Today, let’s talk about war and peace. Or rather, let’s have Fafner do the talking.
As Kazuki Makabe spends his harmonic but uneventful youth on the island of Tatsumiyajima, his life is fulfilled by one certainty: that tomorrow will yield another day that is just a repetition of today and Tatsumiyajima will continue to be his cozy cage. All of that, however, is to suddenly change as his island is attacked by a mysterious extraterrestrial entity known as “Festum”, tearing away the basis to the one constancy that has upheld his life so far – what’s more, the island he inhabits knows perfectly well how to defend itself and Kazuki becomes aware of the fact that his entire life has been lived inside the palms of other people’s hands and the illusion of peace he was able to leisurely enjoy was little more than a theatre play orchestrated by adults who wished they would never have to let their children see war tearing down the curtains of their fake reality.
And thus, Kazuki, among several other school mates and friends, finds himself piloting Fafners – mechas that are the only weapon to protect the island from its invaders. With no end in sight to their mission, their only goal is to protect the status quo but the price is high – as these teenage soldiers offer up the very lives that they have lived so far in return to protect those who were once just like them.
You have probably have heard of Fafner before… somewhere. While it’s a cult hit in Japan, the reception in the West over these decades has been mixed at best, non-existent at worst. Especially nowadays, where mecha is a genre on a dying branch, Fafner hardly enjoys any fanfare. Studio XEBEC had resignated itself to making terrible fanservice anime for the latter part of its runtime until finally dying, with Fafner now moved to I.G and Sunrise, which is where it finished its runtime across decades. Mecha has always had a hard standing in the West. In recent years, with the arrival of a select few blockbusters leading to a very dumb anime community to repeatedly utter statements along the lines of “Code Geass/TTGL/86/Darling in the FranXX/Aldnoah Zero/Witch of Mercury is not like the other mecha anime – it’s not about the mechas, it’s about the characters”, the standing has been additionally poisoned. In the West, Fafner never stood the test of time and never will. Especially not with every doofus out there claiming it’s an Evangelion ripoff.
The big name that is attributed to Soukyuu no Fafner is Tow Ubukata, a man commonly derided in the West for a plethora of projects with admittedly varying quality when he’s not busy getting sued for beating his wife allegedly and having charges dropped. Looking at some of the stuff he’s worked on, particularly RWBY as of late, yes, there’s enough crap under his belt. PSYCHO-PASS S2 I cannot blame him for – that show has always been shit and he was in direct exchange with Urobuchi, whom I consider a lesser writer. Le Chevalier D’Eon is no doubt Ubukata’s greatest work so far and proves what he is capable of. Will his upcoming works convince me? Time will only tell.
Fafner is a very serious work, on the more existential side of mecha anime akin to Bokurano, Granbelm or Zegapain and thankfully avoids the pitfalls of weak-willed melodrama teenage nonsense like 86 or Witch of Mercury. I suppose that is precisely why it’s not overtly popular or even remotely acclaimed in the West – there are no corny speeches, flashy character designs, glittering powerups or anything of the sorts appealing to the content addiction crowd – precisely because Fafner actually has characters and a story and not just pretentions thereof it is less accessible. It doesn’t try to please its audience but uncompromisingly tells the story of its teenagers fighting for something they can’t quite grasp. In a day and age where emotional and intellectual pandering gets shelved out of the content oven factory, Fafner remains steady in holding its own identity. That is an artistic gift that has been mostly lost. And as far as I’m concerned, commitment will always triumph over lowest common denominator auto-generation of entertainment. But that is what makes works like Star Driver or Argento Soma always so enticing to me compared to some of the more popular mecha series out there.
In terms of premise, you could make the comparison to even Attack On Titan. Sure, it shares none of that one’s glamor. Yet it boasts with all the maturity the former could only hope to have.
I like Fafner because it is a very appealing mishmash of so many elements done right: It’s an existential high stakes mecha anime where characters die and question their future. It’s a character drama unfolding among the teenagers as they form connections in daily life and on the battlefield. It’s a family drama as it incorporates additional dynamics through parents and siblings. It combines futuristic technology with an idyllic island setting. It handles all of these different aspects and dimensions to it rather well and the combination thereof lends Fafner its unique identity.
