The first episode of the 2014 animé Captain Earth promises, in its title card, that “everything will be obvious soon” – indeed, compared to its natural comparison-points in studio Bones’ other mecha animé Eureka Seven and Rahxephon it is forthright and straightforward in its worldbuilding and conflict. Enemies – Approaching Earth Objects – have attacked Earth in the past and are doing so now, and this time humanity has created a machine to fight them on an equal footing. From this introduction to the concept there are hints of a more in-depth plot – factions exist within the human governments who seek a solution to the alien problem other than using fighting-machines (the “Ark Faction”), and the motivations of the enemies are still fairly uncertain – but as an introduction to a new world – and indeed a new take on a very established concept – it takes an approach that proceeds at a rapid pace to build up its revelations.
The first episode of Captain Earth is densely-paced, with constant skipping between timelines. The protagonist, Daichi, is shown to have lost his father at a young age first through how others react to his situation (concerns it is affecting his schoolwork), while a subsequent flashback shows how he actually died. Daichi’s father was among the first “Captains,” a force intended to fight the AEOs, and died in a suicide mission saving Earth from an attack. The way in which this is handled is very evocative of the opening episode of Gunbuster, in which Noriko Takaya’s father fights to the very end against the approaching STMC, giving his life for the greater good. Gunbuster‘s introduction uses the visual language of the first episode of Space Battleship Yamato in its depiction of Noriko’s father; he dies in a quite similar fashion (and in a scene framed similarly) to the young officer who saves the heroic Okita who will go on to be that series’ mentor figure. The series then continues to show how Noriko has come to terms with this, and how it in turn has affected her life. Captain Earth takes this idea and turns it about; Daichi claims himself that his introversion and poor grades are not the result of unresolved grief, and even apparently sees himself as having shut himself away intentionally – yet the sequence of events that lead to his assuming control of the robot that fights the AEOs comes from him trying to get some closure and settle his own problems. This makes him an interesting protagonist; events depicted in flashbacks throughout the first episode are those that should turn him into the idealistic, hot-blooded robot hero that the viewer expects. He has a natural grievance with the AEOs, he is shown to be curious and linked to the facility that hosts the robot, and yet this has turned into a resigned cynicism. In this way his uneasy midpoint between determination and self-awareness is very evocative of Rahxephon’s Ayato Kamina. Ayato fights out of obligation and in time comes to enjoy – or at the least tolerate – his duties, and his first meeting with the Rahxephon itself is orchestrated by a sequence of events including an eventual bereavement (the death of Reika) and the manipulations of a superior (Haruka Shitow).
In the same way Daichi’s introduction to super-robot piloting comes as he tries to resolve his own unease at his father’s death by returning to the facility, and the visions of impending destruction that the people he meets there present him with. He is initially beyond sceptical well into cynicism; when presented with a mysterious girl he feels he should definitely not follow her (clearly showing “New Daichi” in comparison with the more curious past Daichi). The precise significance of the past scenes – Daichi’s friendship with the superpowered Teppei, a mysterious girl in a research centre and his heirloom jewel that seems to be of some significance – is unclear (even if super-robot genre metaknowledge can allow a viewer to have a good guess) yet its importance is more in this episode based around showing how Daichi has changed. In the past he was unafraid to meet a suspicious boy and could take supernatural phenomena at face value – as he grew up, and became more introverted, he has become unwilling to accept the unusual. Yet in the end, he is still reasonable; he wants to act to save Earth from danger, and unquestioningly gets into the robot – becoming a Captain like his father – to do so. There is the suggestion that this has been in some way preordained; the crew of the facility mention Teppei again as someone they are still knowledgeable of, and so the suggestion is that their reuniting is key to allowing the robot to function at full power.
Much less information is provided about the enemy, and what can be learned is learned partially through inference. Humanity has erected complex defences which – from implication – have held to date. Daichi’s father died fighting in the past, evidently before the anti-AEO defences were as strong as they are now, but with its elaborate space fortresses and defence lines Earth has kept the invaders at bay. The concepts and aesthetics of this evoke a space-based Pacific Rim, or elements of Aquarion, the enemies appearing through warp-gates and approaching earth to be held off first with conventional weapons and then more decisive methods. Orbital weapons – Impacters – seem to have in the past been generally effective but against unknown enemies – it is not clear if the AEO Daichi’s father fought was the same kind of enemy as the AEO Daichi sorties to attack. What is clear is that the enemy now are close to human, and use super-robots themselves – a move which obsoletes humanity’s defences. This is not a new narrative device – complacency and siege aesthetics are commonplace in super-robot animé – but it is presented in a way which avoids the inherent illogicalities of some iterations of it. The arrival of the robot which requires Daichi to fight is presented – by its focus in the plot – as something unexpected. Daichi’s father died fighting something just seen as a speck of light in space, not something shown to be a robot with a pilot. The AEOs – apparently the “Kill T Gang” according to diegetic text – themselves talk of this robot as something difficult to use and limited – thus suggesting they have learned what is not effective and are seeking a new strategy. What this suggestion of change does is account for how humanity has apparently survived well to date; the defences are ineffective against this threat not AEOs in general. Had every AEO been shown to be so devastating and easily able to bypass humanity’s defences, the continued endurance of a prosperous and technologically advanced Earth would be unlikely. Series which place the enemy on a significantly superior footing – such as Attack on Titan, Evangelion and so on – need to depict a world suitably adapted to this. Attack on Titan has mankind reduced to living in a giant walled city (illogical as it may seem). Evangelion both limits its enemies’ mission to a singleminded one and shows its cities to have been designed to weather attacks if not specifically defeat enemies. This was arguably a failing of Eureka 7 sequel Astral Ocean – its enemies were shown to be incredibly powerful, highly unpredictable and yet mankind’s development had been almost unslowed by attacks that the series’ “now” touted as potentially apocalyptic if left unchecked.
From the dense web of flashbacks that teach the viewer much about Daichi and his world while also keeping much far from “obvious” to the complex, visually impressive robot action, Captain Earth is a super-robot show that makes a strong first impression. The ending sequence of the first episode – a long, even within the confines of the genre, and technically dense sequence of the robot being constructed in situ itself is a curiosity – the idea of a machine combined or constructed at the battlefield has existed since Getter Robo in the 1970s, yet much of Captain Earth‘s combination sequence invites questions. Its parts are docked separately in a series of separate orbital hangars, and these must be aligned to complete the process. It is a scientific version of the ritualistic aesthetics of super-robots – the reliance on catchphrases, mottos and unified actions writ large in space – but usually there is some explanation provided for why this happens. Daichi accepts his duty and carries it out, working through the complex combination sequence without the usual explanation from ground control. The robot is both shown as a contingency – only deploying once the usual defences have failed – but also something practiced and prepared for with immensely complex systems.