Manatsu Daichi is an average 2nd-year high schooler, living with his uncle in the wake the of his astronaut father’s tragic death in a shuttle accident. On the eve of his Summer vacation, Daichi sees a strange circular rainbow on the news and is immediately struck by an uneasy nostalgia. He finds himself drawn back to Tanegashima, the island of his childhood. Deep within the island’s abandoned aerospace complex, Daichi finds an enigmatic young girl and a strange gun called Livlaster. As a malevolent alien force rushes towards Earth, Daichi is faced with a life-altering choice and a single pressing question: “Are you a Captain?”
Captain Earth may be the most disappointing anime I’ve ever finished. Not because it’s necessarily bad, but because it fails to live up to it’s frankly absurd potential. Part of that is definitely my fault. I went into this show with some pretty serious expectations, and that certainly colors my experience. But I think it was mostly impossible for me not to have unreasonable expectations of this show. Lemme lay down some background, here.
In Winter of 2014, studio Bones announced a new original mecha anime to air in Spring. Bones is, for my money, one the most consistently above average studios in the industry today. Formed by Sunrise ex-pats after the completion of Cowboy Bebop, Bones’ success is hardly a mystery. As of this review, they still maintain the #1 spot on MAL with FMA:Brotherhood. Captain Earth was coming on the heels of Star Driver, another Bones original mecha anime from 2010, and a show I’m quite fond of. Captain Earth would even retain an almost identical staff, leading to the term “Spiritual Successor” being thrown around in some otaku circles.
This fact immediately told me two things: One, that the animation was likely to be gorgeous; And two, that Yoji Enokido and Takuya Igurashi would be on the project. Both Enokido and Igarashi are former proteges of one Kunihiko Ikuhara, both of whom worked under him on a little show called Revolutionary Girl Utena. Which if you don’t know, is the source of the image plastered on the front page header of this very blog. To say that I’m a fan is an astronomical understatement. Enokido in particular is probably my favorite anime showrunner not named “Gen Urobuchi”, with series composition credits for Utena, Ouran Host Club, Redline, and obviously Star Driver. Captain Earth all but promised to be Utena With Robots, and for a while, that seemed to be exactly what it was. However, as the show went forward, I was struck by the terrible realization that I didn’t really have much of an urge to actually watch it. But I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit. To explain why Captain Earth is so disappointing, I have to somewhat counter-intuitively explain what parts of it actually worked.
First of all, the show is every bit as gorgeous as I expected it to be. Both the character and mecha designs are fucking fantastic. You can tell Captain Earth was an anime original project because of how distinctive and vibrant the design aesthetic is. It’s clearly not the kind of thing that’s devised to be inked on black and white manga pages every month. And not only are the robot designs totally fucking rad, they’re rendered in plain ol’ digipaint instead of gaudy PS2-era CGI. I can’t even describe how refreshing that is! The advent of clunky 3DCG monstrosities was arguably the worst consequence of animation shifting away from traditional hand-painted cels in the early 2000s. Seeing mechanical objects rendered in 2D nowadays is like getting a LN adaptation that isn’t trash. The anime equivalent of spotting a rare endangered animal in the wild. It’s an exhilarating sight, but deep down you understand the melancholy reality of its existence.
Captain Earth is the kind of Giant Robot show that just doesn’t get made anymore, and for totally understandable reasons. The actual animation isn’t the best I’ve ever seen in a Bones show, but it’s crisp and consistent. The use of color, shading, and the cinematography are all consistent with this production team’s caliber, which is to say it’s pretty impressive. The price for all of this is of course a massive amount of repeated animation. Which, in all fairness, is generally some of the show’s coolest and best-looking segments. Individual tolerance for that kinda shit will certainly vary, but as a big fan of both Magical Girl and Giant Robot shows, I’ve more or less built up a total immunity to Stock Footage. You can definitely tell that Igarashi and Enokido come from the School of Ikuhara, though.
Speaking of Ikuhara, his influence is all over this show. It’s odd to see a show he had nothing to do with brimming with his various idiosyncrasies, and discouraging to see them so mishandled. This is a show about a boy on the cusp of adolescence who uses his magic gun to pilot a Giant Robot against evil aliens who feed on “Libido” in order to become a “Captain”. The puberty metaphor is strong with this one. The show also works in Ikuhara’s trademark animation-as-stagecraft, with numerous references to Shakespeare, deliberate use of framing and lighting, as well as being one overall bonkers take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The show’s use of overt sexuality is also very much in line with Ikuhara’s approach to coming-of-age stories.
