Every genre has certain themes that are considered its staples – the building blocks of stories that have been, or are yet to be told. One of the most common elements in science fiction is the Earth being attacked by an alien force with superior technology, and there are numerous stories about this topic in everything from radio plays to comic books (with a few Hollywood blockbusters thrown in for good measure). These tales are usually resolved by the use of human ingenuity and courage, together with a healthy dose of serendipity (the battleship just happened to be there).
But what happens when the enemy really is unbeatable?
Heroic Age is set in a future where Earth has been conquered by two alien races that are hell-bent on the total annihilation of the ones they call the “Iron Tribe”. Over a century has passed and humanity continues to live in hiding across the universe, hoping and praying that the saviour promised by the all-powerful Golden Tribe would appear. After a short introduction concerning the major tribes in the series, the story begins with the spectral image of Princess Dianeira Y Laisha Arturia Ol Yunos floating in space as she attempts to locate the traces of a ship that has been lost for over 120 years. Together with the crew of the Argonaut she has journeyed through uncharted areas of the cosmos, and after four long years of searching it seems as though their quest may end on a half-destroyed planet that appears to be cut off from the rest of space.
That world is Olone, and upon it lives a young man called Age (and his tentacled friend Food).
Science fiction tends to be a pretty common genre in anime, but only a few shows can truly call themselves space operas – and even amongst those Heroic Age is more than a little unusual. Much of the plot has been inspired by greek mythology – in particular the legends surrounding Hercules – and this is very clearly reflected in not just the nomenclature or the tasks given to the Nodos, but also in the language used throughout the series. The narrative adopts a measured, formal tone which may not sit well with viewers who want a frenetic pace and minute-to-minute excitement – even though this approach is fitting because of the heavy classical influencel.
That said, Heroic Age does contain a lot of combat and tension, but instead of the usual gung-ho attitude of other space-based anime (certain parts of the Macross and Gundam franchises for example), there’s a tangible sense of desperation within the series. This stems from the fact that humanity is very clearly outnumbered, outgunned, and vastly inferior in terms of technology – factors which place far more emphasis on the need for a miracle, and like all such things the Nodos are both a blessing and a curse.
In terms of design the characters are something of a mixed bag. The clothing for the humans is generally in keeping with the plot (utilitarian outfits for the most part), but their features are often unremarkable. As for the aliens, aside from the insectoid Bronze tribe and Food’s species on Olone, everyone seems to be humanoid. It would have been nice if a little more imagination had been applied to the other inhabitants of the universe – variety is the spice of life after all. That said, the Nodos are interesting as they look more like an armoured creation of Doctor Moreau – which gives them a degree of familiarity, but also makes them appear far more monstrous than every other alien species.
Character animation is surprisingly consistent throughout the series, and while the usage of CG is generally good (the transformation sequences or the pitched space battles for example), there are several moments that are decidedly clumsy in both execution and integration. Thankfully these are relatively minor issues that don’t really have any impact on proceedings, and the show features some great audio-visual effects and choreography (although the mechanical servo noise used for Belcross has caused some confusion about the Nodos).
One of the things that people will remember about Heroic Age is the exceptional music. The score is filled with tracks that appeal to any number of human emotions, and in all honesty the entire soundtrack (especially the main theme), seems to have two main purposes – add to the atmosphere of the story and make the viewer feel just a little bit epic.
The opening sequence is a decent compilation of the main characters and a few action scenes, combined with Gravitation by Japanese pop band Angela – and thankfully there’s almost nothing that could be counted as a spoiler. Each episode ends with Azurite – a melancholy ballad sung by Urakabe Tae – and the accompanying imagery shows Dianeira walking along the shore alone and then floating in space above a planet. Now this may seem like a fairly typical anime closing sequence, but it’s actually a rather clever bit of foreshadowing that fits very well once the viewer understands the context.
Possibly the biggest issue with Heroic Age is the dialogue – in particular because of the formality inherent in the series. The Japanese script is rather cumbersome in its use of language and is filled with repetitions of words and phrases – sometimes just in one scene. Thankfully this approach fits the tone of the anime and the experienced voice cast have managed to overcome this hurdle to deliver some good performances. Unfortunately the English dub is even more convoluted, and things only get worse with the use of incorrect nomenclature (Dianela should actually be Dianeira – after the wife of Hercules, Age is pronounced Eiji, and so on). It’s clear that the rewriters have tried too hard to turn the series into an animated saga poem, and many of the voice actors audibly struggle with their lines during certain monologues and declamations.
That said, if the viewer is able to move past these issues then they’re likely to find some rather interesting characters.
Heroic Age is filled with lots of people who have their own beliefs and circumstances, but it’s the numerous questions that surround the Nodos, the tasks assigned to them, and their purpose in the universe that lead to evolution of several major supporting roles on both sides of the war. In addition to this the series clearly highlights the dual nature of humanity as both protectors and destroyers – which is something of a rarity in the genre – and the repercussions of these acts have a lasting effect on storyline.
Dianeira isn’t the typical vapid lead female, but she is a bit too kind, trusting and forgiving for her own good – especially where her brothers are concerned. She also displays a great deal of courage on a variety of occasions, not the least of which is her decision to lead the crew of the Argonaut across uncharted space while the two most powerful tribes in the universe try to kill them. Her character is particularly unusual because of the dichotomy of her role – she is both protected by the crew of the Argonaut, but also acts as their guide and protector across space.
On the other hand Age is something of a conundrum – which is why there are a few misconceptions about him. He is a teenager who has been young for a very long time (over 120 years), and has an innocent mind but possesses knowledge of the future. He can be charming and endearing at times, but also terrifying in his rage – and his straightforward mentality hides a surprisingly deep character. His childhood with beings who are effectively gods and his years sharing his body with Belcross – a surviving member of the legendary Heroic Tribe – have effectively isolated him from the race that he is fated to protect, but his carefree attitude and sunny disposition add some much-needed comic relief to the story. More than anything, he is a departure from the usual heroes found in anime as he is not driven by courage or the desire to protect his friends, but by faith in the future that he has been shown.
Heroic Age has a lot in common with shows like Battlestar Galactica (the new version), Ulysses 31, Guin Saga, and surprisingly – Shingeki no Kyojin, and fans of those titles may find themselves on familiar ground with the storyline. The layers of subtext about the nature of man and humanity’s place in the universe fit very well with the narrative and themes of the show, and the series contains a lot more symbolism than one might expect (the similarity between Dianeira’s astral projections and the figureheads found on sailing ships, the five tribes being named after Hesiod’s Ages of Man, the number of labours assigned to each Nodos, and more).
The decision to adopt a cerebral approach to a very common theme in science fiction and to follow classical themes and influences has created a space opera that – although formal – adds a dose of intelligence and thoughtfulness to the action and tension. The show may not be for everybody, but those who do give it a chance will understand why the name “Heroic Age” is so appropriate.