This is kind of a special review in that it’s not just my work but that of three bloggers – Weekend Otaku, Remy, and myself. All of us watched Knights of Sidonia sort-of-but-not-exactly at the same time and shared our thoughts after each episode. Towards the end, Weekend had the idea of collaborating on a post that Remy and I enthusiastically seconded. And so here we are, with a 3 in 1 monster review.
Credit for the title also goes to Weekend. Without further ado, onto the review.
Anime: Sidonia no Kishi/Knights of Sidonia
Studio: Polygon Pictures
Original Run: Apr 11, 2014 to Jun 27, 2014
Genres: Science Fiction, Mecha, Action
It has been a century since the seed ship Sidonia last encountered gauna, an alien race that devours humans and can’t be killed via normal means. But it’s only a matter of time before the creatures that destroyed Earth catches up to the rest of humanity to finish what they started.
Tanikaze Nagate has spent his whole life deep under Sidonia, with no other company that his now deceased grandfather and a simulation device. A tentative venture outside in search of food gets him caught and abruptly places him right in the middle of a conflict that revives after a century of peace. Nagate may not know much about the surface world but he does know how to fight gauna and that just may be what he requires to become the hero Sidonia desperately needs.
When discussing influential anime, you would be hard pressed to find something that defined its era as strongly as Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion. Entire books can be written on its impact (lol) on the medium and its influences across all manner of genres more than 20 years after its debut. But while most anime will borrow bits and pieces of that iconic series or expand upon a theme, the writers of Sidonia elected to lift the entire concept as the basis for their series. From the Gauna being impervious to conventional weapons, the command center used to engage them, and the ‘chosen one’ pilot whose arrival coincides with everything going wrong, the superficial aspects of this anime are nearly identical to its obvious inspiration.
That said, there are a few things that Sidonia tries to do differently. For one, the story is focused more around the floating structure of Sidonia than the psychologically based story EVA became. Toward this end, a lot of thought is put into world building, with even small details fitting neatly into place. Furthermore, the series does very little outright explanation and instead reveals much of this through the events of the story or ambiance. It’s a much more digestible method than some anime use, in which complicated concepts are shoved at the viewer to explain a plot that otherwise doesn’t make sense.
In the end though, these differences don’t add up to anything that makes Sidonia really stand out. A generic story of protecting one’s home from destruction plays out as predictably as you might imagine, with a few variances to keep things interesting along the way, but you never expect the hero to fail. Though a few events do come as a surprise, the whole affair is a standard space adventure with only small clues toward something greater. It doesn’t have to go for an exploration of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, but something outside of “save Sidonia” could have been employed to give it that extra appeal.
Sometimes a strong story can make up for weak characters or vice versa. Unfortunately, I felt like Knights of Sidonia lacks a narrative that can properly engage the viewer while balancing out its own shortcomings.
The setting itself stands out among other shows within the mechas-in-outer-space genre and is rather immersive. There was a sense of implicit wonder over how this takes place in in the distant future due to the depiction of spaceships, complex living conditions, anti-gravity levels, people who can photosynthesize, etc.
Some of the developments that occur within the story alternate between being refreshingly unexpected and embarrassingly predictable, which is on par for most action series. I’ve watched a few mecha series here and there and I’ve come to expect the shows to be darker than expected. To my surprise, Knights of Sidonia does quite well in this regard.
Be that as it may, other aspects of the story, such as presentation, falls flat. I will freely admit that the story does have some sort of direction in mind since there are several instances of foreshadowing sprinkled throughout the series. Characters (as well as the audience) are left in the dark at times only to be filled in later on. However, this is primarily done by lengthy flashbacks, which disrupts the flow and pacing of an episode, and curt dialogue, which seems perfunctory and tacked on so the viewers have something to nibble at in-between action scenes and awkward character interactions.
Furthermore, the series ends on a cliffhanger. While I understand the studio’s intentions of wanting to leave some explanations for the second season, the fact remains that we’re left with more questions than answers, which leaves me feeling a little disappointed in their decision. If the first season wasn’t good enough to retain, what makes the studio think the audience will sit through another season? However, it’s not entirely fair of me to rip into the studio since Knights of Sidonia was originally a manga and the anime is merely following its footsteps.
Those of you who followed my episodic reviews know that I am largely unhappy with Knights of Sidonia. It’s not terrible per se but only a fraction of its potential is utilized. Let’s look at the positives first. The world-building in the anime is truly commendable and so is its presentation. We have a fairly terrifying but enigmatic alien species, advancements in genetic engineering that have helped save humanity from extinction and interesting new technologies that fit right into the futuristic setting. In the course of twelve episodes, we get a good idea of how the seed ships survived after they left their home planet and how humans built back their numbers from multiple attacks that should have wiped them out. Even better is the fact that at no point are we treated to weary exposition dumps. Instead, the information is relayed visually as well as through snippets of conversation and casual remarks, all of which coalesce to form the vivid picture of a world with its own rich, rather tragic, history. Unfortunately, Knights of Sidonia’s impressiveness begins and ends with this.
