tl;dr: You can find in a work what you go looking for. When I wrote off Horizon on the middle of nowhere as fanservice fluff, friends suggested that there was more there. I went looking, and was surprised at what I found.
If you’ve found your way to this blog backwater, you’ve probably seen the Blinded by the Tits project*. When I first looked at Horizon on the middle of nowhere, I made the same mistake as the titterers — I assumed that with its character designs, the series was putting its sole asset up front, that there was no substance behind those designs. Like the titterers, I didn’t even bother with a single episode of the series.
Friends, whose taste I trust, told me the series was better than that. So I set aside my prejudices and took a look at it. This led to Horizon becoming one of my favorite series of the past few years. I’ve found subtlety and creativity in the series that I think rivals shows like Kaiba, Tatami Galaxy, and Mawaru Penguindrum.
Because I delayed watching the first season, I was able to marathon it. Seeing it all at once probably makes it a lot easier to see how the plot threads weave together, and how the action draws you forward. This is clearly a series meant for home-video: for viewing and reviewing, pausing and thinking.
Horizon on the rings of Saturn
tl;dr: Horizon is science fiction steeped in Clarke’s dictum about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic.
One of the titterers looked at the plethora of character types and proposed the theory that they just exist as a database-checklist of “tropes”. I’d like to propose an alternative theory: one can look at the same diversity as an illustration of an integrated science fiction theme of the series: there is so much variety because Horizon’s is a world in which so much variety is possible. One problem with the “trope” theory is the presence of so many “tropes” in the series that are kept in the background, and aren’t exploited for their “tropism”. These do add to the rich possibilities of this world, however.
When I wrote about this series earlier, I compared it to Samuel Delaney’s Triton or Charles Stross’ Accelerando. Karl Schroeder’s wonderful Lady of Mazes (with its interlocking, non-intersecting worldviews separated by locked doors of perception) may be an even better choice. These books have culture, perception, and identity made fluid through technology, resulting in echoes in the culture. Similarly, Horizon’s technology permeates life, mind, and materials until reality becomes as malleable as modelling clay, with bodies and minds and implements transformable into a stunningly diverse array of forms. Body form as fashion: cyborganic enhancements as fashion accessories.
Instead of populating the inside of a near-future online RPG, Horizon’s werewolves, half-elves, and other elementals populate Horizon’s world. Horizon’s technology makes cyberspace and realspace identical. Just as in Accelerando or Lady of Mazes, the border between the real world and the simulated world is transparent and permeable: characters exist simultaneously in both. The result is a world populated with new kinds of beings, and new ways for those beings to look at their world. Horizon mixes these into its stew.
Horizon on the saddle of the White Knight
tl;dr: Instead of a series of inane, repetitive battles, each action sequence gains an added dimension from deriving its rules from a different metaphor. Plus, the economics works better than Spice and Wolf.
Horizon is filled with action scenes that are downright odd. Some of them aren’t even action scenes, they’re dances, some are debates: complex verbal chess games of negotiation, some hinge upon Proper Behavior, making it Rude to win.Beyond the verbal and martial gymnastics, Horizon is striking in the way that each contest uses a different metaphor: Neito battles blind Suzu and is defeated by her own chivalry; warrior Futayo battles dancer Kimi and is defeated by the amount of passion brought to the “fight”; a weapon that can counter any attack it has seen before is held at bay by a fighter with such a large repertoire of attacks she need never repeat a move; it is then defeated by accident.
The battles in Horizon tend to be Looking Glass battles, like those that would be waged by Lewis Carroll’s White Knight. Half the weapons of the series are metaphors — they’re what happens when you weaponize a magic spell. Gin’s strategy in the fight against Drake and his weapon (“The Defense of British Justice Through Use of Precedent”, or something like that) is symbolic of the approach taken to all the conflicts of the series: no two are presented in the same way. The “fights” progress as puzzles posed by the nature of the “weapons”. The combatants don’t fight as much as manuever their opponents into a double-bind, a checkmate imposed by rules unique to this conflict.
It’s fun to see this animated, because at heart it’s a language game.