Fafner’s existentialism is a great fit with the war setting it draws strongly from. You feel for these teenagers who have only known one reality, as one hot summer, their lives are about to change as they are thrown into an entirely different one – one where they have to risk their lives to ensure that other teenagers can live the idle lives they have lived so far. Knowing that the reality they have lived so far was a mere illusion and faced with the prospects of having no future or ‘elsewhere’, these teenagers must overcome the irregular yet constant approach of death and their own weak selves while sacrificing their youth to grow from children to adults because that is what reality demands. Fafner understands that becoming an adult is a brutal outside force impacting your life that is not about wanting to become an adult but about being forced to and that war is something that does exactly that – force teenagers to act like adults, eliminating several of them before they can actually reach adulthood.
This isn’t a fancy teenage nerd soap opera about who gets to kiss who and how a love triangle will epically power up a mecha or any of that nonsense. Fafner is a good war anime because it understands the inherent tragedy of letting teenagers be on forefront of the battles: War doesn’t let kids be kids. That is why it’s all the more important that the calmer moments inbetween let them be just that – teenagers who laugh and cry because that is the only freedom they are still granted to have. Fafner is an intrinsically human show even though it might not seem that way at first.
Something that Fafner also heavily features are family ties. Kazuki’s mother is dead, Soushi’s father is dead, other parents or siblings die in the process, Kouyou’s parents are elitist scumbags who only see their son as defect human material if he can’t pilot a mecha properly and the list goes on. For the most part, however, the parents do feel for their children and are plagued by guilt that they have to create these war machines that they themselves can’t pilot. The contrast between anxiety-inducing battle scenes and the family moments spent in momentary peace, fully knowing that the next day, there might be another sortie and their children might not return, is what gives Fafner an additional edge.
As such, not a single death in Fafner, no matter how moving, is ever glorified. Every single one of them is an absurd and disastrous tragedy as families break apart. There might be glamor in the moments leading up to death but there is nothing beautiful in it or hopeful in what remains thereafter. The empty seat at the dinner table will never be hopeful, inspiring or glamorous and no proud grave stone can ever substitute a person.
From adults to teenagers, characters act appropriate for their age and setting yet aren’t ever annoying or try to throw annoying drama at you because writers don’t know how to write teenagers without annoying drama. This doesn’t have the primitivity of Valvrave, Guilty Crown or whatever I’ve seen from the likes of Darling in the Franxx (which I was wise enough to drop one episode in).
This also renders Fafner more believable and strengthens the appeal of the locale. The island actually does feel like a community. Fafner is about saving the world from within a very communal place, as well as fighting for the greater good, coming from personal relationships. Whatever affects the big picture stems forth from within a small scale. All of the pilots are human and have their own lives to live as they try to protect what is rightfully theirs yet they are always stripped off. Fafner’s pilots don’t know what they are achieving in the grand scheme of things – there is no clear indication as to when their struggles or suffering will end, what exactly they are sacrificing their lives for and if things will truly one day be over – their only hope comes from within themselves. A lot of war fiction presents you with battle scenes from an overhead point of view. Fafner is all about the first person experience.
It’s good that the writing is subsequently clever. Characters actually have something to say. Different perspectives matter. Lines that elsewhere would just be pathos here have a solid foundation to work with. Character relationships are complex and built carefully across many episodes. The writing cares about its many characters and never forgets about them. These are rare virtues in anime.
Fafner excels in delivering atmosphere even through its setting: It combines a rural Japanese island with the Summer season (think Shiki, Zettai Shounen or Higurashi for reference) and mixes it with futuristic technology, being the last utopian island that’s still standing. Cicada noises and sunsets on top of a floating fortress facing the end of the world make for such a good combination.
The OST understands this very delicate, bipolar appeal and does well in underlining both the urgency and oppressiveness of the duty these teenagers carry but also the value in the banal, peaceful life that happens inbetween and the angela openings give it its own identity – and weirdly, almost feel like a time slip into the 00s. But I guess that applies to Fafner as a whole.
What Fafner additionally does well is that it’s never static. This makes sense as Fafner is about communication. Not in the dumb Symphogear one-liner kind of way, mind you. These teenagers find it hard to communicate with each other, the adults supervising them and yes, even the horror that originates from space has a way of communicating as the mystery slowly but surely unravels on what exactly Festum are.
