Long has mythology and history inspired anime. Remember Studio Pierrot’s Mysterious Cities of Gold back in the 80’s, where ancient South American technology was set against the backdrop of a boy’s search for his father? Or how about something from more recent memory, like Rah Xephon for example, where oracles and obscure references to the Greek arts take centre stage? Even the epic Neon Genesis Evangelion could be said to draw upon aspects of religious mythology, making a good argument for the case that humanity’s hidden and ambiguous past is a gold mine of creative inspiration.
For that reason alone, I’m surprised no one thought to look to the first civilisations of Mesopotamia – Sumer, Akkad and Babylon – before now, but the series Gilgamesh changes that, referencing perhaps the most well known story from that period. I say ‘references’, however, because thirteen episodes into the series and I’m still only seeing the faintest of connections. The foremost connection of course is that the story starts with an act of terrorism at the uncovered site of an ancient tomb in the supposed city of Uruk – the resting place of the epic hero Gilgamesh who sought immortality after witnessing the death of his best friend Enkiddu.
How or why this act produces a global catastrophe that spells the end of all communications technology is similarly unclear, but I’m willing to wait this revelation out. Less obviously, it becomes apparent that whatever work the scientific community was conducting at Uruk before the disaster was probably genetic in nature. Does the fact that fifteen years on, the strange psychic powers that orphaned siblings Kiyoko and Tatsuya and their allies possess have something to do with the immortality the original Sumerian King Gilgamesh sought? Again, I’m willing to wait for that answer.
In the meantime, there is more than enough to keep me watching. Gilgamesh is a serious anime that guards its secrets jealously, and has an unusual message. The generation of people born after the disaster, or too young to remember what things were like beforehand, don’t consider the world in which they live to be anything other than normal. It’s only the adults that still yearn to return to the world they once knew – a generation gap of global proportions. Those of us who’ve not had to live through historic upheavals like war can never truly understand what such things were like, but conversely those who’ve lived through them can never completely understand the current world in which we live. It’s this quiet clash of standards, and the way in which the characters are caught in the pull of forces set in motion almost before they were born, which provides much of the sub-narrative tension. Perhaps, if I just wait it out, it will also eventually yield some direct parallel to the myth from which the series is drawing.
Of course, the psychic powers mentioned also mean an acceptable amount of cool super-battles, with people flitting effortlessly in and out of space like lights winking on and off. And don’t forget the ability to have a snowball fight without ever having to get your hands wet. But this series is handicapped a little in this respect by slightly inferior animation techniques. The mind boggles at what Gilgamesh might have been had the production values been more along the lines of a Studio Gonzo series, because character design by Saki Okuse is distinctive and unusual and deserves the kind of fluid animation this show actually lacks.
It’s a shame, but the Machiavellian plot, the dark, gothic aesthetics, the twists and turns in the action and the fact that almost no one is able to be fully trusted, go a fair way in making up for whatever is lacking. There’s no quick return on investment here, as in most serious series, but hang in there, and perhaps the secrets of immortality are only the beginning of what Gilgamesh has to reveal.