Olympus Knights (story); Pinakes (art); Sheldon Drzka (translation); Brndn Blakeslee, Lys Blakeslee (lettering)
Yen Press, Dec 2015
Disclaimer: Yen Press provided a complimentary review copy upon which this article is based.
After the first few pages, I wanted to call Aldnoah.Zero a space opera. After another few pages, I wanted to call it a military drama. Then I wanted to call it Attack on Titan for science fiction lovers, and then I thought, no, this is Evangelion for the next generation. It’s a bit of all of those things, but my sneaking suspicion is that it’s actually a science fiction tragedy. A very good, likely very dark, tragedy.
Let’s back up a bit. First, the stage: in the chicken-and-egg question that’s so often anime vs. manga vs. light novel, Aldnoah.Zero began as an anime helmed by director Ei Aoki and writers Gen Urobuchi and Katsuhiko Takayama, collectively called Olympus Knights. (To date, I’ve watched one episode; my anime queue is much longer than my free time, alas.)
The story, as laid out in the first volume of the manga, is that of a long-standing conflict between Earth and Mars. The Martian civilization was established by Terrans after the astronauts of Apollo 13 landed on the moon and discovered an alien hypergate that connected them to Mars. After Mars was colonized, the Vers Empire arose and claimed ownership of Mars and all of the ancient alien technology, called Aldnoah. In the ensuing conflict between Earth and Vers, the hypergate was damaged, and the subsequent explosion tore apart the moon, leaving Earth with a sickle moon and a pretty spectacular asteroid field, but presumably without lunar mochi-making rabbits.
Fast forward to the fifteenth year of peace after a disaster known as “Heaven’s Fall.” We don’t yet know exactly what happened during Heaven’s Fall, but the upshot is that the Martians delivered a resounding blow that damaged many countries. In Japan, all high school students have mandatory military training—and in this timeline, read “military” as “giant mecha suits.” Inaho is one such high school student, and his older sister Yuki is a drill instructor. The cast of Terrans (Earthlings) also includes a group of Inaho’s super sharp, smart high school peers (boys and girls alike) and Yuki’s fellow drill instructor, Lieutenant Marito. The Martian cast consists of Asseylum, the Princess of Vers, and her protective handmaiden; Slaine, a Terran who was stranded on Mars and taken in by the princess; and various slimy, power-hungry Martian nobility.
Got all that? Do you see why I wanted to call it a space opera?
Volume 1 spends most of its time setting up what looks to be a fairly complex plot—or, if not complex, one that is ripe for character development and a few twists. Asseylum is visiting Earth for the first time as an ambassador of peace and goodwill, but against the wishes of the Martian aristocrats, who clearly just want to get on with conquering Earth and duking it out with one another to prove who has the biggest and most powerful … um, pointy space ship. Ahem. Against this standard backdrop of innocently hopeful princess, power-hungry aristocrats, and scrappy homeworld defenders, there are a few glimmers of depth—which means I’ll probably be picking up the second volume.
The artwork in the manga is good, but not particularly special. Landscapes, particularly planetscapes, are crafted lovingly and serve as a much needed visual respite from the somewhat jumbled action sequences. The main characters are rendered well: their expressions are detailed and subtle, and their movements smooth and natural. Sadly, minor characters occasionally come across as stiff, which is emphasized with forced, obvious dialogue. It swiftly becomes clear that the enemies’ motivations are going to be explained in a pretty ham-fisted manner, which is disappointing.
The first glimpse of depth comes from Lieutenant Marito, who is immediately introduced as an alcoholic. “An instructor who smells like a bar sets a bad example for the students,” says Yuki. “Don’t worry, I’m used to being disrespected,” retorts Marito. In the next several pages, readers are shown a window into Marito’s past that explains why he self-medicates with drink: he has PTSD from the events of Heaven’s Fall, the true nature of which were apparently covered up by Earth’s governments.
“How will we pay the debt for our blatant lies?” muses Marito to an obliging bartender. How, indeed?
The second glimpse of a deeper story involves Slaine, the stranded Terran who was taken in by Princess Asseylum. Slaine is now, seemingly, in the employ of one Count Cruhteo, although he’s clearly emotionally devoted to and half in love with Asseylum. Through Cruhteo, we’re shown that the Vers Empire’s general view of Terrans is that of cruel feudal lords to their serfs. To make this abundantly clear, Cruhteo backhands Slaine and calls him scum. Slaine, who is clearly used to this pattern of abuse, simply stares after Cruhteo, and is later shown going about his duty and co-piloting a fighter craft.
You may have noticed, but the paragraphs above aren’t exactly full of loud praise for Aldnoah.Zero. To be frank, a lot remains to be seen; most manga take up to three or four volumes to really hit their stride. But I’m optimistic. I like the abundance of strong female characters—Asseylum may be a princess, but she’s not meek, and there are plenty of other smart, tough women to be seen in the wings, and I hope to see more of them in future volumes. Also, it stays away from gratuitous “fan pleaser” displays of female anatomy, unlike other manga I’ve reviewed. (It’s sad, but true, that blatant t&a illustration is so common in manga that the absence of it goes down in the plus column.)
I’m also intrigued by the potential for some in-depth psychological character development. Addressing PTSD and abuse (maybe Stockholm Syndrome?) along with a critical eye on war and government oversight could be not only interesting, but culturally relevant. Writer Gen Urobuchi has a hand in a number of other intense psychological pieces, including Psycho-Pass, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, all of which I enjoyed. However, he and director Ei Aoki also collaborated on Fate/Zero, which I felt took a few very disturbing turns, so I do approach Aldnoah.Zero with caution. The emerging themes of trauma, violence, and abuse of power all point toward something that could pretty quickly become quite dark, but tragedies can also be constructive.
All in all: yeah, I’ll bite. Let’s find out what happens in Volume 2. However, even from just this introduction, I do think Aldnoah.Zero is a good pick for fans of the series I mentioned above—Attack on Titan and Evangelion—as well as Sword Art Online or Knights of Sidonia. If you’ve read or seen Aldnoah.Zero, what do you think? Sound off in the comments!