LAB Notes #1 – Xam’d: Lost Memories

Target: Xam’d: Lost Memories – Bounen no Zamned
Studio: BONES
Genre: Action, Adventure
Notable Themes: Mecha, War, Religious Persecution
Episodes: 26
Fanservice Level: Mild

Reasons to Watch:
Top quality animation from Studio BONES.
Strong, original story that doesn’t feel like a retread.
Great characters and very strong character development.

Reasons to Not:
Lots of obscure terminology that is never explained.
Very random ‘final-boss’ ending with little real resolution

Similar to: RahXephon, Eureka Seven, Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Review:
There isn’t a good reason for why I started this new anime review series with Xam’d: Lost Memories.  It isn’t my favorite series, though it probably sits in the top twenty-five.  It is a rather good exemplar of the kind of things I like in shows, anime or otherwise: strong main character development, good storytelling over the entire arc and fun action sequences that don’t dominate the rest of the show.  Xam’d doesn’t feel as polished as some of the real classics in its genre, but still manages to stand above the crowd as a show that provokes thought and emotion.

Xam’d’s (Zamned’s?) core story follows Takehara Akiyuki*, a high school student who is accidentally involved in a small-scale terrorist attack.  Caught in the explosion of a biological weapon, Akiyuki is infected with an endosymbiotic organism that transforms him into a biological weapon called Xam’d.  Simultaneously, Akiyuki’s home comes under attack from the Northern Government. The Northern Government uses a slightly different kind of biological mecha called Humanform weapons, and in the heat of battle, Akiyuki is mistaken for an enemy unit.  In spite of coming under friendly fire, Xam’d Akiyuki defends his friends and takes out a Humanform, but a mysterious girl descends from the sky and knocks him out.  We learn that she is Nakiami, a member of a secretive northern tribe who seek out and cares for emerging Xam’d.  She forces Akiyuki to leave with her on a postal airship so that she can train him to take control of his metamorphosis and avoid turning to stone.

The B arc of the series follows Nishimura Haru, a school-mate and childhood friend of Akiyuki, as she recovers from the attack and goes on to join the Southern Free Zone’s military force as a mecha pilot called a Mainsoul.  Haru is conflicted, trained to view all Humanform weapons as enemies, but still knowing that Akiyuki is now one of them.  By joining the military, she hopes to find him, but knows that she may be forced to fight, or even kill him.

The strengths of Xam’d lie in its focus on the plight on the individual characters.  Like many post-Evangelion mecha anime with a philosophical bent, the protagonist is an unwilling participant in a war he knew little or nothing about.  But unlike Shinji, Akiyuki develops as a character.  His personal arc is particularly interesting because he never fully embraces his role as a tool of war, while simultaneously acknowledging the need for his participation in the unfolding events of the climax.  Haru and Nakiami undergo similar journeys that change the characters in dynamic ways, while leaving their underlying personas basically intact.  The actions of all three protagonists emerge naturally from these journeys and never feel out of character or forced.

While Xam’d does many things right in its attempt to tell a coming of age story with grand fantastical elements, it fails to really set the stage properly.  The biggest flaw by far is the lack of explicit world building.  In a story that so centrally revolves around a single piece of biotechnology, it’s odd that the exact nature of that technology is never revealed.  The Hiruko, the core symbiotic organism that drives both the Xam’d and the North’s Humanform weaponry, is at various times referred to as a piece of technology, a naturally occurring living creature, a kind of holy spirit or fragment of a deity and as a person’s soul.  Different factions seem to treat the Hiruko as different things, and it reacts to these variant ideologies in radically different ways, none of which are ever discussed in any detail.  On the more macro scale, the war between the Northern Government and the Southern Free Zone is never explained in any way, and the forces driving the Northern Government are just as non-existent.  The final climax, involving a massive confrontation with the Northern forces, starts to feel very pointless, as it is never made clear what the protagonists are fighting against.

There are also some unrelated pacing issues in the second half of the show.  Other reviewers have harped on this problem to somewhat excessive levels, and while the plot does become a little unfocused, the show does some of its deepest metaphysical exploration in these episodes.  There are some significant revelations and transformative events in this section that are absolutely necessary to the greater plot and to the protagonist’s character development.  In particular, the complaints center on the episodes 15-18, where the show effectively cuts us off from more than half of the cast by focusing heavily on Nakiami, and turning Akiyuki into a mindless husk for the duration.  I don’t find these episodes to be particularly bad, but you’ll just have to make up your own mind about them, as further discussion would require heavy spoilers.

