Re-visiting the Noble Savage in Suisei no Gargantia

“Behold the Edenic light of this paradise built atop the shoulders of science and the pursuit of progress. This is your homeland.”

(In reference to the utopian world of Avalon, home of the Galatic Alliance of Humankind)

We’re halfway through the spring season, and there have already been plenty of comparisons made between this anime and nomadic cultures.  The set up of the show is a classic start to any colonialist move, where one person of a “civilized” nation discovers the seemingly free and vast wild and is shocked to discover the people that already populate it are vastly different from his own.  They’re strange and barbaric with their customs, beliefs, and dress, yet somehow the adventurer forms bonds and starts to adapt as humans always do.  We’ve seen numerous renditions of this setting: Avatar, Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, The New World, The Last Samurai, Shogun, and many others.  But there inevitably comes a moment when our adventurer must war with himself over the loyalties he has to his homeland and the affections he holds for the new world and its residents, who are no longer just barbarians, but people. That moment hasn’t yet come to Gargantia, but I’m betting it’s not too far off.

Opposing Settings
Ledo, or “Red” as some call him, hails from a technologically advanced group of humans who fled to outer space several centuries prior due to unknown reasons.  Through all their scientific advances and streamlined efficiency, they have become slaves to their war with another alien race.  Ledo’s almost programmed animosity for the Hideauze–despite the war in which he has lived his whole life–as well as the method in which the Galatic Alliance of Humankind has perfected the output and capabilities of not only its soldiers, but also all of the population, might be considered by many as backwards.  The laws of his nation demand a culling of the human race on merits of physical strength and war capability, disregarding any others on possession of the slightest weakness.

After he is thrown onto Earth by a failed attempt to dock with the rest of his units before warping, he discovers that not only is Earth still habitable, but that not all humans fled all those years ago–continuing instead to evolve to the changing planet, even thriving to the point that starvation and poverty are nowhere to be seen.  The world as we knew it has turned into a water planet whose occupants travel across by means of ships powered by electric currents.  While not all the humans Ledo meets are as peaceful as the residents of Gargantia, there is an underlying understanding that conflicts between groups of people will not lead to bloodshed, despite the weapons that are pointed and the verbal insults thrown.  For all their rusted equipment and and nomadic living, the Earthlings are much more rounded emotionally than their galactic relatives.

Romanticizing the Natives
The idea of the Noble Savage hails back far in literature and thought, and stems from a belief that humans are inherently good.  Even without the structure of religion or authority, most people begin with a natural desire to preserve life.  It’s outside influence and circumstance that molds our natures one way or another.  I can’t say that I wholeheartedly agree with this notion, but for the most part from my experience I find it to be true.  Amy’s people are peaceful and proponents of purpose found through work and community support.  What looks to be a naive approach to battles with the pirates and the ease with which Gargantia accepts Ledo and Chamber into its midst only serves to showcase just how idealistic these Earth humans are.  Even from the physical standpoint comparing Amy to Ledo, we have a stark contrast in color.  Amy’s few articles of clothing are brightly colored and patterned, and her dusky skin and firm body reveal all the time spent in the sun running with her packages and letters.  Ledo, in turn, dresses uniformly in dark colors that emphasize just how devoid of pigment his skin is.  From the few flashbacks of his that we’ve seen, as well as the brief time shown of him inside Chamber, it stands to reason that he would have no concern over his outward appearance.  Amy’s nature and the exuberant personalities of the rest of the crew come across as festively utopian.

And even though we’re six episodes into the season, there has yet to be a character from Earth who I find nonredeemable.  Pinion came across at the beginning as a meat head who seemed a bit too fond of killing Ledo, but after seeing their later interactions, I’m more inclined to think of him as a dog who’s all bark and no bite.  Then there are the pirates, who are the closest thing to an enemy that we’ve seen on Earth so far.  Waving their weapons and holding hostages, the pirates had the crew of Gargantia less concerned for their people than for the supplies that would be lost, knowing the unlikelihood of bloodshed.  Looking at the physical weaknesses, then, we have Bevel–a young boy with a sharp mind and positive outlook on life.  Through his discussions with both Amy and Ledo, Bevel is a clear pawn of sympathy for the audience’s benefit.  It’s disconcerting to consider how an advanced race like Ledo’s would eliminate a bright mind like Bevel’s, while another group of more primitive humans choose to actively incorporate him into everyday life.

