Fafner Exodus

Fafner Exodus is in the same awkward position Xenosaga Episode III was when I encountered it about a decade ago. Here's something that is far more skillfully executed than its predecessors, shows the creators at the top of their game, but you also have to trudge through two sort of okay volumes before getting to the main event as they are required for your enjoyment. Not that the original Fafner was bad. It had the unique angles of Fafner pilots slowly becoming the enemy the more they battled, and the parts that were about trying to live day-to-day after most of humanity has been destroyed were a nice change of pace even if aspects liked the televised entertainment portion were ridiculously odd. Unfortunately, it found itself in the shadow of most post-Evangelion shows, hitting on similar floods of religious and mythical aesthetics mixed with angst, not to mention the soup of rather odd quasi tropes from the early 2000s (Referencing Shangri-La, the villains being a collective, and other things that believe or not, were almost fads for a couple years). Despite some of the best animation Xebec could muster and a beautiful score that brought in the London Philharmonic Orchestra, it failed to stand out and became one of the more obscure titles of the anime boom. RahXephon existed and it was doing everything better than this, so why bother? A movie showed up and immediately disappeared with similar issues despite an intriguing premise.

They must like it quite a bit more in Japan because it's about ten years later and the creators still have enough passion to get most of the band back together and produce a full-on sequel. The director Nobuyoshi Habara, the movie's chief director Takashi Noto, scriptwriter Tow Ubukata with has some name recognition these days (some unwanted), and many more from previous projects were brought in to show the world more Fafner. Similar to when Gonzo trotted out a follow-up to Last Exile only I asked for, it was released to little fanfare or hype over here. Unlike Fam the Silver Wing, however, Exodus is the title greatly eclipsing its counterpart with fantastic visuals, a world with a wealth of ideas allowed to grow, an ambitious story with a huge cast and massive battles, and some unexpected fun mixed in with the drama.

Where do we start with Fafner, and most importantly, where do we end? An alien force called the Festum have invaded Earth and killed most of the population. One island, Tatsumiyajima (Known as D Island for simplicity's sake), has managed to survive with a cloaking shield and advanced weaponry included the Fafners. The Fafners are mecha designed to be controlled by human thought with Festum technology. Unfortunately, since it IS enemy tech and the enemy is a collective with no individual thought, using the Fafners slowly causes them to be absorbed into the collective. After being discovered by the Festum and the Neo UN who want to plunder them for separate reasons, the island residents struggle to survive and are forced to use teenagers as their vanguard. I am skimming over a metric ton since going through it all would require a thesis. What you need to know is teenagers Kazuki and Soushi get run through the ringer as Fafner pilots as well as their friend Maya and former Human Army mercenary Kanon.

The initial threat is taken down in the first season, Soushi disappears, and in the follow-up movie, they find out while humans have been messing around with Festum technology, Festum have been messing around with what it's like to be human. A hybrid Festum in human form named Misao is discovered by Kazuki and claims he was sent by the missing Soushi. The rest of the movie is the island trying to protect the new finds from both the human army who want to annihilate every drop of Festum influence from the planet and the Festum want to delete the glitch of individuals that essentially disobey the voice of a very corporeal God.

That oh-so-briefly brings us up to speed to now. Soushi has returned, the island has a long stretch of peace, and everyone is settling in to figure out what a normal life is. I only wish Exodus started with updating these characters instead of  beginning in media res on an attack in Hawaii where a truckload of new characters, most of whom won't be relevant for six episodes, are dumped on the audience with developments and phrases that will be important later rather than sooner (An entire platoon fighting the Festum almost gets devastated with a ROE Alpha command, and it doesn't hit dramatically because the audience doesn't know what ROE Alpha is). After eight minutes of this, we finally go to D Island, where we're introduced to the new main characters first. I would ask you kindly forgive Exodus' rudeness, as it does not seem to understand when you have an epic story with 30-40 significant characters, it's best to give the viewers some solid ground with the familiar first.

