Fifteen years ago, the skilled animator Mitsuo Iso helmed Den-noh Coil, a science fiction tale about children interacting with and exploring the world through augmented reality glasses. It was the first time he was able to show off his incredible storytelling chops, and the show garnered a cult following that excitedly waited for his follow-up. And waited. And waited. And when it seemed like that next project would never come, The Orbital Children was announced. When it finally made its premiere, all those patient fans, myself included, gathered to see if it would live up to its predecessor. Although I can only speak for myself, I found Iso’s sophomore series to be an overall worthy, if somewhat weaker, successor to his first great success.
In Orbital ChildrenIso revisits many of Den-noh Coil‘s most prominent themes, particularly the way children interact with technology, and how technology interacts with human existence. The technology, including super-intelligent AI systems and space travel, is considerably more advanced AI ideas, but the core remain similar. Touya, an intelligent and troubled teenager, has lived his whole life in space and only survived infancy thanks to an implant designed by the super-intelligent AI being known as Seven. He appears apathetic towards other humans, actively resentful of the Earthlings who he feels signed his death warrant when they eliminated Seven – leaving a seemingly defective implant in his head – and has more interest in playing with and experimenting on the AIs that help run the space station/hotel where he lives with his uncle.
It’s a heavy subject and Orbital Children dives right in, immediately introducing the audience to Touya and his issues, alongside his fellow space-born child Konoha and Nasa Houston, the ship’s doctor who is trying to figure out how to extend their lives. Their world gets shaken up by a trio of teenage contest winners arrived on their station, the Anshin, shortly followed by a meteor impact that cuts off most of their power and isolates them from most of the adults who run the Anshin as the station leaks air .
Although Netflix has the series split into six episodes, it was also planned as two movies, which divides the series tidily into a two-act structure. The first half plays out as a well-made space disaster movie, with a group of adolescents cut off from their guardians trying to figure out how to cooperate and survive on their own with limited resources or guidance. Cast chemistry is essential to these scenarios, as the way the characters play off each other is the main source of both tension and relief. Orbital Children does well here, with its core cast of four adolescents and one young adult. The misanthropic Touya plays well off of Taiyou, an over-eager young white-hat hacker, and their immediate rivalry is fun and nails how two 14-year-olds with competing interests and no adult supervision would behave in their situation.
The second group – made up of the spacetuber Mina livestreaming the experience, her younger brother Hiroshi, Nasa, and Konoha – is somewhat less dynamic, and doesn’t really come alive until they join back up with Taiyou and Touya. Mina is a lot of fun as a teenage influencer obsessed with gaining views, but Hiroshi doesn’t really get a lot to do narratively and Konoha is mostly there to be ethereal and act as a plot device in the second half.
In the latter half, Orbital Children shifts away from a straightforward space survival story and toward the metaphysical, exploring the nature of AI and just what happened when Seven entered its lunatic phase, composed the Song of Seven, and was later euthanized. One of the reasons it was taken offline was because it called for over a third of humanity to be eliminated to ensure the planet and its species’ survival. Iso does not shy away from asking difficult and relevant questions: are “human” and “humanity” separate concepts? Must we sacrifice humans to save humanity?
These themes have been present in fiction for a long time, and have only felt more sharply relevant as time has gone on, so it’s no wonder Iso wanted to explore them in his own way. It’s honestly very interesting, especially tied in with the concept of “lunatic” artificial intelligence that is so advanced that it becomes almost godlike. However, there are certain elements that pulled me out a bit. I found myself frustrated that Konoha never really came into her own as a character, especially surrounded by big personalities like Touya, Taiyou, and Mina. Certain elements wrapped up too conveniently, essentially robbing the characters of their free will that weakened, rather than strengthened, the story. I can’t help but think the story would have been stronger as a full-length TV series, giving the story and characters more time to play in the space that has been created for them, even if it weren’t as tightly plotted.
Technically, it’s still a strong effort. One of my favorite things about Den-noh Coil was how the characters were written and animated like actual children their age, and that has carried through to Orbital Children as well. Each character has a sense of physicality distinct from the others, but still within believability for their age group. The animation looks great, including even the space station setting, with a lot of thought put into just what a tourist-friendly space station would look like. There’s some clunky CG that doesn’t quite blend with the hand-drawn elements, but that’s a relatively minor issue that doesn’t come up as often as one would think.
As is often the case with Netflix releases, the series is available both in its original Japanese and dubbed into a number of languages. I can only speak to the Japanese and English versions, but both are strong and viewers should pick according to their preferences, though Cassandra Lee Morris is more or less wasted as the soft-spoken Konoha.
Despite its flaws, The Orbital Children is an excellent series, far and away one of the best anime series of the year so far. It’s a must-watch for fans of Den-noh Coil, and a strong recommendation to pretty much everyone else. Now to start waiting for Iso’s third series!