I’m not the kind of anime fan who thinks having specific names on a project is the be-all, end-all. That said, as soon as I saw that there was a new anime by the director of Dennou Coil, Iso Mitsuo—with character designs by Yoshida Ken’ichi (Eureka Seven, Gundam Reconguista in G), no less—I knew I had to watch it. The Orbital Children (also known as Extraterrestrial Boys & Girls) is in many ways a spiritual successor to Dennou Coil, but rather than elementary school kids’ experiences in a world where augmented reality is commonplace, it’s about young teens in a world where humanity has to grapple with the consequences of “rogue” artificial intelligence and failed space colonization.
Orbital Children is set in 2045 aboard a space station and follows five kids ages 12–14. Three of them are from Earth, having won a promotional trip to the station, while the other two are the last surviving members of an attempt to bear and raise children on the moon. When an asteroid hits, the emergency forces them into a fight for their lives, but also into a confrontation with how they view the world, humanity, and themselves. Underlying all of this is the fact that the failure to create and sustain life in space is the result of a defunct artificial intelligence known as “Seven,” which was the most powerful ever before being shut down for going out of control.
Advertisements for The Orbital Children do not shy away from making associations with Dennou Coil. In comparing the two, I prefer Dennou Coil, but this has largely to do with format differences. Whereas the latter is a 26-episode TV series given time to both meander and slow-build its narrative, The Orbital Children is only six episodes and originally released in Japanese theaters as two 3-episode “movies” before becoming available on Netflix. I also am a bigger fan of the character conflicts and the eerie quality of AR as experienced by kids, but I also really appreciate the earnest confrontation with science and technology through the lens that The Orbital Children provides. In many ways, it feels like a spiritual successor to Dennou Coil precisely because it better conveys the concerns of children who are older but while still grounding it in this science fictional setting.
Ultimately, the series asks the audience whether we’re too afraid of how things might turn out to be that we shield the young and try to keep them from learning more about the world in the ways that make sense to them. Rather than forcing them to go one direction while trying to hide all the bad stuff out there, isn’t readier access to more information and faith in their intelligence and reasoning the better way to go? When I think about this, I can feel my own fear influencing my beliefs, but there’s an element of realization that has hit every generation: Try as you might, you can’t truly control how kids think, so it’s better to foster learning.