The recently-begun animé series Suisei no Gargantia attracted my interest primarily because of how similar its premise seemed to the much earlier series Super Dimension Century Orguss; in both series, a pilot is thrown into an alien world as a result of some kind of space phenomenon and must cope with the culture shock inherent to it. It is currently too early in Gargantia to see where it is taking this premise, but watching its opening episode led to me rewatching the opening episodes of Orguss to see how they compared, and subsequently continuing with the series past the few episodes I had seen.
What Orguss does very well is find a compromise between slow-burning setting development – sharing its protagonist, Kei’s, confusion and learning process within his new surroundings – and providing all the information needed to tell its story. It sets up the world Kei is familiar with in order to show his personality – dedicated soldier, playboy and rogue – and then focuses on how these traits are not per se applicable to the new world he enters. The alien world, with its warring Chiram and Emarn forces and the smaller community of the factory-ship Glomar where he now lives, is both more liberated than he is prepared for yet also far less tolerant of his perversions and sexual advances. This is the simplest, and arguably plainest, way of presenting a society which is alien – its social values do not align with the outsider’s. Furthermore, in a quite unusual way among science-fiction animé, the world where Kei ends up is presented as having a wide number of different cultures. While the core conflict – the one which drives the plot forward – is between the two largest, the Atlanteans and Muu are presented as examples of cultures affected by the war but not directly involved in it. Thematically, this fits Orguss; the Glomar is a factory-ship crewed by merchants and so its dealings are naturally with civilians over the military. Indeed, that Kei brings the war to them by arriving – and fighting the Chiram – provides the natural early tension in the series as the ship’s crew debate what to do.
Yet the military plot, for this opening section, is always only a part of the story; even though Kei is the traditional mecha animé hero, with his unique unit and great skill, he is one man with only a limited interest in the war with the Chiram. The emphasis is more on exploring the world – in the process building the Chiram up as a threat, for sure, but through the avoidance of combat – and exploration of how the civilians respond to Kei’s wanted-man status – also presenting the world as a credible one. Details like the Glomar having to stop at a larger village in order to make a long-distance telephone call (despite being an apparently advanced airship), or the constant focus on how the societies depicted rely on recycling old wrecks and repurposing machinery seem to add to this entirely alien world is presented. It is clear that the world of Orguss, as it is introduced to the audience, is one which is decaying and new civilisations emerging from the decline of past glories. The introduction of the android Mhoohm early in the series, adding another comic-relief character to the ensemble cast, provides another demonstration of this – she is simultaneously a highly advanced piece of technology in the form of a humanoid robot (fooling Kei into thinking she is a child) yet also just scrap kept hanging around an old hardware store in a village. What is being presented as central to the story is this changing relationship with technology; the Chiram are the closest society to the one Kei has left to arrive here, with their regimented military, significant forces and intent to control the people. The Emarn are introduced as traders and most crucially victims of the war.
This alienating effect built up by how the characters act and the societies they inhabit survive is further strengthened by the oddity of the land itself; scenes showing maps of this supposedly alien world show familiar Earth coastlines and locations (most of the action surrounding Kei’s first major battle takes place in Gibraltar), and old technology from different Earth nations – such as petrol-powered jeeps – is used alongside airships, hover-bikes and war robots. The only explanation presented for this at first is the idea that the world is undergoing some kind of ongoing time-warp; its landscape is always changing and things are brought through distortions in space-time. Kei, as a living example – called the “differential point” – is thus held to be very important and valuable. By the ninth episode, in which apparently the Glomar visits Paris to find Marie Antoinette still ruling and the French Revolution about to begin anew, any preconceptions or theories the viewer might have about the world they are seeing are completely undermined. It is still not fully clear if this world is Earth in the far future, Earth in a parallel world, or an alien planet that has just acquired Earth cultures owing to the distortions. That, ultimately, remains as an ongoing preoccupation of the series, a mystery to be resolved in time with each addition to the cast – Kei’s plane being reworked into the Orguss robot, him buying Mhoohm from the scrap-dealer, and the discovery of an old Muu combat robot in a battlefield full of wrecks – providing some new detail to the setting.
Here it is worth returning to Suisei no Gargantia. It, in the course of its first episode, lays plain where its protagonist Red has ended up; on Earth, a planet thought lost in his society. Yet while it lays this out plainly far more quickly than Orguss does, beginning with the revelation and then fleshing out the detail post-facto, the result is much less convincing. Too long is spent on revealing this; it is presented as a mystery to Red but not convincingly as one to the audience as a result, and when he makes his escape from the hangar where he arrives the chase scene used to flesh out his response simply confirms too quickly what is made obvious at the end. The viewer – and Red – are kept in the dark about what the society they are witnessing is like, with all the detail provided very simple surface stuff which superficially resembles Orguss‘s world of technological scavenging. Much more is known about the world Red has left – although all this surfeit of exposition ends up showing is how little the audience knows about Red himself.
Kei’s introduction in Orguss quickly defines him as a character with significant force of personality, and the scenes immediately following his arrival on the Glomar bring this into play as he meets his new object of affection Mimsy, the maternal captain Shaia and the bizarre camel-like alien Jayviet. It is world-building, much like Red’s introduction in Gargantia – yet it is done not through the interaction between a consummate, fear-free soldier and his emotionless computer but through enjoyable characters interacting. The difference in approach between the two series is subtle yet crucial; Orguss is a series about Kei learning how to live in a new world, and the adventures of the Glomar as they deal with him. Gargantia is presented from its handling of the same introductory story as a story about Red, and how he has to come to terms with the displacement. For all it has much denser exposition, and makes its big reveal about its world so much sooner, it is if anything made less compelling for it.