Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere (Kyoukai Senjou no Horizon in Japanese) is a very interesting anime. Interesting enough that were I to wake tomorrow with a perfect understanding of Japanese, reading the series that had spawned the show is likely the first thing I’d do with that knowledge. Horizon is a good show with some very noticeable flaws, which keep it from being “great”, but I still think it’s more than worth your while.
This post is the third post in the series of shows about “Mind Expanding anime with Fukuyama Jun“, the other two were about Maoyu and Spice and Wolf.
First, let’s begin with a story that explains why I was favourably disposed to the show from the first episode. I’m a roleplayer; I’m talking about tabletop RPGs such as D&D. For those who don’t know, the Dragonlance series of novels began out of a D&D campaign (with moments such as Flint falling off a bridge early in the series being influenced by a critical fumble in the game that spawned the series). The Record of Lodoss War from the late 80s had also been based on D&D replay. Well, the reason for this story is that Horizon reminds me of the Exalted RPG by White Wolf (and more recently of the Japanese TTRPG Tenra Bansho Zero, translated and commercially released by my friend Andy Kitkowski).
Exalted, and the world of Horizon deliver onto you a world of many influences. You’ve got witches soaring through the sky, you have magic that is largely fueled by petitions to gods who must grant them, you have mecha, people with weapons several times their size, you have “named weapons” with mythical abilities such as being able to sever the existence of anything they reflect – including one of the cardinal directions. You have fights in which one side may use weapons and the other side can remain on equal footing though they’re only using an erotic dancing technique which renders them immune to damage, or debates which are actually “fights” (this too can be done in quite an awesome way in the Exalted RPG). City states fight one another, people sacrifice themselves for causes, androids and history-reshaping fights galore.
(This is a Things I Like post, it’s not a review, but more a discussion of the show and of ideas that have risen in my mind as I’ve watched it. There will be a large amount of spoilers in this post.)
The world of Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere is rich, mind-staggeringly so. The anime doesn’t have space to explain and cover what all the various factions are, which is understandable if you think that some of the novels Horizon is based on are quite massive, and it’s actually one part of a six stage-series, including a series of novels which is the pre-prequel of Horizon, covering part of how the world got to the stage it’s in. Not only that, but think West Wing with the way some things occur – in the second season for instance, we have a mercantile “battle” between two merchants. One side must sell meat, and the other country really needs to buy it, but both of them attempt to get the better of the other side. While the season has a very cool scene in it (the Triple Axel Dozega (Prostration)), it’s not the core. They explain to you and move along at a breakneck pace, trying to explain why the number of days needed for the trade to be concluded is 14, but the bare minimum is 11. I managed to follow most of it. But then the side that needs more time cuts down the time and the other side is called on their bluff and must raise the days. I couldn’t follow it, and had to use an external resource.
There is this quite helpful site, which one should keep in mind when one watches this show (*Extra reading footnote). in particular the glossaries for season 1 and season 2, and most important are the Q&A (actually in-depth FAQ explaining the more intricate things happening in each scene) for season 1 and season 2. The reason why I think of this show as a “mind-expanding anime” is different from the previous two entries I’ve covered, in that it is not trying to teach you additional concepts, but it forces you to think. In season 1 there is a scene in which Aoi Toori and Horizon, the two “main characters” argue, and Aoi has to convince Horizon to let him save her, which will plunge their country, and perhaps the whole world into war. The plot used there is quite simple in the end, that of “Parallel arguments”, as Horizon declares she will never agree with Aoi, so he must make use of reverse psychology in order to get her to adopt the stance he wants.
Likewise, slightly earlier in the show we have a debate, where Honda Masazumi, portrayed by the spectacular Sawashiro Miyuki, the student-council vice-president, in a manner very reminiscent of The West Wing episode where Sam Seabourne must make the argument for the side he doesn’t believe in, is forced by Aoi to make his case – of why they should go to war for the sake of Horizon. What follows is an argument which makes use of Formal Logic and Rhetorical tricks, and I was amazed. You have to be fast on your feet to follow, and you can see that someone actually spent quite some time in crafting these scenes and arguments, and that they’re very refined and, well, dexterous is the only term I can really think of for what is going on here. It’s not the core of the show, it’s true, but the show is still full of such moments, that it’s hard to think of the show without them.
Now, let’s discuss a strength and a weakness of the show, which will lead me to the question I use as this post’s title. The show is teeming with amazing cast actors who perform their roles admirably, lead by Fukuyama Jun on Aoi Toori, the “main character” of the show, and Sawashiro Miyuki on Honda Masazumi, the vice-president. The downside is that this is very much an “ensemble show”, there is a staggering amount of characters. The characters’ histories and backgrounds, you can feel that there is just so much there – like the world, whenever you learn of their backgrounds or things get hinted at, you can see how much this is a living, breathing world, which was created and then the characters were put into it, rather than a world designed around the characters.