As such, it is only consequential that the dynamics of combat and characters change appropiately. Enemies gain new abilities, stakes change, the mechas and their pilots grow in power – paying a huge collateral of course – and, something I cannot stress enough how rare and satisfying this is to see, time skips occur inbetween seasons and characters age and grow. You look at the cast of the last season of Fafner and compare it to the first season and things will differ quite a lot. By the end of Fafner, the teenagers that survive will be adults themselves. This feels cathartic as you get to follow their growth over the years. As Fafner demonstrates what war does to people, both the ones fighting at the front and those living in war times, you do get to see the rewards that come along – even if it’s just characters surviving for several years and having seized themselves their own future as they do reach adulthood.
Their lives are supposed to be a ticket to nowhere – yet when they actually manage to get somewhere, that alone is proof that their existences weren’t in vain.
Fafner isn’t perfect however. As spectacle, action and plot points become more and more engaging in later seasons, it also starts to lose more of its interpersonal, calmer moments from the first season. Slice of life parts feel interspersed because the quota demands it. Several heavier developments and twists boil down to exactly nothing. And the large conflict and big picture with all these political fractions and past collision courses end up mattering absurdly little towards the end. Part of this can be attributed to Fafner S3’s dedication to closing the show on a smaller, more thematically appropriate scale and that goes to show that this franchise has its heart in the right place. But when your entire last season revolves around new characters trying to tell us an important lesson, it feels like it doesn’t serve the characters you know and like very well.
Similarly, a lot of the technobabble comes down to nothing. Which is kind of insane. I had literally reserved myself .txt-files for the technobabble just so I would stay on the same page with the show that loved endlessly giving its consciousness- and awareness-defined technology and alien life forms new names and lore bits. By the time I had reached S3, it had become abundantly obvious that it wasn’t going to do anything with all of that. The integration of German words for mecha terminology is clunky and ham-handed anyway – I don’t doubt Google Translate or Babelfish or whatever was in the rage back then was used in the process. I’m a German and I couldn’t tell you why they picked some of these terms and occasionally winced at the integration of bizarro wording put through butchered pronunciation. You know what the short tunnels for launching the mechs are called? “Neidhöhle”. As in “Cave of Envy”. What?
Fafner S1 is also not a good-looking series by any means. Its mecha fights are hardly animated, its character designs are rather conceptually charming than in actual execution and the art, coloring, anything are hardly convincing.
This takes for a drastic turn with S2 however – it is such an absurd increase in visual execution it’s baffling something like this even exists. Fafner from the first movie onwards is among the best-looking mecha anime out there surely and retains that visual finnesse all up until the end.
If Fafner feels inaccessible to you, that’s also perhaps because it’s not that easy to wrap your head around the watch order. But rest assured, I can easily provide you with that:
Soukyuu no Fafner: Dead Aggressor (the original first season of the TV series) -> Soukyuu no Fafner: Right of Left – Single Program (a 40 minutes long special that serves as a prequel side story) -> Soukyuu no Fafner: Dead Aggressor – Heaven and Earth (a sequel movie to the TV series) -> Soukyuu no Fafner: Dead Aggressor – Exodus (a 24-episodes long season 2, split into two parts) -> Soukyuu no Fafner: Dead Aggressor – The Beyond (a four-parter series of movies that consist of three episodes each, essentially forming its third season).
The Beyond ultimately concludes the story with little leeway for a sequel. They have announced an inbetween story that is set between Exodus and Beyond – way before Beyond had started airing, so there is that. As it has yet to be released, I can’t tell you about the ideal watch order for that.
With that said, it’s not that hard to get into Fafner and you will be aptly rewarded. From the bits of horror to the idyllic Summer adventures, followed by a battle for life and death, Fafner has plenty to offer. Fafner skillfully intertwines its slice of life aspects with character drama and sees these conflicts to an end through battle. I know this sounds banal on paper but it works well if well-executed. And Fafner is well-executed.
Fafner is also daring enough to feature a very uncompromising refugee crisis arc that fits very well into Fafner’s eternal balance act of weighting dreadfulness against hopefulness. At the height of Europe’s refugee crisis, this couldn’t have come in at a better time. And, as we all sadly know, its war commentary has aged better than I would have liked for it to have.
Fafner is ruthless and unpleasant in its fighting for a future because it understands that that is what it needs to be. War isn’t made out of plastic. As such, Fafner defies modern industry standards and remains not a corny but a cautious tale until the very end.
I believe that this is what seperates good war fiction from bad war fiction. Or rather: war fiction from action fiction that just so happens to take place on the battlefield.
Believing in mankind is the hardest when it gives you no reason to. Yet that’s precisely when it’s the most important to do just that.
Final Verdict: Good.