If it feels like I've been digging this series' grave, I'm really not. I just want to emphasize how it doesn't leave the best first impression. When the plot settles down, it at least gives a good 10 episodes to get oriented into where everyone stands before trying to juggle dozens of characters in 3 locations. The main characters, after surviving battles they weren't supposed to live through, are trying out this life thing. Most are sticking close to military duty with Maya piloting airplanes instead of Fafners, Canon trying to become a technition, and Soushi deep into research with how to reverse the adverse effects of Fafners on humans and trying to dispose of the exceptionally spooky Fafner Mk. Nicht (It absorbs every pilot's consciousness that has tried to use it and ghosts of those souls wanders the concrete coffin they put Nicht in. Creepy stuff). However, lead Kazuma is content with running a coffee shop, and it's strangely nice to see what happens when the main characters of mech shows driven by teenage angst grow up. Later on, there's even the treat of having Kazuma try to give a pep talk to the next generation of pilots when his generation of anime mech protagonists were simply thrown to the wolves in heaving sobs. It's a tiny detail, but an enjoyable one.

Of course, this wouldn't be a sequel if everyone lived in 26 episodes of peace. A detachment of the Human Army from the Hawaii group travels to D Island, and nothing brings more trouble to this franchise than, "We're from the Human Army and we'd appreciate your help." This band is more friendly than most as they revere Kazuma as a hero and approve of the island's stance of trying to find co-existence. But they still have a mission. Some children born in the world after the Festum have influenced it can communicate with the alien beings through their Mir, the Festum's conscious mind and decision maker. A new Mir is descending to Earth soon and their hope is to use the children called Esparanto to persuade the Mir into a peaceful relationship with humanity rather than immediately being enemies. Unfortunately, the Human Army also had a Festum Mir fragment follow them, and this Mir fragment has filled the missing parts of itself with such human emotions as hatred and vengeance.

The island has to send along veterans to join a group of D Island residents assisting the Human Army. With the new Festum threat, a new generation of pilots has to be trained very quickly, and they find their candidates among three youth who are subconsciously tempered into being Fafner pilots from early on. In one of the gray areas, the island uses propaganda tools like manga to pre-train their children and make them excited about the prospect. Evan as they use recruiting tools, the adults still understand the gravity of the situation with the message that they've been accepted into the Fafner program being treated more like the military delivering a note that their child has died in action. For awhile, the new recruits blow the doors open on the possibilities, bringing creative new approaches to fighting the Festum like using shields attached to their Fafners as jumping off points rather than, you know, shields.

Really, that's what this whole project feels like: A playground of new experiences built off a standard anime. The initial idea of Fafner-based off a Norse myth of a man who turns into a dragon as the price of stealing treasure-is the journey of forced evolution in order to survive. In the first series, the idea is mostly used as a method of manufacturing drama as these characters becoming something inhuman or fading into non-existence was the catalyst for easy grief. Exodus explores the potential of moving beyond being just human in all sorts of directions. It reminds me of the SNES game Illusion of Gaia in the idea that every meaningful step forward in evolution means we have to leave something behind that defines our existence. There is the sadness of leaving what's human behind, delivered as the new generation eventually learns the cost of their upgraded Fafners in far more relatable and terrifying than in previous iterations. On the other hand, Soushi and Kazuma release the full potential of their hybrid existence, eventually unlocking God mode on their Fafners and having the powers to restore and destroy only limited by their imagination. Xebec is usually very earthbound with their work, but on this one, they let go and the results can be pretty breathtaking at times. Perhaps the excitement of the later fights is taken down a couple notches because they can restore limbs, heal their friends, and send hundreds of Festum into oblivion at will, but there is a certain awe in how incredibly huge the scope of their abilities become.

