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Each season, there are guaranteed to be a few mecha anime—usually following a young male protagonist who ends up as the pilot of a super powerful giant robot and becomes the good guys’ only hope for victory. Aldnoah.Zero takes this common formula and turns it on its head.

Good – A War Never Ended

Aldnoah.Zero is set in a reality similar to our own but with one major twist: The Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972 found an alien hypergate connecting the Moon and Mars. In the years afterward, Mars was colonized—eventually leading to war between the worlds. Because of alien relics found on Mars—specifically the physics-bending Aldnoah drive engine—the Martians were able to attack with technology far beyond that of the Terrans. However, the war ended suddenly with the destruction of the hypergate itself—leaving thousands of Martians stranded on their spaceships in Earth orbit and under orders not to attack.

The story proper begins 15 years later when, much like the assassination of Duke Ferdinand started World War I, the assassination of the Martian princess while on a diplomatic mission to earth re-ignites the war, killing millions in the initial attack.

Of course, the trick is that it is not the Terrans who are responsible for the assassination, but rather rogue elements of Mars who, after essentially idling in orbit for 15 years, have finally had enough. Forced to stop the attack on the edge of victory and then forced to live in pseudo-exile from Mars with Earth just sitting there in reach finally proves too much for them. And while their actions are horrible, the anime does a great job of showing their point of view in—if not a sympathetic, then at least a reluctantly understanding—light.

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Good – Two Sides to the War

Aldnoah is structured largely as two plot threads mirroring each other. On one hand, we have Slaine, a boy from Earth who crash landed with his father on Mars, only to become a pseudo-slave to one of the Martian counts. However, as this situation ended up allowing him to befriend the Princess of Mars, he doesn't hate his role in life; rather he has become fiercely loyal to the Princess and Mars despite the horrible treatment his outsider status causes. It is through his eyes we see the Martian side of the war and the conflicting elements of its own political landscape.

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The mirror to this is the Princess' story. Not as dead as those behind the conspiracy to kill her believe, she is forced to hide incognito among the refugees fleeing Tokyo. Thus, she is learning about Terran society much as Slaine was forced to learn about Martian society. And like Slaine, the Princess also becomes fiercely loyal to her new companions, going so far as to reveal her true identity if they are in any danger she feels able to combat.

Between Slaine and the Princess, we are able to see both sides of the war on a personal level. We meet the major players on both sides and see that, despite their chosen motives and intentions, no one is simply “evil.” Everyone believes their own cause is just.

Good – Gundam Where Only the Villains Have Gundams

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Interestingly, however, the main protagonist of Aldnoah is neither Slaine nor the Princess. Rather it is Inaho, a student in the government-mandated school mecha piloting program. Much like Mars, Earth has humanoid mecha; however, they are far inferior to the Martian mecha in every possible way. Put in context an anime fan would understand, the Martians have Gundams while the Terrans have the mobile suits that the Gundams can easily dispatch by the hundreds.

More than that though, to protect his small group of friends and refugees, it falls to Inaho to dispatch these powerful mobile suits despite their seeming invincibility—and with a mecha that is laughably weak even by earth mecha standards.

This is where a lot of the fun of Aldnoah comes from. Inaho is a smart main character. Faced with the crisis of these Gundam-like mecha, he logically gathers information and then makes a plan to defeat them. More than anything, he takes advantage of the one weakness that all the Gundams share: the arrogance of their pilots. The Martians simply expect to be invincible and unstoppable. So when faced with a real fight, their lack of skill as pilots always comes to the forefront. And in their panic, Inaho's calm, collected, and logical mind wins every time.

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Good – The Willingness to Break All the Rules

[Skip to the next section to avoid spoilers.] Aldnoah is a show willing to break many of the “rules” of fiction—especially when it comes to the end. While it has happened before in a handful of anime in the past, this is an anime that most definitely does not have a happy ending. Yes, the final battle is won—though with catastrophic losses—but the war is far from over. More than that, of the three main characters, Slaine, Inaho, and the Princess, two are shot in the head—with the third being the shooter of one of the other two. This is even more shocking when you realize that 12 more episodes of this anime are on the way this January and there is effectively no lead character anymore. This is something almost never done in popular fiction and it opens up the story in numerous ways. Simply put, it's an ending that—even if you're enraged by the character deaths—you'll be back to see what happens next.

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Mixed – Dark and Disturbing

Like Madoka Magica, Psycho Pass, Fate/Zero, and Song of Saya, Aldnoah.Zero is a story created by Gen Urobuchi—a writer who is well known for disturbing twists and dark deconstructions of various anime genres. Thus it is no surprise this series comes complete with graphic violence and characters pushed to their breaking points psychologically. In other words, you'll see death, mass murder, executions, strangulation, PTSD attacks, and other mental breakdowns. All work well in the series, excellently serving the plot and characters. But if you're looking for an upbeat anime, this is not the one for you.

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Final Thoughts

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Aldnoah.Zero is a mecha anime for people who long for a twist on the typical mecha anime tropes. It is an interesting alternate universe war story with characters that serve to flesh out both sides of the conflict in very human ways. If you like smart characters, a well thought-out world, and a story that's not afraid to break some of popular fiction's most common rules, this anime is for you. Just keep in mind, it's one heck of a dark story.

Aldnoah.Zero aired on Tokyo MX in Japan. It can be viewed for free with English subtitles in the US at Crunchyroll, Daisuki, and Hulu.

For a second opinion on this series, check out the review over at TAY, our reader run blog.

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Kotaku East is your slice of Asian internet culture, bringing you the latest talking points from Japan, Korea, China and beyond. Tune in every morning from 4am to 8am.

To contact the author of this post, write to BiggestinJapan@gmail.com or find him on Twitter @BiggestinJapan.