargantia has a terrible premise or anything. Here’s a quick summary for those who haven’t seen the show. We first begin with a manly space soldier (Ledo) fighting dangerous space squids. During the opening battle, he somehow falls through a black hole or some shit and finds himself stranded on Earth. Space is vast and empty (for the most part), so he should thank his lucky stars he didn’t end up in the middle of nowhere instead (in before future episodes reveal that the detour to URF was predetermined…). According to his mecha’s onboard computer, humanity has long since abandoned the home planet, so this sudden shift in fate comes as a great surprise to our hero. What the spacefaring humans once regarded as a frozen wasteland is now an incredibly waterlogged planet. Yep, it’s like watching Waterworld anime-style, but cleaner and less grungy. I swear, for every rusty ship in Gargantia, there’s an equally shiny female character. And before you ask, there is sadly no anime Kevin Costner drinking his own purified piss; otherwise, this show’d be a masterpiece. But not only is the planet now inhabitable, a new crop of humans (those who stayed behind?) are now flourishing on this waterlogged world, and although they appear primitive to our warrior of space, these natives are wise in their ways! So you see, the anime doesn’t have a terrible premise, but it isn’t exactly a mind-blowing one either.
(Minor quibble: As previously mentioned, an AI accompanies our hero on his journey, and, of course, it is incredibly smart and knowledgeable. As a result, it serves as a cheap and easy device to dispense exposition when the writer feels particularly lazy.)
There’s something very Avatar-esque about the narrative, and Avatar itself was derivative of any story in which the “civilized” man encounters the “savage” natives only to discover that they have more to teach him than he could teach them. And likewise, Avatar was an incredible snoozefest. I mean, once you got past the pretty pictures; if anything, James Cameron at least had that going for his unfortunate blockbuster. Oh yeah, don’t forget the strange backplug sexing. But back to the subject at hand, I don’t really have a problem with the idea of a stranger in a strange place. It’s just that, well, the trope is, more often than not, poorly executed.
It isn’t about adding a twist to the trope. I mean, you could do that in the name of originality or whatever, if you want, but the novelty would probably soon wear off. Case in point, Avatar’s graphics managed to only keep me entertained for so long. Rather, it is the depth of the substance that is lacking in like-minded tales such as Gargantia. Y’see, battling space squids is all Ledo has ever known. Where he comes from, it’s kill or be killed, so as the saying goes, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, blah blah blah. You can imagine, then, Ledo’s confusion when he encounters a bedbound kid in this new-but-not-so-new planet. The natives are always in danger of being attacked by immoral, lawless pirates, and of course, resources for terrestrials on a waterlogged planet are severely limited! Thus, why waste time and energy on someone who could never quantitatively contribute to society’s progress?
You can see where this is going. Gargantia is very self-righteous about its message of peace and coexistence. It even turns out that those space squids can be found on the home planet, but these squids – whalesquids, as the natives call them – pose no threat whatsoever to anyone. W-w-why not, Ledo wonders! According to Chamber, his pet robot, it’s because the whalesquids and the natives share a mutually beneficial relationship. Yep, you’ve been fighting all your life when you could’ve just been friends with the space squids all along! I can see it now: we’ll soon find out that Ledo’s space alliance is only battling the space squids because the former aggressed upon the latter or some shit like that in the first place. Ugh, those imperialist bastards. And imagine, all they had to do was listen to the wise words of some seafaring primitives in faintly racist attire.
I’ve been referring to the earthbound inhabitants of the show as natives over and over because I can’t help but laugh at the streak of cultural misappropriation that runs rampant throughout the anime. I can buy into the premise that the abandoned humans stayed behind on the frozen wasteland of a planet, cobbling together a mishmash of cultures… as in, all cultures that remained and survived through that period of time. So why is it that the female characters — innocent and pure, I imagine — seem to mostly wear clothing that are distinctly Native American-influenced in nature? Seriously, what’s with the headdress?
