Suisei no Gargantia – Review

Suisei no Gargantia is a strange little show. It covers all of Urobuchi’s pet themes at once, while also shifting wildly in tone and pacing throughout. It combines a number of seemingly incompatible genres, including Ghibli-esque adventure, slice of life, sci-fi drama, action, and even some moments approaching psychological horror. It clearly displays some of the most supportable accusations generally leveled at Urobuchi – that his characters lack nuance or depth, and that his stories work primarily in support of ideas and have little power as narratives in and of themselves. Gargantia by itself is a pretty cogent argument for why Urobuchi is such a polarizing writer.

But the thing about polarizing writers is that for all the people they turn off, there are also plenty of people who really like what they do. Like, for example, me.

I think Gargantia’s pretty fantastic. It lays out some of its larger thematic points from the very first scenes – the show begins with our hero Ledo in space, waging a tense battle against some crustacean-looking monsters. They seem pretty much like the classic space bugs, but interestingly enough, it’s Ledo’s own forces that continuously assume insect swarm formations, relinquishing their individuality to create larger weapons of destruction. Ledo himself has no personal ambition – he fights because that is what humanity does. Unsurprisingly, when a wrong left turn at the worm hole sends him plummeting irretrievably into a laid-back semi-capitalist mainly-collectivist society, he finds himself with a lot of unwanted time on his hands.

Ledo’s journey to discovering individual purpose is the central narrative and thematic through-line of the show. It’s displayed both directly through the narrative, in the way he begins to discover his own humanity and desires (dredging up repressed memories of the human connections he once valued, discovering his own sexuality, beginning to bond with the people around him and eventually feel an individual desire to work and aid in the success of their society), as well as through the very genres the show switches between. Ledo doesn’t just switch from a militaristic, central-goal oriented society to a collectivist, humanist one – he switches from a tensely paced military drama to a slice of life/adventure story. This tonal shift is also used to elaborate the “personality” of Gargantia itself, which is another central character in the story and relevant to many of the show’s other thematic points.

Regarding those points, this is definitely a show with plenty to say. Ledo’s awakening to his own individual purpose ties into a number of other ideas, including what purpose society should serve, as well as the dangers and rewards of entering the adult world. Ledo’s ultimate turn comes not when he discovers the value of Gargantian society, but when he is actually returned to a society based on the Alliance model, where all individuals work in service of a single larger goal for maximum efficiency. As Ledo himself admits, up until this point, he has never had to make a choice – his integration into Gargantian society was as mindless and natural as his original submission to Alliance protocol. When Ledo finally chooses to break from protocol and defend Gargantia, he is becoming fully human.

That idea of choices making us human is the fundamental difference between Alliance and Gargantian society. It crops up constantly throughout the show, as the various characters (and, interestingly, robots) discuss the definition of humanity, and also ties directly into one of the show’s other central themes – the difficulty and necessity of integrating into adult society. Along with Ledo, Ridget, Pinion, and even Flange are forced to make difficult choices and step up to new responsibilities, and the show’s overwhelmingly consistent take on this is that while entering society is a difficult step, it is made possible by the fact that we are all supporting one another. While mindless submission to a central goal makes us inhuman (a point the show alternately casts in terms of military necessity, economic efficiency, and religion), the connections we choose to make with each other are what make us great.

There are certainly other ideas stewing in the Gargantian mix – of particular note is the relationship between humanity and the Hideauze, which reflects lightly on our natural tendency towards defensiveness and misunderstanding, as well as furthering the point that humanity without willful choice is no different from either instinct-based animal nature or programming-based robotic nature. The nature of Gargantia and the various character arcs articulated throughout all point to Urobuchi’s certainty that the purpose of society is to enable the individual, and Ledo’s arc seems to articulate his belief that the two often mirror each other, and that your identity can end up being constructed by your society.

But this is supposed to be a review, right?

