Mix It Up, Make Something New: Aldnoah.Zero

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.

Aldnoah.Zero Arrogance

Most of the fights in the mecha anime Aldnoah.Zero follow a roughly similar pattern: In a reversal of the typical structure of giant robot combat, a technologically superior and seemingly invincible enemy is overcome by the tactics and ingenuity of the protagonist Inaho and his allies without the need of secret prototype weapons or trump cards. What I think makes these battles and the opponents’ eventual defeats work really well both narratively and thematically is that their downfall is usually based on them being blinded by arrogance.

One might argue that this is unrealistic, or more specifically that an opponent with such an edge in terms of firepower would likely not have overlooked some of the weaknesses that end up being exploited by Inaho. However, given the culture of the Vers Empire, the feudalistic space culture that attacks the Earth, I find that it makes a lot of sense. The subjects of the Vers Empire, especially their “Orbital Knights,” have been raised to believe that they are inherently better than people from Earth, and that this superiority derives from their discovery and use of a powerful technology called the “Aldnoah Drive.” While from our perspective it’s easy to point out that the “inherent” superiority of the Vers is anything but because it derives from an outside source in the Aldnoah Drive, actually history has shown that similar reasoning, as strangely illogical as it can seem, has often been used to justify similar mindsets or even forms of racism.

Consider the hypothetical example of a nation of people who believe they are simply better than their neighbors because they were born on land that was more arable. Although one could easily say that this is just a matter of luck or probability to an extent, it wouldn’t seem that strange for them to believe that they were somehow blessed by God or some other great power, and that they deserve this blessing on some fundamental level. It’s circular reasoning to be sure, but that doesn’t necessarily stop anyone from believing it.

Thus, the Orbital Knights believe that they are inherently superior in every way over the Terrans, therefore they receive the more powerful technology, therefore they are inherently superior in every way over the Terrans. They buy so much into not only the idea that the people of Earth are too stupid to figure anything out, but that they actually have no Achilles’ heels to exploit in the first place. With nothing to challenge them and without even acknowledging that they may have overlooked something in their robots (or “Kataphrakts” as Aldnoah.Zero calls them), potentially preventable defeats are addressed too late.