Knights of Sidonia (Shidonia no Kishi):

Mecha Anime and Primordial Evil

The Netflix Original Series Knights of Sidonia is a triumphal tour of the mecha genre and a major coup for Netflix as their first anime series. While it’s not a true original, as it aired in Japan earlier this year, it is the first time the streaming service has offered up a localization of a series before it was available on DVD or broadcast in the US. As fascinating as the show is, I think we can let it slide for now.

The viewer begins with an opening theme that combines elements of post-punk Jrock and the skirling of a mad Highlands call to arms. The artwork, especially as seen in the “Views of Sidonia” bumps, has elements of Escher’s perspectives, Hunderwasser’s architecture, and Bauhaus’ relentless combination of form and function. This show is so good, even the scenery tells a story. The basic concept is that a series of ships left Earth after it was destroyed by the alien Gauna (奇居子) and is set a millennium into the exodus. A major disaster decimates the Sidonia’s population a few years before the story starts, and they have no way to contact any of the other ships, so a series of genetic engineering experiments led to a vast array of clones, humans who photosynthesize, functional hermaphrodites, and a group of immortals who secretly run the ship from behind the mask, literal and figurative, of Capt. Kobayashi. She only ever takes it off when addressing the council or the main character of the series, Tanikaze Nagate.

Tanikaze was raised underground away from Sidonian society by his “grandfather,” Saito Hiroki, who later turns out to be the original of which he is a clone. Saito rejected Kobayashi’s plans for rebuilding society when he found out about the unauthorized clone. Saito, a Garde pilot, trains his grandson on a Type-17 Garde (衛人, Morito) simulator all his life. This training leads to Tanikaze being assigned to the old model Mark-17 Garde, known as Tsugumori, which produces a conflict with Kunato Norio, a scion of a wealthy family who had his own eyes on the storied relic from the previous war. This jealousy, plus a wounded ego after the death of a comrade, leads him to abandon the Gardes and sulk in his family mansion.

The Gauna are covered in a protective layer called the Ena (胞衣, lit. “placenta”). Once this shell is breached, the core must be pierced by a special Kabizashi spear made from material the Sidonia found at an abandoned Gauna colony in a fashion rather similar to finding Smaug’s soft spot in The Hobbit. As for the rest of the plot, go watch it yourself or pick up a copy of the manga on which it’s based. This series is well worth the time to watch twelve episodes.

Now, the relationship between the Kabizashi and the Gauna is worth investigating in its own right. The Gauna come in many types and at least some of them are able to assimilate information, weapons, and even shapes from the things they ingest. Such a protean nature fits in well with the concept of the primordial dragon of chaos found in many cultures. Such dragons are often destroyed by spears or spear-like weapons. Probably most famous story in the West is that of St. George and the Dragon. Even Bard the Bowman of Esgaroth used an arrow, a shafted weapon not unlike a miniature spear, to slay Smaug in The Hobbit. In Babylon, Marduk struck the final blow against Tiamat with a spear. The trope fits in especially well when you consider that, historically speaking, samurai were more apt to use spears called naginata before they would use a sword. Those were reserved for use after being unhorsed (the concept of bushido and its emphasis on the sword is mostly an ex post facto romanticization of history). In Japanese mythology, the first two gods who come to Earth, Izanagi and Izanami, use a magic spear called Amenonuhoko (天沼矛) to stir up the unformed waters and create the first land. Even the much-loved series Evangelion used the Spear of Longinus to imprison one of the angels.

The point here is that the spear or a similar weapon is wielded by the forces of good and order to overthrow or capture the forces of evil and chaos. When adapted for infantry, it became the universal weapon that almost any soldier could afford and learn how to use as was seen in societies as far sundered as the Aztecs and the Spartans. The orderly rows and columns were perfectly suited to the close formations that evolved in these and many other societies. Such tactics would remain standard the world over until mid-nineteenth-century technological advances made adaptation to a more open formation necessary. These units were the embodied symbols of a properly constituted government exercising its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The spear, as such, becomes shorthand for an orderly society.

Further, either sex could use such a weapon. In ancient Greece, Athena was almost always depicted with a spear and Izanagi and Izanami are shown wielding Amenonuhoko together. As such, the spear transcends the phallocentric associations of the sword, an almost universally masculine weapon associated with personal prowess rather than representing social cohesion and responsibility as does a spear. In Knights of Sidonia, Ochiai is the arch-villain who uses hybridization technology to create a blend of human and Gauna and then discards the remaining Kabizashi on his own initiative. That is, an individual acting on his own very nearly destroyed the society that was defended by the spears. It took a shared effort and sacrifice to regain the weapons Ochiai discarded; indeed, it was this very effort that made the genetic engineering of humanity a necessity. His actions thus go against order, both natural and societal. Even with the Heigis particle weapons (not to be confused with the Higgs particle), the Sidonians can merely wound the Gauna, not destroy them. But with the spears, and working as Garde teams, they can win the day. Sacrifice is still sometimes required, as is seen most tragically in the case of Hoshijiro Shizuka, but it is ultimately teamwork and the Kabizashi that win the day.

In all, then, Knights of Sidonia examines the nature of the spear and its place in forming, defining, and defending a community. It is a sure force against the polymorphous external enemies of civilization, whether mythic dragons at the dawn of mankind or Gauna larger than asteroids in the far reaches of the future.

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J. Holder Bennett spends his time in the “real” world, whatever that means, as a history professor in North Texas. The rest of the time he focuses on his real love: fandom. For the past fifteen years he’s helped run A-Kon, an anime and manga convention in Dallas, and recently organized the Fandom and Neomedia Studies (FANS) association to bring together fans and academics for the better understanding of their mutual love. He has also done work on historical fiction and collaborated on analyses of science in cinema. Yes, he’s that guy.

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