illegenes: Well, with the news released about the last two episodes, I guess we have plenty of time to look over AO and see where it’s taken us.
I feel like a lot has happened in these past two episodes, for all they were worth; one of our Pied Piper members becomes the head of giant organization, while the other finally gets enough screen time to examine the nature of her behavior and self-worth; our antagonist finally goes off the deep end, and a girl who’s been in the dark for far too long finally helps Ao to settle things once and for all. Combine that with the treat of the last two minutes of Episode 22, and you’re left with plenty to take in and process for a good month or so before the finale. Will it be necessary? Probably not. But at the same time, I think what’s really needed isn’t for AO to take a break – it’s for us to take a break, and to recollect ourselves and review what’s become of this show and ask some important questions. Is this the sequel we asked for? Are we satisfied? Is this just another stumble in BONES’ rut of imagination stagnancy? How does this live up to Eureka Seven? How does it not? What is BONES really trying to do with AO, and can we come away learning something about it? But lastly: does this show have an identity?
But first, let’s look at what ties these two episodes together. It all clumsily comes back toward this theme of identity: what is it that makes us for who we are? For Fleur, it was all about rebelling against her father’s nature – being someone else than just Daddy’s little girl. Ironically, it’s that same title she comes to claim in Episode 21 onward, but she no longer feels ashamed of it; she’s integrated it into her identity. She’s proud of who she is: so proud, that she gives up her title of being an IFO pilot and gives her IFO to Elena. Elena, on the other hand, is a girl who desires to be something different, alien and exotic. She dreams of a world with new skies and a new purpose, where she’s special and she has a home that she can go to. Little does she know that the home she’s been seeking has been under the same sky she’s hated ever since. It’s a sad thought, knowing you’re nothing remarkable, but it’s also comforting, knowing that there’s a place you can go back to – and it’s that comfort Elena accepts as she finally agrees with Ao and returns with him to Generation Bleu. A glimpse into Naru’s conversation with Ao in Episode 22 also reveals a kind of identity struggle. Naru had grown up with the idea that she was always weak, both physically and mentally, as a result. Her life had been confined by the illness she perceived as life threatening and malicious. This is all changed when her sickness is a form of empowerment, not just giving her newfound abilities and a heightened sense of awareness, but also giving her internal strength to become something greater than what society deemed her to be. For Naru, the Scub gives her wings (no Red Bull pun intended) and all Naru wants to do is to grow up with Ao and to have a chance at living a better and healthier life.
So what about Ao? The boy whom Okinawa hated for being the son of an alien starts out on a journey and becomes something a little different as well. Ao’s change may be the least dramatic out of all the children who have changed in this show, but it is by far, the most well executed. It makes sense, considering that at the beginning, Ao was already relatively mature for his age. Outcasted by a society he grew up in, and pressured into inheriting a destiny he never wanted to be a part of, Ao was forced to undergo change from episode 1. This sort of new angle at character development would usually fail in any other shounen show, as the tragic hero excuses his actions due to repetitious, unnecessary angst (I don’t want to do this, I wasn’t chosen, I only hurt people around me, etc – see: Shu Ouma from Guilty Crown); in AO however, it works perfectly. Ao’s maturity is both his downfall and saving grace. It catapults him into situations where no isn’t an answer, but it also allows him to gain a sense of clarity in these same situations and become a better person because of it. From the minute Ao finally meets his mother, to the tragic realization that she doesn’t recognize him and that he has to send him away again – these moments would usually be a source of extreme depression for Ao, but instead, he perseveres and pushes on through. It is only when Ao is completely confused about his purpose – about the choices and options forced on him by Generation Bleu, his mother, and the entire world, that he cracks. But it is also his friendship with Pied Piper and the same adults that used him that seals up those doubts up. Ao, for all intents and purposes, lacks a lot of agenda in AO, but what’s beautiful about this is that even if Ao isn’t always in control of his situation, he never really complains about it. So has Ao changed? In a sense, yes. He’s opened up a little to the people around him, and in a world where most nations or aliens have become your enemies (even your ‘sister’ at times), a friend is the most important thing to have.
Then….there’s Truth. Truth is frankly a mess, and the weakest point of this show as Wendeego will explain later, but somehow he also tries to find his own identity. Unlike any of the others however, Truth finds that he’s really nobody. Too bad it took 22 episodes for him to get there, but hey, who doesn’t like a random villain who finally loses it? Truth’s identity problems lie within his own biological nature. Unfortunately, this isn’t explained all too well (if it was, it would have been a fascinating subject), but Truth’s confusion and isolation from his parental species leads him to accepting neither, and in turn, becoming an absence of defining qualities. “I am nothing…. nothing but a simple Truth,” he shouts, and in a way, it is sad that Truth’s arc is the most tragic one. It doesn’t make him a good villain, but looking at it from his point of view, Truth has nothing or no one left to really live for. Whereas the previous characters mentioned resolved their identity issues with a little help from others, Truth had no one to help him. He is the product of an interference that was never meant to happen; a literal ‘problem’ that is never given a resolution. Neglected by any comrades he had, and by the show itself, Truth is quite simply, a functioning mass of absence. An absence of an identity, of purpose, and development.
So what do we do with this set of characters, who have all either progressed in some way or the other or have regressed to a primitive, problematic form? AO obviously is struggling with this, and the answer has yet to be shown, as Renton finally makes his appearance and with two episodes to go. For now, we’ll set that problem aside, hoping it does get resolved. But AO has a larger issue at hand, which is where Wendeego comes in to answer our previous questions regarding AO‘s identity and give us a clearer picture of what AO has really been trying to do so far.
wendeego: Let’s get something out of the way before we continue. Take a deep breath, everybody. Now, everyone with me: BOONNEEEESSSSSSS!!!
