Knights of Sidonia and Nihei’s Uncanny Valley

uh okay

Let’s talk about Knights of Sidonia, the CG giant robot/alien space horror anime produced by POLYGON PICTURES, who are working directly with Goro Miyazaki this summer on a series so they’re worth keeping an eye on! Let’s also talk about Tsutomu Nihei, one of the most talented sci-fi artists of his generation and an inexplicably huge fan of bears.

As far as I know, POLYGON PICTURES is the first anime studio to make a deal directly with Netflix to distribute their series online in the States. It’s not difficult to see why the streaming company picked up Knights of Sidonia as their knight in shining armor (hehe) of digital distribution. The show riffs on many tropes that appeal directly to the tastes of old-school Western anime fans–a genuinely weird and gritty sci-fi future, apocalyptic crowd-pleasing action vs. an unnerving alien menace and Evangelion-style government conspiracies, plus cool robots. Not to mention explicit harem elements and a transparent (maybe even deliberate?) shounen power fantasy in the protagonist, Tanikaze, who is not only an amazing pilot but is constantly hit on by every other woman in the series. Many of these elements made Attack on Titan a huge success in the West, and while the Sidonia manga was actually released several months before Titan it’s not far-fetched to assume that in agreeing to distribute Sidonia Netflix hopes to ride the wave of a recent re-igniting of interest in the medium on foreign shores. The success of Titan and Space Dandy on adult swim, the recent re-licencing of Sailor Moon by Viz: it’s an exciting time to be an anime fan (though whether this abrupt success is anything more than a brief burst of 90s nostalgia remains to be seen.)

SOOO 90s

I’ve seen a number of people in the past couple of days take Sidonia to task for its generic harem elements despite the show’s numerous good qualities. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree; since the debut of the manga, many readers (even some of the mangaka’s most hardcore fans) have complained the series skews too far towards populism. Tsutomu Nihei is actually one of the most talented sci-fi artists currently working in manga today, able to do things with three-dimensional space and scale rare in most manga. Nihei’s early work, most famously in his longer series BLAME!, aimed for visual impact over plotting or character depth, dominated less by plotting or dialogue than by stony-faced ciphers navigating impossible bio-mechanical terrain. There’s a preoccupation with world-building through implication, rather than info-dumping, that is present in Sidonia, but while Sidonia at the very least has a plot and a cast much of BLAME! was frequently (perhaps even deliberately) obtuse and inexplicable. For Nihei’s new series to go out of its way to explain the rules of its universe, to have the characters engage in conversations that aren’t monosyllabic or minimalist, to feature time-worn anime character archetypes like tsundere more commonly seen in visual novels or romance manga than Nihei’s earlier work, are all departures that alter the material into something un-Nihei, arguably even watering it down into something less interesting.

All that said, this is how Sidonia begins: Tanikaze is a boy living with his desiccated (perhaps long-dead?) guardian, but while another series might have Tanikaze give a monologue about loneliness and how much he misses his relative the first few minutes of  Sidonia contains no such thing. Tanikaze ventures up the stairs to a rice production plant, putting aside a sign from his guardian begging him to please not venture upstairs. His stomach growls, hilariously. Then after a series of pratfalls he falls into the plant by accident and comes out the other side like this:

That’s gotta hurt

Apologies, dear reader: my first reaction to this scene upon seeing it for the first time was what the fuck?!? Tanikaze breaks three of his fingers and the camera pulls no punches in depicting it. There is no censoring and no attempt to render Tanikaze’s injury more palatable for the viewer. But while another series might play this scene for horror or melodrama, Tanikaze takes it in stride. Later, while on the run from security guards watching the production plant, Tanikaze’s head smacks into a metal bar and he goes flying through the air in a moment that borders on slapstick comedy. These are just two examples of Sidonia‘s deadpan take on violence, the most characteristic of which so far is (as blogger david brothers points out) the scene where as the ship makes emergency course corrections, thousands of people go flying from their harnesses and are mashed into blood-red paste on the walls of the city. If violence as presented in Sidonia‘s popular relative Attack on Titan is unabashedly emotional, the soldiers bursting into tears as they kill themselves or each other or wait for death, Sidonia is unusually clinical. People become blood spatters and Nihei, you figure, doesn’t bat an eye.

