I really like Netflix. My television habits are pretty much entirely based around its streaming service. That means that I’m typically a season behind on current television shows that get released on Netflix, and anything else that the company doesn’t have a distribution deal with, I just don’t watch. For nine dollars a month, it’s a pretty good deal.
Of course, Netflix doesn’t just distribute old seasons of television; they also release their own exclusives on a semi-regular basis, and many of them happen to be quite good.
This month I decided to check out Knights of Sidonia, an anime for which Netflix bought the North American distribution rights. This series follows the adventures of Nagate Tanikaze, a human living on the seedship Sidonia who also happens to be an ace pilot. Earth is a thing from the distant past, as humanity was forced to flee when an alien species known as the gauna attacked and destroyed it. It’s your standard last hope for humanity in outer space situation.
Now, this series has a lot of potential on the surface. It introduces some interesting world-building concepts early on, and it treats the premise of the fighter pilot prodigy as something really strange that isn’t fully accepted by Nagate’s peers (the fact that he’s spent his entire life inhabiting the deserted lower levels of Sidonia and appears with fully developed piloting skills doesn’t really help). The show’s visual design, which makes use of cel-shaded CG models to mimic the look of traditional animation, is good (for anime; I couldn’t help but notice that all of the female characters a pretty much identical with the exception of their hair); the action sequences between the show’s robots (gardes) and the gauna are very dynamic.
Despite everything the show has going for it, as I was watching I couldn’t help being reminded all the reasons I don’t watch anime much anymore. The characters have very little to distinguish them visually, the thin facade meant to disguise the high school setting is transparent, the world-building elements are largely used only as excuses for fan service or to create romantic tension, and there’s little point in getting attached to any of the pilot characters because they usually get killed immediately following some character development.
Let’s start with the world-building, since that’s the stuff that most bugs me about this series. It’s at least a thousand years in the future (probably more), and technology has advanced significantly in that time. The humanity that lives on the Sidonia is pretty different from what we know. First off, the entire population of the ship (except for Nagate) has been genetically modified so that they can live on only a single meal per week. The rest of their energy input comes from photosynthesis (we’ll just handwave the fact that photosynthesis isn’t efficient enough to account for the kind of caloric intake necessary for a fully mobile human); this could be useful for highlighting the austere lifestyle you might expect a population of humans to be living in a long-term survival situation. Instead, the photosynthesis concept is used as an excuse for multiple instances of female characters floating in zero gravity without clothes for no discernible reason (we never see a male character photosynthesizing). It’s a cheap gimmick to introduce fan service in a series that’s otherwise trying to be serious, and every time it happened I was jerked out of the story. Besides that weirdly pointless detail, we also learn in the first episode that humanity has been modified with a third androgynous sex. People of this third sex don’t identify as male or female, but upon selecting a romantic partner, their bodies are designed to develop complementary sex organs (this conceit has tons of interesting possibilities, not the least of which being the problem of what would happen if a person selected a partner who was gay or bisexual; what does the body do at that point?). Naturally, because this is a Japanese series, questions of gender identity and sexuality get shoved aside in favor of heteronormativity. Only one character in the cast, Izana Shinatose, even belongs to this third sex, and ze is treated like a female for all intents and purposes, except to highlight the fact that Nagate isn’t attracted to hir (I think the conceit also pulls double duty here by allowing the animators to give Izana a unique, non-busty, character model; hir jealousy over the endowment of the girls that Nagate befriends is apparent in multiple scenes). No background characters share Izana’s physical features, and on several occasions minor characters express confusion at hir androgyny; it’s really lazy writing to introduce the concept of a third sex and then just ignore the larger social questions that should arise from such a situation (first and foremost, why was this third sex engineered in the first place? The world may never know) in favor of building relationship tension.
It was upon realizing these problems with the show’s world-building that I finally noticed that Knights of Sidonia has heavy elements of typical harem anime with a single male protagonist and multiple female friends who compete for his affections (it’s tropes like this that have left me largely unimpressed by recent anime that I’ve seen).
Still, I can set all those huge problem aside for the sake of a little bit of brain bubblegum. There are no major philosophical questions being asked here, and the theme can be pretty squarely summarized as “Fight however you can to protect your home.” Even so, in the end this is not a series I can recommend highly. I was hoping that in Netflix’s first foray into licensing anime they might pick something with some real narrative teeth to it, but aside from Knights of Sidonia solidly hitting all the standard beats of a giant robots against aliens show, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it.