With Halloween just passing I really wanted to think of the perfect series to review this week that would fit the theme that I hadn’t already reviewed. Lots of possibilities presented themselves and then I remembered Gilgamesh. It was very odd how I came to find this series. I’d just started watching anime as an adult and had watched a few things on YouTube (downloaded a couple given streaming wasn’t a thing at the time) and I was really trying to branch out beyond the Sailor Moon and Pokemon titles that were kind of the only easily available anime at the time. Then the local video shop had this just sitting on the shelf to rent. I’d never heard of it, had no idea what it was about, but I rented it. When I went back to the shop I noticed they had the box set for sale and I bought it. Admittedly, if I had as much anime available to be me then as I do now, I probably wouldn’t have looked twice at this series, so as I revisited it for this year’s Halloween, I wondered how it had held up after all that time.
I actually have no idea how to describe the story here. There was a terrorist attack on an archeological dig and somehow that caused the ‘shimmering sky’ to appear and that somehow stopped technology from working (making this a post apocalyptic story as we pick our characters up many years after this incident in a broken and rapidly falling apart world). Kiyoko and Tatsuya are siblings on the run from debt collectors when they are bought by a woman known as the Countess. She’s using children with special powers to fight some monsters and Tatsuya has the ability she’s looking for. But you know that’s just kind of the set up and there’s a lot of other stuff going on.
First and foremost it needs to be said that this series is too ambitious for its own good. It really wants to be an epic tragedy, on par with the legend of Gilgamesh, which it references ad nauseum (seriously, please don’t tell me the story again). The problem is, this story isn’t epic. What it contains are plenty of very small stories and moments that are interwoven, but at no point can any of these stories be seen as anything but petty. Which thematically makes sense because part of the overall message here is that people are petty and a lot of what happens is pointless, but it kind of steals some of the thunder of the grandiose narrative it feels like they were trying to weave together. Gilgamesh however does get the tragedy part as right as you can get it.
This is not an anime for those who are squeamish about anything. Human experimentation, human trafficking, rape, child molesting, blood and gore, excessive use of military force… pretty much anything you can think of that would be horrible and depressing at the same time finds its way into this story. Which is fine for building a truly horrific atmosphere, and early on the show does an excellent job of setting the scene. The issue is that once the scene is established and we’re kind of waiting for something to develop from all this misery, all we get is a continuation of the same as all the characters are kind of emotionally in a holding pattern before the curtain literally falls on the story and the world. Other than a celebration of everything pointless and miserable about the world and living, there’s really nothing more to this story. Any turning points or small rays of hope are quickly shut down and we find ourselves locked into inevitable tragedy. It becomes hard to take overly seriously by the end of the middle act and as the story reaches its climax, while you are strapped in for the ride you realise that a lot of the earlier tension has evaporated. There’s very little more you could do to any of these characters that would make you feel worse for them so you kind of become numb to the horror of their lives.
This loss of emotional connection could still be fine except that that narrative doesn’t hold up without the weight of those emotions. While there are plenty of explainers tossed around in the latter half of the series ultimately little of what happens makes sense from a logical point of view. Also, it kind of seems like nothing any of the characters were doing was ever going to stop the concluding act, most of them didn’t even know it was coming, so essentially we just sat and watched a whole bunch of factions fight it out for control of a world that was coming to an end regardless of the outcome of anything they did. While it might seem cool to kill off your cast of characters, when not handled emotionally well or for a strong narrative purpose mostly it just feels like you didn’t really know how to draw your story to a close. The afterward with Kiyoko and the final act of violence lends some narrative purpose at least to the resolution but it isn’t quite enough to make it seem like it was worth it.
Before I get into characters I want to discuss the visuals of this show (I’m avoiding discussing the music because the opening theme is just wrong for the show and it is better if I don’t speak much about it). The character designs are ugly. Horrendously, distractingly ugly. Yet… Somehow they work for the story being told here. Everything about this world and the people is ugly so somehow having the designs reflect that is kind of an interesting choice. As is the cool beauty of the ‘monsters’ the children are fighting. In a hideous world having a monster that is charmingly alluring is a creepily good choice. The shimmering sky is also beautifully depicted though I note that go out of their way not to show you the sky except when the characters directly refer to it. A lot of scenes the camera angle is directed downward which certainly shows the powerless nature of the characters and also avoids needing to fill in the detail of what the sky should look like. However, visually this story manages to be pretty consistent in creating the atmosphere they seemed to be aiming for early on and the visuals serve their narrative purpose well (albeit with some incredibly obvious symbolism along the way). They just aren’t particularly pretty.
Finally though I need to address the characters. Much like the story, the presentation of the characters is overly ambitious. They seem to want these characters to be multi-dimensional and layered human beings and they want to build a sense of mystery around these characters that all essentially keep their true self locked down inside. What that means is most of the characters come off as either pretentious or complete jerks. More importantly, as more of the ‘layers’ are revealed to the audience, what we mostly realise is that every character is pretty much the same. Self-centred drama-Queen who thinks the world should be all about what they want. It is possibly a statement that the show was going for but it makes it very hard to like or care for any of these characters.
Kiyoko at times seems like she’s going to be an interesting character as the older sister who is pretty much dismissed as excess baggage because she doesn’t have the power her brother does (she was born before the terrorist attack destroyed the world as everyone knew it). While part of Kiyoko wants to protect her brother, part of her is just sick of having to look after him and be the responsible older sister. She can’t stand the countess, for good reason, she’s got real issues with her parents, and deep down inside she just wants to escape and live her dream. Only even when she does get away from the countess she finds only failure and rejection. Her choice to help one of the monsters might have been an interesting turning point but the reason for her decision is never explored beyond her innate loneliness and sense of isolation so while this still makes her one of the more interesting characters, there’s still a lot missing that would make her seem just a little more real.
And Kiyoko being the character who gets the most development just makes Tatsuya’s lack of character even more apparent. He’s good at baffled younger brother who after getting a taste of power becomes a little bit arrogant over baffled younger brother. But he’s not clever enough or interesting enough to pull off anything more than this and when things start falling apart, his initial personality reasserts itself and he ends up more or less hiding under Kiyoko under the guise of protecting her.
So having rewatched this through for the first time in a number of years, how did it hold up? Well, it was more or less exactly as I remembered it. It is fascinating and the first third does a beautiful job setting up what feels like it should be an amazingly dark and twisted tale. What follows on from that isn’t a failure but it never quite delivers on what it has promised early on. All and all, one for people looking for something a little bit different, but there’s a lot that could have been improved.
Thanks for reading.
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