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how sweet the sound
Sekai-kei, or “world story”, is a term of disputed origin. Held by many to be a westernism, invented by bloggers searching for a term to describe Neon Genesis Evangelion and stories of its ilk. Stories where the fate of the universe is tied inextricably to that of a central relationship and the mental state of its lead characters. NGE may hold the title as the series that inspired the term, but no anime has ever worn it as well as Eureka Seven. And no matter its origin, more than many anime the phrase is used to describe, “world story” feels like it fits Eureka Seven like a glove. Fifteen years after it began airing, E7 is capable of an astounding thematic and emotional resonance that hits as hard in 2020 as it did when the series ended in 2006. It’s matched by little else.
Try to grab hold of it, and it breaks down into images. Blood on wedding rings, underground rainbows, Superflat monsters and sky-fish, mecha on surfboards, political intrigue, social upheaval. Love, war, death and more, all soundtracked to trance, house, pop, and soul. This is Eureka Seven. Wildly ambitious, flawed but magnificent. Riddled with paradoxes, it is gangly and perfect.
It’s not hard to understand E7’s methodology. It combines an older, political strain of mecha anime with the metaphysical, psychological approach of the NGE* era. In this way, its closest contemporary cousin, funnily enough, might be another ambitious mecha series of the same era that attempted a similar approach; Code Geass. But while that anime traffics chiefly in camp, the minutiae of revolution, and shock value, Eureka Seven deals in much simpler, more universal substance. As promised in the title; emotion, politics, and the messy grey area that is their intersection.
It is again helpful to consider Eureka Seven as a series of meaningful contradictions. It bursts with music, but is punctuated by the shellshocked silence of war trauma. Dozens of opposites run through the show; love, and death, built things and natural things, Wide-eyed romantic idealism and stoic pragmatism, new life and disease, and so on. In this way, despite the fantastical nature of its soft sci-fi setting, Eureka Seven’s world is a lot like our own. This is important, because Eureka Seven is an anime with things to say, even if it takes a little while to get there.
Eureka Seven opens presenting itself as a classic adventure story. That of Renton Thurston, son of the late war hero Adroc Thurston, and his encounter with–and eventual admittance to–‘terrorist’ group The Gekkostate. It never sheds the structure of a latter-day bildungsroman, especially since Renton’s romance with the titular Eureka is a key part of the series, but it does go significantly beyond it in several other ways.
Other coming-of-age stories have dealt with the realities of growing up in a politically tense period. Few have depicted the rise of fascism with such polished, unsettling ease as Eureka Seven. The ascent of the dictatorial Dewey Novac ties to broader political sensibilities throughout the show. It is not a coincidence that Novac’s forces are generally clad in Nazi-evoking black uniforms, while the Gekkostate and affiliated resistance have a wide variety of looks, often inspired by musical subcultures. (The series overflows with musical reference, down to the name of Renton’s father. A namecheck of Beastie Boys member Ad-Rock.) Later, as Novac’s regime seizes power (complete with a by-the-fascist-book “big speech” to accompany his coup in episode 37) he launches a genocidal campaign against the scub coral. And plans involving surgically-altered super soldier children stretch back in-series years.
Elsewhere, the plight of the Coralians and their complex relationship to the humans in the world of Eureka Seven speak to an environmental bent. The series’ use of what is essentially technobabble may seem campy or silly, but it belies an internal logic that maps cleanly onto many different real-world problems. The “Question Limitation” is not something we will ever have to deal with, but similarly ominous two-word phrases (such as say, “Global Warming”) seem quite certain to define our immediate future.
The show’s long, rough middle third, meanwhile, where Renton is first hazed and then downright abused by many different members of The Gekkostate (but especially Holland) is a bleak, raw look at how such cycles of abuse perpetuate. Renton’s own journey to maturity is hamstrung by the existence of three malformed father figures; Adroc, the war hero who was never there for his own son, Holland, who grapples with his own complex feelings of responsibility regarding Eureka and often takes this frustration out on Renton in this portion of the series, and Charles, a loving father like Renton’s never had, but also a bloodlust-driven bounty hunter, whose conflicts with The Gekkostate eventually see him shot dead by Holland. It is only Renton’s ability to rise above all this–and to forgive–that allows these cycles to cease, and for him and Holland (the only one of the three still alive) to move forward.
All of this only scratches the surface, but you get the point. You may ask what ties all of these disparate themes together, and the answer is shockingly simple. One of anime’s great achievements as a medium is the ease and sheer emotional intensity with which it is often capable of portraying the simple, necessary, terrifying joy of human connection. In Eureka Seven, all of these problems, to a one, can be overcome by communication. By mutual understanding. By love. The show’s final opening theme–“Sakura”–interpolating, in a genuinely brilliant compositional move, the hymn “Amazing Grace”, gives the game away. It seems to say; If God lives not above, then we must love each other in his place. We have a duty to see the worth inherent in each other.
Indeed, Eureka Seven‘s greatest achievement is not any great subversion of expectations, any particular cut or shot (though many excellent examples of both exist throughout), its unique soundtrack, or anything else of the sort. It is this emotional core of empathy triumphing above all else that stands out. It is a spirit that persists in the medium to this very day, shining through from time to time in even the least of Eureka Seven‘s successors.
By Eureka Seven‘s end, and the incomparably romantic imagery of Renton and Eureka cradling each other in their arms as they hurdle through the sky, the series has made its point. Fifteen years later, in a world that every day feels closer to falling apart, Eureka Seven‘s message that even in our darkest hours we must hold each other close feels more resonant, immediate, and heartfelt than ever. That it’s so beautifully put together feels like proof that it’s the truth. How sweet, indeed, the sound.
*NGE of course did not invent this particular sort of mecha series, it merely popularized it. I’m inclined to suspect a shared lineage dating back to perhaps Macross. But without having seen that series myself it’s hard to say more, definitively. Eureka Seven is flooded with shared DNA both between and directly from other mecha anime and other sci-fi in general. I spotted more than one point of homage to another Gainax series; Gunbuster, and have been informed of several that draw from sci-fi novels. Director Tomoki Kyoda has called the series an “homage to his rebellious phase”, a sentiment that tracks with its empathetic state of mind and general feel quite wonderfully.
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