Review: Fafner in the Azure: Exodus (Seasons 1 and 2)

It's always this lighthearted. I pro--who am I kidding?

It’s always this lighthearted. I prom–who am I kidding? It’s downhill from here.

Background

Studio Xebec.  There’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.  Let’s face it…it basically became, for a long time, the name associated with mediocre series.  Heck…a long search of their credentials few noteworthy series in the last 10 years.  The last “popular” one might be Shaman King.  Past that?  Some occasional moderate successes.  Some underrated series.  But nothing really spectacular or groundbreaking.  Or really “great” for that matter.  Throw the 2004 series Fafner in the Azure as part of that.  Reasonable and decent plot but suffering a bit of a budget issue and some pacing problems (10 episodes are only worth watching upon second viewing), in addition to some complaints when Hisashi Hirai basically recycled the same character design templates (themselves already questionable to some fans)…and things went a bit off the rails.  But I liked it.  It’s kind of interesting and a bit of a Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion hybrid.

Colour me surprised as this series slowly plods along for the next decade.  It gets a prequel OVA, Fafner in the Azure: Right of Left, a movie sequel, Fafner in the Azure: Heaven and Earth,…and, around 2013, announces a sequel series.  More shockingly though comes news that Xebec, which hadn’t done a lengthy standalone series in years (at least something over 6 episodes), produced the entire series under the new name Xebec Zwei.  Also, and this is even more shocking, the attached name to the project doesn’t include three words after the colon: Fafner in the Azure: Exodus.

Story

Welcome to this version of Earth.  About 2110 AD (give or take.  Memory is pretty bad on the exact date), a series of aliens eventually named Festum make contact with Earth.  They begin what can only be described as a horrific assault.  The world as we know it falls to pieces as these aliens, apparently silicon-based, begin attacking.  Each live in packs led by a Mir and tend to form more inquisitive thoughts than the standard invading alien.  Their standard attack is announcing into your mind the question “Are you there?”.  It then attempts to read your mind and assimilate your mind and body simultaneously.  This wave of offence pretty much destroys much of the world…Japan and much of China sink into the ocean outright.  Escaping Japanese civilians are apparently all sterile. Did I mention that the Festum also come in a wide variety of lovely shapes and sizes?  And they fly?

Braaaaains

They’re pretty much zombies. Golden, Angel-esc, mind destroying zombies.

But one floating centre of Japanese culture survives.  Tatsumiya Island.  It is a cloaked, mobile island which spends its days living a much less bleak life.  Children go to school, people have routine worries, and there are even happy cafes still in operation.  Why?  Well, they harness the power of teenagers and mecha.  That is…they genetically engineer children with the ability to fly mecha known as Fafner.  The ones on this island, currently in production as of the original series, provide a combat efficiency unparalleled across the Earth.  That is to say, they win battles.

Now, this is where many series diverge.  Fafner falls into a pretty cynical category.  Things rarely go smoothly for the pilots.  Death exists all over.  Multiple pilots die in the original series and mecha routinely end battles trashed.  The original series goes as far as to make a single Festum a challenging enemy.

The original series introduces Tatsumiya to the world.  Namely that they not only hid from the Festum but from humanity.  The rest of the world formed under the Neo UN, an apparently more effective and militant version of the UN we know today.  They fight the Festum at an international level with their own line of Fafner.  Poorly.  Anyways, the existence of Tatsumiya comes as a great surprise to them.  They routinely attempt to pull the island into greater conflicts in the original season.  They also present a threat in the movie Heaven and Earth as they slowly fall into more extreme measures when fighting Festum.  In fact, Exodus begins with a nuclear strike against an exceptionally large Festum walking over the island of Hawaii.  Which fails to do anything.