It’s unfortunate that most of these threads tend to get lost in Captain Earth’s overt Giant Robot Saves the World story. Captain Earth’s most consistent thread, and arguably it’s most unique, is its endless affection for space exploration. Captain Earth is if nothing else, a gushing love letter to human ingenuity and the beauty of space. In a show about Giant Robots fighting off aliens from Uranus, it’s aerospace-related sci-fi lands on the surprisingly hard end of the Sci-fi scale. It’s impossible to tell whether Enokido was reining himself in, or the Production Committee was just keeping him on a taught leash, but I feel like Captain Earth could have actually benefited greatly from being far more bombastic and abstract than it was. What’s the point of a show so enamored with outer space, if you’re going to keep it so monotonously grounded?
With such an intriguing list of base variables, the tragedy of Captain Earth should be readily apparent. The show just falls apart in the Story and Characters department. Which I should reiterate, is not because they’re terrible or incompetent, but mostly because they’re just kinda dull. When you take away all the coming-of-age imagery, and the Shakespeare allusions, all Captain Earth has left is what amounts to a trod-over Giant Robot story. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but it’s an odd juxtaposition against the show’s much more interesting core elements.
The characters are probably the most painfully disappointing thing of all. The core cast is endlessly likable, with entertaining rapport and genuinely believable romantic chemistry. Akari in particular was probably one of my favorite characters of the year, and it is immensely regrettable that she was not written into a better show. I would trade in just about every female character in anime for an Akari, if I could. And that’s really the heart of the problem here: it’s not that the characters aren’t entertaining or likable, it’s that they’re only really interesting on an individual level. The characters just aren’t complex or fleshed out enough to carry Captain Earth’s crowded narrative. They seem almost out-of-place within their own story. Like a set of archetypal shounen heroes that wandered into a story that probably required some Evangelion-level character-writing. Captain Earth is a show whose narrative reach has vastly exceeded its storytelling grasp, and nowhere is that more evident than in its antagonists. This show has three totally different sets of Bad Guys, all running concurrent plots through the story. To say that the conflicts in Captain Earth are convoluted is to say that The Sun is warm.
Which is unfortunate because first set of antagonists, the Kiltgang, are probably the show’s most interesting and best-developed thread. In the story, the Kiltgang are extragalactic invaders that could reasonably be described as “Space Liches”. They are a small group of ageless, nigh-immortal mechanical beings who can regenerate endlessly so long as their central core, the “Ego Block”, remains intact. They regard anything subject to mortality as an imperfect human, and thus continue to simply consume other life forms as a matter of course.
This conceit sets up the show’s best-articulated theme: that the fleeting nature of reality is what makes life worth living. The Kiltgang are powerful, and nearly godlike, but they’re also bored-as-fuck. They simply travel, and consume, and sleep, and repeat. It’s only in their time on Earth, dormant inside human-like “Avatar Bodies”, that they discover things actually worth living for. Most of the story’s Second Act consists of backstory-of-the-week episodes focused on the various terrestrial lives of the Kiltgang, and it’s probably the show’s strongest character work.
Which again just ends up kind of baffling as the other sets of antagonists quickly shuffle most of them off into the background. The other antagonists consist of a Shadowy Corporate Cabal whose goal is to abandon the Earth entirely and escape with a ship full of only the best and brightest(and probably richest), and a powerful A.I. ominously named after what is essentially Shakespeare’s version of Loki. Needless to say they’re not exactly the most groundbreaking of antagonists.
In the end, Captain Earth is a pretty middling production. If you want a good-looking sci-fi romp and have half a day to kill, you can certainly do much worse. If you’re expecting the fun and bombast of Star Driver, or the surrealist ruminations of Utena, Captain Earth is just going to disappoint. I know from experience. They say that even the best writers all have one bad story in them, and I’m hoping this one is Yoji Enokido’s.
Again, at the risk of sounding redundant, I do want to restate one last time that I don’t think Captain Earth was necessarily unwatchable. Only that it’s not nearly as good as it should have been. Igarashi is still a highly competent director, and Bones’ aesthetic work is as strong as ever. The show has a lot of interesting ideas, and a fair amount of thematic ambition. I also like that it gives one of the heroines her own Giant Robot and her own spaceship! The story even manages to almost salvage itself in the Third Act, albeit by mostly doubling down the Giant Robot Sci-Fi shtick. It doesn’t quite get there, but it’s a truly valiant effort. Captain Earth is not a very good show, but it’s also pretty difficult to actually hate the stupid thing. There’s still so much good in Captain Earth, I just don’t think I’ve ever seen another show with so much potential completely fail to be more than the sum of its individually phenomenal parts.