"Xenosaga" Fails To Fill in the Blanks
For a few years now, lots of anime series have been based on video games, and Xenosaga is no exception. Like many, though not all, such series, Xenosaga falls into the trap of seemingly being made to cater to pre-existing fans of the original game material rather than trying to attract a new audience.
Xenosaga (a name which is never explained in the actual show) is a fairly standard space opera series detailed against the backdrop of a conflict between humanity and a mysterious alien race called the Gnossis, who bear remarkable similarities to the Space Monsters from Gunbuster. To add to an already volatile situation, there are several organizations at work on the human side of things that have their own agendas. The key object of desire for all sides is a powerful alien object known as the Zohar. By this future time, humanity has also developed a new artificial race called the Raelians, who are for the most part indistinguishable from normal humans. One of the most important types of Raelian seen in the series are the 100 Series Observational Realians, who, in a somewhat tiresome reminder of the trend of many latter-day game/anime productions, just happen to look like young girls. The story begins aboard the Woglinde spaceship belonging to Vector Industries, where we find the series’ main character, Shion Uzuki, who has developed the powerful KOS-MOS female battle android as an anti-Gnossis weapon. The crew discover a Zohar Emulator, a powerful device based on the original Zohar, and subsequently come under attack by a Gnossis fleet, whereupon KOS-MOS activates and helps Shion and a few others to escape. During the melee, the quite obviously insane Raelian Albedo, ostensibly working for the shadowy U-TIC Organization, manages to kidnap one of the observational Raelians known as Kirschwasser.
From there, Shion, KOS-MOS and the other Woglinde survivors are picked up by a cargo freighter, the Elsa, whereupon they again come under attack by the U-TIC Organization, who are after another of the Elsa’s passengers, the 100 Series Observational Realian prototype known as MOMO, which was recently rescued from their clutches. With the help of the Kukai Foundation’s massive space ship, the Durandal, they are able to make their way safely to the Kukai’s space station base. Once there, the leader of the Foundation, Gaignun Jr. (usually referred to as just ‘Jr.’), offers a safe haven to Shion and the others, while especially making sure that MOMO is comfortable, as he follows up on a promise made years ago. The comfort zone doesn’t last long however, as Galaxy Federation spaceships soon arrive and place Shion and the rest of the Woglinde survivors under arrest, blaming them for the destruction of the fleet in the first episode. With only KOS-MOS’ unaltered memories able to exonerate them and prove that it was the Gnossis who were responsible for the destruction, Shion attempts to interact with KOS-MOS’ memories directly, but accidentally pulls along several others with her, including Jr., where they all attempt to confront their memories.
Of course, there’s no time to rest, as soon Albedo makes his move and hundreds of Gnossis invade the Kukai Foundation’s base. KOS-MOS is once again activated, but the collateral damage caused makes Shion seriously question just how effective KOS-MOS can be as a battle android with no emotions. It all comes to a head once Albedo kidnaps MOMO and attempts to extract long-dormant information from her mind in order to further his own ends. It all comes to a race to the finish, as Shion, KOS-MOS and the others attempt to stop him in time for the big finish.
Although the above summary seems simply like a list of one event after the other, this is essentially what Xenosaga: The Animation is like: a collection of set pieces strung together by a plot with lots and lots of unseen back-story, which makes it a very hard series to get into. A common criticism of anime based on other sources, particularly video games rather than manga, is that such series tend to be targeted towards pre-existing fans of such franchises rather than a general audience. The obvious drawback to this type of series is that many important details are sidelined for fans to fill in the blanks from the original media, and Xenosaga is sadly probably the very best example of this I’ve ever come across.
Throughout the series much back-story and character history is only briefly referred to and hinted at, but most of this goes almost completely unexplained to the audience. Obvious answers on exactly what the Gnossis actually are, how Albedo has the powers he does, and who the U-TIC Organization are, to name but a few, remain ever-present and are never really further elaborated on. Ultimately, I think this lack of accessibility is quite a shame as I’ve always liked space opera anime, and truly believe there’s a good story in Xenosaga waiting to come out, but the anime series only acts as the briefest of previews to such potential. This is one of those series that really needed to be double the length to do justice to the original material. It’s doubly ironic seeing Toei Animation‘s logo on the Xenosaga DVD packaging, and all the way through I couldn’t help but think that Toei would have been better off licensing their older and more developed space opera series such as Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 (region-locked streams on Crunchyroll don’t count, Toei) instead of the grossly under-developed Xenosaga.
Having said all that, Xenosaga isn’t quite a total failure and still has at least something to offer. While the series comes dangerously close to falling into the pitfall of including too many characters from the original games, it just manages to stay on the reasonable side of things in terms of the number of prominent characters even though the series is only twelve episodes long. Due to the series’ short length we never really get any meaningful insight into the majority of characters. A good example would be Shion’s conflicting feelings towards KOS-MOS, which towards the end of the series, seemingly become polarized with no real explanation for her sudden changes in mood. One aspect that makes some of the characters more palatable is that it doesn’t take itself completely seriously all the time, which is just as well in a series featuring ubiquitous young girl androids. Ultimately, the series’ real weakness lies not with the characters but simply the brevity at which all the events within are depicted, and it never overcomes this, with most episodes simply glazing past my eyes.
As one of the infamous “Sojitz 34” titles that ADV Films spectacularly lost the rights to last year, Funimation’s handy repackaging of the series includes the original ADV dub and subtitle tracks. Both language tracks were quite clear, with decent performances from the dub cast as they do their best to wade through much unexplained technobabble and make it sound convincing. The animation work on the show is of a fair standard without being exceptional, although there are some nice sequences to be found in the final episode. One visual aspect that I was consistently impressed by were the character designs from Nobuteru Yuki, who manages to translate the characters from the games and adds subtle touches from his own unique drawing style, making them stand out from the crowd of similar series.
Xenosaga is a series that had much potential but ultimately failed to deliver on most of it. The story on offer is a good one and the characters are fairly distinctive, but the huge storytelling gaps present throughout the show are fundamentally detrimental to its presentation. It would be a cliché to say that this is “one for the fans”, but in this case I’d definitely agree. Fans of the Xenosaga games should check this out, but for everyone else I recommend you seriously think twice, even though the series’ DVD set is undeniably quite cheap and handy. Xenosaga isn’t horrible as such, just very, very incomplete, with all the drawbacks that entails.