Jyu Oh Sei, based on a three book manga by Natsumi Itsuki, is possibly one of the more underrated anime you could do yourself a favour and watch. Think Asmiov crossed with Golding – a kind of Lord of the Flies in space, where man is reduced to the most basic needs of survival, where the alien plant life is both beautiful and deadly, and where the rules are completely made to be broken.
Thor and Rai are twins abandoned on the secret prison planet of Chimaera after their politically powerful parents are assassinated. Left to fend for themselves, they quickly discover that in their new circumstances only the strong survive. Sadly, however, it’s clear from the outset that Rai is a little too soft hearted (read: stupid and whining) to make the grade, and I’m certainly not telling you anything you won’t know yourself in the first five minutes. But what’s interesting about it is that Thor is aware of this fact too. Knowing instinctively that Darwinism (not to mention luck) favours him over his brother, he wavers between protecting him and abandoning him until their new and violent home takes the decision out of his hands. And so Thor’s adventure starts.
Don’t you just love the way that ‘adventure’ in this context is synonymous with ‘struggles every step of the way, regularly facing death, betrayal and defeat’? Well, take it from me, that’s exactly what it’s synonymous with. One of the great things about this series is its pace – it hardly lets up in its headlong rush towards the finish. Each fix that Thor gets himself into just ends up burying him deeper and deeper until his already limited choices are down to zero. Strangely this is sort of the point – the criminals consigned to Chimaera over the years have developed something of a system, the whole aim of which is to play out the ultimate last man standing game. Whoever is strong enough to defeat all the other ring-leaders gets to become king, and also gets a get out of jail free ticket off the planet. And if Thor wants to get off the planet and find out why his parents were killed, guess what he’s going to have to do?
He might have more success if he could work out who were his friends and who were his enemies. As Thor becomes more and more involved in the Ochre Ring’s politics it becomes more and more obvious that he’s not the only one who wants him off the planet and possibly not for the same noble reasons. Something is very wrong in the state of Space Colony Juno, and it has everything to do with Thor and Chimaera and the way things are, and Thor might just survive to uncover the truth if he’s lucky. Even with the support of the girl who loves him, it looks far from easy, but he’s a hero in the truest sense of the word, so perhaps there’s nothing to fear after all. Heroes always win, right?
Well, it depends on your definition, actually. Itsuki’s manga was first serialised in 1998; it’s old school shoujo basically, which means lots of tragedy and lost loves and angst and self sacrifice and the hero finding happiness one minute only to watch it being taken away the next. But its themes are also very archetypal – a hero who is unique, from another world, who affects the ecosystem merely by existing within it, whose determination will change everything.
It’s themes like these that last the distance, but Studio Bones’ 2006 update hasn’t hurt either. Their distinctive character design has rounded out Itsuki’s original, angular style even while quite closely following the original story. Why mess with a good thing after all? Their influence makes this action-driven series a pleasure to watch. In the end it doesn’t quite have the comprehensive style of something like Wolf’s Rain, but for a short eleven episode binge it’s thoroughly rewarding. I’m still a little unclear about the exact significance of all those Norse references of course – Odin, Midgard, Valkyrie – and it’s not much of a stretch to assume they’re just throw-ins to make everything sound cool, but with the plot twists coming as fast as they do, it hardly matters. Jyu Oh Sei is a roller coaster ride in the grand tradition, fantastical entertainment in its purest form, epic, heroic and more fun than you’d probably expect.