Then in the sixth episode, we take a dramatic turn to either the Middle East or South Asia, but then you remember that the characters have names like Amy and Bellows. Yeah, it’s the “white man and the noble savages” trope, but anime-filtered. This is especially so because the male characters seem almost “acultural” in their behavior and appearance, and this only serves to highlight the bizarre “savage-face” being played out by the female characters.
But okay, you could argue that no real harm is being done by the cultural misappropriation in Gargantia. Plus, cultural misappropriation is one of those “interesting to point out, but why are you blowing this out of proportion” kind of thing. Like really, is it that big of a deal if some American starlet wants to wear a sari down the red carpet? Even if I concede, however, that Gargantia’s faintly racist attire “isn’t that big of a deal,” or that none of the female characters ever seem to have a conversation that isn’t somehow connected to one of the male characters – seriously, does Amy’s friends ever talk about anything but how cool and hot Ledo is? – my real contention with the show is that the discussion starts at essentially level one.
Y’see, it’s not enough that these noble savages turn out to have something sage to teach Ledo. It isn’t beaten over our heads enough that they live off a diet of just fish and birds, cobbling together rusty fleets by salvaging sunken ships from ages past (essentially recycling). The story goes one step further to have the innocence of a child serve as a beacon of philosophical revelation to our clod of a hero. No, it isn’t uncommon for narratives to trot out some common-looking character only for said character to dispense with the sage lessons. Who could forget The Matrix’s Oracle being some homely-looking lady? Yeah, it’s an age-old trope, but the bigger problem is when the discussion, as mentioned above, is so elementary in execution.
I’m fine with seeing Ledo suffer through countless epiphany bombs every time he talks to a native. It’s not exactly original, but whatever. I could even swallow the fact that some of those epiphanies result from talking to a little boy. Hey, you can’t judge a book by its cover; maybe the boy is wiser than he appears… like a shota Yoda or whatever. But when the “epiphanous” (yeah, I know that’s not a word) ownage comes from posing a question as fucking simple as “But then, what’ll happen to the Galactic Alliance once you defeat all the Hideauze?” I’m sorry but that really grinds my gears. You’re telling me that Mr. Advanced Space Man and his advanced space civilization have never once considered such a question? As a result, the great debate between peaceful but admittedly naïve coexistence and brutal, militaristic efficiency begins here? It’s a little insulting!
I’m a pansy, peace-loving leftist too, but c’mon, a proper debate at least allows for both sides to properly defend themselves. Unfortunately, Ledo isn’t too bright; he can’t really articulate his side of the debate very well other than spouting nonsense about his duty or, uh, we’re all gonna die ‘cause you guys are inefficient and illogical. I’m as anti-hawk as they come, but I’m not naïve enough to think the hawks are these one-dimensional caricatures who know nothing but fight, fight, fight. But I suppose that’s the problem. At its heart, the anime is anti-hawk, but it hasn’t really researched the other side’s position. Or maybe it isn’t confident enough to answer some of the tougher questions. As a result, Ledo serves as a stand-in for some pretty flimsy hawkish ideas, flimsy enough that even a mere child can shoot them down with childlike counterarguments. As a result, you get ironically funny scenes where every time Amy’s brother utters a sentence in retort, it blows Ledo’s simpleton mind: “Like OMG, what will I do after the war!”
The show is neither intellectually stimulating enough nor visually titillating enough to tide me over. Some very basic philosophizing about the nature of unending war and gyrating hips in spastastically low frames from a sexualized 15-year-old aren’t exactly my cup of tea. From what I’ve seen thus far, Gargantia just feels very safe, very undaring, and, as a result, very boring. I read somewhere about how the story is meant to help recent high school graduates adapt to the larger world beyond the confines of the classroom. That’s all fine and dandy, but even so, I think the creators vastly underestimate young people’s intelligence. I think the audience deserves something a little more thought-provoking and complex than what we’ve been given thus far. I mean, if this show really causes you to question your worldviews, I really don’t know what to say. I guess I’ll just stare at you with my mouth agape much like Ledo.