At long last – for an episode at least – Gundam AGE has fulfilled its potential and become the series I always hoped it would be.
This episode of AGE faced an obstacle for me that none of its predecessors had – high expectations. For the first time in 36 weeks I was extremely curious about what the series would do, and anxious to see the next episode – the last couple of eps weren’t brilliant on their own but did a fine job building up what was to come. Happily, 37 didn’t disappoint me in the slightest – in fact, I enjoyed it more than I realistically hoped might be possible. I’m not going to write my affections for the show in the stars or anything (or even in ink) because there have been too many false starts already. But for one week at least, AGE was an unqualified success.
Don’t get me wrong – the themes on display here weren’t handled with great subtlety or nuance. But they were honest and powerful in their own terms, and in many ways this episode reminded me of a dark storybook, a tragic fairy tale. It was all primary colors and wore its meaning on its sleeve, but was no less impactful for it. In actuality what worked best was likely that AGE was stripped down to its most simple an elemental – a scared little boy alone in a strange world, and a tragic war that’s doing no one any good. Gundam AGE has always wanted to be an exploration of the evils of racism and child soldiers, but it’s been continually bogged down with clumsy humor, sloppy characterization and awkward pacing. With none of that stuff to weigh it down the series finally achieved a kind of profundity and truth that has always eluded it.
The issue is not who you’re “rooting” for in the larger plot. This ep wasn’t so much about making us feel sorry for the Vagan as making the point that war is about victims, no matter whose side you’re on. As Kio so rightly points out, Lord Ezelcant isn’t blameless – the moral responsibility for the civilians killed in Vagan attacks rests squarely with him. The sad thing is, most of those civilians have no idea what Vagan life is really like. The Vagans have every right to be angry about their lot and what the Earth Federation has done to them. Ezelcant himself sums up their tragedy best, I think: “For us dying isn’t sadness. Sadness is being unable to live as a human being.” How could any human on Earth possibly understand that sentiment?
Any human except for Kio, of course, thanks to Ezelcant’s crash course in Vagan life on the streets. That introduces Kio to siblings Deen (Kakihara Tetsuya) and Lu (Itou Kanae). The fact that Sunrise got top-notch seiyuu to play the Anon siblings is indicative of how important they are to the story, as the first Vagan civilians we (or Kio) have met. She’s dying of the “Mars disease”, and has only months left – it’s likely the same disease that killed Ezelcant’s son Romy and is killing Ezelcant (six months to live) himself. They know nothing of humans except that they resent them for the easy life they enjoy, where they aren’t forced to turn off their emotions in order to make inevitable early death less painful. The fact that Kio happens to look much like Ezelcant’s son is a bit of a plot contrivance (unless there’s a foreshadowing there that I haven’t guessed) but the symbolism is plain enough.
As always, the acid test will be where the series goes from here. I always felt it was vital for Kio to escape Flit’s sphere of influence and get a different perspective on the war, and he’s done that in the finest bit of writing AGE has produced. Asemu is going to meet him next week in a rescue attempt, and how he views the conflict should provide some clues for the future. Ezelcant may be a moderate by Vagan standards – he was indeed offering his enemies a chance to survive every attack, testing their “will to live” – but he’s still killing them by the thousands. And he’s under siege from Zanald, who appears ready to openly revolt at any time because Ezelcant is too “soft” on the humans.
It’s a very good setup AGE has brought off here in its clumsy way, if it can manage to get the story to the finish line in style in its final cour. With two enemies that hate each other, and powerful foes that want to inflict genocide on the other (Zanald and Flit) the focus should be on the ones caught in the middle – the civilians and Kio, who at heart is nothing more than a kind kid who wants to please the adults he loves. Is there a middle ground here, with Vagan about to face likely civil war and Earth desperate to keep its past crimes under wraps – can genocide be avoided? Clearly Kio is going to be pivotal to all this – can he find a sort of Kira Yamato path? And the past connection between Zaeheart (who may end up as much an outlaw to Vagan as Asemu is to Earth if Ezelcant dies or is deposed) and Asemu is going to play a big part in the conclusion as well.