Space has become the new battlefield for old wars. This disappointing fact of the future underscores the two distinct episodes of TO: 2001 Nights. They posit that despite advancing technologically and travelling thousands of light-years, humans will only end up repeating the mistakes of Earth. In ‘Symbiotic Planet’, a United Nations diplomat observes a conflict between the colonies of US-Europe and Eurasia on another planet: “They’re fighting over water! Is this why we started travelling the stars? I hate to admit it, but humans could start a war anywhere.” What’s great about TO is that it manages to wrap these moral themes in fairly clever drama.
The first episode, ‘Elliptical Orbit’, sees an awkward reunion between two captains, Dan and Maria, interrupted by a terrorist attack on their space station. The resulting rush to stop the aggressors is a sequence of shootouts and counter-sabotages we’ve seen before, but the enigma surrounding the main characters belies the straightforwardness of the plot. ‘Symbiotic Planet’, being a more elaborate space opera, utilises its scope to throw up broader intersecting questions. For example, whether the new frontier can offer us new solutions to old problems and even change our very natures. Its strengths lie more in the striking alien planet it animates (an ecosystem of symbiotic existence not too unlike James Cameron’s Avatar) and how astutely its political situation mirrors some current global conflicts.
There are other things to like. For instance, TO is an example of attractive 3D animation. I disliked similar works like Appleseed and Vexille for their horrid glassiness and weightless movements. They often lacked atmosphere and felt otherworldly in an alienating way. Or take Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, which, although gorgeous, still mimics the cartoony fights of shounen TV shows. In TO, we see Director Fumihiko Sori’s live-action bias shine through in the understatement of the animation: the characters’ subtle movements and the warm, muted colour tones. There is no ambitious grab for hyperrealism (I’ve seen better-looking hair and more intricate expressions, for instance) but neither does the CGI look distractingly artificial.
On the Japanese side of production, they reached for the top echelons of voice acting talent. Romi Park and Akio Ohtsuka lead the cast of ‘Elliptical Orbit’ while Jun Fukuyama and Aya Hirano, who are placed in rare adult roles, perform with reliable energy as lovers in ‘Symbiotic Planet’. Across the Pacific, Funimation honoured the quality of the original with an emotive and convincing English dub. I especially applaud Mark Stoddard and Stephanie Young, who pitch the tricky emotions required for the roles of Dan and Maria perfectly.
Nevertheless, I felt TO could have been braver. It asks relevant questions about our resource-strapped societies and acknowledges that science and ethics are not independent. But there it stops. It never dares to shock us out of complacency. There are no frustrating hypocrisies here and the bad guys are easily distinguishable from the good. There are metaphysical questions left open but concrete political and practical ones are resolved neatly. I was disappointed to realise I could walk away thinking the most immediate social issues need not bother our consciences beyond the two hours we spend with this OVA.
TO is interesting on multiple levels. It succeeds at developing satisfying enough plots with important themes using impressive 3D animation. Not to mention the acting is a triumph. However, I came away from it feeling that everything would be fine when experience tells me these issues often have no easy or immediate solutions. The result is that it is initially intriguing but transient in its emotional impact.