Exodus picks up four years after the original series and continues to show this arms race between Festum and humans.  The Neo UN finally develops a line of Fafner which actually compete with the even evolving Festum…which now have trump cards in the size of exceedingly powerful individual Festum (known as “Azazel” type Festum.  Get used to a lot of terminology if you watch this series).  They still get crushed and lose their base in Hawaii.  It’s quite odd as, outside of the events of Heaven and Earth, Festum rarely act in such an organized manner. A small splinter group of the Neo UN, led by General Wiseman-Bose, eventually flee and end up making contact with Tatsumiya.  Long story short, the general plans to end this war by having a citizen from Tatsumiya who is capable of speaking to the Festum accompany him so they can find a way to co-exist with the Festum.  They agree and things go on from there.  The narrative follows two groups: one which follows the General on his trip to India to seek out this possible end to the war and one which stays on Tatsumiya and defends it from Festum attacks which are spiking in both size and ferocity.

It should be clear, even before I begin going into analysis of the series itself, that there’s a massive learning curve.  There are 26 episodes and 1 movie’s worth of plot worth knowing before getting started.  It’s worse than a series such as Dragonball Z since many events in Fafner‘s prequels directly affect this series’ events.  It’s simply more than knowing the characters’ names and falls into directly understanding events from the series in question.  And making it worse is the seeming love of technobabble.  There are terminology for locations on Tatsumiya and components of Fafner that I’m still not familiar with after 22 hours of this series.  Little of it holds much impact to the series but just get used to it if you watch.

For all this though…it’s quite the payoff.  It’s very evident, even if the structure of the two released seasons didn’t make it clear (Winter 2015, Fall 2015), that both Exodus seasons linked together for an overarching season.  The narrative mostly builds for the first 13 episodes but picks up an incredible amount of steam around episode 16-17 (if you count both seasons as a single 26 season series) and never looks back.  It plays out with suspense and slowly reveals each and every secret which surround the season all while retaining top-notch mecha battle sequences.  I’m not sure what it is about Tow Ubukata.  He’s traditionally struggled when handed an established franchise and is currently the internet plaything for blaming the failings in Ghost in the Shell: Arise and Psycho-pass 2.  But Fafner?  No complaints here.

I’ll start with the aforementioned narrative.  It’s difficult to really piece together the overarching plot from an omniscient perspective until the final episodes.  Any returning Fafner fan will likely spot the Festum as almost radically different from the original series.  They’re no less terrifying but act completely different.  A viewer may see this type of plot point as trivial but such details play into the complete narrative by series’ end.  A viewer who catches such details may begin asking why the series shifts the Festum’s behaviour so significantly.  The series resolves such points but only as it closes out.  It’s incredible to have such details hidden so well, leaving the audience guessing about the exact plot, yet also retain a plot which plows forward.  I’d argue it’s almost perfect how well it plays with the audience and lures them to the exact spot they want the viewer for the knockout episodes.

The narrative itself?  It’s fairly grim.  You’ll find comedy but it’s stretched thin.  The main thrust throughout is that we all have limited time and we should impact the world while we have time…which means a lot of death and a lot of despair.  Power comes at a price.  And nobody’s nice to each other.  Kind of what you’re expecting when my best description is “real robot Evangelion without the mind screw”.

Though I'm pretty sure this guy is pretty much an angel.

Though I’m pretty sure this guy is an Angel.

And none of this is to say that there aren’t heartbreaking moments.  Far from it.  One of the series’ most poignant and memorable moments come with several shades of “ow, my heart”.  Character death almost instantly invoke this instead of the character going out in a blaze of glory.  Which is quite strange as many characters die while heroically exerting themselves in a fight…but the series instead casts each death as tragic.  And I really feel this is one of Fafner’s standouts…especially when it gets mixed with the ongoing feeling of “anybody can and will die”.  Some characters die quick.  Some die suddenly.  Some die in a prolonged fight and have some touching moments.  It almost entirely throws out the notion of predicable character death (outside of some obvious death flags actions).

