One of the best aspects of summer is that my vacation coincides with the release of new seasons of television series that I enjoy watching, so I have enough time to do several really good binge viewing sessions in June and July. The latest one is the second season of Knights of Sidonia, the anime that Netflix licensed for distribution in North America. I wrote last year that I thought Knights had some real problems, but I figured I could spare four hours to take another look at the series since Season 2 just released last week. After plowing through all twelve episodes over the last three days, I’m willing to reconsider my earlier assessment and say that Knights still has some problems, but it’s a really entertaining mecha series.
Let’s talk about the problematic stuff first, because I feel like these are things that always need to be addressed before settling into a story, especially when dealing with anime, which I can’t help feeling is a medium that has a lot of cultural pitfalls that complicate assessing what’s harmful in its storytelling. The first thing to consider is the fact that Knights, like most anime, is steeped in Japanese culture, which is a significantly more conservative culture than what progressives in the West are accustomed to (it’s probably also true to say that the Japanese culture represented in most anime is also more progressive than what Western conservatives are accustomed to; it’s a nice reminder that the progressive-conservative spectrum that we use in America is not universal). The way this culture gets expressed is innocuous in many ways: all the characters in the series are ethnically Japanese (presumably because the ship was originally populated by Japanese colonists), with Japanese names, housing sensibilities, tastes in food, and holiday traditions. In other ways it’s not so innocuous, particularly in the subconscious attitudes surrounding gender.
I mentioned last time that I felt some irritation with Knights of Sidonia‘s characterization of Izana Shinatose, the protagonist Nagate Tanikaze’s best friend and a nonbinary person. There’s a brief explanation in the first season about how a subset of the ship’s population is bred to be physiologically nonbinary (what the show calls “middlesex”) and then once these individuals find a romantic partner, their bodies respond by reconfiguring to a binary sex that presumably enables procreation (as I’ve said before, I have no idea what the in-universe reason for creating a subgroup of nonbinary people who suddenly become binary is). The way Izana is presented in the first season, ey is treated essentially as a uniquely modeled female character (the show’s CG style lends to a uniformity of body types that’s kind of disturbing, particularly since all the women on the show have big breasts), which I suppose is okay if that’s how Izana identifies (spoiler: a big plot point for Season 2 is Izana’s transition to a female body), though the show doesn’t really seem to be thinking about issues of presentation and identity with Izana. When she settles into a female body, it’s kind of a relief just because the lip service to including a nonbinary character without actually exploring issues surrounding eir presentation is really jarring.
Unfortunately, while Izana’s transition helps get the show away from issues it doesn’t seem equipped to handle thoughtfully, it also serves as the catalyst for my least favorite part of the series: the harem plotline that takes up a few episodes in the middle of the season. Nagate gets unceremoniously kicked out of the cadet dorms since he’s a fully trained pilot, so he seeks out a place to live. Because he’s also Sidonia’s ace, he gets special privileges to relocate wherever he’d like, so he chooses a big house that’s isolated from the primary residential district and invites Izana to be his roommate. The reason for picking the isolated location is so that Tsumugi, a gauna-human hybrid (it’s complicated) can also live in the house via her super stretchy sentient tentacle appendage which also has a face (it’s absurd); before long Yuhata Midorikawa (her surname means “Green River” because her hair’s, y’know, green), who oversees missions from the command center, invites herself to live with Nagate and the others as well (the house’s location is really good apparently). This setup gives way to an episode all about the hazards of one guy living in a house with three women who are all secretly in love with him, and you just got harem anime in my mech fighter drama.
And that’s probably the single most absurd thing about this entire series that still irks me endlessly. Nagate’s a hotshot pilot, so it makes sense that he would be something of a national hero, but I cannot figure out why every single woman who meets him is in love with him. It’s not just his close friends, but even other pilots that he only works with find him attractive, and in what’s probably the most unintentionally funny moment of the entire series, we see that even the aliens have pants feels for him (it’s complicated and absurd). Nagate’s a nice guy (in the blandest sense of the term), but amazing piloting skills do not explain this level of devotion from all female identifying acquaintances. It defies belief and establishes a universe where the first defining trait of any female character we meet is that she’s going to secretly fall in love with our protagonist, which is incredibly reductionist and dismissive of the complexities of character that could be explored in the majority of the cast (aside from a couple of minor characters, Nagate is the only male in the story).
Despite all of these problems, I actually do like this season of Knights better than the last one. When it’s time for action, the animation’s really excellent and the stakes are well communicated (I thought the last two episodes of the season were superb). While the humor falls flat for me (it’s largely the same slapstick built around Nagate accidentally copping a feel or seeing a woman naked then being physically punished for existing in a universe where no one locks doors or remembers that awkward stuff happens in zero gravity), most of the serious emotional beats work okay. Izana (who I think is my favorite character, probably because I find the problems surrounding her presentation fascinating) gets a few very nice moments, and even one extended scene with her grandmother that revolves around her coming to terms with her new gender identity in the most awkward way possible. Also, for reasons that are largely inexplicable, the new opening theme is incredibly catchy, and probably positively predisposes me to everything that follows it in an episode.
On the balance, I’m not sure if Knights of Sidonia is improved in its second season, but it feels like the ground it’s treading is much more narratively sound. I’ll probably check out Season 3 whenever it comes stateside, which is a much better endorsement than I gave for the first season.