Monday 22 September 2014

Anime REVIEW: Captain Earth

Captain Earth

When people think of studios that specialise in mecha series the likes of Sunrise and Gainax are naturally the first ones to come to mind, but with the likes of RahXephon, Eureka Seven and Star Driver under their belts Bones are managing to creep up that list by combining their own formula for the genre with the high quality animation the studio constantly delivers. Taking that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitude, their newest entry for the genre is Captain Earth - a 25-episode series that aired between April and September 2014.

When space pilot Taiyou Manatsu dies preventing an alien race known as the Kill-T-Gang from invading Earth, his son Daichi is forced to leave their family home on the island of Tanegashima. Nine years later, the now 17-year old Daichi returns to the island after seeing the news broadcasting a large ringed rainbow formation over the island's space centre. Upon exploring the abandoned building, he is presented with a gun-like artefact known as a 'Livlaster' which allows him to pilot the Earth Engine - a colossal mecha built by the Globe organisation to defend the Earth from more alien invaders.

The Midsummer's Knights - Akari, Hana, Daichi & Teppei
The Midsummer's Knights

After becoming caught up in a space battle against the group of the Kill-T-Gang known as the Planetary Gears, Daichi learns the truth about his father's demise and becomes caught up in Globe's fight against the aliens. Here he is reunited with two mysterious faces from his childhood - a boy named Teppei Arashi and a girl named Hana Mutou. Together with teenage hacker and self-proclaimed 'magical girl' Akari Yomatsuri, the four become a group known as the Midsummer's Knights and defend the Earth from the Planetary Gears' scheme to dream its people of their libido.

Coming from a director and writer who both worked on Star Driver, it's no surprise that Captain Earth shares more than a few similarities with its more flamboyant predecessor. In fact prior to the show's premiere Captain Earth was off-handedly described by some as "Eureka Seven meets Star Driver", which feels like a pretty apt description given that the show borrows a lot of ideas from them both. To put it simply this is a Bones mecha show through and through, but it's more than just one that recycles old concepts - it's an opportunity to refine them. As much praise as I have for some of them let's face it, Eureka Seven probably could do with being a tad shorter, Star Driver was never the best at properly explaining things and the less said about Eureka Seven AO the better. Captain Earth takes the best of each one in an attempt to create something even better. What it creates is something relatively consistent, but lacking the heart of the original Eureka Seven or the uniqueness of Star Driver.

Wouldn't be a Bones show without some romance!
Bones mecha romance ©

Dealing with the likes of alien invasions, political in-fighting and organisations with dumb names, naturally Captain Earth is a show that requires a fair amount of establishing. With names and terminology like Livlasters, Kill-T-Gang, Machine Goodfellows and Salty Dog being thrown at you in quick succession, the show requires careful attention at the beginning to just to set the scene and know who and what everything is for the remainder. This leads to some rather slow paced opening episodes, with the show not really hitting its real stride until the proper formation of the Midsummer's Knights in episode seven. From here the show jumps into a weekly setting where the initial two Planetary Gears go about finding their other members (who have had their memories repressed and are currently living as normal people), which carries on until episodes 14 and 15 where the real meat of the story begins to hit. These one-off episodes aren't anything to be scoffed at though, as they prove integral to really getting to grips with each character and how they relate to each other.

This is important because even though Captain Earth is a mecha show, the characters are always the ones at the forefront of everything. Episodes can go by without the appearance of a single robot, and even when there is a fight it usually only takes up around five minutes of an episode. The lead characters are everything - they're the ones that solve the problems, they're the ones that defy the odds and they're the ones that instil hope in everyone else. They may look like the Evangelion kids in their coloured flight suits, but it's amazing how much difference being pleasant and likeable characters can make.

Amara & Moco of the Planetary Gears
Thankfully not a human Sonic the Hedgehog

Meanwhile the Planetary Gears fare a lot worse, with pretty much all of the development going toward the two that appear in the show from the beginning - Amara and Moco. They're the ones that get the lines, and as such the only ones that expand out of their identity as villains for anything more than convenience' sake. The rest of them? Well, they're all a lot more interesting when they're unaware of who they are. Once they get that kiss from Amara or Moco to reawaken their memories, they're reduced to near-silent villains that skulk around in the background. It's a huge shame because there are some really nice ideas behind the Planetary Gears, but their development and relationship with Macbeth Enterprise (a stakeholder in Globe - I did say there were a lot of names to remember!) super AI Puck could do with a lot more expansion. The way things went down in the finale were quite clearly signposted throughout the show, but the show clearly didn't put the right amount of focus in these areas.

Moco's true form, the Machine Goodfellow Malkin

But even though the show may be lacking in gratuitous robot action, what Captain Earth does give mecha fans is certainly a treat for the eyes. Right away the first episode introduces the Earth Engine with a glorious five minute combination sequence that shows off just what Bones are capable of when it comes to animating giant robots. This incredibly detailed 2D animated sequence really stands out in the sea of mecha shows that are increasingly turning toward CGI effects for their robots. The Earth Engine is Star Driver's Taubarn beefed up the the extreme - keeping some design cues but beefing that extravagant spindly frame in a powerhouse of a real robot. It is later joined by two more Globe machines - the Nebula and Flare Engines, which are variations of the same design with different colour schemes. This trio of bulky robots are a brilliant contrast to the Planetary Gears' true forms (known as Machine Goodfellows) which utilise much more diverse, often-humanoid aesthetics.

While the rarer large-scale battles with the full-sized robots take place in outer-space, Captain Earth features some land based action with the smaller components of both the Engines and the Machine Goodfellows. Though not quite as flashy as the bigger fights, these are the ones that often prove to be the more memorable thanks to the varied locations they take place in.

The land-based Earth Engine Ordinary
Russian doll robots

Captain Earth doesn't quite refine the Bones' mecha tropes into the perfect series, but it certainly manages to put them together into an enjoyable series that showcases what the studio is capable of. Despite a sluggish start and abrupt finish, it manages to bring sci-fi, mystery, romance, comedy and politics all into one neat little package and does so with a superb cast of characters. The great visuals are enough to keep audiences enticed during those difficult first few episodes, and once it manages to pick up steam has more than enough to keep viewers invested until the very end.

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