This genre of anime lends itself greatly to action scenes and Fafner doesn’t struggle with these.  They are elegantly choreographed in most instances and well executed.  It’s a major upgrade from the combat sequences provided in the mid-2000 series, which were a few steps behind fight scenes of the era, and the CGI heavy 2010 movie.  Actually, I’m sure this one heavily relies on CGI as well but it does a far, far better job masking in as time goes on.  I reviewed the earlier episodes and realized how incredible the final episodes become as CGI I found effective in the early episodes become far, far more obvious.

The biggest shock to most mecha fans will likely be Fafner‘s lack of fear in having its mecha routinely destroyed in battles.  Repairs are apparently really cheap and you’ll constantly see characters beat up hard.  Arms lopped off, pilots out of fights entirely, events which really look like death (and traditionally are in mecha series).  Heck, the first battle using any of the characters from Tatsumiya have a character’s mecha lose an arm and, as pain extends to the pilot, they disconnect him from piloting further.  I cannot think of a single character not impaled by something, killed, or in extreme pain at least once throughout the entire series’ run (including its old series and movies.  This combined with the above notes about character death create some pretty tense scenes as life and death come pretty much at the will of the seemingly unforgiving plot.

Again, the biggest weaknesses of the writing lie in its assumptions.  You really must know the previous content, of mediocre nature in my opinion, to really develop an understanding and feeling for this series.  That is an absolutely massive time investment (~12 hours) and many viewers might find this too large a gamble, even for the huge payoff.  Furthermore, the narrative is relentless and unforgiving at points.  Simply just not understanding a sequence may completely throw you.  There are sequences, even entire episodes, which reveal major plot points and not being on top of your game comprehension wise can leave you steps behind and playing catch up once again.  A bit of a standard drama series issue…but it goes double when you have technobabble to deal with.

One issue I have looking back is the obvious sequel hook.  The series leaves off much the same way as the original series did and ends with questions about the remaining plot line.  The mysteries end up solved, yes, but what happens from here remains up in the air.  I mean, it’ll be clear at the end of the series that this isn’t the finale.  No.  There remain “things to do” as the term goes.  But the adventure continues on a later date…one I’m not sure Fafner will ever get due to some pretty low viewer numbers.

I would also watch out for on-the-nose characterization.  That is, character stating exactly what they’re thinking to develop character as oppose to showing the audience such traits.  This stems primarily from the series’ unwillingness to use internal thought processes but sometimes creates some awkward dialogue.

Characters

Honestly, incredible character use probably ranks as the top reason to watch Fafner.  The series routinely works to develop characters, make you like at least part of the ensemble cast, and then pick away until they end up killing someone you liked.  They’ll die.  Or give them a nice heaping of mental trauma.  Or maybe just almost kill them.  Or have family issues.  Or just not want to die as piloting in this series slowly kills the pilots.

Christ, they broke Maya so hard.

Really, this will be your standard response to later episodes.

The primary protagonists are Kazuki Makabe and Soushi Minoshiro.  At least they are in theory.  You only spend half the time with the two as they lead the same episodes, episodes which only constitute about half the series.  What you’ll really find is that Fafner becomes much more of an ensemble performance; every character gets a little time in the spotlight and finding out a little about them.  The basis of the series in this regard becomes fairly simple, often boiling down to either character moments, narrative moments, or action.  There are a few points in time where the series combines two of the three but it often move itself in only one of three directions.

It’s difficult to really go further into the series without emphasizing how much character development plays into the series.  Much of the series emphasizes the growth and development of each and every character.  Virtually none of the pilot characters remain static (though it’s worth noting that many side characters remain extremely flat).  They’re not necessarily the deepest characters nor do they have the same level of unexpected surprises that you’d find in a Persona type of production…but they change.  That is to say that events ultimately change the characters and Fafner emphasizes these developments and often places them at the forefront.  As an example, a few of the more naive characters from the “Exodus” party end up fairly traumatized.  They end up suffering greatly and the series provides screen time to these characters grappling with this new reality.  Part of the franchise involves developing an emotional attachment to the character and ultimately feel emotionally with them as they go through their trials and tribulations.  It’s very evident in the series’ newest cast additions as you’ll spend extra screen time with them.

