DVD £29.99; Blu-ray £39.99
31 Aug 2015
A thousand years after the destruction of our solar system by a malevolent but inscrutable alien race known as the Gauna, what remains of mankind has been strewn across the cosmos with a singular mission - to ensure humanity's continued survival aboard a fleet of massive, monolithic craft that have now become their home.
Of course so many years after the destruction of Earth, literally rent asunder by the Gauna, all of this is simply a story to be learned from history books, and in the intervening period mankind has evolved - quite literally. The need to eat has largely been replaced by the use of photosynthesis to gather the required nutrients to survive, human cloning is a trifle and gender has become a more fluid construct thanks to advances in genetic engineering. This may sound like a brave new world but it's also a harsh one, and even a century after the last Gauna sighting the ship that we follow in this series, the Sidonia, is still a highly militarised outfit always prepared to protect themselves from sudden extinction at the hand of their alien foes.
Into this scenario of uneasy peace stumbles a walking, talking urban legend - Nagate Tanikaze. Having lived his entire live deep in the labyrinthine bowels of the Sidonia as a mythical "under-dweller" with his now-deceased grandfather, a lack of food has seen him come to the surface to scavenge, which quickly seems him discovered and captured as a raid on a rice production plant goes awry. With no ability to photosynthesise and an underground upbringing seemingly laser-focused on training him as a pilot, Nagate instantly becomes an object of curiosity (and revulsion, it should be said) amongst the Sidonia's relatives.
With his appearance also comes the return of the Gauna to threaten all aboard - are these two occurrences linked, or merely coincidental? There's little time to ponder this as the surprise appearance of one Gauna soon leads to more and more assaults by the enemy, each more worryingly elaborate than the last. A good job then that Tanikaze's life training to pilot the mecha known as Gardes which protect the Sidonia from outside attack seems perfectly suited to repel the creatures that might obliterate the ship given the chance.
So the scene is set for a rip-roaring sci-fi series - well, somewhat at least, because this is isn't simply the tale of "humans versus aliens featuring giant robots". For starters, there's a hefty layer of political intrigue thrown into the mix here - the powers that be aboard the Sidonia have plenty of secrets that they want to keep away from the public eye, and their desires might not always align with the safety of the ship's crew and populace. Then there's Nagate himself, who proves to be not just an enigma and a prodigious pilot but also a completely inexplicable babe magnet that will have anyone he encounters throwing themselves at him within thirty seconds of meeting him.
It's this harem element that most threatens Knights of Sidonia's vibe here - admittedly it does bring some much-needed levity to the otherwise heavy atmosphere of a show based around a desperate fight for survival in space, but at times its silliness threatens to detract obnoxiously from the core of what the series does well. This is particularly true of the show's early episodes, where world-building is meshed clumsily with the hapless Nagate bumbling around like an idiot while every non-male character swoon over him and follow him around incessantly.
Thankfully the series knows when to park these asides entirely, and boy is this a tremendous show when it does. For starters, Knights of Sidonia's world-building is incredible - its sci-fi universe is undoubtedly a fantastical one, but it's been crafted with real thought and skill to build up the history of the Sidonia and its trials and tribulations, to bring us into a fascinating and rich scenario. It would be a little much to call the show thought-provoking, but its imagined future of humanity is a weird but compelling one, and as it progresses the show's take of the Sidonia's militaristic nature does at least have some interesting conundrums to throw at the viewer.
Even against this backdrop it's the various encounters with the Gauna that steal the show. We've all seen far too many shows which pit mankind and their machines against an alien race, but rarely have we seen one capable of generating the kind of dramatic tension on show here. Admittedly, this is at least in part a product of the show's world-building - every single battle is carried out in the knowledge that failure means that the destruction of the Sidonia, and possibly the extinction of mankind as a result - but it's also powered by some terrific takes on the battles that punctuate the series. In this sense, Knights of Sidonia is from the Neon Genesis Evangelion school of thought - the enemy may always boast the same name and designation, but the form the Gauna takes only becomes more and more terrifying with each encounter, be it in a literal form (Gauna taking on the forms of dead pilots and their craft) or a bombastic one born of sheer scale (Gauna attaching themselves to an asteroid to fling bodily at the ship). Each of these encounters invariably ends with you, the viewer, gripping the seat of their chair whilst hunched forward in front of the screen, barely breathing and every muscle tensed as events unfold in a swirling, shifting barrage of action that always feels on the edge of devolving into utter chaos. It's a masterclass in creating action scenes that aren't just big explosions and ever-more powerful friends and foes, but instead use the cast and setting to create high stakes scenarios that you can't help but be massively invested.
The other reason why the show's big set pieces work impeccably is down to the elephant in the room that we haven't even acknowledged at this point - that being the fact that the series isn't a traditionally animated one. Due to the requirements of the show, Knights of Sidonia is a 3D CG affair crafted by Polygon Pictures, with this first season directed by a man with no shortage of experience in using CG to good effect in Kobun Shizuno. To be perfectly honest, the results of this decision are hit and miss, but the show's space faring action is undoubtedly the biggest beneficiary of the use of CG - battles are fast, fluid and busy without being over-bearingly so, and the levels of detail and movement available within these scenes add a huge amount to the experience.