The Winds that Blow and Further Speculation
I’ve had doubts for a while now about ever seeing another Hideauze after the pilot episode’s heart-racing start, but the last scene in the most recent seems to point to future encounters with the alien race, and most probably Ledo’s galactic counterparts.  But remembering the meal had amidst all the belly dancing and bickering, I’m inclined to think that Earth’s version of the alien is what Bellows so casually referred to as a whale squid.  What is it about space that has warped both humans and the Hideauze into the warring creatures that they are, and if the creature Chamber confirmed as the enemy is indeed what is claimed, then why are we seeing it now on Earth?

If we are about to shift into an arc less peaceful than the past episodes that we’ve experienced, I’m looking forward to a clash of persons and ideologies brought together by the Hideauze.  Will we get the Disney ending, where Ledo leaves on his own with a promise to return, or an end more true to history, where Amy packs up her belongings and travels to the Avalon of the Galactic Alliance of Humankind? I’m betting the former, but I’ve been wrong plenty of times before!

7 thoughts on “Re-visiting the Noble Savage in Suisei no Gargantia

  1. This is screaming Avatar at me lol. The whole time I’m reading that was all I could think of. It is interesting that it’s all humanity. I’m guessing he’d be less comfortable or quick to adapt if it were an alien race instead.

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    • Well, the gorgeous visuals of Gargantia certainly share another similarity with the amount of love for art in setting and character design in Avatar. I particularly enjoyed the colors and animation in the first episode where Ledo battled the Hideauze.

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    • Interesting. I heard the same remark from somebody else (regarding Gargantia reminding him of Avatar), but I didn’t quite share that feeling. While Avatar was a bare-faced (or should I say blue-faced) sci-fi rendition of Disney’s Pocahontas, with a clash between tribal hunter-gatherer natives who live in harmony with nature (decisively good) and technologically advanced colonists driven by profit (decisively bad), Gargantia seems to follow a different dynamic. Civilization-wise, the Gargantians are more or less at the same level as modern real-life Earth, if everything was put on giant boats. They may seem technologically primitive to the rest of humanity in space, as Ledo demonstrates in the first episode, but Gargantia is likely the more culturally complex. The Noble Savage is typically used to invoke idealized simplicity and the corrupting extraneities of civilization, but here Ledo is practically bowled over by all the trappings of civilization in Gargantia that he had never experienced: food eaten for pleasure, money used to buy things other than bare provisions, activities done for fun, people who are valued for for reasons other than fighting ability. Like Highway brings up below, by shifting the use of this trope so that the “less advanced” side is closer to what we have today, the roles are somehow reversed, making Ledo’s original utilitarian worldview the more savage one.

      On speculation, the big clues dropped (or were they red herrings?) in this episode were the lightning discharges from the sea that resemble the Hideauze’s superweapon in episode one, and Chamber’s analysis of the “galaxy rings,” which are supposedly caused by “lightbug” nanomachines left from Earth’s ancient culture, and of course Chamber’s 99.7% certainty identification of the squid being a Hideauze. It seems that the most popular theory currently is that human technology (perhaps the nanomachines) had somehow caused Earthly Hideauze precursors to evolve into the spacefaring menaces they are now. I too hope that more is revealed about the Galactic Alliance and Avalon. Is Avalon the real deal? If so, who are the permanent residents, if any? Who is running the show? Why is Earth a lost world?

      Just for the record, Disney did make a direct-to-video sequel to Pocahontas, where the titular character goes to England and stuff. Never watched it, and don’t plan to.