The downside is, that you don’t get to see much of these characters, you don’t get to see most of them actually develop and change, much (at least within the first 2 seasons, which add up to 26 episodes). For instance, you have Azuma, the emperor’s son, who every so often we see a minute or two of, in his room and not interacting with the main cast at all. There are just too many characters, for there to be a true “main character.”
Ok, now that we’re going to discuss the issue of a “Main Character” (from here on out “Protagonist”), I want to bring up the definition of the term I’ve been taught in my time as a Junior High School student, in Literature class (my memory is amazing, yes). The protagonist is the character who changes throughout the story, the character about whom we learn more. The supporting cast is defined by way of the protagonist – they are there in order to light up certain aspects of the main characters, they are there for us to see the change, to cause the change.
Aoi Toori is supposedly the male protagonist of the show, towards the end of the first season he even says he’s the protagonist and using his protagonist powers he powers up all the extras of the school, by giving them access to his indomitable spirit, so they will not be able to falter (I love stories that make use of “Narrativium”, of using a story’s nature in order to have things occur in the world, as if narrative causality were a physical force in the world). However, if we look at the above definition, that a character or an author tell you a certain character is the protagonist, doesn’t necessarily make it so. Aoi Toori doesn’t change much in the episodes we see him of, he’s more of a force of nature – a plot device.
However, there is a character who is quite literally built to be the protagonist, even if the reasoning for this results in her being quite an uninteresting character during the duration of the first two episodes. That character is the female protagonist and the titular character, Horizon. Horizon died 10 years before the start of the show, and the emotions comprising her soul were made into 8 supremely powerful weapons. Her remaining soul was made into an Android. The reason Horizon isn’t really an interesting character is that she has no emotions, and not in the cool way many shows and books describe it. She stands there, she is passive, etc. She has some moments, but this describes her pretty well on the whole.
The show’s plot, the thing that drives our characters to take on the whole world, is quite literally their quest to get Horizon’s emotions back. The 8 weapons were given to 8 superpowers of the world, as a way to maintain the fragile balance. They are getting Horizon her emotions, they are building her up as a human being, they are building her up as a protagonist. Even if that will force them to throw the world and the plans to recreate history (in order to avert the disaster that lead to the world’s current state) awry, the history recreation and the fight against history’s march being another main theme of the show that runs as an undercurrent to everything that goes on.
Horizon will undoubtedly become more interesting with each season that goes on, as she gets more and more of her emotions back. The huge cast will get more time to shine, such as Tenzo the ninja being the main character who receives screen time for quite a few episodes in the second season. The world’s vast scope, and the intricately woven political tapestry keeps getting filled with intrigue. If I were to wake up tomorrow with a perfect knowledge of Japanese, this is the first thing I’d do – read all this world has to offer.
The voice cast as I said earlier is amazing. The soundtrack is well done. The technical quality of the art is very good as well. The artistic direction however is something many could find fault with. I suspect many of those who dislike the show or like it, like it for the “wrong reason” – the outfits in this show are ridiculous, the size of breasts and how much attention they receive during the show, as well as the amount of groping that goes on is extremely high. I believe that like Mai-HiME the fan-service is something that obscures just how much this show has going for it, and even those who like these things might end up paying more attention to these things than everything else the show has to offer, including a literal construction of the concept of what protagonist is.
This show also has some really silly moments, which feel taken from “Anime land so silly, ha ha” such as Aoi Toori being naked for more or less the entirety of the second season, with his crotch being hidden by objects, an in-show celestial “Censored” tag, or just censored by the show itself. I can’t help that the show doesn’t do this seriously, and is poking fun at itself and the nature of the so-called “Protagonist”, who is the most ridiculous and helpless, and the most indomitable character of the whole cast – Aoi “The Impossible” Toori.
Conclusion: This show receives 7/10 logico-rhetorical gymnastics from me. I wish people wouldn’t read just the score. This score is a score for a really good show that due to silliness, oppressive fan-service, and lack of character progress and characterization had a couple of points reduced. If you can overlook some of the silliness, then I’d give this show closer to an 8. I think that should we receive more seasons the show will overcome most of the issues I have with it – the characters will receive more time for each to have their time in the spotlight, Horizon will become the protagonist she must be, and the characters and the world will undergo change. Change that the whole world is trying to stop, by attempting to recreate, rather than reinvent.
* In case you decide to give this show a chance, another great place to read that explains the whole world to you in a relatively condensed way is this post on Random Curiousity. This could also be used as an abridged setting-guide were you interested in using it as an RPG-setting.