4 out of 5
Directed by: Kobun Shizuno, assisted by Hiroyuki Seshita
covers seasons 1 and 2
Tsutomu Nihei’s works are crafted on a gigantic scale, with a narrative microscoped down to human size, and then that relative speck – our hook into the world – is rocketed through the story at breakneck speed. It can be make or break, honestly, if you’re not willing to bang your head against some incredibly obstinate obliqueness in the way Nihei constructs things, and in all due deference to those whom may have appreciated Blame! and etc. upon first arrival, I’m reading retroactively, able to skip between Blame!, Sidonia, and Biomega, spotting the advancement of Tsutomu’s general ideas between the three and thus better equipped (since he tends to cycle around themes and link his worlds together) to “grasp” the big ol’ buckets of nonsense he’s splashing upon the page.
Which sounds more insulting than it is, but it’s part of the creator’s charms: the amazing complexity, and yet the maybe-making-it-up-as-he-goes-along sensibility of his stories, which is a nice pairing with his general m.o. of a lone hero paired against massive, tangled, odds.
The point here is that I don’t envy someone trying to wrangle this process onto the screen, and yet directors Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita – with the support of Polygon Production studios – not only managed to find effective throughlines for their two season adaptation of Knights of Sidonia into an anime, but also brought some characterization to the forefront that Nihei tends to downplay in favor of defining through structure and setting. There are, perhaps, a frustrating amount of “but what about…?!?” plotlines that it’s a question as to why they were added if there was no intent to resolve (maybe there’s a third season out there, but season two ends rather emotionally conclusively), and some of the cheesecake humor that Tsutomu dips in to – in his future where humans photosynthesize in addition to eating (thus reducing physical food consumption), requiring lots of ladies stripping down to soak up the sun right when bumbling, non-photosynthesizing lead Nagate wanders on to the scene – whereas Nihei mostly plays this for slapstick, leaving the amount of time the reader spends ogling up to them, anime forces us to spend as much time on the scenes as the animators deem fit, meaning there are (by my opinion) many unnecessary moments eye-candying booby young lasses with hair spread about and legs crossed just so to keep their bits hidden. Sure, sure, “part of the genre,” but these moments feel sorta gross butted up against the hard sci-fi elements (which are fan-effing-tastic) and then the more humorous applications, when Nagate goes red-cheeked after seeing other cheeks and walks into a wall or girder or whatever as he sputters. The humor is a good respite; the sex stuff is out of place.
Polygon’s animation on the show is stunning. While there’s some CGI stiffness, you come to appreciate it when Knights are dotted amidst the dense, fast-moving battles with their space enemy, the blobby, nightmarish gaunas. Gaunas are all bulbous growths and tentacles, and explode into an array of goo. They move at a blazing speed, and those tentacles wrap around our Knights faster than – given how many tentacles are acting on screen during these attacks – can conceivably be tracked. That you can track it, or at least have a defined sense of who is where in the battle and what is happening, makes this moments terrifyingly awesome and thrilling. This is the uphill battle I had reading Tsutomu’s works: sensing that he knew what was going on in any given panel, but because we’re dealing on incomprehensible scales and because he moves his “camera” in and out of focus rather haphazardly, not being able to always say for sure what we’re seeing happen. I’d come to accept this as part of the subconsciously-applied insanity of Nihei’s worlds (which are often all about trying to meld organic Us with non-organic Non-Us, so there’s something meta about that), but I have to admit: actually being able to visualize it effectively was exciting. So: the human “stiffness” in the anime becomes a boon: something that separates Us from the spookily deft “Them.”
In Knights of Sidonia, humanity has been pared down to a floating cityscape, resource management and evolution itself adapted to the new world. Nagate has been kept underground by his grandfather for reasons to be revealed; when he wanders to the surface of Sidonia, the ship’s captain takes an instant interest, and ends up placing him into Sidonia’s space battaltion: gigantic, flying mecha which hunt out gauna – big ol’ Lovecraftian masses that seem to pursue us with zombie-like fervor. Why do the gauna puruse us? Why does the captain wear a mask? Why does Nagate seem to be able to heal from injuries? …And more, and more, and not all of these things get directly addressed, if at all. ‘Directly’ is an important word, here, as hardly anything is spelled out, with the show’s writers (taking a note from Nihei), showing us a lot instead of telling us, and it’s surprising how quickly one adapts to the weird ins and outs of the new world.
Besides the general mystery of Sidonia’s and Nagate’s history, season 2 has everyone gearing up for taking on larger gauna “clusters;” taking the fight to them. As such, the focus shifts to understanding more about the gauna, and let it suffice to say that the story goes in ballsily kooky directions.
If you’re prepared for some (sigh) inevitable cheesecake and accepting that the manga has some more story to offer than the anime could afford to – even though the anime starts some of those plot threads – KoS is a gorgeously accomplished work, creating as memorable a main cast as any, having two awesome opening themes (which are used with fist-pumping excellence in the final battle), adapting and making comprehensible the source material’s big ol’ ideas without cutting off the hard-edged sci-fi flavor, and, yeah, delivering some kickas mecha action.