One of the anime I looked forward to most this past season was Aldnoah.Zero. Although from the beginning it feels heavily derived from many other popular and classic mecha anime, it increasingly reveals itself as a series that can stand on its own merits. Akin to a patchwork quilt, Aldnoah.Zero takes all of these influences and merges them into something that is also remarkably fresh and new.
The story in Aldnoah.Zero focuses on the effects of a lopsided war between the Earth and the extremely powerful space empire known as Vers. Having been resoundingly outgunned in their previous conflict due to the power of the Vers’ giant robots, the Earth has seen an uneasy peace for many years. However, an attempt to bridge the two sides ends in disaster, which leads the planet back into a battle it likely cannot win.
At first glance, Aldnoah.Zero looks like it comes from the Code Geass school of cool teens fighting political battles, yet it also has clear influence from Gundam. Which Gundam though? Its basic Earth vs. Space Colonies plot and its “ship on the run” ongoing storyline resemble the original Mobile Suit Gundam. The way each of the factions in the enemy Vers forces treat the Earth like a battlefield to assert the pride of their respective clans is more reminiscent of Mobile Fighter G Gundam and the literal use of the Earth as a ring for different nations to battle it out. Then there’s the princess-in-disguise plot thread, which evokes the events of Turn A Gundam. On top of all of this, while he looks less muscular, the character Inaho’s logical nature, reticent personality, calm under pressure and his decision to consistently use what amounts to a generic no-frills mecha calls to mind Chirico Cuvie, the hero from Armored Trooper Votoms. In certain ways, it’s a strange mishmash that typically only works in something like the Super Robot Wars games where the “rules” of cohesiveness can be bent liberally, but Aldnoah.Zero manages to pull it off gracefully.
This is probably most apparent in how Aldnoah.Zero handles mecha battles. Given an opponent with vastly superior technology, the rag-tag Earth forces that we follow have to rely on wit and ingenuity, while also taking advantage of the fact that the Vers soldiers tend to be a little too overconfident in their weaponry. The battles are one of the highlights of the series, and what makes them interesting and consistently both fun to watch and intellectually stimulating is the fact that the gap is so large that it more or less feels like the “real robots” of the Earth vs. the “super robots” of Vers, and seeing just how Inaho dissects the opponents’ mecha. Usually sides are either individual robot vs. monster (Mazinger Z), military vs military (Mobile Suit Gundam), dominant real robot mowing down enemy forces until the enemy comes up with something equal (Gundam W), or super-powered equals, which makes what Aldnoah.Zero does remarkably rare, if not outright unheard of.
The series even goes out of its way to make sure this technological and aesthetic contrast is there for the viewer to see in every battle. The mecha designs of the Orbital Knights look fanciful and tend to incorporate more fantastic weaponry such as rocket punches, beam swords, and powerful energy barriers, while the Earth forces use mostly ammunition. Even the one moment when the series could have given Inaho his own protagonist-level prototype weapon gets subverted, as he decides to remain in his mass-produced grunt machine.
Of course, not everyone will care about the quality of the robot action, but the story itself looks to be holding up well. Aldnoah.Zero has a lot of narrative elements that, again, feel as if they’re hitting notes from past anime, but for the most part they drew me deeper into their world rather than making me question how everything fits together. Of particular note is the character Slaine, a Terran on the side of the Vers forces who is caught in the middle, and who may be the real main character rather than Inaho. That said, the first season just finished recently, and we are left at what is clearly a turning point. It’s difficult to judge how the story will turn out in the end, as these kinds of series can often crash and burn from the changes they decide to make the second time around, but for now I’m looking forward to what comes next.