When Netflix streamed Knights of Sidonia’s first season last year, it was met with widespread acclaim. Based on Tsutomu Nihei’s manga, the series — which is set over a thousand years in the future and follows the last remnants of humanity aboard a massive spaceship (the titular Sidonia) as they battle a mysterious alien lifeform — was praised for its fresh take on mecha animé, and for weaving in elements of space opera and hard sci-fi. (Richard Eisenbeis’ positive review discusses much of this.)
Needless to say, when the second season started streaming earlier this month, many were excited to return to Sidonia (myself included). Which is unfortunate, because Knights of Sidonia’s second season sacrifices nearly everything that made its first season so interesting and refreshing.
The biggest loss results from the new season’s decision to focus much of its length on the relationships between main character Nagate Tanikaze — who mysteriously emerged from Sidonia’s depths to become its finest pilot — and a growing array of females. Yes, that’s right: in season two, Knights of Sidonia ceased being a mecha animé and became a harem animé. And you know what that means… compromising positions, fan service, silly misunderstandings that raise questions about the characters’ intelligence, romantic triangles and quadrangles, and did I mention fan service?
At times, it’s like you’re watching a completely different series, as plot elements that seemed so critical in season one are ignored. The best example of this is the first season’s realistic focus on space travel’s risks and challenges. Consequently, there’s no scene in season two that’s anywhere as gripping or impactful as the season one scene where Sidonia is redirected to avoid an alien attack. In the scene, bodies go flying as the massive ship’s inertia shifts, and the effects are grisly, haunting, and drive home the precarious existence of Sidonia.
Indeed, there’s a near constant lack of any sense of danger and tension (which was reminiscent of the best Battlestar Galactica episodes, e.g., “33”). Instead, we get harem clichés.
And as for those harem clichés, not only are they annoying but they’re one missed opportunity after another to further explore Sidonia’s world. One of the series’ most interesting characters has been Izana Shinotose, who is neither male nor female, but “middlesex.” In season one, there was some indication that “middlesex” individuals — who can eventually choose their gender when they find a mate or romantic interest — are seen as second-class citizens, which helped make Izana a pretty sympathetic character, especially as they befriended Nagate (and began developing feelings for him).
Izana’s burgeoning relationship with the clueless Nagate might’ve been rather sweet this season if not for the stupid harem animé clichés that require Izana to become increasingly timid and submissive. And when Izana’s body undergoes its inevitable transformation, and “they” becomes a “she,” it seems like an obvious chance to discuss more fully how “middlesex” characters function in broader Sidonian society. Instead, we get a fan service-y bathing scene where two of the other characters in Nagate’s harem — Yuhata Midorikawa (Nagate and Izana’s commanding officer) and the human/alien hybrid Tsumugi (which manifests herself as a giant alien phallus, more on that in a bit) — comment at length on Izana’s newly formed breasts.
Season two’s biggest development is the introduction of Tsumugi Shiraui, the aforementioned human/alien hybrid — and yet another missed opportunity. As a hybrid, Tsumugi is both a massive war machine capable of slaughtering hundreds of aliens and a small child trying to understand the world around her. Nagate immediately befriends her — due, no doubt, to the fact that she was derived from a girl that he liked in season one before she was killed — and attempts to help her integrate within Sidonia. This scenario has all kinds of possibilities for dramatic and thematic material, but it’s all brushed aside once Tsumugi begins crushing on Nagate. And it doesn’t help that she manifests herself as a phallic-looking entity capable of winding its way through Sidonia’s pipes.
Even this seemingly trivial plot development strains plausibility. One would think that the crew of a ship containing the remnants of a human race decimated by an alien lifeform would be a bit more leery of a weapon created from said lifeform. We see some of that, but apparently, everyone is quickly charmed by her ultra cutesy voice, shy demeanor, and, um, squishy phallic appendage to care too much about security concerns. Which is just sloppy storytelling.
And I haven’t even touched on the infection that brainwashes several key members of Sidonia’s crew, or the political machinations of Sidonia’s mysterious captain, Kobayashi, or the mysteries surrounding Nagate’s past, or the fate of the colonists who left Sidonia earlier in the series. Seemingly crucial plot points like these are brought up, bandied about for five minutes, and then quickly discarded so that we can get back to the really important stuff, like watching Nagate get abused and misunderstood by the women (and alien hybrids) in his life.
So, is there anything good about Knights of Sidonia’s second season? Well, once you get used to the CGI technique used for the animation, the series looks great, especially in the battle sequences. As much as I dislike the character, I have to admit that Tsumugi looks really cool (phallic appendage notwithstanding), and the animators do a good job of conveying her personality through little details. Some of the new mecha and weapons that Sidonia’s crew develops throughout the season are rather clever, and it’s interesting to see how the ship’s tactics evolve around them. Finally, we get to see some new areas of Sidonia — although such glimpses leave me wanting to know more about Sidonia society. But exploring that would get in the way of us seeing Nagate getting punched in the face because he walked in on yet another girl changing, or listening to characters talk about breast size, or watching individuals get put in contrived and compromising positions.
Because when I’m watching a far-future space opera about a fragile human race trying to survive against an inexorable alien foe, that’s exactly the sort of stuff I want to see.