Gilgamesh (Japan 2003)

Rating: ****
Review Date: 11/8/08

Divided into 26 episodes.

Holy crap.

How can I even begin to describe the experience known as "Gilgamesh?" Having just finished watching the final jaw-dropping episode, I was reminded of why Japanese anime is so incredible and why I was drawn to it in the first place. It both embraces and defies convention, creates interesting and complex character studies, explores extremely challenging themes, blows open the doors of imagination and creativity, and presents itself in an extremely beautiful and emotional package. It's a psychological mind-fuck, and even though I didn't understand what was going on, it kept me thoroughly engaged and on the edge of my seat the entire time. Well, maybe not the ENTIRE time... The weakest element of the series happens to be the pilot episode, which is easily the most confusing piece of animation I've ever seen. I had to double-check to make sure I was actually watching the first episode and not something from the middle of the series. I was so turned off by its intentional deceit and ambiguity that I considered not even bothering with the rest of the series. That would have been an unfortunate mistake.

"Gilgamesh" concerns the aftermath of a global catastrophe that turned the sky into a giant mirror. This was the result of a terrorist action at a scientific research facility that was studying the paranormal activity surrounding the tomb of Gilgamesh (the actual historical figure). In the wake of this event, test subjects from the lab show up as fabulously dressed effeminate goth figures decked out in studded leather and PVC. They're known as Gilgamesh, and have incredible psionic powers as well as the ability to transform into hideous demons. Opposing them is another group of fabulous looking teenagers who also happen to have strong psionic abilities. Thrown into the middle of this mess are two young siblings, Kiyoko and her younger brother Tatsuya. They're wanted by the Yakuza, then rescued by Gilgamesh, and then rescued again and adopted by a fabulously dressed and uptight Countess. What are the agendas of all these parties? Things get even more crazy when a power-mad corporation steps into the battle later on.

Gilgamesh's objective is to cleanse the Earth of human life and start a new human race. They view the current species as corrupt and evil, and with religious zeal set out on a mission of global annihilation. But will the new race be any better? The Countess and her teenage soldiers have their own goals, but primarily focus on keeping Gilgamesh at bay. There are no good guys or bad guys here, just lots and lots of dark secrets, hidden agendas, and moral ambiguities. Everyone is flawed and broken, but they all have a back story of when they were pure and innocent, and each of them have very valid motivations for their actions. The psychological explorations and the relationships of all the characters are where "Gilgamesh" really shines. It touches upon some very dark and unpleasant topics, but never in an overly sensational way. In fact, the way it gracefully caresses its controversial and very adult themes is astonishing and truly beautiful. Subtle and striking, the Japanese are experts at negative space and showing you things that aren't there. Not surprisingly, just as everything looks like it's coming together, the shockingly brutal and completely unapologetic finale comes out of nowhere and delivers one hell of a nasty sucker punch. Afterwards, all you're left with is a slack-jaw, a pounding headache, some hurt feelings, and about a million questions swirling around your brain. This is a series that demands some serious thought, analysis, and discussion, and really deserves multiple viewings. Unfortunately, I just don't have the time to watch all eleven hours of it again, and knowing the outcome, I don't know if I'm emotionally ready to handle the journey again any time soon.

Production wise, the series is smooth and gorgeous. The muted colors create a dark, moody, and oppressive atmosphere, and deep shadows create visual tension and conceal all sorts of horrors. The world of "Gilgamesh" is post-apocalyptic, full of decay, and devoid of advanced technology (the "sheltering sky" prevents computers from working). It isn't until nine or ten episodes in do we see any evidence of civilization or normal people. Complementing the dead and barren setting is a wonderfully haunting music score that has lots of emotional resonance. Very heartfelt and beautiful to listen to. The character design is very good for the most part, but not always attractive. The characters all have puffy lips and narrow eyes that seem unnaturally far apart, which definitely breaks convention. And the hair. Oh my god, the hair... While most will say the defining element of the series is the fabulous looking goth outfits and elegant styling, for me it was the hair. I have never seen animated hair so intricately and immaculately rendered before. It's utterly amazing and mesmerizing to watch, and nearly everyone has a spectacular hairdo. The characters themselves are a mixed bag, and so complex and flawed that it's hard to truly like any of them. However, in the end you understand all of them so well that it's also difficult to NOT like them in some fashion. Early on my favorite was definitely Kiyoko (and her FABULOUS hair), but the show makes it a point to abandon her about halfway through. Then it was Dr. Enuma who grabbed my attention, and finally the mysterious and enigmatic Reiko kept me going through the bitter end. Definitely not for the faint-hearted or weak-minded, "Gilgamesh" is an intelligent, emotional, and thought provoking science fiction journey that ultimately studies the nature of man, the human condition, and the wonderful and sometimes horrifying power of love.