I bought all the volumes of Gilgamesh, but it was a long time before I watched them. There were a couple of reasons, but the main one was the character design. Those downturned frowns and deer-in-the-headlights eyes made all the faces look like masks. Given the events of the series–all the veiled hints, the “unexplained” origins, hidden motivations and shifting agendas–the look is entirely appropriate; but man, it sure doesn’t make for an appealing look. Looking at the DVD covers, what we have here is one batch of fugly folks, all right.
However, I have to note that once I started to watch the show, it only took a handful of episodes before the character designs didn’t bother me much. In fact, I found a certain icy, precise beauty in some of them. And as noted, events made the look seem appropriate. At any rate, they didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the show–and there was a lot to enjoy. The music, for a start, is excellent–shimmering strings, clattering percussion, steely choirs, battling brass, all of it adding an ice-cold finger down the sides of one’s nightmares…good stuff. The characters were also uniformly excellent, well rounded and with a depth that was frequently surprising. No one here is a stock figure, put in place because the show required them to move forward.
The story proper takes place some fifteen years after a world-wide cataclysm. A mysterious explosion at an archeological dig–thought to be the tomb of the Babylonian king who gives the series its name–changed the structure of the atmosphere, which is now a huge reflecting surface. All computers (and some other electronic devices) ceased to function, though most other mechanical and electrical systems appear unaffected. This naturally led to rampaging chaos and panic, world-wide devastation, and a diminished, crumbling state of life for the survivors. In the early episodes, buildings collapse into clouds of dust in the background, seemingly without cause, and it sure looks appropriately normal for these parts.
The explosion left another side-effect in its wake: some children born since the cataclysm are gifted with psionic abilities, primarily psychokinesis, but also including teleportation and a limited degree of telepathy (they can talk to each other) One of our main characters, the Countess Werdenberg, has been gathering these children at a resort she frequents, where they are being trained as a fighting force. Because there’s another group of powerful children (teenagers by this time) called Gilgamesh, who seem–“seem” is an operative word for this show–seem to be working toward ends inimical to the survival of the human race. Both sides have been aware of each other for some time, but they lack a trigger to bring their hostilities into full flower.
That trigger arrives with our main characters, Tatsuya and his sister Kiyoko. Both Gilgamesh and the Countess’ forces (called Orga) want them to join their respective sides. By force if need be. Both sides are reluctant to reveal any information, both are determined, both are dead set on victory. Tatsuya and Kiyoko are caught in the middle. “Whose side are you on?” is the series tagline and it is to the makers’ credit that it is several episodes in before we know where we ought to stand.
And as the show progressed, I was struck by how excellent it was (as noted above). By the time I was through the sixth volume, I was nearly convinced that I was watching a masterpiece, on the level of Noir. Like Noir, the show was about characters trying to wrest the hand of fate from their lives and make their own way in the world. Like Noir, too, the show is dark and gloomy–the palette seems to be (but isn’t) entirely shades of gray and black, with stark white faces poking through the shadows. There’s an air of depression and desperation over it all, but then, one can’t have everything. Humor is conspicuous by its absence, though there are some wonderfully human moments where the characters do manage to have fun. (A snowball fight via telekinesis is a highlight, and there’s a marvelous scene where Orga plays a game of psychokinetic “catch” with a manhole cover. It swoops and dives dizzyingly through the city streets as they toss it around.) The story at its heart is a human one, and the makers seem to recognize that our species does have some traits that make us worth preserving, and those traits are worth celebrating and defending.
You’ll note, though, that I said “nearly convinced” above. I’ve seen too many anime series shoot themselves in the foot in the final stretch for me to wade naively in all wide-eyed. Also, none of the anime blogs that I regularly read seem to have mentioned this show at all (note: I did not do an exhaustive search). There’s just no way that I, the anime tyro, am going to be the first one to find a masterpiece that they somehow missed. So that was something of a worry.
My philosophy, however, it to put such worries aside and just watch the show for what it has to offer. Good or bad will come in the watching, and not in the sideline opinions. So I put in the last disk, and started watching. Episode 24 had what looked like a minor misstep, but episode 25 had one of the best scenes in the entire show–a dinner party wherein our main cast seemed to shed many of the masks and acknowledged how much they all benefited from, and needed, each other. As I said before, but it bears repeating, despite the gloomy, heavy-hand-of-fate background that the story played out within, the makers seemed to know that what makes a story is the humanity of the characters, the things we all share so that when watching, we can see ourselves and our own possible choices in the actions on screen.
Episode 26 (the final episode), started out reasonably well and as expected–the final confrontation between the two factions. And there and then, in the second half of the episode, the makers kicked the struts out from under the structure they had painstakingly built, and the entire thing collapsed into a choking cloud of dust.
I could not believe what I was watching. How could the folks who’d brought us so far…do this? How could they so take what they’d made and twist it so horribly? I’ll give them this, the ending they chose was always within the realm of possibility, and the final scene before the credits (and immediately after) seemed to say that the makers hated this ending too. (Not that that really helped, mind.) But otherwise, what I saw was an ending of Gainaxian proportions. And Studio Gainax had nothing to do with this show.
Other “Gainax ending” endings can be worked around. If one chooses not to watch the last disk of Mahoromatic, one is left with a pleasant romantic comedy punctuated by android fights. The ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion can be met with a shrug and a colorful suggestion of what Shinji can do with his own anatomy. In the end of that show, nothing is resolved with any finality. The film-makers could (and did) pick the story up again and take it in another direction.
But Gilgamesh isn’t episodic like that. Each episode builds on the one before, carrying the story with them, so one just can’t watch all but the last and have a satisfying experience. (Watching the last episode, on the other hand, definitely robs one of any kind of a satisfactory experience.) The ending makes clear that the story is most definitely over, too; no retooling or rebooting possible.
Never have I felt so frustrated and disenheartened by a show, nor so perplexed at the makers’ intent. Had it not been for the last ten minutes, I would have given this show five stars and an unqualified recommendation. Now I feel lost, cold and alone, huddling in the rain beneath that piano like Tatsuya and Kiyoko.
Boring technical note: I’ve long been unhappy with WordPress’ word processor and have looked for an alternative. The original (superior) draft of the above was written in a freeware program called “Blink” which looked great, but had one little teeny drawback: whatever I saved…wasn’t. I had to recreate my thoughts, such as they were, with an old copy of FrontPage.
Blink and you’ll miss it, I guess.