The plot is kind of competent but aside from a few moments of brilliance, it never goes beyond that. We have the clueless hero slash unexpected ace pilot who fights because he’s told to fight and maybe also because that’s the only thing he knows to do. Even the conflict follows a set pattern of threats followed by bigger threats which are predictably eliminated after the initial struggle. That brings me to another one of the demerits of the series – there is absolutely no tension. There are plenty of occasions that warrant hair-raising excitement but the best it evokes is mild curiosity over how the heroes will figure out their solution.
This is partly due to the characters who are about as lively as a sleeping snail. There are quite a few of them but even the main character – especially the main character – is dull and one-dimensional to the point that they all feel like human-shaped devices that exist to direct the plot where it needs to go. As the plot is nowhere near remarkable enough to carry the show on its merit alone, the end result is quite lacking.
The first season does present a number of interesting questions and mysteries but ends without answering any of them. In the end, Knights of Sidonia is an anime with an interesting premise but its considerable potential is squandered away by mediocre execution and lifeless characters.
Characterization is where Sidonia is arguably at its weakest. A good number of them are thrown into the first episode in a very short time frame, and the show has a difficult time carving out individual personalities or building any sort of investment with any given one. It doesn’t help that one of them is a clone, indiscernible from her many sisters. Even among the main cast, however, the show struggles to give them much depth beyond the character archetypes they represent.
The main character, Nagate, seems to have trouble establishing his personality as he becomes a conduit for everything that takes place. Given that the formative years of his life were spent isolation from the rest of Sidonia, some of this is understandable. He has no choice but to react to the world around him. It’s the show’s unwillingness to use his unique background (until kind of late in the season) to push any part of the narrative that is the real issue. For the most part he’s a blank slate whose development is severely hampered by not giving him a defined personal motivation.
Aside from a few notable exceptions, it wouldn’t be unfair to call the supporting cast cardboard cutouts. The love interest’s part is brief and unremarkable. The best friend/third wheel doesn’t do much more than fill in the blanks when Nagate needs information. The main human antagonist, Kunato, is almost cartoonish in his villainy as he takes a childish rivalry to extreme levels.
The most interesting characters, arguably, are the few adults that this show features. Kobayashi and Hiyama (who is a bear, inexplicably) have the most intriguing backstory owing to their impossibly long history together. The lost hero, Hiroko, similarly draws interest for his opposition to the shadowy secrets that Sidonia’s leadership is hiding. They guide the story along well enough, but the show holds back on any deeper examination. Perhaps it’s an effort to maintain their mysterious natures, but when the main cast is so unappealing the audience can become understandably frustrated by the lack of focus on these more compelling characters.
The characters in Knights of Sidonia are pathetically written. I have little patience for most shows featuring male protagonists with harems because the girls inevitably cling onto the male leads despite his lack of an actual personality. Unfortunately, Knights of Sidonia is guilty of this. After 12 episodes, all I really know about Nagate is that he wants to protect everyone. Martyr characters are not automatically bad, yes, but he just isn’t relatable.
The girls who are interested in Nagate aren’t much better. While they all display questionable intelligence in certain points throughout the series, their biggest error is chasing after a bland male lead. Why do you think the Guana is actually trying to communicate with human when that’s all they’ve ever done, Hoshijiro? Why are you so obsessed with this oblivious stranger, Yuhata? When are you going to realize that your kindness will never be truly appreciated, Izana?
Honestly, they all should look for someone else since he doesn’t deserve them. But wait, nearly all the men are presented as unlikeable (Kunato is the hatesink of the century) or sex-crazed. Meanwhile, most of the other female characters are presented as both short-tempered and unreasonable.
Speaking of pursuing romance, the concept of a third gender ended up being lackluster. In my opinion, the fact that an individual can start off as neither male or female is exciting. It’s the fact that the individual becomes either male or female in response to who they find attractive is what irks me. They become a woman if they’re attracted to a man? They turn into a man by default if they’re in love with a woman? Why can’t girls love girls and guys love guys? For a futuristic setting, this heteronormative system is rather close-minded and outdated.
The only characters I found to be enjoyable are Kobayashi (cold-hearted leaders who can make tough decisions are always great), Lala (probably the coolest bear in anime history), and Ichirou (a voice of reason and calmness among all this chaos is appreciated).
Despite my dislike of Nagate, the moronic pacifists who are convinced that the Guana will leave them alone if they don’t fight are far worse. While it is sometimes beautifully tragic that a character has to resort to delusions in order to stay sane, it can also be frustrating to see individuals ignore reason and logic over and over.
Knights of Sidonia’s characters are its weakest aspect. The main character is Tanikaze Nagate, a guy who spent all his life underground with only his grandfather, who’s dead by the time the story begins, for company. As a result, he’s clueless about how to interact with others and fumbles around. This is not helped by how his upbringing makes him stand out from his peers on a biological level. All this is perfectly fine but the problem is that apart from his social ineptitude and fondness for food, Nagate has no real personality. Only at the very last episode do we see something resembling passion from him and even that seems forced, as if he’s merely mouthing some words that sound like the right thing without having any real feeling to them. He may be the main character but he’s an extremely boring one and only good for the occasional gauna-killing, which makes his action scenes pretty cool while leaving the man behind it as empty as ever. This is why I can’t understand why he seems to unwittingly accumulate a harem in Sidonia. What in space do they see in him?
