Captain Earth, Studio BONES’ and Yoji Enokido’s latest mecha series, stands at the end of a line of anime that began with Neon Genesis Evangelion and continued through Bones’s earlier mecha output, from RahXephon to Eureka Seven to Star Driver. That it suffers by comparison to the earlier titles seems not only an indictment of the show itself, but of the decline of the sub-genre of anime it stands in. After nearly 20 years, is it time to bid farewell to the Mystical Mecha Series?
The Mystical Mecha Series
By Mystical Mecha Series, I mean anime that feature (often) bio-mechanical mechas under the control of troubled teenage pilots, who undergo abstracted moments of introspection laced with religious, psychological, and mystical symbolism. There is often an aspiration towards philosophical profundity, where characters will openly discuss the meaning of life, identity, and courage. An stoic-but-cute girl is often instrumental to the mystical elements of the plot. The scale usually ends up being global or cosmic by the end, with the whole world or all of humanity at stake. The ending often reaches toward some grand fusion or harmony.
Experienced anime watchers, of course, will instantly recognize the root template of these series: Evangelion. Screenwriter Yoji Enokido, fresh from having written several seasons of Sailor Moon, was a junior screenwriter for Eva. Having cut his teeth with Hideaki Anno’s mad mess, he would go on to write some of the most original stories in anime, from Revolutionary Girl Utena to FLCL, but he would also end up contributing heavily to Evangelion’s most direct imitator, RahXephon. RahXephon would attempt the same serious, high-flown tone as the earlier series, exchanging the loosely assembled Kabbalistic and Jungian imagery of Eva for Meso-American mythology. Whether it succeeded is up for debate—I personally think it is severely underrated—but what it helped to solidify was an approach to doing mecha series that Bones would return to in Eureka Seven and, a bit later and to a lesser extent, Enokido’s own Star Driver. Other studios, of course, have done their own purpoted responses to Eva, from Yoshiyuki Tomino’s failed Brain Power’d and more comedic franchises like Dual: Parallel Trouble Adventure, and more distant series like Gasaraki essentially won permission to be more mystical than before: but it is Bones’s series that have kept faith with the vocabulary, approach, and direction of mecha anime that Evangelion began. And Enokido was involved as a screenwriter for many of them.
Captain Earth and His Problems
Which is why it was a disappointment to see the jumble that Captain Earth became, after a strong start. It begins by invoking some of the most time-honored giant robot tropes, old and new: the teenage boy with the special ability meets the stoic, possibly mystical girl. He has a unique, biological bond with not so much the robot (Earth) but the living weapon he summons, the Livlaster. An elaborate, high-budget transformation sequence occurs in nearly every early episode, all the way to its midpoint. For the first third of the show, when it begins to descend into monster-of-the-week monotony, Captain Earth had a real vitality to how it applied these old archetypes, with a great score and initially excellent battle sequences to match. Even the designs of the computer screens and the Globe font was stylish:
Also in keeping with the Eva tradition was the haphazard use of literary references, in this case Shakespeare’s plays “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Macbeth” with a splash of “Hamlet,” not to mention the use of the “Globe” Theater. Mostly names, rather than plot elements, ended up being used. A psychological edge was conferred by using the terms “libido,” “ego block,” and “neoteny” in rather novel, perhaps incoherent ways, on top of the other invented jargon that is a hallmark of Enokido’s anime. The window dressing of these seemingly intelligent terms was particularly threadbare in this series, however. There was little or no connection in the Shakespeare name-dropping to the story being told: does the evil AI have to be named “Puck,” the trickster character who mostly messes up romances in the play? (Puck does sort of do this in the show, but still.) What does the big corporation that designed the Designer Children have to do with Macbeth? And if libido energy really was what was holding humanity together, then Aquarion EVOL did a far better job exploring the similarity of giant robot unity with orgasm than this rather emotionally forced series. To be fair, such things have always been window dressing, but when combined with odd organization names like “Salty Dog” the lack of seriousness in the show’s approach makes its artificiality even more glaring.
Unseriousness and artificiality: perhaps those are the two chief flaws of Captain Earth. By unseriousness, I do not mean the presence of comedy, fan service, or jokes. Eva had plenty of all three. Instead I mean the willingness of the story to give its own concepts and characters the consideration and respect they deserve. When a series takes its ideas seriously, it will not throw around names and jargon willy nilly. It will not casually violate previously established rules of the world. It will not wink excessively at the audience at how silly it all is. (Of course the latter is fine if the main goal is comedy, and Enokido got a better sense of this in Star Driver, which with its Galactic Bishounen was appealingly ridiculous.)
