Hey there, folks! Have you ever watched an anime about a rather moody protagonist piloting a mecha to save the world? And that anime just so happened to feature some psychological elements? Yeah? You’ve seen about four of those? Well, good, here’s another one so let’s take an in-depth look at it.
Argento Soma is set in a world constantly struggling against alien attacks and tells the story of Kaneshiro Takuto, a somewhat intrinsically grumpy university student in a relationship with his girlfriend Maki he just can’t make sense of. One day, she invites him to meet her professor and they revive what could be described as a mixture of an alien and a fuckton of metal, the so-called Extra-1. In the process, both Maki and the professor die. As the Extra-1 and a mysterious girl named “Hattie” who seems to be able to communicate with said alien-machine hybrid join the military’s special anti-alien squad “FUNERAL”, Takuto assumes the identity of Ryu Soma and also joins said elite unit – bent on taking revenge on the Extra-1 as the world tries its best to fend off against attacks from beings from outer space that it simply cannot understand.
The big issue with Argento Soma is that it has an incredibly rocky start. If the premise above doesn’t sound too alluring then that’s because really, it isn’t. And the show makes absolutely no effort to sell you on it within its first three episodes. Just throws you into the thing in good old in medias res fashion, something that almost never works out (and doesn’t either in this case) yet is somewhat prominent with this kind of anime. Why you should care about these characters? Figure it out yourself. Meanwhile they’re doing things. The proper context for you? Nada. This is in medias res, go fuck yourself, we’ll get to that later. Unsurprisingly, as it’s usually the case, this makes for incredibly bad pilot episodes and it takes this anime three episodes to get past that. And by “that” I mean the simple premise blurb I gave you. Yeah, that’s three boring, needlessly out of context episodes. That’s quite the entry barrier and it’s sort of understandable why people shy away from this one and dismiss Argento Soma rather early on.
Yet while Argento Soma remains a partly episodic monster of the week story for its first half (and can correctly be criticized for that by all means), telling the desperate struggles of Ryu and his comrades against forces from outer space, it doesn’t take too long for the anime to play its cards and present the audience with some intriguing questions: Alien attacks on mankind might not make for the most original premise, sure, but where do they come from? Is communication between inhabitants and invaders a possibility? And why do they all set out to get to a certain place, the so-called “Point of Pilgrimage”? Not to mention there are also some fractions within the human side of approaching the matter at hand – even when the world is in a crisis, there will always be people with their own perspectives and gains to go for. Argento Soma is by no means a political drama or study on individual motivations but it includes many such elements and aspects from all directions to create a richer story than one would expect from the premise and at the end of the day, most of its characters are human with all the faults that come along with being so. And for that, they are better characters than they would have been otherwise.
Towards its end game, it also becomes more and more apparent what the biggest draw behind this show is and what its themes boil down to: Being open-minded enough to have dreams that fuel you, communicate with others and therefore create progress, be it either in sciences or human communications. Dreams are what make progress. They are what make mankind fly to space. Visionaries are the ones who conquer stagnation and on a smaller scale, this applies to all of us as it does to Ryu Soma and those who came before him, stand next to him and will come thereafter.
I believe that Argento Soma interweaves these themes on several different planes, largely exemplified through its revenge-driven protagonist who has long since lost sight of everything else. Yet progress comes from not restricting the human mind by setting its own limits and being open to anything and for Ryu to come to realize this was a very satisfying thing to witness and seeing a character so bent on following his tunnel vision finally be able to grasp what’s in front of him to open up a new path made for fantastic character development.
And while this might be stretching it, I’d say Argento Soma is a bit of an exercise against cynicism or the loss of perspective. When people dismiss opportunities and start looking to the ground, they no longer look ahead. I suppose young folks struggling with their future can relate to this. I wouldn’t exactly call this a coming of age anime but it certainly incorporates those moments quite well. As its fantastic ending songs, going for all these messages, likes to point out, sometimes you just gotta do you thing and FFFLLLLLLLLLYYYYYYYYY AWWWAAAAAYYY.
But it’s not just mere themes that add weight to Argento Soma but also what these characters actually have to say: At times, it’s shocking how much substance can be found within the statements made without even coming close to pretentious grand speeches.
