Andrew Osmond on the story of a culture shock
Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, released on Blu-ray and DVD, can be enjoyed as a straight SF adventure, but it’s interesting on deeper levels. Gargantia is the story of a culture shock. The hero, Ledo, is a young space warrior from an ultra-militarist civilisation, dedicated to fighting aliens for the sake of humanity. He’s aided by his mecha power suit Chamber, which serves triple duty as a vehicle, a giant suit of armour and an indispensable ally, with a towering artificial intelligence and the reassuring tones of Tomokazu Sugita, who was the voice of Kyon in Haruhi Suzumiya.
Ledo and Chamber get separated from the war and zapped down to Earth – a planet long thought dead, covered entirely by oceans. And yet Ledo finds that humans are here too, a floating civilisation aboard giant fleets, including the titular Gargantia. These mariners know nothing of Ledo’s space war, and he slowly learns their attitude to life is very different from his own. This is anime, so we doubt you’ll be surprised that Ledo’s big influence is Amy, a very pretty girl Ledo’s age, who wears an exotic, scanty costume…
You can see Gargantia as a companion piece to another hot new SF anime, Psycho-Pass. Not only are both series made by Production I.G, but they’re both written by Gen Urobuchi, the author of Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero. As we noted in discussing Psycho-Pass, Urobuchi has a particular interest in showing characters with moral viewpoints that we might find repellant, even dangerous.
In Gargantia, Ledo is a soldier through and through. His prime function is to fight for humanity, and all ‘humane’ values take a back seat to that. For example, we learn that any infant in Ledo’s society who is too weak to fight is killed, which causes some awkwardness when Ledo meets Amy’s frail brother. Also, that there’s no such thing as family on Ledo’s world, as it’s considered a far too inefficient structure.
Ledo accepts these values unquestioningly, much as Akane, the heroine of Urobuchi’s Psycho-Pass, accepted the value of her similarly illiberal future. Yet Ledo is capable of acting in ways that are not only brave, but ethical and admirable. For example, in the first episode, Ledo has the opportunity to use Chamber to blast his way out from Gargantia and escape. He refuses, not wanting to harm strangers, though they might certainly harm him.
It’s an interesting time to have a hero with a militarist outlook. This blog has discussed the arguments over the alleged political content in the blockbusting Attack on Titan and Ghibli’s film The Wind Rises. In both cases, the controversies connects to Japan’s own militarist past in the 1930s and ‘40s, and the spectres they conjure up in countries round the world; of Japanese kamikaze pilots, of torturers ruling POW camps, of the so-called “banzai charges” of soldiers sworn to die for their Emperor.
You might see Ledo’s future society in Gargantia as a distillation of such specifically Japanese nightmares, of extreme militarism as a way of national life. It wouldn’t be the first time that an SF anime has reflected on how Japan is feared, even hated, by the rest of the world. The CG anime film Vexille pointedly presented Japan as an inscrutable evil empire, while the story’s American heroine discovers the country is ruled by madmen turning the Japanese into robots.
True, the popular images of ‘militarism’ worldwide was strongly influenced by wartime Japan. But practically every country has a violent face; for example, the Klingons in the original Star Trek were a mix of Russians, Mongols and Japanese. As for militarism in American SF, many people would look no further that Robert Heinlein’s 1959 book Starship Troopers, in which Earth is geared to fighting aliens, and heroes recognise it’s their moral duty as humans, as Ledo does at the star of Gargantia.
War may not be glorious, but one Heinlein character proclaims that “Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than any other factor… Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.” The politics of Starship Troopers are fiercely debated, and the debate itself shaped an image of American SF that’s militant to the point of fascism. This standard was lampooned in Harry Harrison’s 1965 book Bill, the Galactic Hero and Paul Verhoeven’s satirical 1997 film of Starship Troopers itself.
This American militancy also fed into anime a decade before Akira, back when anime SF was still in early development. Yoshiyuki Tomino was partly influenced by Heinlein’s Troopers (the book was translated into English by Yano Tetsu) when he created the seminal Mobile Suit Gundam series in 1979. Heinlein had envisioned soldiers in robot exoskeletons, called Mobile Infantry Power Suits. That means Starship Troopers is arguably the granddaddy of all the ‘realistic’ robots in anime from Gundam onwards. Perhaps to repay the debt, Gundam’s Sunrise studio adapted Starship Troopers as an OAV series in 1988.
In Gargantia, Urobuchi eventually addresses the militarist mind-set issue head on, making a pretty unambiguous statement on it in later episodes, without the troubling questions which persist at the ends of Magica Madoka and Psycho-Pass. Still, Gargantia is the kind of show which could have gone in radically different directions, and that’s what keeps SF healthy. Maybe Gargantia has already been seen by some young Japanese anime writer, who’s now angrily devising a show to overturn every one of Gargantia’s conclusions…
Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet is available on UK Blu-ray and DVD from Manga Entertainment.