Something I like a lot about Ultraman, among many other sci-fi serials, is it’s frequently willing to just have a very angry episode about scientific hubris and exploitation. The scientific world, or the military, or capitalism, will see in the marvelous and wonderful a chance to grab power or profit, and everything will go wrong. You know exactly what will go wrong and you will see how it once again leads to a senseless fight. Argento Soma is a series that in its first 8 episodes sets itself up as a very long build up to tragedy of this kind, and this is why it is very good.
The story is not complex and its mysteries don’t really matter to the themes. A scientist revives an alien’s corpse, and it escapes. Various groups of people fight over the alien specimen, because it is very useful in fighting other alien invaders. This could be the whole premise, it could not in the remaining episodes even think to explain much about the invaders and I would not be left at all disappointed because the mysteries don’t matter; the tragedy does. The series is rich in the imagery of Frankenstein, from the opening episode of the alien’s resurrection amidst coils and wires as the scientist screams “it’s alive” just before being killed by his creation to the corpse-like mask forced onto the alien with a massive bolt jammed into its neck to serve as a kill switch. But that is one thematic aspect that in turn is tied into many others that all add up to Argento Soma being a tragedy in the making. A living being is enslaved by science, threatened and tortured into fighting for humanity’s survival and that is not even enough; the world is paranoid and scared of its enslaved saviour. And the only mediating factor in this story, the one hair-trigger thing that stops EX1 from (presumably) turning on its masters is a traumatised child emotionally blackmailed into compliance.
That all sounds unbelievably, perhaps unnecessarily dark. It might even sound like a gross, exploitative “what if all these wholesome heroic stories were actually evil” affair. I mean there are clear elements of Ultraman with the mythical giant summoned by the supposedly altruistic science patrol-esque organisation at odds with the military, the protagonist a miraculous survivor of an alien encounter. There are elements of Giant Robo and Tetsujin 28 with the small child the handler of a giant heroic being of metal. There are, undeniably, echoes of Evangelion echoing Ultraman. But I think the thing that sits most forebodingly in my mind when I watch Argento Soma is The Iron Giant. EX1 fights, for sure, but there is a humanity, a fear, in its characterisation – it is animalistic, acting instinctively to protect others and cowering when attacked by those it cannot tell apart from its friends. You feel sympathy for the unspeaking giant because you can only imagine its feelings. It is being used as a weapon, but is it one? Harriet, EX1’s child companion, has a fear of guns after her family were killed. When EX1 is surrounded by human-piloted mechs firing their own weapons, you see a similar kind of shell-shock. When the military open fire on it, you see it unable to choose between fighting back, lashing out at those who look like its carers, or simply running and abandoning Harriet.
I think you need to approach Argento Soma with the mindset that a story can be tragic or horrifying – and indeed highly critical of things – without being edgy or exploitative. This isn’t a story that’s making all this suffering out to be enticing or transgressive, it’s a story that’s making it very clear that there are very few real good people here; there may be good intentions or high-minded motives, but they are all going to lead to suffering being caused one way or another. It’s rare, I think, for a mecha anime to be an actual tragedy. This one is. Consider it this way; in the Ultraman episodes in this vein the climactic fight against the monstrous product of scientific hubris is seen as a learning experience for the arrogant humans. They have caused problems and must turn to a godlike figure to sort them and judge them. I don’t think there’s an Ultraman in Argento Soma who will deal with EX1 when things go wrong. I think things are going to go very badly and I think that it will be mostly directed at people who mostly deserve it – the protagonists. And that’s a very unusual feeling to have when watching a show about a big robot punching aliens.