Saturday, April 10, 2010

SMCS Companion Piece #11: Last Exile


Dear Anime,

Please stop being so cliché with your main characters. You are making great shows come off like just good shows. Stop it.

Love,

Beta Magnus

This weekend on the Saturday Morning Cartoon Show we did things a little different and watched a straight anime, as opposed to an anime that was broadcasted on American syndication at some point. We watched Last Exile, a cartoon I am so familiar with I thought I’d write a full review rather than just a rant. Is this an example of what Japan does right when it comes to making cartoons or does it make me pray to God that this is in fact the “last exile” and no more will follow?

WARNING: May contain some minor spoilers

Last Exile was created by GONZO, an anime studio that made its name in the last decade. Some of its other productions include Gatekeepers (Which was alright) Vandread (Which was pretty good), Hellsing (First really good than later pretty bad), and Kiddy Grade (Which was awful and kind of creepy). The series lasted but one season, which is pretty par for the course with anime, pumping out a typical 26 episodes. Trust me; we didn’t want any more than that.

In a world that seems to be one part industrial revolution and one part steampunk Claus Valca and Lavi Head are a pilot and navigator of a vanship (Which are kind of like planes but uglier) and work various courier jobs to make a living despite both being only fifteen. One day, while competing in a race, the two come across a downed vanship whose dying pilot asks them to carry out his final mission: delivery of his package to the airship “Silvana”. The ship, captained by the infamous Alex Row, is mysterious but carries a dark reputation that spells disaster for anyone who comes across it. The package in question: Actually a little girl named Alvis Hamilton. Despite the fact that any sane person would have turned around, walked in the opposite direction and pretend that they were never there Claus instead takes the dangerous job, despite protests from his partner. From there the two are forced into the center of a growing conflict between three warring factions Anatoray, Disith, and The Guild (Well, two warring faction and one faction full of jerks). As the series continues it becomes clear that Alvis, and by proxy her new caretakers, holds the key to the fate of the world.

Alternative Fuel Source: Teenage Angst

The absolute best thing I can say about this series is that it has a fantastic setting. The 19th Century/Super Aviation amalgam works very well. The character designs, the structures, the vehicles; they all add to what is a unique and varied world. All three factions have their own style and culture and there’s a distinct feeling of "culture clash" and xenophobia when they are forced to interact. It helped make the setting feel real. Though like I said earlier the vanships look terribly ugly they do fit in with the rest of the technology we see. The unfolding story works well enough, though I’d hesitate to say it was one of the best I’ve ever seen. It moves at a respectable pace and tells us exactly the right amount we need to know about Alvis and those who wish to use her in every episode of the series. Nothing feels rushed or delayed. That said a lot of the answers for the questions don’t make a whole lot of sense. The ending, though not the mind screw some anime writers like to give, felt out of place with what we already knew. At the risk of giving out spoilers let me just say that things turn from fantasy to science fiction pretty dang quickly during the last few episodes. Plus we never learn the answers to certain aspects of the world at all, which made me pretty frustrated by the end. Now maybe I just missed it because I have a low attention span or maybe the answers were in a guidebook or a Drama CD (Many anime tend to have important story details in some extra material that tend to never be released in America) but either way I was annoyed.

I'm no aviator but I don't think that thing is supposed to fly

Characters, not storytelling, are where this anime shines and it’s on the strength of the cast which eases the shortcomings elsewhere. That said the main character of the show Claus is a lame duck. He’s basically that same young lad cliché we’ve seen a thousand times in anime: young boy, who is polite and brave, who is absolute average in everything he does with one distinct exception (In this case vanship piloting) who ends up be the moral center of the show due to his youth and his determination. Yawn. Aside from being the guy the camera spends the most time on Claus doesn’t really do that much to further the plot with the exception of the very beginning and the very end and maybe also the fact that every girl on the airship he lives on seems to have a crush on him (Why?!). Interestingly Claus is at his best when he’s paired with Lavi. Superfluous romantic subplots aside this duo’s friendship is an important part as to why I liked this show and their time together as a vanship team, as well as the flashbacks to their troubled childhood, provides some of the most heartwarming and touching scenes in the show. Unfortunately, despite the early episodes making it seem like they were playing a two-man protagonist team (Which would have been great), Lavi is quickly demoted to supporting character status leaving us with a directionless Claus who goes on to angst about the “problems in the skies” while also doing nothing to help or hinder things. It’s a shame that the writers didn’t seem to find the spunky, yet vulnerable, Lavi to be as important as her counterpart because the show suffers as a result.

"Can I please be a main character again? Second tier sucks!"

Alex Row is also a bit clichéd. He’s your basic quiet, aloof and brooding anti-hero with a dark mission and a ruthless streak. This archetype shows up a all over the place, but thankfully Alex is not the main character so it doesn’t take anything away from our main focus (Also the writers did a good job with him during the last few episodes, I think). All the other supporting characters are great. From rifleman/hopeless romantic Mullin, to icy vanship pilot Tatiana, to the mechanic team onboard the Silvana I think this may be one of the best casts every written in anime; they are interesting and surprising layered. Dio, a member of the Guild (Which is the antagonistic faction of the series), is my favorite character though. Despite seemingly possessing just about every annoying character trait he could possibly have to begin with as the show moves on we learn things about Dio’s past, and his future, that make him easily the most sympathetic character in the cast. By the end I was more emotionally invested in him than anyone else.

Speaking of Dio I have to mention his older sister Maestro Delphine Eraclea, leader of the Guild and effective ruler of the world. She is one of the most evil villains I’ve ever seen in anime. She’s not just cruel, she’s not just manipulative (Although she’s very much those things) but she’s hedonistic to a sociopathic and genocidal degree. Everything and everyone exist only to be her playthings in her mind which is made much worse by the fact that her people are so technologically ahead of everyone else that she could easily wipe out humanity in a week if she were motivated. She and Alex are at odds over the fate of Alvis but make no mistake; she could pretty much take the girl whenever she wanted to. She apparently decides not to put any effort into it because she found the whole situation so amusing. Once I realized how dangerous this character was every time she was onscreen I literally could feel the absolute terror her enemies had to have been feeling. If the Maestro ever deemed it necessary to come face to face with you, giving you her disturbingly friendly smile, chances are you’re already dead.

Bender: "I love living as much as anyone. Except maybe you, Maestro."

Delphine: "I apologize for nothing!"

At the end of the day Last Exile is a good, if flawed, show. It features a great setting and great characters but has a few minor hiccups that add up to a less than perfect product. Don’t get me wrong; this is a well-above average anime at worst and at best it could be your favorite anime of all time. If you like fantasy settings this show is for you. If you like dynamic characters who grow over time this anime is for you. If you hate whiny teenage protagonists who are outclassed as characters by their redheaded counterpart then, well, you will still probably like this show; you just might not be in love with it. Overall it is a worthy addition to your anime collection.

Someone better cut Ikari Shinji a damn check!

I give Last Exile 4 Adorable Pandas out of 5


Pros

-A very unique and interesting setting

-Great supporting cast and a very memorable villain

Cons

-The Claus & Lavi Vs. The World aspect of the show quickly turns into Claus and the Infinite Sadness and we’re all lesser for it

-Some confusing elements to the show that are never properly explained

-Superfluous sci-fi elements shoehorned in at the last minute seem out of place


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