So let’s run down the list. Visually, the show is an absolute joy – the animation is solid, the color palette and designs are extremely distinctive, the direction is generally dynamic throughout. Writing-wise, the themes are strongly articulated, and the narrative flows well (many have taken fault with the shifts in pacing and tone, but I personally feel this is more an issue of expectations, and didn’t have a problem with either the segments individually or their segues throughout), but as I said originally, the characters outside of Ledo and Chamber are fairly routine. Amy in particular is an extremely static character relative to her importance in the story – she is important to Ledo, but she experiences virtually no growth of her own, and just isn’t that unique of a character. Even in a story primarily concerned with Ledo’s development, this isn’t really excusable – Amy is supposed to represent everything he comes to value, and having her be a pretty standard device weakens the impact of his own narrative arc. Several other side characters do fare better – unsurprisingly, all the thematically relevant ones (Pinion, Flange, Ridget) come across as more dynamic and multifaceted than those who serve a single role in the story.

These complaints are unrelated to the primary goals of the show, but would certainly result in a richer overall experience, and I don’t believe more development for Amy (or, in particular, giving her a more pivotal and active role in the thematic story) would come at the expense of the show’s central goals. The general writing in the last act also sometimes dipped below the weight its ideas deserved, and though the existence of a final “villain” was almost an afterthought as far as the show’s thematic journey was concerned, I would have preferred more nuance in Striker’s perspective. My one solid and specific complaint with the show relates to episodes 5 and 6 – both of these episodes leaned towards fanservice in ways that did a disservice to the characters, and episode 5 in particular had some incredibly offensive transvestite stereotypes. Fortunately these complaints were very specific to those moments, but they’re still things I hate seeing in any show, particularly one so clearly focused on conveying actual meaning.

Overall, though I think the show could have benefited from a little revision, I feel its ideas are plentiful, that they reflect off each other in compelling ways, and that they are generally well-articulated. The mix of genres leads to a compelling and constantly shifting journey, the excellent visual aesthetic makes it a pleasure to watch, and the generally sharp writing leads to some extremely compelling speeches and generally snappy exchanges throughout. Despite the plot itself and many of the characters trending towards archetypal, the show succeeds as a well-articulated expression of its core ideas draped in a vivid and tightly written genre shell. Urobuchi is nothing if not professional in his understanding of storytelling fundamentals, and though this show is not his best, it is perhaps his most thematically rich, and adds a much-needed dash of optimism to his formidable resume.

For deftly juggling several genres and weaving a number of compelling themes into a confidently written and visually inspiring coming-of-age story, I award Suisei no Gargantia a 9/10. Seize the day.

8 thoughts on “Suisei no Gargantia – Review

  1. A great review. I have nothing much to add, given that you’ve more or less said everything I was thinking (and probably better than I could have said it myself), so thank you. Personally, I love Urobuchi’s writing. I can see where critics come from when they argue that Urobuchi’s characters are somewhat lacking in nuance, but I think the storytelling more than makes up for the gaps here. For that reason, I strongly disagree with those who believe that his work carries little power in terms of the narrative – in fact, I’d say he’s one of the most compelling anime writers I know. (I also can’t help but wonder if some of the smaller issues would have been smoothed over had this series been longer. Alas, I doubt Urobuchi gets much, if any, say in that. No doubt it’s a sign of the financial times that so many anime now coming out are 13 episodes or less rather than the 24-26 that used to be par for the course.)

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  3. I stumbled upon your blog only recently, from an excerpt on reddit. You are the savior of the English-speaking anime/manga community. You have to be. I’ve been browsing your blog like a desperate creature discovering the prospect of new hope.

    You give a refreshingly wise perspective. You are readily detached from the superficial biases that the loudest voices in the community indulgently aggregate into a worthless clamor. Your words clearly come from an intellectual, knowledgeable, emotionally-conscious standpoint.

    Reading your deftly written reviews has been a surprisingly liberating experience for me. I have always longed for a voice like yours, as the beautiful experience of diving headfirst into this medium has always been disjointedly accompanied by the sleazy drivel that surfaces the community.

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    I cannot be more grateful.

    • Thank you so much! Very glad to hear you enjoy the perspective I try to bring. And I agree, the disconnect between what this fantastic medium can do and the level of discourse it tends to promote can be pretty disheartening. But there are definitely plenty of smart viewers out there, and many valid perspectives beyond my own. Don’t lose hope!

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  7. you’re the man Bobduh, I can’t think of another anime critic even remotely on your level. I’ve found so many good shows because of you. Thanks.

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