I’ll admit, Sakugan wasn’t high on my priority list for the Fall 2021 season. I had planned to check out the first episode and maybe come back and binge watch it later if it seemed okay but after watching the first episode this anime has rocketed up my watch list.
Part of my concern was the write up given to Sakugan which more or less made me think this was going to be Made in Abyss (but a lesser version). The promotional image with the young girl plunging down into an underground passage with a robotic thing and the description of the markers who are making maps of the Labyrinth as well as the missing mother all just kind of made me feel like this was going to feel derivative.
While there’s certainly all of those similarities, I’m very pleased to say that episode one of Sakugan most definitely managed to find its own identity and set up a pretty compelling premise as well as the father and daughter team that seem to be at the heart of it all.
Though I am still a little cautious given the director was also credited with the mess that was Caligula. I know director’s alone don’t make or break an anime but I am at least going to keep my expectations moderate until I see that this isn’t dissolving into an incomprehensible mess.
What works in Sakugan?
Perhaps because the source here is actually a novel, but the two main characters, the nine year old Memenpu and her father Gagumber, come across as really well developed. Admittedly, that doesn’t mean you always like them and the introduction with them shrieking at each other after taking each other out in a mock battle of sorts doesn’t exactly endear them to the audience.
However, as the episode proceeds we see that these two characters are very real with a history together. They also have rhythms for their normal everyday life as well as a mix of love, pride, and aggravation with one another that comes from the life they’ve lived prior to the story starting. This isn’t just a young female character being plopped into the life of an adult male and watching a relationship grow.
It is also pretty amazing how hard the father is working to protect her even while acknowledging at some point Memenpu is going to leave the nest. While his efforts aren’t exactly the most nuanced or reasonable, his motivation is a well grounded one.
This is a well established father-daughter dynamic and it kind of elevates what ends up being a pretty basic introduction to a dystopian world.
While I said Sakugan is a pretty basic dystopian, keep in mind we’ve only had one episode of introduction. What we get is an underground city that feels authentic and lived in as well as roles and jobs within the society. We also get an indication of other colonies and a vast underground labyrinth connecting it and the hint that there is a tower on the surface, somewhere.
Why humans are underground in colonies and why it is so unstable with earthquakes and the like has yet to be answered by Sakugan. Nor do we know why there are Kaiju, giant monsters that cause great damage that we see first hand in the final act of this first episode. These are questions I’m sure we’ll get answers to as the world expands and our characters move beyond their starting point.
I think I preferred this to a narrator simply telling me about some tragedy that lead to humans abandoning the surface with a montage of images. Its left me curious and gives the story directions to explore and fill out rather than taking a narrative short-cut gets the job done but is hardly compelling viewing.
There’s a great balance in this first episode in setting up Memenpu’s quest with her receiving what is most likely a map of the underground, as well as establishing her relationship with her father, giving us some world building, and finishing with an action set-piece that is both visually interesting and provides a real reason for the characters to get moving.
Sure there’s a blatant attempt to tug our heart strings or shock us in all of this but basically this is a solidly built first episode. Sakugan is definitely one on my watch list after that effort.
Images from: Sakugan. Dir. J Wada. Satelight. 2021
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