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      • “The Noble Savage is typically used to invoke idealized simplicity and the corrupting extraneities of civilization, but here Ledo is practically bowled over by all the trappings of civilization in Gargantia that he had never experienced: food eaten for pleasure, money used to buy things other than bare provisions, activities done for fun, people who are valued for for reasons other than fighting ability.”

        Perhaps our interpretations of idealized simplicity are fairly different, then, since your descriptions of Gargantia’s display of food, money, activities, and people characteristics sound exactly like it to me. These people are just living their daily lives much like we do today, as you point out, and could even be considered candidates for a slice-of-life anime if the show were to keep on with the same pace it’s been on for half the series. I find the majority of viewers look upon such story telling methods as simple. Likewise, I find the noble savage theme differs greatly across mediums; at times it is exactly as you say, just a representation of the viewed exotic, and at other times I see it satirized to highlight its truthful complexity. Hence your “typically”, I assume!

        Now that the next episode has already aired (which I haven’t seen yet, but was spoiled on by other bloggers/twitter folk), it’s safe to assume that a good number of the clues I mused about were not red herrings. Judging from your comment here, you’ve already seen episode seven? Don’t spoil it any more for me!

        And thanks for the heads up about the Pocahontas sequel *shudder* I will not make a point to find it!

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  2. I’ll be honest, I’m hoping that the end result of the series is that Ledo is never to return to space, and realizes that life is far more fulfilling on Earth. I’m really loving this series, and just luxuriating in the presentation.

    Your invocation of the Noble Savage is interesting to me, as I hadn’t thought about that aspect, but to me, it seems like they’ve split up the characteristics. As I recall, isn’t it usually the technologically advanced side that’s also the side with the advanced morality? Usually it’s because that side is the one that can afford such an advanced morality, i.e. not killing under almost any circumstances, valuing life over productivity, protection of the weak, etc. So we’ve got the technically advanced savage encountering the enlightened but non-technological humans.

    To me this show is just a beautiful presentation of the human condition. I really haven’t had any problems with anything they’ve shown, and love to see how completely the Gargantians embrace so much of the full nature of humanity.

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    • I’m really hoping to see the mysterious Avalon that the population of the Alliance lives on and that its soldiers are supposed to desire. I don’t know if we’ll ever get to see it, or if the Alliance will only present itself on Earth in the second half.

      To me it seems that technologically advanced groups are usually the ones who have no concept of death and the fight to live–which I guess takes the moral high ground. Have you ever seen the film Cloud Atlas? I was reminded of the futuristic generation where the general populace lives off of the hard work of its mass produced clones (“fabricants”), turning a blind eye to the treatment of those workers who are just as capable of emotions. On the surface they parade high quality of living as well as something like an indentured servant type of program for its clones. But the reality of the fabricants’ short life cycle and continued exploitation for the convenience of humans shows just how non-moralistic this advanced society really is. And I see this pattern in most other media examples; the modernized cultures parrot ideas of moral obligation, but often go to extremes to secure those luxuries. Gargantia instead has “…the technically advanced savage encountering the enlightened but non-technological humans…” as you so aptly put it🙂

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      • No, I haven’t seen Cloud Atlas (nor Avatar, actually). And I’ll admit that what I think of most of the time with ‘noble savages’ is either Dances with Wolves or Doctor Who with Leela. So there are probably quite a few other constructions of the idea that I don’t know about.

        But part of the whole trope is usually that the ‘noble savages’ are able to teach the advanced folks “something important that they’ve forgotten” (like ‘how to love’), not just that it’s a struggle to survive or death is a part of life. That’s why I think the invocation of the idea in Gargantia is a little different, both with the reversal of who the savage is, and with the direction the teaching is going.

        As I mentioned, I’d be perfectly happy if we never hear from the Galactic Alliance again in this show. Maybe in a separate show, but not in this one. This is not least because I fear the usual ham-fisted pointmaking that Urobuchi Gen would make with such a society.

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