Plenty of people across the internet have been dismissing AO for any number of reasons, citing the show’s tenuous connection to the original source material, weak character development, boring main villain and plot that is both incredibly convoluted and thematically inconsistent with the original source material. Some have gone as far as to equate the show with the recent Last Exile sequel, proclaiming it a travesty, a trainwreck, the final nail in BONES’s coffin. But to be honest, labelling AO as irredeemable is the easy way out. As a show, it’s frustrating, inconsistent and sometimes even bad, but it’s never once been lazy, and of the many, many risks it has taken, a good number have turned out splendidly. In the face of rampant dismissal and even vitriol, I think it’s worth taking a close look at the show and pointing out some of the things it gets right. Let’s go through each of those previous assertions, one by one:
- Tenuous connection to the original source material: As fun as it might be for AO to be a literal direct sequel to the original E7, continuing Eureka and Renton’s adventures, the fact remains that at the end of the first series, there was nowhere for the characters to go. With their character arcs completed, all a direct sequel really could have done would be to tread water, which would have been dramatically fulfilling in the long run. As a direct/indirect/prequel to E7, AO had much more room to breathe, and while it might not have been wholly successful, the creators should still be applauded for trying something totally different.
- Weak character development: Honestly, the problem here isn’t so much that development is weak as it is that the characters haven’t received nearly as much time to grow and evolve as the ones from E7. AO‘s pacing might have fallen to pieces near the end, rushing like mad towards a potentially unsatisfying finish, but most of the cast (save for one) have ranged from inoffensive to potentially fascinating. Ao’s arc has always been solid, Naru’s been an intriguing enigma this entire time and the climax to Elena’s character arc was interesting if not a little haphazard. Others have arguably been underused (see: Gazelle and his folks) but again, time constraints.
- Boring main villain: I’ll get into this later, but for now I’ll be frank: Truth is easily AO’s weakest link, and his current status at the big bad at show’s end is either a staggering miscalculation or the last resort of the writers, or both. Even then, there are some really interesting ideas at his base: not only is he constrained by fate into the roles of villain and catalyst, but being neither Scub, nor Secret, nor Coral, he’s a spot where every culture in the series converges only to be rendered null and void. Had his character only been handled better, he easily could have been fascinating. That said, right now he might be the show’s greatest liability.
- The plot: This is the big one. AO attempts to tie human politics, the war between Secrets and Scub, time travel, inter-species transcendence and the world of the original E7 into a massive tapestry. At the series’s halfway point, when Eureka and the Gekko-go appeared from the Scub Coral and our understanding of the series was changed forever, AO was on a roll, juggling a seemingly endless number of balls and mysteries without any trouble. The problem is that the closer the show has gotten to the end, the more it has fallen apart, the answers to its various dilemmas either left obscure or given solutions that frequently bordered on anticlimax. But if there’s anything I’m most glad of, it’s that the series has regained some of the thematic underpinnings that made the original E7 so special. It could have been developed much better, but as of now the fact that victory lies not in destruction, but in collaboration eases the sting of the Quartz Cannon and is a world more interesting than the CORALIANSTRUMENTALITY we feared.
In addition to all this, it bears mention that the animation continues to be solid, and the soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal. So why hate on AO when, despite itself, it is still doing some very noticeable things right? The key words here are despite itself. I’m willing to guess that at some point, the writers of this show had no idea how to end their creation, and so decided to wing it for the home stretch by making things as exciting as possible. The dramatic resolution to Elena’s character arc! Truth blowing shit up! And finally, RENTON APPEARING FOR THE FIRST TIME IN YEARS OH MY GOD! With accompaniment by LAMA! The problem is that there is no coherency to any of this. It’s nice of the writers to attempt to create a thematic bridge with the original E7, but not only does it lack proper buildup but it doesn’t at all fit with Truth’s master plan or Naru’s master plan or any number of elements from earlier in the show that have yet to be explained. It’s not so much that AO has plotholes, just that the show is at odds with itself: from the very start it’s shifted chimaerically from a monster-of-the-week sci-fi drama, to a parallel world head trip, to a time travel thriller, to a very convoluted scuffle over a giant magical gun and finally an old-fashioned showdown between a frankly boring paragon of nihilism and the united cultures of Earth. Had AO decided on any of these it could have been great, but as it is it’s just a frustrating mess.
But again, despite the obvious desperation of these last few episodes, the whole package is oddly intriguing. It’s daring, it’s bold. It’s loaded with ideas. Even though Renton’s appearance at the end of these two episodes strikes me as an obvious plea for attention, that does not mean that it was any less effective. I don’t think that AO is a great show, or even a good one necessarily. But it takes guts for a major studio to follow up one of its most popular titles with a successor almost completely different in every way. It might not have been the savior of Studio BONES that some must have been hoping it would be, but it has been a wild ride and I’m looking forwards to how it ends. It’s almost certain to be a mess, but honestly: what BONES anime hasn’t stumbled in the endgame? Here’s hoping that if AO embarrasses in the final step, it embarrasses gloriously.
*I just realized that Koji Nakamura, who is the music composer for AO, is also a band member of LAMA (who also happens to be my favorite j-band. Ruuuuude.)
**Stay tuned for a special post before the finale of AO….it’s gonna be a fun one.