The most obvious improvement comes in the visuals. This is one of the best looking anime series you will ever see. What it lacks in artistic bend, it makes up for in sheer craftsmanship and consistency. In wide shots of the island at sunset, every wave and crest in the ocean is visible and moving. Skies on cloudy days are incredibly layered with insane work on gradient and different cloud types. Futuristic 3-D computer readouts have depth you never really appreciate until bad series get it wrong. Half of the shots in this series are absolutely gorgeous with attention given to seemingly every crack in the street. The animation is generally fluid, even in gigantic battles involving thousands of participants. The best part is the episodes have generally the same quality of animation, hardly ever degrading. The character designs might be a little too similar to each other. The concept of D Island as a place that is one huge mostly non-related family might be taken too close to heart as there are a few characters who look exactly like each other and it sometimes can be hard to tell who's speaking if they're in a protective suit, which happens more than you'd think. It doesn't help the two female leads Maya and Kanon are both redheads and Kanon's hairstyle resembles much more of the general population this time around.

In the music department, it's hard to match what the original had with modern budgets. Half of the score is a straight rehash of original, a quarter mostly incidental noodlings, which leaves a small portion of new music which tries to match the sophistication of the first go 'round. It's a bit disappointing for a soundtrack nerd like myself to not have a double down of quality symphonic tunes, but for functionality purposes, it's a-OK. J-Pop duo angela also return to do all the credit music, and their openings are as properly rousing as their closings are properly melancholy. Over a decade later and they've certainly still got it.

A sticking point for many besides the prospect of following a direct sequel is Exodus is an exceptionally dense series. Not in the dumb kind of way, but from the sheer number of characters, story lines, technical jargon, locations, and so on. An advantage for most of you readers will be that you can marathon this thing, and it's best experienced by binge viewing. When I went out of my way to review this for seasonals last year, it was a bear to keep track of everything, especially when the two cours were released months apart. So much so, I had to re-watch much of the series just to write this separate review. Watching everything side-by-side made so many elements pop much more than a weekly serving. Not that everything is fixed with a simple change in viewing habit. Xebec's eyes are perhaps larger than their stomachs at times, putting awesome concepts that deserve proper time and effort into throwaway segments. In the second half, the topic of an underground city where humanity lived to escape the Festum is broached upon, but barely explored. The ending is also something that is a much better conclusion conceptually than emotionally.

What truly makes the difference is the growth in the relationships..  The franchise's core concept of the island as family is improved, giving a friendly repartee with genuinely touching comradery. The leads have more meaningful exchanges, especially the fujoshi-baiting friendship between Kazuma and Soushi. They're the most effeminate bros you will ever meet, but they make it work.The main characters growing up helps immensely.  In shows involving teenagers forced to fight for the future of humanity, most of the characters handle matters by being reactionary to the boatload of dramatic missiles launched at them. Exodus' people have grown up a bit, taking responsibility for their own actions and making decisions without being forced into it. As a show built on making difficult choices, it's more meaningful when the choices are made willingly. The series' one major death isn't even much of a surprise since it is heavily suggested it will happen, but since it was a willful departure for the sake of the future, it has genuine bittersweetness and quiet dignity instead of pushing for artificial tears. Even the new generation is fully aware of what they are doing and participating because they want to (Even if the reason they're doing it is because piloting Fafners seems pretty damn awesome).

It feels like the reason I'm broke all the time is I'm always trying to make hard sells. Fafner Exodus just misses being a classic, perhaps not being iconic enough, or maybe the characters are stuck at solid and don't rise to the level of the plot complexities and the beautiful imagery. Yet it is still one of the best series from 2015, made with extreme care and worthy of discussion. So here I am discussing it after I spent months talking about it on seasonal reviews. Being a direct sequel to more troubled older siblings with enough characters to overwhelm the family in Summer Wars may make it a difficult entry point, but that doesn't mean it can't get props for being an incredibly ambitious title that succeeds at most of its ambitions. Let me put this way: As a person who watched and forgot about most of Fafner ten years ago, I can't believe I'm telling you how good this thing is, but here we are.


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