Captain Earth centers around an alien force attacking humanity known as the Planetary Gears, who see humans and their “libidos” as a food source. The main character is Manatsu Daichi, who, as a child, befriends a boy and a girl and is thus set on a strange path that ends with him becoming the pilot of a giant space defense robot known as the “Earth Engine.” At the same time that he defends the Earth with his friends, he must deal with the fact that there is another faction on Earth that believes that the only way to save humanity is to create an Ark to save the best of the best, and who are willing to get in “Captain Earth’s” way to do so.
When I watched the first episode of Captain Earth, I felt that the show had to be somehow related to the anime Star Driver, a previous work from the same studio, BONES. Like Star Driver, “libido” is presented as some kind of important power or energy source. The enemy mecha, known as Kiltgangs, bring to mind many of the “Cybodies” from Star Driver as well, not only in terms of design but also in their pilots’ very “spirited” (read: erotic) reactions. Mysterious songs herald the arrival of an enemy. In the end, it turns out that these allusions remain only as such and that there were no direct narrative connections between these two works, but I do still find it valuable to compare them because Captain Earth more or less feels like a more conventional, less wild re-telling of Star Driver.
Above: Enemy mecha from Captain Earth, Below: Enemy mecha from Star Driver
Whereas Star Driver has a main character whose sense of justice has him appear out of a rift in space like some kind of giant interdimensional Zorro, Daichi in Captain Earth is mainly inspired to do good by the example of his deceased father, and undergoes an elaborate combination sequence that has him launching into multiple space stations. While quiet scenes in Star Driver are set on a mysterious island and battles take place in an enigmatic pocket outside of time and space, fights in Captain Earth uses Tanegashima (home of JAXA in reality), and its most signature fights take place in orbit around the Earth. One thrives on symbols and mystery and is akin to being a giant metal Utena, while the other plays out more closely to a typical super robot anime, yet they share many of the same strengths and flaws as shows. Both shows have vibrant and expressive characters, a consistent sense of mystery about the enemy that gradually reveals itself, and beautiful animation especially focused around dynamic action sequences. However, they also share unusual plot reveals that are strangely abrupt, as well as changes of heart in characters that basically make sense but could be better if they were focused on more. Both stories feel liable to fall apart in a structural sense, but are held together by the dynamism and energy of their characters, for better or for worse.
How does this manifest in Captain Earth in particular? There are two points that stick out to me. The first is the fact that the Planetary Gears have an intriguing inverse relationship with their robots, in the sense that they are basically giant robots who take on the guise of their “human” pilots rather than the other way around. This is quite a unique idea, but it never gets explored as much as I would have preferred. The second point comes in the last episode, when Daichi is back to basics, fighting the enemy with just the Earth Engine and no additional weapons or frills. It’s something that happens at the end in a lot of giant robot anime such as Gurren-Lagann or Gaogaigar, but when Daichi calls out the Earth Engine’s attacks, I realized I didn’t actually remember any of them, because the story couldn’t quite ever focus on the main robot as this symbol of good and make its attacks memorable. What makes the scene a partial success instead is the fact that we are there with Daichi as he grows into the role of “Captain Earth,” and his romantic relationship with the character Hana.
Actually, when I think about it further, Captain Earth doesn’t feel like simply a different, less surreal version of Star Driver, but more the lovechild of Star Driver and another BONES work, Heroman. The Earth Engine basically looks like an upgraded version of Heroman with its red, white, and blue color scheme and its overall “physique,” while Daichi’s personality is right in between Takuto from Star Driver and Joey Jones from Heroman. What’s even more notable, however, is the fact that many of the other high and low points of Captain Earth that it does not share with Star Driver can be found in Heroman. In particular, when Captain Earth is focused on its main story, it has a sense of urgency and excitement, but often it ends up meandering in a way that is less irritating and more puzzling: “Why put this diversion here of all places? It’s not even humor to break up a serious moment?” With Heroman it’s the long number of episodes they spend dealing with that mad scientist villain, and with Captain Earth it’s the time they spend on Earth chasing down unawakened Planetary Gears. While the latter makes more sense, it just feels as if it comes at an unusual point in the overall story.
While its aesthetics don’t have quite the flash and razzmatazz of anime like Utena or Kill la Kill or indeed Star Driver, the show’s more by-the-books approach to looking good enhances the series and its viewability by giving care to both its characters and its mechanical designs. At the same time, I can easily see why someone looking for a cohesive narrative above all else would find Captain Earth infuriating, even if I did consistently enjoy and look forward to the series. I wouldn’t say it’s a show that you shouldn’t think about too much, but that you should think about it while well aware of where the characters and their emotions fill in the gaps that might not otherwise make much sense.