Emotional sincerity is a tough thing to get right in any story. It's not enough for a story to say someone's a hero; their behavior has to actually be heroic. Likewise, it's not enough for someone to just say they're in love. They have to actually act like they're in love, which often means being as foolish, impulsive, confused — and maybe also ultimately heroic — as lovers often are. Psalms of Planets: Eureka Seven gets this well enough to make an enthralling story out of it, even the show also flirts with being overlong and a little too caught up in its sense of romance for its own good. It also has giant robots on surfboards.
Let my reservations not seem like damning with faint praise. The good in this show is very good indeed — good enough that it makes all fifty-plus episodes worth at least one trip through. Also good enough that there are multiple moments throughout where anime's propensity for being focused on stories about the young (something that deserves its own separate discussion) works in service of the story and not against it. Even the fact that so much of what we see is constructed out of stock elements only becomes a liability when seen in the abstract: the specific life those stock elements take on the screen is specific enough, and lively enough, to make us forget those problems, and make a great show out of what might have been merely a good one.
We gotta get out of this place
The first and most immediately visible area where Eureka Seven stands out is its setting, which provides us with such a crazy-quilt of justifications for giant robots on surfboards that the sheer ambition of the thing wins out. Mankind now lives on a world where some aether-like substance called "trapar" emanates from the earth; when harnessed properly, it can be ridden as one might ride any wave or air current. Most of the planet is covered with the "Scub Coral", about which theories abound as to whether it is merely a mineral or a life form in its own right. Such questions were once asked by the scientist Adroc Thurston, the man now credited for saving the world at the cost of his life.
It's his son, the young teen Renton Thurston, who takes center stage in the story. Being the son of the world's savior means nothing to him when he's stuck in a dead-end town learning to be a greasemonkey courtesy of his grandfather Axel. The only other light in his life was his older sister Diane, and now she's gone too. For him, the ideal life would be one like that led by the crew of the Gekkostate, a ship of renegades whose exploits are chronicled in their underground magazine ray=out. Like so many kids, he doesn't know what he really wants — only that he wants to be someone else, somewhere else.
He gets his wish, sort of. One of the Gekkostate's LFOs, or giant mecha craft, crashes into his house, and lickey-bam Renton's in love with the strange, ethereal girl piloting the ship: Eureka. The two of them together exert an unusual effect on the ship's "Compac Drive", and so together they are capable of far more than either of them alone. That by itself is a hint to Renton (and to the audience as well) that they belong together, and so he abandons his boring life at home to join the Gekkostate gang -- much as, ironically enough, he imagines his father abandoned his own family for the sake of his research.
But life with Eureka and the rest of the Gekkostate's crew is far from being the idyll Renton imagined. The Gekkostate's leader, the oft-sullen and temperamental Holland Novak, isn't interested in babysitting Renton or holding his hand: if the kid wants to be a part of what they've put together, he has to be willing to jump into the deep end of the pool by himself. (It's not bad advice, as it turns out; it just comes at first too early in Renton's development to really stick.) The other crewmembers find him alternately amusing or annoying, and dump their chores on him. His ideas aren't taken seriously. And what seemed like adventure on the outside turns out either to be grinding chores, or gut-wrenching terror and trouble of a kind Renton doesn't really know how to cope with. Running around and blowing stuff up always looks better from the outside — doubly so when you're confronted with how that leaves blood on your hands.
Worst of all, Eureka doesn't seem to comprehend, let alone reciprocate, the affection he feels for her. She has her own emotional duties to attend to, though: a clutch of three orphans who call her "Mama" (the show goes for the easy joke in what Renton assumes the first time he hears that), and whose opinion of Renton is as low as the rest of the crew's. The strange rift that forms between them only deepens when Eureka finds that Renton seems to be able to form a better rapport with her LFO than she does. Jealousy, and love, are both alien feelings to her--and, it seems, equally problematic and destructive.
Love's like oxygen
Gradually and by degrees, Renton learns the full extent of what he's blundered into. For one, he comes to understand the truth about both Eureka and the Gekkostate crew. They're not merely flaunters of the law, but former dogs of the army who came to resent how history was written in blood — and how they were, more often than not, the ones holding the pen. An even greater revelation involves Eureka herself. Her incomprehension of emotions isn't a matter of personality or upbringing, but part of the very nature of what she is: a thing that has assumed human form as a way to try and bridge the divided between that which is human and that which is not. It's a heady idea, one strongly reminiscent of the Soto Buddhist notion of the universe as a sentient thing that wants to know what it's like to experience life as a human being, and so it develops a sensory organ that just happens to be you.
But this notion, and all the others that accompany it — and also the complex, history-rewriting motives of the state that tries to hunt down the Gekkostate -- are not things Renton is equipped to directly handle. Like many shōnen heroes, he's interested only in practice, not theory. He doesn't care about where Eureka came from; he only wants to know what he can do to make her happy. He will only find in time that the fact that her happiness and his are intertwined will be the source of as much misery as it is joy, but only through that process does he begin to find anything like the maturity to meet those problems head-on. What he discovers, on his own, is what Holland has been hammering into him all this time: nothing comes without sacrifice, and the most important sacrifice to be made is one freely chosen by oneself.
The only way he can find this out, though, is by first rejecting the Gekkostate crew and finding shelter with a husband-and-wife team, themselves folks who seem to be living just on the inside of the law. There, Renton finds something like the kind of acceptance the Gekkostate didn't seem to offer — but it's acceptance that comes at the price of having betrayed his comrades in ways he couldn't have anticipated. With a lesser show, this whole plot thread would have come off as a mere stacking of the emotional deck, but it's woven back into the rest of the story in a way that ultimately earns our appreciation.