Part of the reason having background in this series becomes critical is because of this character driven element.  It’s certainly possible to view the series from this angle without knowing the previous elements.  The series, at the most basic of levels, even provides enough background for you to do this and spends a lot of time in the first couple episodes explaining the situation to viewers.  The overall effect is much weaker, however, as you don’t have the exact same context.  I would almost chalk it up to a similar effect as the live action series The Walking Dead in the sense that you could probably start watching either partway through their intended order…it just makes certain scenes a bit weaker and some nonsensical.

These characters ultimately sell me on the franchise and provide a major drive for my sentiments to the series.  It’s a fairly unique series in the sense that every reasonably major pilot grows.  I again emphasize that this certainly fails to hold up when looking at the supporting cast, which is a bit of a disappointment since it makes the world seem just a little flatter and less dynamic.  Nonetheless, the characters slowly mature and develop new outlooks on the world.  The growth and transition period for some of the cast from unwitting teenagers to full-grown adults occurs over the span of 20 hours of viewing time and feels quite natural due to this extreme length of time.  Developments within the franchise of Exodus itself are not complete turnaround developments and thus feel more natural than some other series.  As an example of the hastened version of character change, I think of the often utilized tsundere archetype character.  There are some franchises out there which have this character really turn around from the aggressive personality to the more caring and loving character within two or three episodes…leaving as little as an hour for us to understand this character and then appreciate the meaningfulness of these personality change.  It just sometimes doesn’t work because of this haste.  But I find Fafner deals with this fairly well.  Characters change either from extreme circumstances (and have very jarring shifts in personality to accommodate this) or develop slowly and in manners that the audience appreciates.  It’s very applicable that the characters “earn” their growth.

This same emotional appeal drives quite a bit of payoff as well.  At least, the parts where you don’t find action based payoff for this series.  It’s very much, and I hate to use the term since it might not make sense to all readers, a “feels” series.  That is, the series puts negative emotions onto its viewers through the character.  That you feel for the character’s on-screen pains.  Many episodes use this to cap off the events of the episode…there’s a buildup of action, emotion, intensity.  Then pain and the episode ends, leaving questions about how the series progresses from there.  It may be something of a simple formula but Fafner plays this card quite well.  It used the same points in the original series and replays them with improved precision.  It’s very difficult to not end up heartbroken at the end of each episode in the second season (where death becomes increasingly rampant).  Even episodes without death start dealing with lots of drama and stress on the characters.  Again…it’s not a nice world.  There are typically problems or plans just plain go wrong.

And sometimes people just get assimilated and you have to watch.

And sometimes people just get assimilated and you have to watch.

One oddity in this franchise I must mention: few characters actually drive the plot.  Most end up as soldiers or present themselves as representations of the “feels” driven appeal.  Yet few of them actually move the plot along and instead just accompany certain positions such that there are entire squads of combatants that you care about.  It sometimes feels strange and you might end up wondering why certain cast members exist for this reason.  I know I did (though I really can’t say much without spoiling who lives and who dies)…but this is at least my interpretation.  That, and some characters must continue to exist as they survived previous iterations of the franchise and their death would serve little purpose as well.

Another interesting aside about the characters: very little romance exists.  You might want to find something else if that’s a major issue.  Major characters rarely deal with each other in a manner beyond close friendship.  I’m not sure if it’s a writer problem or just a desire to not introduce undue romance when it’s not really needed…but characters almost never have romantic ties.  Comparing other well know mecha franchises…and this concept is almost foreign.  It’s part of why the series ends up so dark…there’s so little positive emotion to fill this void.

