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Hugh David goes gonzo for Mahiro Maeda’s sci-fi classic

Today’s anime fans may not place as much store by the name GONZO, given their lack of a major hit series in the last five years, but ten years ago they were the company to beat. A decade after their inception, their list of successes then reads like many an older fan’s DVD shelf: Blue Submarine No.6, Gatekeepers, Vandread, Hellsing, Final Fantasy: Unlimited, Full Metal Panic!, Kiddy Grade, Yukikaze, Kaleido Star, Peace Maker Kurogane, and Chrono Crusade. Every new series announced was hugely anticipated, every trailer released a major event, the soundtrack CDs in hot demand at convention dealer stands.

In celebration of their first decade in business, GONZO put together a first-class team to create a science-fiction epic unlike anything they had done up to that point. Reuniting the creative team from their ground-breaking debut release Blue Submarine No.6 of Koichi Chigira, anime legend Mahiro Maeda (who drew on his background at Gainax and Studio Ghibli for his role as production designer here), and fashion designer Range Murata (back to conceptualise character designs), the 26-episode TV series had ambition and class written all over it, especially in promotional and series trailers. The result, however, divided fans and critics, and remains to this day the preserve of a select group, as opposed to the massive enduring successes that are the Hellsing and Full Metal Panic! franchises.

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Why was this? For a start, with visual roots in 1900s Europe and 1920s Germany in particular, the extravagant visuals were only ever going to appeal to an audience still discovering steampunk. The show does not pander to the fan concerns of the time; it lacks mecha, serious fan-service, or juvenile humour. The blending of 2D and 3D CG work met with vocal disapproval from international audiences, as such combinations still do to this day. Finally, the actual storytelling itself is more mature, creating an epic tale which initially acts as a background to the personal journey of the lead characters, but then becomes the main story.

As is often the case with some of the best creative work, those elements seen as negative at the time by a wider audience are not only what endeared the show to a cult few, but which have allowed the series to age with grace. Playing almost like a sequel to Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky set in a later era, the characters are drawn with greater attention to human concerns than plot machinations, while the sheer volume of detail serves to make the world feel so real that the characters can focus on those concerns. The arcs they find themselves on make the 26 episodes feel like chapters of a good novel rather than weekly TV episodes. Spectacular action sequences nod to such past fan favourites as George Lucas’ pod race in The Phantom Menace or the epic space battles of Leiji Matsumoto’s Captain Harlock, while watched as a season box set the intrigues maintain their grip far better than divided up across a year. The soundtracks still stun as much as the frequently breath-taking visuals. In short, it is ripe for re-discovery by a new set of fans, especially with a sequel about to become available.

As a footnote for anime historians and those who love Last Exile, the series was enough of a success that the same creative team was brought together once more to develop Tow Ubukata’s Mardock Scramble five years later. Initial designs released looked simply stunning once again, but economic woes meant it was not to be. A huge shame; while the same project has finally been completed in a more traditional style, the what-if remains forever tantalising.

Last Exile is out now on UK DVD on Monday from Manga Entertainment.

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