Most shōnen protagonists are somewhat one-dimensional, a "flat" character in the Dickensian sense of one who only exhibits a few basic (albeit prominent) emotional traits. Renton is a little more complex than that — he's defined mainly by his relationship to Eureka, but he gets some additional degrees of depth thanks to his connections to the other Gekkostate crew and his family (sister, father, grandfather). But the show wisely doesn't try to let him carry all the action; any hyperbolically adolescent emotion in large doses gets wearying, and so he's surrounded by and played off against a much broader galaxy of characters Not just people his age or younger, as per Eureka and her "family", but also Holland and his right-hand men and women, people whose development often feeds back into Renton's own and thus serve to deepen them both. I particularly liked Talho, the young woman who is nominally Holland's girlfriend and harbors reservoirs of jealousy for Eureka, but in time learns to put it aside and act as someone to be looked up to by others (mainly Renton) and not simply looked askance at.
Renton and Eureka's emotional struggles are mirrored — in more than one sense of the term — in many other characters' relationships throughout the show, but most directly by another pair of characters on the other side of the plot fence: Anemone, an LFO pilot who is as vicious as Eureka is demure; and her controller, Lieutenant Dominic Sorel, a young man reminiscent of what Renton might be had he been drafted into the military and forced to tighten the waistband on his soul pretty quickly. Without the drugs that keep her manic (if functional), Anemone collapses into depression; she was once a happy person, before the military came along and turned her into a living weapon, and being reminded of what she once was only makes her feel worse. Sorel's feelings for her grow to the point where he, too, realizes there are things bigger than him that require he stick his neck out and abandon the comfort of the familiar. The growth of his character, and the history of those in Gekkostate, bring to mind a similar dynamic in Fullmetal Alchemist -- that of people who pledge their lives to uphold an ideal, only to discover it was the wrong ideal, and feel compelled to tear it down with their own hands.
After Evangelion, this deluge
I'm most impressed by a show that starts with a premise that seems to rely on as few existing reference points as possible, but that doesn't mean I'm not impressed by shows that start with the body of the familiar — or the stock-standard — and then inject into it the plasma of fresh creativity. After Neon Genesis Evangelion entered, devastated, and exited, exerting influences that have been as normative as they have also been problematic, there's scarcely come a season of anime that didn't exist in its shadow and sport some regional variation on its recipe of giant robot warfare, existential threats to mankind, and psychological torment.
Eureka Seven has one box checked in all three of those categories, but it's a far more life-affirming and genuinely enjoyable experience than Evangelion. For one, it doesn't see anyone — not Renton, not Eureka, not even Anemone — as an incurable damage case who can only be redeemed through apocalypse. It's not as if Evangelion's jaundiced view isn't worth experiencing at least once; it's that Eureka Seven's more humane attitude towards its material allows it to also be a more human story — to have that much larger a cast of characters, to see them more completely as people and not simply pawns of the show's higher ambitions, and to make the experience of sitting through the show — one twice as long as Evangelion -- far less of an endurance test. I may have more respect for Evangelion as an achievement (and again, even there I have reservations about the true extent of its greatness), but Eureka Seven is the more watchable and more enjoyable of the two shows.
Another way both shows complement and contrast each other: the use of humor. When Evangelion brought in in Pen-Pen and all those other kinds of sidelong comic relief, it felt shoehorned in; it didn't feel like humor that evolved naturally out of the characters. With Eureka Seven, the humor can be equally lowbrow — Renton's pratfalls while swabbing out the hangar, or Sorel's struggles with Anemone's weird platypus-like pet — but at least it seems to be coming from a space somewhere near the characters themselves, and so it's both funnier and more relatable. Consequently, the show becomes that much freer to switch between comedy and drama as needed, in big part because both of those sides do the legwork needed to hold up their respective ends of the bargain.
Yet another thing I originally chalked up to being another point of similarity with Evangelion is the world-building — the flood of backstory and terminology thrown at us over the course of the show. Now that I think about it, though, that invites comparison less with Evangelion alone than it does with most mecha- and SF-themed anime generally, which work overtime to surround the audience with details that reinforce the setting's otherness. To that end, Eureka Seven creates a whole ecology and history around the Scub Corals, one which like Eva before it is ultimately designed to draw attention back to the problems at the heart of the show. Like the mushi in Mushi-shi, the Corals are not good or evil as we know it, simply a form of life with its own agenda — but that doesn't mean their actions can't register on a scale of human morality, nor does it mean they have no understanding of good and evil on their own. The show is wise enough to recognize any coexistence between humanity and such things would most likely end tragically, but also hopeful enough to believe such a tragic end would not be inevitable.
If Eureka Seven has one major drawback, it's one I'm not sure can be legitimately attributed to it, or is simply one I'm experiencing as a by-product of having watched so many shorter shows as of late: its length. It takes two seasons to cover a story that to my mind could have been covered just as effectively, and more efficiently, in one. And sure enough, on looking back over my notes, I see any number of episodes that seem redundant — like the soccer episode, which is nominally about encouraging Renton and Eureka to rediscover how well they work together. It's not a bad idea, it's just that setting aside a whole episode for it in that form brings everything to a grinding crawl, and over time I felt like so many of the things that required a whole episode, didn't. Then again, the show's length may well be a product of its moment in time (the mid-2000s), when it was still common for a series to fill twenty-six episodes or even fifty-plus, and where the storytelling expanded correspondingly to fit the available space.
What I like best about the show, though, is how it has the wherewithal to be halfway honest about its romantic subject matter. Young love always looks better from the outside, and young lovers are always far more at the mercy of being young than they are at the mercy of being in love. But none of that makes the experience unworthwhile — provided you can grow up just enough in the time you have to know it. Renton and Eureka know it, but only after it costs them just about all they have to give. The show lets you ask yourself whether it was worth it.