Technically, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet counts as one of three giant robot anime running in Japan this spring (along with Majestic Prince and Sunrise’s Valvrave the Liberator), and on paper at least it’s the most prestigious of the lot given who’s involved. Here we have animation by the accomplished Production I.G., Kazuya Murata (Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos) in the director’s chair and none other than the acclaimed Gen Urobuchi (Fate/Zero, Puella Magi Madoka Magica) overseeing the story and scriptwriting. Devoted anime fans should check their preconceptions at the door, though: don’t expect a conventional “robot anime” here, or the bleak storytelling that Urobuchi has become noted for in recent years.
“Castaway” is a first episode that mostly acts as a prologue to the true story to come. Starting with the advent of Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979, the concept of the youthful unlikely hero placed into a war machine’s cockpit by circumstance went on to become an ingrained and arguably overused genre trope. Gargantia, however, inverts this convention entirely. Our lead character Ledo is not a civilian dragged into a conflict but rather a teenager raised and trained to be a soldier for the Galactic Alliance of Humanity, which is locked in an intractable war with the Hideauze – a cliche alien threat threatening the human race’s survival. The soldier’s life is all Ledo’s known, but the events of the episode abruptly pulls him out of it. In a grand and flashy space battle humanity wages a daring assault to bring down an alien stronghold and turn the tide of the conflict, only for it to end in abject failure. Ledo’s commander calls a retreat and ultimately heroically covers his escape, but Ledo and his mecha don’t quite make it into the fleet’s warp gate. Instead of escaping with the fleet they are thrown far off course to, naturally, the titular “verdurous planet”.
Some time later a hibernating Ledo is awakened by his mecha’s advanced artificial intelligence “Chamber”, as the robot is under “attack” from a small group of humans trying uselessly to deconstruct it. In fact they are crew members of the salvage ship Gargantia, cruising the endless sea of their ocean-covered world. Puzzled by their primitive tools, their strange dress and his surroundings, Ledo opts to bide his time and wait for an opportunity to leave Chamber and scout around once the workers aren’t around. However Ledo’s cover is soon blown by the unexpected arrival of the ship’s mechanic and teenage girl Amy, so Ledo takes Amy hostage and moves to escape. Matters are exacerbated by the language barrier between Ledo and the other humans, which Chamber has only just started to penetrate for him. Though the whole ship is soon in an uproar Ledo does make it, only to be so astonished by the revelation that he’s on a habitable planet that Amy takes the opportunity to escape. Ledo is soon confronted by the crew, but before things go ill for him Chamber breaks out and comes to his aid on his orders. Now it is the crew’s turn to be amazed!
Approximately half of this episode is occupied with Ledo in space, and the time is used well to give us brief but penetrating insight into the world, so to speak, that Ledo comes from. It is a militaristic and rigid society where people are pressed into military service from a very young age. Ledo is a teenager, but do the math on the thousands of hours Chamber says he’s spent in combat and one arrives at the startling revelation that fighting has literally been Ledo’s life. There is no indication that he’s had meaningful human contact to speak of; his one constant companion is Chamber, which is implied to function as not only his computer but as a guide and an (inadequate) surrogate parent of sorts. Its exposition informs us that soliders such as Ledo are fighting for something, namely the immense artificial colony of Avalon, a supposed paradise where people are allowed to live after a given amount of military service. But Ledo regards this prospect with a seeming indifference, and it’s not hard to see why: this is a place and a future he knows about only in the abstract.
The show does quite the job of depicting culture shock here. The crew of the Gargantia don’t even have a slight clue as to what Chamber really is aside from the conclusion that it’s an advanced “Yunburo”, their term for the cruder mecha they themselves use. Ledo doesn’t even consider that he’s not somewhere out in space until he emerges from the Gargantia, and his awestruck look when he sees the ocean says more than any dialogue ever could. Nothing Chamber or his civilization told him had prepared him for this strange new frontier. From here, the story of this stranger’s endeavor to adapt to this strange land can begin.
Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet is legally streaming on Crunchyroll.