As seems pretty obvious, I struggle to find real negatives in the character aspect.  Some side characters end up flat for sure and that hurts the world building.  The series underutilized some characters and underdeveloped others…making their plot lines feel almost hallow.  But it’s almost overwhelming covered up by the development from other characters.  That is to say that the sum of the parts outweighs its negatives.  Just stick with it until the end as much of the payoff comes in the second season.

Animation

Maybe I’m just old.  Maybe I don’t watch enough modern anime.  Maybe I’m just a little crazy.  Whatever it is though…I really love Exodus’ animation.  Battle, drama, whatever.  It is just beautiful.

Let’s start with combat sequences since they impress me the most.  Exodus is one of the rare series which seem to effectively integrate CGI into standard animation.  It’s alright in the first season.  Some of the more foreign Festum and some points in the Fafner animation are obvious CGI.  Planes are extremely obvious.  But the second season begins hammering this out and the sequences become elegant interplay of effective CGI in animated backgrounds.  A comment I’ve heard about CGI often comes in the statement “CGI is only bad if you notice that it’s CGI”.  Anime production typically uses it as a cost saving mechanism and it typically comes off as bad CGI.  Fafner sometimes falls as this but has quite a few moments where it’s clear that, for the sake of the artist, they had to use CGI…but it doesn’t visually register as such.  I mean, the above Festum are almost always CGI.

And then there's this.  Which is pretty blatant CGI by Exodus' standards.

And then there’s this. Which is pretty blatant CGI by Exodus’ standards.

There also an extremely large number of sequences I can rattle off where there is extremely elegant background scenery.  Pausing and marvelling at the background almost qualifies as a hobby.  Again, I feel like I might have missed something as I haven’t watched many recent anime but the sheer amount of detail is…well, it’s breathtaking in its own regard.

And then there's this almost alien visual.

There’s this almost alien visual.  Did I mention Festum explode into purple…things…upon death?  I meant to.

There are, of course, episodes with decreased budgets.  That much is always clear and Fafner is no exception.  There are some fairly obvious episodes where the animators needed a break and just used further distance shots…or repeated the use of the same low-cost plane animation.  Or just hid a lot behind stills.  I find it typically happens in episodes where the series just needs to advance its plot to the next major point.

I must admit, a major failing this series continues throughout the franchise is its difficulty distinguishing characters (made even worse by the fact that characters often change appearance between different series).  Character A looks a lot like character B which looks a lot like character C.  A visual heavy viewer might have difficulty understanding motivations and development when they can’t even remember which character did what action.

Sound/Music/Voice Actors

Fafner routinely uses an orchestral composition…which makes sense, as memory serving, they used the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra in the original series.  I found myself constantly jotting down notes when they utilized this grouping for slower or more emotionally charged segments.  The soundtrack didn’t add much in combat sequences and simply stand to “do their job” (though they did bring back Opening of Nightmare’s Gate for a couple sequences…an excellent piece from the original series).  Really, expect it to get you from set to set unless you’ve in a very dialogue heavy segment.

The two seasons contain two openings and two closings…though not split as you’d expect…changing over around the 17th episode mark.  angela performs all four pieces and it’d be no stretch to say that atsuko’s voice adds a lot of the franchise with this mark of consistency; Shangri-la and Separation, the opening and closing pieces for the original series, are probably the most recognizable aspects of it.

The first opening, Exist, introduces you to the nature of its first few episodes.  A mix of angelic chanting and some pretty haunting lyrics, the animations continually flip you through characters and provide viewers with a bit of background on each character.  It’s very much an opening which eases viewers in.  The first closing, which I probably would translate as Anya koro, is a pretty simple ending piece.  Very little animation, a “cool down” type of piece, and overall something very easy to skip.