Xam’d has a lot in common with some of the other shows out of Studio BONES.  The use of bio-mechanical mecha is reminiscent of Eureka Seven, as is the widespread access to hover-flight.  The two shows also share a lead character designer, Yoshida Kenichi, making the resemblance visual, as well as conceptual.  The story arcs and general themes are very similar to those of RahXephon, which is in turn similar to Neon Genesis Evangelion.  Xam’d also shares a musical director and composer, Oshima Michiru, with the highly acclaimed first anime adaptation of Full Metal Alchemist.

In general, the music feels like it takes a back seat to the visuals most of the time, but the subtle themes and more orchestral feel suits the series very well.  Xam’d is a visually superior show with a very high quality of animation and a distinctive design aesthetic.  Despite the use of futuristic technology, the majority of the show evokes a nostalgic cold war-era feel, with gritty machinery, conservative buildings and muted colors.  The contrasting vibrant colors of the Humanform and Xam’d designs break up the palette while helping to separate the everyday from the extra-normal.

While Xam’d isn’t the be all and end all of anime, it marks as good a starting point as any for this project.  As I add reviews to this blog, it will become more obvious why I rate Xam’d as a middle of the road show, even though it stands well apart from the vast majority of mainstream anime.

Now, seeing as how this is the first of what will hopefully be a long line of these reviews, I’d like to take a moment to discuss my review style, and the goal of these… posts?  Essays?

It should be obvious that my primary measure of quality is good storytelling, as expressed through clean plots, strong characters and clear world building.  If you don’t want your anime rated on those terms, then this probably isn’t the blog for you.  If you do want a literary perspective, but don’t see some piece of information, or a specific kind of examination that you’d like to have, please let me know and I’ll try to work it into the general format.  Also, if I have miscategorized a series in some way, let me know that too.  Genre is fairly self-explanatory, but there’s a lot of room for overlap in themes, so it’s very likely that I’ll miss something someday.

As of this moment, I am not planning on taking requests, though that may change.  My goal with all this is to expose my readers to a segment of the anime world that has been picked out for its exceptional quality.  These shows should defy stereotypes, or subvert them and help to correct some of the misconceptions that have cropped up around this medium.  This approach is probably going to make me come off like some kind of hipster or an elitist intellectual.  I don’t really have a problem with that.  Critics have always had to voice unpopular opinions at times in the interests of effecting positive change.  While it is unlikely that my voice, among the tens of thousands out there, will be able to make this change happen, it is pointless to have a goal and not strive for it simply because it is unpopular.  Hopefully, you all feel the same.

Thanks for reading.

*Footnote – I’ve chosen to represent Japanese names in the culturally correct order: surname followed by given name.  This is done, not out of any particular desire for correctness, or to confuse readers, but out of respect for the traditions of a culture not my own.  I’ve also chosen to phonetically Romanize, because I’m too lazy to bother with accented letters.

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Posted on October 7, 2012, in LAB Notes and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. After digging far enough on my WordPress Reader, I’ve stumbled upon your blog. I just want to say that I share your opinion on this series. It’s one of my favorites as well, and I appreciate the level praise you’ve given it.

    I don’t see any real problems with the format and style of this post, so I’ll just wait and see what you have in mind when it comes to high-quality anime.

  2. I honestly don’t know how I stumbled here either. But very good breakdown of the anime and very well written post. I agree that there are some major flaws, but overall Xam’d is really something special. I don’t really know to put it into words, but for me personally, I feel like Bones is one of the only studios that can almost get away with being extremely vague. Even when they don’t explain everything, which is a drawback plot wise, I can appreciate the world they are trying present. It kind of wraps you into the landscape, draws you into the story and makes you care about the characters. Most Bones productions are flawed in that same ambiguous way, just to various degrees. Yet, I can’t help but love what they put out.

    • Thanks for your support! I definitely see what you’re saying about ambiguity in some of BONES’ original stories. I never felt like the relationships between the Scub Coral and the Compac drives was adequately explained in Eureka 7, but it also wasn’t the point of the story. I’m not sure I would go as far as to say ‘most’ of their works share that trait, but it’s definitely there.

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