Before I get into this weeks offering, I wanted to take a second to say something about science fiction, and why I like it so much. It has bearing, so stay with me a minute as I go on another of my now famous tangents.
Where fantasy is about the limitless possibilities of the imagination, science fiction has always been about the limitless possibilities of human ingenuity. Some of the best science fiction stories ever written barely dwell on the science, or even on the realism of the technology. They focus more on how humanity improves itself, and what it means to be human.
I’m sure you are all familiar with the terms “hard sci fi” and “soft sci fi”, and the general opinion of the internet that “hard sci fi” is the only one worth talking about. To that, I say bollocks. Any sci fi that deals in the better nature of humanity, and our own ability to improve ourselves, or on what it means to be human, is good sci fi. Just because a story knows technical details and how to properly use scientific jargon is neither here nor there in terms of its value as a piece of fiction.
Science fiction as a genre is meant to inspire us, not just to reach for the stars, but to always seek to better ourselves, and our society. To never be content with the way things are. To always push for a brighter, better tomorrow. That is when science fiction is at its best. The sub genres, such as cyber punk, can deal in their own versions of things, including dystopian fiction, and that’s fine. Science fiction, as a primary genre, should keep the focus on what matters most. Being inspiring.
Last week, when I talked about Ghost In The Shell: S.A.C., one thing I failed to mention is that it is, at it’s core, cyberpunk sci fi, with a focus on philosophy. That’s what makes the series as whole so great. It does what it does, and it does it well.
This weeks offering, Heroic Age, a 26 episode, 2007 series from studio Xebec (Fafner in the Azure, Mnemosyne, Pandora Hearts) is mythological science fiction, which is actually a legit sub genre of science fiction. Just not a well known one, as folks rarely do anything with it.
Except Michael G. Munz, who wrote a whole trilogy of cyberpunk mythological science fiction books. Which you should read, cause they are awesome. I don’t just say that cause I know the guy, either. They really are actually good, and totally relevant to what I’m talking about. This is not a shameless plug, for which I may or may not be receiving a bottle of tequila as reimbursement.
I’m not getting a bottle of tequila, by the way. Mike never lives up to that promise. You’d think I’d learn.
Mythological science fiction is a rare sub genre that pulls on mythology to build a science fiction story, as the name would imply. For Heroic Age, that mythology was Greek, with a focus on Hercules. The story isn’t just limited to that, but that is the central focus. A sci fi retelling of the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Which sounds so like something that shouldn’t work, but totally does.
As briefly as the rather massive backstory of this show allows, let me explain what it’s about.
Long ago, the first race to achieve interstellar flight, called the Golden Tribe, reached a level of technological advancement that put them on almost the same level as a god. Capable of creating whole worlds from nothing, and even grander things, the Golden Tribe chose to share their knowledge with other races, and sent a call out across the universe for other advanced races. Three species answered that call.
The human like Silver Tribe, the insect like Bronze Tribe, and the monstrous Heroic Tribe were lifted up by the Golden Tribe, and became almost as great as they were. Eventually, the Golden Tribe saw that there was no more to learn in this universe, and chose to leave it for another. Before they did, they learned of a new species that had achieved interstellar flight on their own. A race that called themselves Humans.
Dubbing them the Iron Tribe, in honor of their tenacity, and strength, the Golden Tribe honored them with a prophecy that one day, they would rule over the whole of the universe, then vanished from existence.
The Silver Tribe and Bronze Tribe kinda took affront to that, and decided to wipe out the Iron Tribe, cause they were feeling dickish that day. With Earth all but destroyed, and held by the Bronze Tribe, Humanity scattered across the stars, and following the prophecy laid out by the Golden Tribe, began searching for the one who would save them. A hero that carried the spirit of the now dead Heroic Tribe within him, and would subjugate both the Silver and Bronze Tribes.
Naturally, the Silver and Bronze Tribes weren’t terribly okay with that, and stepped up their attempts to wipe out the human race. Like ya do.
Which is where we join the story, as the starship Argonaut arrives at a half destroyed planet said to be the last place the Golden Tribe was at before they left our universe. There, they discover a long lost colony ship from Earth, and a young human man named Age, who indeed does carry with in him a Nodos Stone, one of the last remnants of the Heroic Tribe. The Nodos allows Age to summon Bellcross, one of the most powerful members of the Heroic Tribe. When I say powerful, I do mean powerful, as he wipes out entire fleets of Bronze Tribe ships single handed.
As it turns out, the Golden Tribe found Age as an infant, and lingered in our universe for a time to raise him to be self sufficient enough they could depart. As such, he is aware that one day, humans will come, and that he must do things for them. Things labeled, as it happens, The Twelve Labors.
Almost like they got the whole idea from something, ain’t it?
Age mostly agrees because aboard the Argonaut is Princess Dhianeila, the future Queen of Humanity, who is inspired heavily by Deianira, from Greek mythology. It seems the Golden Tribe knew it would be she who came for him, and even told him her name, so he readily agrees to go, and perform the Twelve Labors.
However, Age has no experience with culture, having lived alone for much of his life. Most of the crew of the Argonaut sees him as little better than a monkey, including Iolaous Mehelim, the captain of the Yunos Knights, soldiers who use mecha to fight the enemies of humanity. Eventually, just as in the Hercules myth, Iolaous becomes a close friend to Age, following Iolaus, the figure he is based on.