Things really get interesting as the series switches over to its second set of opening and closing pieces.  The second opening, Dead or Alive, is one of my favourite openings (and would probably adjust my rankings from the previous list I completed on this matter).  Another mixing of angelic chanting and lyrics, this opening takes multiple improvements over the last.  There is far greater coordination between animation and lyric.  The music is a major improvement in my mind with rapidly changing tempo, extremely unusual lyrics (which also combine aspects from previous songs of this franchise), and an incredible tie-in with the previous series of this franchise; the opening presents a litany of characters, including those long dead as if to claim that nobody forgets any sacrifice or loss of life.  It’s quite stirring.  Finally, the animation calls strongly back to the original series by animating many of the stills used in the original series’ opening of the characters happily enjoying their younger years.  Well, except for poor Canon.

Though I'd argue she makes up for it in pure cuteness.

Though I’d argue she makes up for it in pure cuteness.

Another unique aspect of these last few episodes comes in its ending song, Horizon.  It is not much of an upgrade in the visuals department…but the musical piece is far more uptempo and heart racing than you’d expect.  The musical piece sets the stage for the almost non-stop train ride from the 17th episode to the series’ conclusion.

I find it difficult to recommend anything but subbed here.  Mainly because the option of viewing this series in english isn’t here.  The series is free subbed on Crunchyroll and you don’t even need to worry about losing time waiting for a translation if you view it subbed.  I would recommend subbed either way as the dubbed version are alright.  At best.  Voice acting talent is all over the place.

Synergy

Everything runs in and out of the characters.  Why do you care about the battle?  Your favourite character is fighting it out in a series where you know they could easily die.  What’s going on with the plot again?  How could it affect all the characters?  How is [x] changing due to all this?  It’s actually a unique run with this level of viewer interest in characters and character development.

Why to Watch

This series…I can’t say enough good things about its emotional torque.  It’s absolutely incredible for setting you up, getting you to feel a specific way, and then playing with your emotions until you start feeling for the characters on-screen.  It is an incredible mix of emotion and action…both being incredible.  It’s a terrific lesson in what well utilized CGI looks like and how to create battle sequences.  And finally, the characters grow at a seemingly natural rate…or at least more natural than other modern anime which often need to fast track characters given the short episode runs.

Why Not to Watch

Do you dislike decade old mediocre anime (or dislike having to roll with whatever they’re saying about the older characters)?  Do you dislike having your favourite character killed?  Do you dislike the creeping notion that someone is doing to die and you won’t be happy if it’s a specific character?  Do you really dislike having no clue what technobabble does and just “having to roll with it”?  Really, those are the main reasons to avoid this series.

Personal Enjoyment

Fafner is a series I’ve felt pretty unappreciated.  The original series was alright but presented a unique change on the real robot genre.  The movie was fair for the time but its use of CGI makes it struggle a little.  Either way, I was pumped to hear Exodus and honestly am glad I can see more of this franchise.

Summary

I’m not exactly sure what I want to say about Fafner: Exodus.  It’s good.  I mean, really good.  Memorable, well executed, and visually beautiful.  Something for anybody who enjoys these somewhat darker tales of mecha.  Well, except decent levels of romance.  I can’t stop saying good things about the series and really feel that the disparate score on many aggregate sites (that is to say that it’s often rated higher than series with comparable reviewer bases) reflects its quality.  But it’s also a series that has a lot of background work.  An old series and a movie are very much required to get a full experience.

I really want to suggest it to everybody but its a series which I’m sure not everyone could get into.

Overall Rating

Fafner in the Azure: Exodus has a 7.86/10 for me.  Given I use 5 as average, this is one of the higher scores I’ve been able to give.  The comparable review score I’ve given on this blog is Boogiepop Phantom (7.89).  I would recommend this to anybody who has the prerequisites I’ve listed in previous sections.

Characters, as should be extremely obvious at this point, carry the score immensely.  The review sheet had consistently high ratings here.  Many other categories had high scores though some categories dropped the average quite a bit.  Narrative, as much as I love it, ended up with the lowest score.  It’s not really an indictment of any major flaws with the series itself but a note that the series leaves a hook for a sequel and this doesn’t provide a natural conclusion to the series…an issue seen before in this franchise.

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