Coming back to Maki’s aforementioned death, I’d also like to point out that it was very well-handled: Sometimes, when important characters die, there’s always the risk of losing way too much for the sake of a good plot twist. Not to spoil anything but Boardwalk Empire had a very good character death that ruined a lot insofar as that the deceased dragged too much down with him – his connections and relations to several main characters and many more were their most interesting aspects and with that gone, it’s not just that a character was removed but also half of what made the show good. However, when Maki dies in the first episode, while it’s very much impossible to care she gives Ryu a very good boost of motivation and retroactively strengthens the anime. Why did Maki have to die in the first place? What was her relationship with Ryu like? Will Ryu succumb to his hatred of the Extra-1 despite it helping in the fight against the aliens, thus making him feel all the more conflicted? Every new piece of information you gain is surprisingly well-handled and fleshes the characters out a bit more. This kind of storytelling feels a bit like a mystery that slowly unravels itself about what Maki and Soma were like. “I can’t tell what you’re thinking unless you talk to me!” has all the punch of a throwaway line for the sake of drama in the first episode but ten episodes later, has gained actual weight. Ryu is a conflicted, self-reflecting, well-written character in a tricky spot and that makes him and his endeavors interesting.
But he’s not the only one to shine as Ryu’s superiors are most likely among the interesting characters around, especially Ines. Contrary to other anime of its kind, Argento Soma lets superiors be superiors, not just comically evil, utterly incompetent fools to be smashed by a much more gifted anti-authoritarian youngster protagonist. Instead, their positions are always brought up by the anime and usually for good reason. Their viewpoints are well-crafted and understandable and brought up on a constant basis. They talk and behave differently than Ryu and his colleagues as fit for people of their position. Oftentimes, in a time of crisis, it’s not just the set of heroes on the battlefield but also other people who have to deal with it in their very own ways. Saving the world doesn’t start and end at the hands of four pilots, a little girl and a huge alien mecha. It’s utterly refreshing to see an anime incorporate this.
This extends far beyond what’s common in this medium to the point that when people in this show have a discussion, they actually have something to say and don’t waste lines with platitudes unless it’s part of their characterization. It certainly feels good to watch something smart with a point and purpose behind what it does. When there’s almost an entire episode centered around those behind the scenes, politicians, scientists, army leaders participating in a debate, you really do get every single aspect on the table, every position to think resulting from every motivation these individuals could have, sensical or not, egoistical or not and enough attention is paid to make the debate as authentic as possible that at several times people are reminded that they should just get to the point. That was a very, very thorough episode and says a lot about how the writing actually cares.
What I’m trying to say is that this is an anime that has the magic of good execution on its side. Following these characters is interesting. I want to see them interact and I want to see them save the world. And that alone makes Argento Soma worthwhile.
Which, however, isn’t to say that the show is without its issues. For one, I just wish the character backstories were more relevant. Dan’s gets dropped a quarter into the show only to be thinly picked up again towards the end. Don’t get me started on Guinevere. Or Sue. I don’t know a thing about Sue. This also isn’t particularly helped by the fact that most of the time, it’s either Ryu or the Extra-01 who end up saving the day, giving the other characters less relevancy and a lack of credibility despite being combat aces. It sure makes you wonder how they got through their past encounters when neither were around.
I also kind of wish this show had actually delivered on answering all questions. It got to most of them but, once again, not all. And no, a character pointing out that beauty lies in mystery that mustn’t be spoiled sounds like what a pretentious dick would choose for a weak excuse. And let’s just add to this that while I yearn for all-encompassing epilogue episodes that feature all the characters and give additional meaning to what came before, 21 minutes of mostly insubstantial content on these people without adding anything significant to them while emotionally detaching me with a time skip is not my kind of thing. At all.
With all that said, Argento Soma had its list of issues, sometimes not even too small ones. But I very much appreciate it for what it got right, especially considering it goes for areas many other anime hardly ever venture to and there’s enough good to be found to make this worth a watch.
So calling Argento Soma a hidden gem might be a bit too much of a stretch – but it’s no doubt rightfully proclaimed as underrated and certainly deserves more attention than it gets.
Final Verdict: Good.