Actually, most of the cast is based on figures from Greek myth, but it’d take a while to get into them all. It’s a fairly large cast, to boot, so suffice to say, the folks behind the writing of this series really did their homework. It shows, too. Everything about this feels like a Greek myth transferred into a science fiction universe.
Which is awesome, by the way.
One of the more interesting aspects of Heroic Age is how the writers chose to tackle the idea of humanity having advanced. We see a lot of psychic powers being used, such as telepathy, astral projection, teleportation, and telekinesis. All of this is a side effect of having more advanced technology, and having learned a little from the Golden Tribe, rather than as some kind of magic power, or mutation. They are all important to the story, as well, as the Silver Tribe uses these abilities extensively, and appears to consider them part and parcel of evolution as a species.
The technology humanity use is also pretty advanced stuff. Warp drive, laser cannons, and so on. However, despite their advanced tech, they are no match for the Silver Tribe, who is able to use technology that is so far advanced, it may as well be magic. The series blurs the line at times, but that’s acceptable in my mind, because sufficiently advanced technology would be almost like magic to those who can’t fathom how it all works.
Probably the greatest, and most noteworthy thing about Heroic Age, however, is how it ends. While I’m loathe to give too many spoilers, the ending of this show is simply epic, as humanity overcomes the Silver Tribe, not by destroying them, but by granting them their fondest desire. To their credit, upon realizing what has happened, the Silver Tribe instantly feels horrible for what they have done, as the Iron Tribe was the key to their own salvation, and the continued advancement of their species. Their fear that humanity would subjugate them made them blind to what the Golden Tribe had taught them, and in that fear, they acted rashly.
That said, it was their fear that eventually lead to humanity having the ability to save them, so the entire conflict was both pointless, and completely necessary, all at once. Which is such a Greek thing to do, ya know?
I mean, c’mon. Those guys loved a good tragedy. Having an entire war be both pointless, and necessary, is exactly like them. The inherent dichotomy of the conflict is typical of Greek mythology, so even in this, Heroic Age lives up to the stories that gave birth to it.
Which is pretty damn awesome.
In terms of animation, Heroic Age is pretty. It isn’t gonna blow your mind or anything, but it is pretty. Especially the backgrounds. Lots of beautiful starscapes, planets, and a wide variety of planet surface looks, making each one unique. The ship designs are pretty cool, as well, with the Argonaut being particularly lovely to look at. It’s all just really classic sci fi in approach, and super nice to look at.
The character designs are bit less impressive, though they are hardly bad. Every one is unique, and easy to remember, as well as pick out from a crowd. They just aren’t amazing, like the background, and mechanical design are. Solid, good, and well done, but a bit of a step down in terms of overall quality. This is a minor nitpick on my part, however.
Largely because everything else really is just excellent. Especially the space battles. They feel massive, and at the same time, evoke memories of Robotech and Voltron. Wide, sweeping conflicts, but in a classic style, with the far distant explosions and all that. Really, the show is, overall, super pretty to look at, even ten years later.
The series was directed by Takashi Noto, who has only really directed this, and some Fafner shows, such as the Heaven and Earth movie, and Exodus. Beyond that, he has worked mostly as an in between animator, producer, and occasional episode director. Why, I’m not sure, as Heroic Age is certainly a strong showing for his directorial talent. Everything about Heroic Age is handled extremely well, and he clearly had a vision that he pursued. Without a doubt, half of what made the show work was his steady hand at the directors wheel.
The other thing that really makes the show work is the writing, handled by Tow Ubukata, who you guys will most likely know as the writer behind Le Chevalier D’Eon, head writer for the entire Fafner of the Azure series, and Psycho Pass 2. With Heroic Age, he brings a strong knowledge of Greek myth, and classic science fiction, to craft a story that is epic, but feels mythological, while still clearly being science fiction. He has a strong grasp of the characters, and develops them well, along with the setting, and a tightly knit plot that never drops a single thread. It’s well written from start to finish, and definitely a feather in Ubukata’s cap.
Complementing this exceptional writing is exceptional music from Naoki Sato, the composer behind shows like Eureka Seven and Assassination Classroom. For Heroic Age, Sato clearly focused on the epic nature of Greek mythology, and this story, to create an equally epic score. It is powerful, beautiful, and not to beat a dead horse, epic. It’s actually hard to describe it in a way that would capture it, but it has an operatic feel to it, I’d have to say. It’s big, grand, and sweeping. It’s really gorgeous music.
Overall, Heroic Age is a a rare gem that only wanders up every now and then. A hybrid mix of mythology and science fiction that not only works, but manages to distinguish itself as original. Which Heroic Age is, by the way. It’s an anime original, not based on a pre-existing manga. It’s a great showcase for the writing and directing talent, as well as the quality of Xebec’s animators, and is all set to really amazing music, making it one of those shows you really do need to see at least once.
If for no other reason than because a science fiction retelling of a classic Greek myth isn’t the kind of thing you’re gonna see every day. Especially not this well done, and not out side the writing of Mike Munz, who totally owes me several bottles of tequila.
And probably a taco or three.