Usually I’d offer a brief explanation of the plot’s starting point but on this occasion I find myself more than a bit bewildered. As the adaptation of a later saga in a massive sci-fi epic, Horizon does itself few favours by beginning the show with a hurdle in the form of a four episode ‘introduction’ that does little to explain the show beyond making it clear there are a lot of characters. The basic gist is a far future setting in which mankind is loosely re-enacting the entirety of recorded history to achieve some kind of epiphany, and the people of Japan have been exiled to a floating airship city which also takes in exiles and refugees from the other nations. I’m amazed that so little is properly explained, and although a healthy dose of that is down to choosing to adapt a work so far into an existing mythology, it’s equally caused by simply failing to communicate. I would have happily taken a narrated introduction that clearly explains the setting as unlike most shows that manage to communicate things well over initial episodes. Horizon just seems to assume either viewers already know this stuff or the bizarre and elaborate premise is somehow only logical.
Thankfully once you get past those 4 episodes (which do at least get the ball rolling on the season’s plot) the show becomes far more enjoyable. The central characters are a class of high school students, mainly because in this setting each country’s fighting force is apparently maintained by school students. Again this isn’t very clearly explained but does work well. The various oddballs of the class (witches, aliens, knights, etc) begin planning for a special night for their student president Aoi Toori. An airheaded goof ball with a straight talking mouth and busy hands, he plans to confess his love to a girl unknowingly on the same night of a massive terrorist incident. Said terrorist’s statement reveals that Toori’s beau is more important than realised and she quickly becomes a political prisoner to be used in the other country’s favour.
It’s fair to say that the main plot drive is one that will be familiar to anime fans as the main cast elect to head out a rescue their friend from enemy clutches, political ramifications be damned. Certainly plenty of shonen manga have made agonisingly long and predictable arcs out of this plot. With Horizon this really isn’t an issue. Maybe it’s because it only has nine episodes to work with, but the result is genuinely entertaining and engrossing. There are clichés certainly, but a higher number of successful beats. Pretty much every time the show went for humour I genuinely laughed out loud. There’s also some effective build up to the decision to take a military response as some of the students represent certain guilds that make fair arguments about the potential dangers of declaring war. That’s actually more inspiring than a simple ‘She’s our friend!’ resolve.
Although there are tons of characters, the show wisely avoids a common problem of massive casts all having painful, flashback-revealed backstories. All the students have their reasons for being there and some are implied to have had tough times but the action doesn’t stop to reveal they all had one terrible night crying over a corpse in the rain. The closest the show comes to that is Toori’s response to Horizon’s death a decade prior but even that is referenced just enough. Rather than brood over the past, the focus is firmly on what lies ahead. There are plenty of Japanese shows which tackle regret or redemption, but maybe because the cast is mainly teenagers there’s more a focus on making the best of lives that haven’t really started yet. Toori is a perfect example of this, as there are hints that his carefree and sometimes perverted nature are a mask of someone far more aware of how important laughter is in the harsh world. Not every character is a winner (one or two fail to stand out and have a questionable relation to the plot) but the vast majority stand out well, being likeable and varied.
Battle scenes are well done but add to the confusion. Everyone seems to use some weird mix of futuristic technology and Shinto tribute to gods. It allows for some effective super powered action, though I found it a bit hard to fully get into the fights due to the logic block. Most of the characters seem to have gone for speed power ups but some offer clever variations, including at least one which turns concerns about cheap fanservice on their head.
Speaking of segues into the issue of the character designs…from all appearances this is yet another Japanese show about busty girls in skintight/skimpy clothing brawling, and indeed that fact had lowered my expectations. In actuality, although this is a frequent visual element it’s actually rationalised and barely sexualised. Although there are moments of fanservice these are fewer than you would expect and in fact the result is to actually turn these fears round back on the viewer. Yes, there are plenty of degrading and pandering shows coming out of Japan but sometimes it’s just as possible for the audience to show their own prudishness. The show even manages to get in a quick shot at a certain other Japanese franchise about reincarnated fighters that does play up the fanservice.
The concept of humans attempting to re-enact history means that there are various historical references in the series, the vast majority not as obvious as you would think. This goes even deeper due to the fact all of the countries have now adopted partial elements of Japanese culture, leading to various cultural wordplay and dual meanings across the script. I appreciate translating this would be next to impossible, but how the release acknowledges this (I assume a decision made by Sentai for their initial release) is lacking. Whenever one of these moments appears we are treated to a tiny long winded translation note in the far corner of the screen for all of three seconds. This is a practice which has been infamous with fansubs for years now and it’s just as questionable here. I appreciate it’s possible to pause the DVD but you’re never quite sure when one of these notes will appear, turning viewing into a chore. These should either have been an optional video track that paused the action for a set time with more clearly defined translation notes, or copied FUNimation’s tactic for Hetalia by having the historical references explained chronologically in a separate extra. Since many fans will watch the show subtitled, the context note is fighting for their attention against the actual dialogue they’re trying to take in at the same time.
Included extras are limited to the standard OP, EDs and trailers with the best part being a dialogue free featurette styled like retro/handheld games where class teacher Makiko gets secondary character Tenzo to deliver a lecture on the specifics of the airships that make up the cast’s pseudo homeland. It’s fun and cute but sadly despite being billed as first in a series it’s the only one in the set, a shame also because, again, further explanation of the setting can only be a good thing.
The ending animations/song benefit from having at least 2 different songs, one happy and one sad. This allows the show to alternate as per the closing moments of specific episodes and avoid the awkward whiplash of a more dramatic ending leading into a bubbly song.
Horizon on the Middle of Nowhere isn’t really what I was expecting. I expected something to make me roll my eyes and go ‘Oh, Japan’ and what I actually got was the inverse, a show that was well done, laugh out loud funny and had a setting foundation I’m convinced I may be too stupid to understand. For a person who likes entertainment that challenges, that’s good. Sure there are parts of it tied to what makes money in Japan (poured into those outfits, I say) but it works well. It might not be destined to become a classic but right now it stands tall amongst its contemporaries.
I’ll be anxiously awaiting season two. Oh, that cliffhanger…!