Other details abound. Sidonia’s handling of the realities of space travel is similarly deadpan and just a bit icky. Pilots must wear urinary systems for waste disposal in space that visibly cause discomfort (or arousal?) as they insert themselves into human bodies. Back in the fifth episode of the series, when Tanikaze becomes dehydrated while marooned in space his classmate Shizuka (who obviously has a thing for him) keeps him alive by filtering her own piss into drinkable water. Sidonia even prescribes an in-universe excuse for fanservice scenes – most of the populace of the Sidonia have been bio-engineered to nourish themselves through photosynthesis, but feeding off of solar energy requires the individual to get naked. Tanikaze is excluded from his peers not only because he’s and ripe for picking on, but because he needs to eat human food to survive, that weirdo! These elements often find their way into anime and manga without comment, but Nihei takes care to create a world where all of them fit, and then (the coup de grace) delivers it all with a straight face.

bears bEarS bEARs BeARs BEARS

So is Knights of Sidonia a parody? It’s difficult to say, although Nihei (particularly in recent chapters of the manga) is stretching the tropes he’s utilizing to their breaking point. Referring to the manga while trying not to spoil anything, this is a story about giant robots fighting aliens that detours into a haunted house excursion in which a member of Tanikaze’s harem squeezes his shoulder so hard that she dislocates it. This is a sci-fi mystery where one of the pivotal characters is a talking bear. This is an old-school harem comedy where the members of Tanikaze’s harem just get stranger and stranger over the course of the series. The thing is that in most parodies, there’s a sense that the author is in on the joke. I don’t get that sense so much from Knights of Sidonia so much as that Nihei is being Nihei, doing his absolute best to write a crowd-pleasing story about giant robots fighting aliens. But maybe that is the joke: when it comes down to it, Nihei’s unique qualities as an author are impossible to fully suppress. Nihei couldn’t write a traditional giant robot story with a straight face, and so instead we get this: a traditional giant robot with Nihei’s face. Which is kinda scary, granted, but far more interesting to me than the alternative.

There was a lot of talk last year during the spring of how Nagahama’s Flowers of Evil plumbed the uncanny valley effect, using its compromise between animation and live-action to keep the viewer off guard. Many hated it, some were indifferent, a handful (including myself) were impressed. This year we have Knights of Sidonia, animated in CG. Viewers have criticized the noticeably slower frame rate during battles and (most damning of all) the dead-eyed expressions of the characters. I’m not asking you to change your mind, but what I am asking you is to consider whether all of this is deliberate. Knights of Sidonia, both in manga and anime form, is saturated with the uncanny valley effect, the result of an unconventional guy doing his best to tell a conventional story using his particular bag of tools. Seen in this light, the at times ungainly CG effects are actually a perfect fit with the weird pacing and tone of the story itself. Sidonia isn’t shy about constantly empowering Tanikaze and showering him with love interests of different genders (and species?) who all want to sleep with him. But while any other series might do so with the intent of selling you something, Nihei is much harder to read. There might not be much in Sidonia that is genuinely new, but it’s the distortion of those elements through its creator’s idiosyncratic lens which makes the series fascinating to me.

Also: signature creepy nihei cyber-undead

Just think: if Knights of Sidonia wasn’t a harem anime on top of everything else, we wouldn’t have Tsumugi, and that would be intolerable! But that is another story for another time (or you could just read the manga.)

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One response to “Knights of Sidonia and Nihei’s Uncanny Valley

  1. Good review, I would agree with most of it. NOS may not be the best ever anime, but it sure the best thing that “made-for-Neflix” has ever produced. Much, much better than any other made-for-Netflix. I did not feel like I wasted my time with NOS.

    I do not think that that it is a parody, but yes so many “typical things found in anime” are characteristic.

    I don’t know why it was knocked so much by anime fans when it first came out. It has its moments.

    I don’t hate Netflix, I just hated all of their other mini-series that stink. (You can fill in the names.)

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