Moving on, we have the aforementioned harem starting with Shinatose Izana, a third gender cadet who befriends Nagate soon after arrival and also develops a crush on him. Izana is nice enough but their role is confined to their relationship with Nagate. They exist to give him a friend that will take care of him, worry over him and get jealous when he expresses an interest in other people. There’s no depth to them. The same can be said for Hoshijiro Shizuka, a top-ranked cadet who develops a crush on Nagate that he reciprocates. She’s passive most of the time and vaguely pleasant but that’s it. Finally, there’s Midorikawa Yuhata, a brilliant trainee who becomes the executive officer of Sidonia thanks to her analytical capabilities. She also has a crush on Nagate (I warned you) that seems to be a really intense kind of hero worship born out of virtually nothing. Unlike the other two, she does have her own distinct role in the story.
Apart from the gauna, the closest thing to a villain that we have is Kunato, a highly ranked cadet with a promising future who becomes jealous of Nagate’s ace status and is consequently driven to some despicable actions. The irony is that he’s one of the more fleshed out characters in the show if only because that level of cruel pettiness deserves a well-rounded vessel.
Oddly enough, there are some woefully unexplored secondary characters who are far more interesting than the mains despite showing up for only a handful of scenes. The enigmatic captain of the ship, Kobayashi, the great bear-mother Hiyama, the pilots Samari and Seii, the criminal from the past Ochiai and even Nagate’s dead grandfather Hiroko all have their own charm.
Animation and Music
I’m sure many anime purists will disagree, but the aesthetic style of Sidonia isn’t all that bad. The CGI heavy technique can be found in other Polygon works like Ajin, and is surprisingly functional for this type of show. The sci-fi setting lends itself to the look and feel, as do the special effects that the garde weapons produce. When it comes to the characters themselves, however, this style looks far too artificial.
The animation itself is quite decent though, and produces some enjoyable battle scenes as the action ramps up. Outer space physics gets due attention throughout when characters grow genuinely concerned about things flying off along unplanned vectors. There is also a scene a few episodes in which shows some of the drastic effects of gravity, and why large, moving structures in space aren’t the safest of vessels to reside in.
This series’ best showings in the sound department from the OP and ED – two themes that somehow got me pumped up for this show even when the story and characters didn’t. The BGMs are largely subtle pieces outside of combat, which is a well done experience all around, but represent the slightly ominous atmosphere of Sidonia well. The sound effects are admittedly great though, expressing mechanical movement and even background noise very faithfully.
The art is rendered entirely in CGI, which might prove awkward for some viewers. And I don’t blame them. Characters’ facial expressions appear stiff and unrealistic along with how their individual models demonstrate motion. However, the CGI does get better as the series progresses and one particular character looks, dare I say it, beautiful. I didn’t mind it too much since I’ve seen a few CGI anime before, but there will probably be an universal grace period where viewers will be uncomfortable with the animation.
As usual, the instrumental OST didn’t really stand out to me. I will say that the OP and the ED were incredible. I never skipped either as I watched the series. In fact, sometimes I’ll play back the OP before I watched a particular episode and after finishing said episode. Ahh, the way the OP was able to properly excite viewers despite its jarring CGI animation is awe-inspiring.
This show’s art and animation have a very good chance of making your eyes bleed. It gets better eventually – or maybe you just get used to it, I’m not sure – but the character art in the first couple of episodes is really bad. Each of their faces looks flat and limp, and facial expressions and lip movements seem like something that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie. On the other hand, backgrounds and gauna designs are stunningly rendered. The ship’s interior deserves special mention for its unique vertical construction.
For all its faults, Sidonia has some great music in it. The OP, Sidonia by angela, and the ED, show by Eri Kitamura, are both visually and aurally stunning. Not once could I bring myself to skip them.
Overall Sidonia was a halfway decent sci-fi story but didn’t manage to capture anything special with its delivery. Indifference is perhaps the best word to express my thoughts on it. I didn’t mind watching this show at any point, but I hardly ever felt excited about doing so (unless you count the duration of the OP). Had the characters been a little more engaging or the plot moved beyond its formulaic approach, my opinion of it would be very different. As it stands, my final rating is 3 out of 5 Nagates.
Knights of Sidonia has a decent story with great music. However, the CGI animation takes a while to get used and the characters are poorly written to the point that the viewer may become frustrated. I think that this is a case where the negatives outweigh the positives and that there are other mecha shows to consider watching first.
I give this show a 5/10.
Don’t watch this. That may sound harsh – okay, it is harsh – but I really don’t think Knights of Sidonia has anything that’s worth around six hours of your time. The setting alone is not enough to make the experience worth it and all other elements range from disappointing to atrocious. There are plenty of other Mecha anime out there that are better than this.