(The fights and debates aren’t the only sorts of word-play in the series: the witches run a delivery service (and take down their opponents with a “money-shot”), Toori Aoi has made a contract with the god of Happiness** (and is thus the blue bird (aoi tori) of happiness), Horizon, who was run over ten years ago by a carriage, starts the day at the start of the series by singing a descendent of Tooryanse the Japanese pedestrian crossing song.)I’ve been watching Revolutionary Girl Utena recently, and I’ve enjoyed the contrast to Horizon. Where Ikuhara works with ritual, stylized presentation and repetition, Horizon‘s creators Kawakami, Ono and Urahata appear to be working with deliberate novelty and variation (though otherwise remaining fairly conventional in their directorial choices). They don’t step into the same trope twice. Both approaches have their merits (especially when one of the rituals is Rock over Japan).
Religion and commerce are mixed in Horizon, at least on board the Musashi. Characters are constantly negotiating payments and contracts for powers and abilities. The witch Malga lost her weapon in a battle and, as a refugee, is too poor to replace it (and has been put in peril several times as a result). Damn, that’s how C: the money of soul and possibility control should have worked, and Spice and Wolf could learn a few things, too.
Technology also makes animism concrete in interesting ways in Horizon.
Horizon on the lip of a melting pot
tl;dr: Is it coincidence that Horizon addresses one of the pressing social problems in today’s Japan?
In the series, Musashi represents Japan. But what a different Japan it is: the Japan of Horizon is a melting-pot. Its vice-chancellor and chief military officer are refugees from Mikawa (admittedly, a representation of a different Japan), its chief defenders are: European religious refugees (the witches, the dragon), an Italian merchant and his Swiss colleague (there also appears to be a Chinese merchant among the older generation), a half-French “knight” (not “a samurai”), plus a wide range of others in the peripheries of its central cast (an incubus, a blob thing, a racist caricature of a curry-wielding Indian, even some Japanese).
I think what we’re seeing is variety of a different sort, one that addresses one of Japan’s pressing social problems — the dwindling of the younger generation, the greying of Japan. Horizon, almost as an after-thought has its Japan rescued by a diverse team of immigrants.
This is best exemplified by Margot and Malga’s pre-battle conversation: refugees from religious persecution, they resolve to defend the home that gave them the freedom to practice their religion and their love, no matter the cost.
Horizon on the edge of forever
tl;dr: Horizon weaves many stories of love, loss, regret, and redemption. Maybe it will have something to tell us about those things.
It’s clear that a dominant theme of both the first and second seasons of Horizon has been one of love, loss, regret, and redemption. The first season set up the story of Toori and his quest to restore his lost love, Horizon.
This season appears to be weaving more threads into the theme: Toussaint and Shakespeare, Tenzo and Mary, the Spanish chancellor and his lost innocence. Finally, the history-recreation project that provides the religious precepts of the non-Musashi characters is the product of humanity’s regret for the loss of its former glory and its hope for redemption.
Horizon on the middle of the bookshelf
tl;dr: You don’t have to read 100,000 words of commentary before you can enjoy Horizon, though sometimes the Cliff’s Notes help you appreciate the details of the episodes.
One of the complaints about Horizon is that critics don’t think the series stands alone. There’s some phonebook-sized novels, and fans sometimes make reference to them. When the series was announced, Japanese fans thought the novels would be impossible to animate. The in medias res beginning left impatient people thinking that the Japanese fans might be right.
The logorhea of Horizon’s author certainly is a cause for concern (though the Horizon page-count isn’t much worse than the Index page-count — damning with faint praise there). But Nadesico taught me that an anime can drastically improve upon its source material. I don’t think reservations about the novels has much relevance in judging Horizon as an animated work, any more than fans should rely on the books to fill holes in the anime.
It is true that there are lots of fan crib-sheets puzzling about elements of the series (but it’s not like the existence of extensive commentary as fans work out the significance of a series is a bad thing).
I enjoyed Horizon long before I read any of the crib-sheets or discussion of the novels. I don’t think any of them are necessary (though the crib-sheets and discussion help me recognize things I missed or inspire me to solve puzzles on my own, thus deepening my appreciation for the series).
I agree that you probably have to be a genius to catch the significance of everything on your first viewing, but that’s a feature, not a bug (especially in this day of home-video). One benefit is there’s so much going on that the second and third viewings are fresher than most first-viewings of other series.
** – This contract is why he’s so often nude — Aoi is contracted to the goddess whose raucous strip-tease lured the goddess Amaterasu from her cave (and Toori is trying to lure Horizon from her shell).
Update 28 Aug: minor word-smithing to clarify some sentences.