The classic introduction of an anime villain is surely, “Hey – you’re that guy from the toilet!”
If there were any doubt that this world is not the one we live in 13 years in the future, it was pretty much dispelled this week beyond any reasonable doubt. There have been ample clues that things were different, even before our present, but the clinchers came this week – the first of them the description of Nagoya as the “Japanese Capital”. And in the event you were considering that something had changed between 2012 and 2025 to cause that change, descriptions of the great Japanese scub burst of “70 years ago” – i.e. 1955 – put an end to that notion. No, this is some sort of different – a different timeline, a different universe, however you want to describe it – but it’s not Earth as we know it.
Of course that opens us up to an endless range of possibilities, and this wouldn’t be BONES – or Eureka Seven – if it were easy to figure out what’s really happening. Rather then sheer confusion from mass of plot, which is more typical of BONES, I think we’re looking more at deliberate obfuscation here. The Truth is definitely dropping many hints that the world we’re seeing in fundamentally “incorrect” in some way, and that this can be seen by those who know how to look for it. And Ao seems to be one of those people – perhaps it’s his “superpower”, as otaku Elena calls it, or perhaps he’s just very much his mother’s son. In practical terms this Japan is a very different country from “our” Japan in many ways, seemingly never having elevated itself above the level of second-rate economic power. Nakamura (Endo Kouichi) who we’ve met before, has his role clarified to a great extent here – he dreams of a greater Japan, one out from under the thumb of the allies, and he means to harness the power of The Secret to make it happen. Yeah, good luck with that.
Alternate universe or no, we’re seeing a couple of very classic themes addressing the malaise of modern Japan here – Nakamura’s notion of “destroying the country in order to remake it” for one. He literally sees the seeds of rebirth in the rubble of tragedy, wanting to use the damaged quartz from the 1955 scub burst to lure The Secret in. As Nakamura plots an end run around the higher authorities, who’re content to settle for peace at any cost and not rock the boat, he’s actually being used as a tool – there’s a mole inside his organization reporting directly to GenBlue what’s happening. But GenBleu is being used as well, because the mole is The Truth, playing both sides against the middle – though as usual, what his ultimate goals are is not information we’re made privy to.
In terms of the politics here, I think Aikawa Shou is taking the same view he normally tends to espouse: “a pox on both your houses”. Nakamura is a fool and a dangerous war-monger, and those he opposes are corrupt and timid. As in the larger global geopolitic, the theme is not “Us vs. Them” in the sense of which powers are in the right, but in the sense that the generation in power is spoiling the world for the young – which is another classic anime theme, especially in Aikawa’s works. Ao himself is a victim of this, though he doesn’t play the role of victim easily. The most important line of dialogue in the episode was his “I don’t care if they’re Japanese or Okinawan – people are dying!” This is striking both as insight into Ao as a boy, and the larger conflict of the series. No one has more reason to hate both Okinawans and Japanese than he does – but he hates neither. And the generation in power – through the voice of Rebecka in this instance but consistently for the last six eps – is trying to exploit the hatred they expect to see to manipulate Ao towards their own ends. The fact that he refuses to play along just cements him further as a strong and admirable main character.
I find it striking just how overt the cynicism is within Pied Piper, Generation Bleu’s “ace team”. It speaks loudest through Ao, but Fleur and Elena openly question and mock their superiors on open com channels without a second thought – and are rarely rebuked for it by Rebecka or Ivica. The difference is, they go along with it, and Ao still rebels – whether solely through a difference in his nature or also because he hasn’t been immersed in GenBlue for as long as they have is hard to say. This trio has become much more cohesive in the last couple of eps, and the reason is clear – it’s generational, Us vs. Them. They come off as sullen kids sometimes, but they share a wariness and suspicion of their elders, and they know more than the adults think they do.
It’s no coincidence that GenBleu has “Generation” in their name, because generational politics is the heart of Astral Ocean. And it’s no coincidence that the title of next week’s ep is “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” (Release Yourself) – it’s a not-so-subtle reminder of where the team name comes from. The original “Pied Piper of Hamelin” is a fairy tale of a piper who lured Hamelin’s boys and girls away from town, never to be seen again. Historically this might have been a reference to the Children’s Crusade, where thousands of children supposedly marched off to expel heathens from the Holy Land, only to be sold into slavery or killed. The symbolism as it relates to the story is clear enough, and should certainly color your views on just who the good guys and villains are in this series.
In addition to all that heavy politics and plot, I enjoyed the time-wasting opening sequence too – not quite a full-on swimsuit episode, but a moment to shed a little insight into the dynamic of Pied Piper. Ao remains more serious than his teammates, but he has good reason – as Fleur mockingly says, he “wants to get his girlfriend back.” Is there a hint of jealousy in her mockery, perhaps? Maybe – but as much as I like Fleur and as much as I think her relationship with Ao has progressed naturally and believably, I see no evidence his devotion to Naru has wavered at all. Indeed, he’s presented with more than his fair share of scenery, but in pure-pure Kotora fashion, refuses to be distracted (much) from his commitment to Naru.