Fifteen years ago, the skilful animator Mitsuo Iso rod Den-noh coil, a science fiction tale about children who interact and explore the world through augmented reality glasses. It was the first time he could show off his incredible storytelling skills, and the show garnered a cult following that eagerly awaited its follow-up. And waited. And waited. And when it seemed like that next project would never come, Orbital children was announced. When it finally premiered, all of those patient fans, myself included, came together to see if it would live up to its predecessor. While I can only speak for myself, I found Iso’s second series to be an overall worthy, if somewhat weaker, successor to its first big hit.
In Orbital childrenIso revisits several Den-noh coilthe most important themes, especially how children interact with technology and how technology interacts with human existence. The technology, including super-intelligent AI systems and space travel, is considerably more advanced, but the basic ideas remain similar. Touya, an intelligent and troubled teenager, has lived his entire life in space and only survived childhood thanks to an implant engineered by the super-intelligent A.I. known as Seven. He seems apathetic towards other humans, actively resentful of Earthlings who he believes signed his death warrant when they took out Seven – leaving an apparently faulty implant in her head – and has more of an interest in messing with and to experiment with AIs that help manage the space. station/hotel where he lives with his uncle.
It’s a heavy subject and Orbital children dives right into it, immediately introducing the audience to Touya and his troubles, alongside his space-born child companion Konoha and Nasa Houston, the ship’s doctor trying to figure out how to extend their lives. Their world is rocked by a trio of contest-winning teenage boys arriving at their station, the Anshin, followed soon after by a meteor impact that cuts off most of their power and isolates them from most of the adults ruling. the Anshin as the station loses air. .
Although netflix has the series split into six episodes, it was also planned as two movies, which breaks the series cleanly into a two-act structure. The first half plays out like a well-made space disaster movie, with a group of teenagers cut off from their guardians trying to figure out how to cooperate and survive on their own with limited resources or guidance. The cast’s chemistry is critical to these storylines, as the way the characters play with each other is the primary source of tension and relief. Orbital children does well here, with its hard core of four teenagers and a young adult. The misanthropic Touya plays well with Taiyou, an over-eager young white-hat hacker, and their immediate rivalry is amusing and shows how two 14-year-olds with competing interests and without adult supervision would fare in their situation.
The second group – made up of space tuber Mina who streams the experience live, her younger brother Hiroshi, Nasa, and Konoha – are a little less dynamic and only really come to life when they join Taiyou and Touya. Mina is great fun as a teenage influencer obsessed with getting views, but Hiroshi doesn’t really have much to do narratively and Konoha is mostly there to be ethereal and act as a plot device. in the second half.
In the second half, Orbital children moves away from a simple space survival story and into metaphysics, exploring the nature of AI and what happened when Seven entered her mad phase, composed the Song of the Seven and was later euthanized. One of the reasons it was taken offline was that it called for the elimination of over a third of humanity to ensure the survival of the planet and its species. Iso does not hesitate to ask difficult and pertinent questions: are “human” and “humanity” distinct concepts? Should humans be sacrificed to save humanity?
These themes have been present in fiction for a long time and have only felt more relevant over time, so it’s no wonder Iso wanted to explore them in his own way. It’s frankly very interesting, especially related to the concept of “crazy” artificial intelligence which is so advanced that it becomes almost divine. However, there are some elements that I was a little tugged at. I found myself frustrated that Konoha never really grew into a character, especially surrounded by big personalities like Touya, Taiyou, and Mina. Some elements ended too conveniently, essentially robbing the characters of their free will which weakened rather than strengthened the story. I can’t help but think the story would have been stronger as a full TV series, giving the story and the characters more time to play out in the space that was created for them, even though it wasn’t as tightly plotted.
Technically, it’s still a big effort. One of my favorite things about Den-noh coil was the way the characters were written and animated like real kids their age, and that continued until Orbital children as well. Each character has a distinct sense of physicality from the others, but still believable for their age group. The animation is superb, even including the space station setting, with lots of thought about what a tourist-friendly space station would look like. There are some clunky CGs that don’t quite blend with the hand-drawn elements, but that’s a relatively minor issue that doesn’t come up as often as one might think.
As is often the case with netflix versions, the series is available both in its original Japanese and dubbed into a number of languages. I can only speak about the Japanese and English versions, but both are strong and viewers should choose according to their preferences, although Cassandra Lee Morris is more or less lost as a soft-spoken Konoha.
Despite its flaws, Orbital children is an excellent series, by far one of the best anime series of the year so far. This is a must-have watch for fans of Den-noh coil, and a strong recommendation to almost anyone. Now to start waiting for the third set of Iso!
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The Orbital Children – Review – Tech Tribune France
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