Impressions: Knights of Sidonia


Desperation, Despair, Death, and Deep Space

Ever see someone get physically hurt, and then involuntarily cringe, as if you feel that person's pain? That's a function of empathy, as everyone knows.

Watching Knights of Sidonia is like feeling that cringe, almost every week, for nearly half an hour. It's like watching The Red Wedding on loop.

Christ in heaven, can't these poor bastards catch a break?

The answer, below.


They really can't catch a break, at least not based on the last four episodes.

I'm honestly hard-pressed to think of a recent series that is more bleak than Knights of Sidonia.

Last year's darling Attack on Titan comes within the same ballpark, but it's not quite the same, especially not if what you're looking for in an anime is for it to bum you the hell out. Knights of Sidonia wins that particular fight hands-down.

But you'd definitely be forgiven for thinking they're quite alike. Both Titan and Sidonia are based on 2009-vintage manga published by Kodansha, and share many parallels besides. 

Where Titan had its walled nation as a setting, Sidonia has the Sidonia, a giant concrete spaceship built into an asteroid. Being more or less a "hard" sci-fi series, the Sidonia is a generation vessel, cruising for the last thousand years or so as people live their entire lives in the city built into the hull of the ship.

These places play host to outwardly similar stories as well. Both tell the tale of mankind living in exile, hiding or running from a barely knowable, existential threat for as long as anyone alive can remember. And of course, a brief respite from that doom is shattered by the reemergence of the threat.

In Titan, the threat was the titular Titans: goofy-faced, people-eating nudist giants. Sidonia's enemies are the Gauna, a bunch of Lovecraftian tentacled space horrors referred to with terms like "placenta". Both can only be killed by hitting a specific weak point, though Sidonia's wrinkle is that the kill can only be made with the Kabizashi, a special kind of spear that the entire colony has only 28 of.

Indeed, if you were being a bit reductive, you could still get close to the mark by calling Knights of Sidonia "Attack on Titan in space", but at the same time, the moods of the two shows feel markedly different, in spite of their strong parallels. For its part, Sidonia's far more of a bummer.

Part of that's down to the visuals. Even at its most bleak, Attack on Titan maintained an over-the-top sense of style that you could appreciate, what with all the spinning Spider-Man action. Sidonia is full-CG, for better and worse. Better, because it does look distinctive in its washed-out hues, clean details, and nearly monochrome palette.

Worse, because it's not great CG. It's not like I'm expecting Fireball Charming-levels of expressiveness for a full half-hour each week, but the broadcast frame rate is still very low. At times it's almost as low as the kind of filler-CG other studios would use to quickly animate crowd sequences in standard anime. Also everyone's got a sort of fish-face thing going that can make them hard to tell apart.

To an extent, I'm almost thankful the show is fairly expressionless, because the kind of bad stuff that happens to good people on the show would be hard to take if it were rendered with more detail. Every week so far someone's bought the farm, and while that's not so bad on raw numbers (lots of people certainly died in Attack on Titan's bigger battles), Knights of Sidonia has been particularly adept at making every death hurt, even just a little.

It's accomplished this in various ways. The first time someone bit it on the show, it was sudden and almost out of the blue, directed at a character that in any other show would've been developed as a love interest for the hero, Nagate Tanikaze. That happened at the end of the first episode, but then they spent a few minutes of the next flashing back, discovering the roots of why she was acting like a jerk last week, and retroactively establishing empathy. It's a neat trick that defuses the sense that the kill happened purely for shock value.

The next few deaths followed a more stereotypical "death-flag" angle, with new characters supposedly hailed as aces getting slaughtered. That's something you expect, because they clearly aren't the heroes.

Then they start throwing the buildings around.

Splattering crowds of people into poorly rendered red jelly would be one thing, but the pain you feel watching is magnified by the little hints they've been dropping through previous episodes, about how disastrous things get when gravity gets messed with on a moving city-sized spaceship. 

After all that, they still haven't managed to make a dent in even one space monster. And they're starting to evolve, as well. There are no breaks to be caught.

This is of course where Nagate comes in, being the hero and all, but even with his abilities, his hero mecha, and the mysteries behind his true nature, there's just one of him. Plus, the one that's around is so unused to following orders that that's surely going to cause major trouble down the line. 

That said, it's not like Sidonia lacks any sense of humor, as evidenced by the nice bear dorm lady and sight gags involving catheters and accidental peeking. All the same, the gags here feel more like brief respites from the carnage rather than genuine lightheartedness. And that's probably for the better. It's also a happy side effect that the fish-faced CG designs has helped "desexualize" what little fan service there is in the show.

I usually like my Japanese cartoons dumb and happy, but Knights of Sidonia has me hooked. That's a bummer I can actually look forward to.

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Josh Tolentino
Josh TolentinoManaging Editor   gamer profile

Josh is Japanator's Managing Editor, and contributes to Destructoid as well, as the network's premier apologist for both Harem Anime and Star Trek: Voyager For high school reasons, he's called "u... more + disclosures



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