The depiction of the Sidonia itself is also outstanding, providing a detailed representation of this incredible world within a spacecraft that is packed with character amidst its blend of the industrial and the mundane. Much like its setting, there's a lot of care that has been poured into the aesthetic of the Sidonia, and the lived-in feel of buildings, scuffed space suits and so on is another clear advantage of the technology employed to bring the series to life.
Sadly, it's not all good news on this front, and the detailed action and environments give way to bland and sometimes eerie character designs and expressions. At times it's tough to tell characters apart (not helped when some of them are literal clones, admittedly), and whenever the show shifts away from space and into the body of the Sidonia movements and actions feel clunky and unnatural in ways that tend to break your immersion in events. In short, when the characters are doing anything other than piloting their Gardes they really don't look great, and although the show tries its best to make the cast expressive and appealing it simply doesn't work. From a personal perspective, it's something that I managed to get used to in relatively short order and I'm very much of the opinion that the benefits of the show's reliance on CG outweigh its disadvantages, but for some it'll be a deal-breaker and an understandable one at that.
The final element of Knights of Sidonia which shouldn't be underestimated is its sound direction. For starters, the series has a soundtrack which fits it like a glove - insistent when required, menacing and discomfiting when circumstances dictate - but more importantly the show makes superb use of its native 5.1 audio presentation (a true rarity for TV anime) to add another layer to the immersion we spoke of earlier. As ships swoop across the screen or explosions rattle around you, the experience draws you further into proceedings and adds another layer of sheen to the feeling the show's scenario has of being tangible and believable. A particular example of this outside of the show's action scenes are a couple of occasions where the Sidonia needs to use its thrusters to manoeuvre - they fire into life, causing the entire ship to creak and groan in a most disturbing way, indicating an ageing vessel at the limits of its capabilities and sounding as if it's going to crack and break at any moment that leaves you holding your breath wondering if this movement might be its last.
If you haven't gathered from all of this discussion thus far, there's a lot to like about Knights of Sidonia - it builds a fascinating scenario and then executes upon some of the core facets of that scenario impeccably via a presentation that is tense and gripping in equal measure. This helps to massively overshadow the show's problems - its story progression can be clunky in places, its harem shenanigans and comic moments are sometimes ill-advised and its animation issues stick out like a sore thumb outside of its more kinetic sequences, but all of that is quickly forgotten when we launch into space and see the cast pitted against the Gauna. I know some of my colleagues here at UK Anime visibly wince at hearing Knights of Sidonia called "Attack on Titan meets Evangelion", but I actually think it's a fair comparison - the terror and sheer horror of a near-inexplicably enemy mirrors what makes the former such a strong series, while the do or die sense of peril mimics Evangelion's structure in some notable ways.
Given the unique elements of the production of this series (all the way through to its initial western release as a "Netflix exclusive"), it's exciting to see this UK release packed with extras, most notably a two-part "Behind the Scenes" feature explaining the show's production and a piece on composing the music for the series as particular highlights. Coupled with other on-disc extras, there's plenty to get your teeth into here, all of it interesting fare for anyone wanting to dig deep on the gestation of the series.
The show itself is also well-presented here - the crisp, clean nature of the show's CG animation is reproduced perfectly on the Blu-ray release we reviewed here and that 5.1 audio track is outstanding and present and correct for both English and Japanese language presentations. The English dub itself is pretty decent - not the most spectacular effort that will ever reach your ears but more than capable of driving along the story in a manner that makes it an equivalent viewing option to the native Japanese track. Subtitles are, a couple of grammatical errors aside, superb, with lots of effort put into translating on-screen text and positioning that text sensibly, so overall we have nothing but praise for this release. Throw in a small poster and some art cards as physical extras, and you have yourself a pretty nice way to keep hold of the series for your own future entertainment.
While part of me would love to unreservedly recommend that everyone watches Knights of Sidonia, there are caveats that have to be raised about the series - for all of its benefits there are also painfully clear drawbacks to its use of 3D CG that may simply be too much for some to bear (oh, we never mentioned the talking bear character did we?), and away from the front line of the fight for survival against the Gauna the show sometimes threatens to lose its way or get mired in far less interesting fare than the world and politics of Sidonia.
If you have the patience to learn to love (or at least come to terms with) its visuals and the quirks of its narrative, then Knights of Sidonia will reward you handsomely - it's rare to find a sci-fi anime with such a strong sense of place and so much detail and thought put into its world-building. That in itself would be enough for some series, but once you add in the drama of an outpost of humanity fighting to avoid extinction at any moment you have the most breathlessly tense shows you're likely to see. It isn't that you won't want to touch the remote while this series is playing - you won't even be able to dig your fingernails out of the settee to get to it.