The problem is that, especially at the end, Captain Earth asks the viewer to accept vague handwaving and “the strength of our feelings transforms into power” as the answer to all the plot holes and inconsistencies up to that point. Enemies are dispatched with ease and casualness until the very end, despite rhetoric about their fearsomeness, and they simply do not behave or even look that menacing, despite how in theory they could instantly destroy the world. This renders all the pseudo-profound jargon and illusory world building up to that point meaningless, especially when the plot can be boiled down to: big AI becomes evil, takes possession of love interest, former enemies must unite with protagonists to defeat big baddie and save love interest. All the mumbling about transfers and ego blocks are unnecessary and the deliberate ambiguity of Hana and Daichi’s fate at the end is maddening rather than pleasingly mysterious. That is a fundamentally unserious approach to storytelling.
The risk, of course, in taking one’s ideas seriously is pretentiousness—there are moments in RahXephon when the mystical hoohah level is off the charts. Yet, by the end, while not all things are fully explained, the basic ideas are clear and there’s a sense of satisfaction that at least emotionally, all the important threads are resolved. In a way, RahXephon worked in part because it was not ashamed of seeming ridiculous in its fusion of Aztec and Mayan myth and crackpot theories: it followed them through all the way. The sheerly imitative parts of Eureka Seven were mitigated by genuine emotional sincerity and likable, well-developed characters who changed over time: basic storytelling virtues that overcame some unanswered questions at the end.
This Weak and Idle Theme, No More Yielding But A Dream
For me an emblematic episode that illustrates Captain Earth‘s flaws was the 23rd episode, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (for once, an thematically appropriate Shakespeare reference) where Daichi is trapped in a dream state by the various Designer Children. Interestingly, there is a similar episode of RahXephon that portrayed the same dilemma for the hero: whether to return to the illusory comforts of home or to continue on the mission (episode 11, “Nightmare,” written by the screenwriter of Serial Experiments: Lain, Chiaki J. Konaka). The RahXephon version, however, was emotionally potent and agonizing for the protagonist. It used his mother, Reika, and his friends to tempt him back to his previous state, and the viewer sees how difficult the choice is.
In the Captain Earth version, Daichi remains fairly emotionally flat, the only sign of anything wrong is his feeling that he’s “forgotten” something. Rather than using familiar people, the Designer Children—his opponents and enemies in the show—are everywhere, which defuses any tension for the viewer because we are immediately tipped off that this is their attack. Moreover, the moment he realizes what is going on, Daichi shows no struggle or hesitation: he knows he must go back to his mission. He has not one hint of self-doubt afterwards.
Perhaps it is the fact that I came to fandom through Evangelion that puts me off this current trend toward super-powered, stoic, unerring heroes: the Tatsuyas and Inahos and Daichis of current anime. The Evangelion template worked in part because the heroes were flawed and struggling people, and doing away with that cuts out the emotional heart of what made those stories compelling. The half-hearted romances in Captain Earth do not make up for the flat characterization of all the main leads. Only Teppei shows even a smidgen of it due to his dual nature, and Daichi shows a spark when seemingly forced to choose between his friend and humanity: but, of course, he ends up winning both.
Sound and Fury
In some ways we have come full circle. Captain Earth has a lot of the trappings of the Mystical Mecha Series: the references, the world-shaking plot, the alien instruments and the girl to match, and even a bit of the abstraction—but little of the heart or the boldness that characterized the best of those shows. Enokido knows it’s fundamentally silly, so he has Salty Dog talk on cans with a string. He knows audiences today go for less self-doubting heroes, so Daichi is not allowed to wrestle much even in his own internal dream states. He was present with Anno at the creation of this genre in the 1990s, but even he can’t seem to summon it any longer—and, for that matter, neither can Anno himself, whose Evangelion remake films have sacrificed character and introspection for glossy action too.
Maybe that is the true marker, then, of this era’s end, the curtain call for this type of mecha anime. It was what got me into anime, but times change, as do tastes.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done.
–Walt Whitman, “O Captain! My Captain!“