Is Astral Ocean a Worthy Sequel to Eureka Seven? (Short Answer: Yes. Long Answer: No.)
(Caution: Contains some Eureka Seven spoilers and very mild Astral Ocean spoilers. I'll just assume the target audience for this is people who watched E7 and are curious about AO.)
This might be a weird statement to see on OR, but I never considered myself a huge mecha fan (meaning a huge fan of mecha, not a fan of huge mecha... Never mind). I mean, it's not that I don't like the mecha genre, it was just never on the list of things I would actively seek out and I am woefully uneducated in the field (I know more about Gungrave than I do about Gundam). Consequently, I didn't really have any expectations coming into Eureka Seven – a show that now ranks very high on my must watch list. I'm sure you already know all the superlatives – the mecha, the animation and design, the world, the characters, pacing, story – it all works extremely well, and it certainly left room for a sequel. So imagine my horror when I discovered that they decided to change everything for Astral Ocean. All of a sudden it's 2050. All of a sudden we are just on good old near-future Earth with Americans and Japanese and... No Eureka or Renton. What the fuck?
Well, without spoiling anything let me start out by saying that this isn't entirely true. This isn't one of those side story "alternate setting" type sequels. I haven't seen the Eureka Seven movie (Falldog forbids it), but I gather that's what they did there. AO's connection to E7, on the other hand, gradually becomes apparent as the show progresses. Which leads us to the short answer mentioned above: Yes, Astral Ocean is a worthy sequel to Eureka Seven... In concept. They were really on to something here. AO manages to be completely fresh yet entirely familiar; it references E7 without directly copying it and it sets out to do more than just linearly continue the story told in E7.
Does it accomplish that task? That's where the long answer comes into play.
Now, I'll be fair here – AO isn't over yet. The way I understand it, the Olympics triggered a hiatus that caused cascading delays and the last two episodes are scheduled to air sometime in November. However, even if they are magically able to tie together the mess they've created in those two final episodes, it would still be a rather flawed product. I will take a wild guess here and say that it originally was going to have a 50 episode run like E7, but something happened and they were forced to cut that in half, so they just crammed 50 episodes of content into 24. This meant that the plot started accelerating around the halfway point, and the foot was still firmly on the gas pedal at the end of episode 22. One of the very best things about E7 was the pacing. Granted, they had more room to develop a good pace, but I've seen brilliantly paced shows with "only" 24 episodes (Steins;Gate would be a perfect example), and as E7 approached the finale, the multiple plot lines began to converge and resolve in ways that made sense and didn't feel rushed. In AO, new things are being thrown at you all the time, and character choices and actions become less clear because there is no time left to really explain why things happen. On top of that, the characters change sides so many times it eventually loses significance and takes away from the drama. "Oh, you're working with the Allies now? Well, I'm working with the Japanese, so technically we are enemies. But let's team up and fight this third person together anyway." Uh... What?
I'm making it sound worse than it is. Maybe I haven't had enough time to become as bitter and cynical about anime as I am about everything else, but I don't think it is a bad show overall. It just didn't live up to its own really awesome concept, and I felt like the terrific groundwork they did in the first 10 or so episodes was a bit wasted on a plot that didn't make too much sense.
Astral Ocean focuses on Eureka's son Ao (Get it? Ao, AO...), and there are immediate parallels to be drawn between him and Renton. They hit a lot of the same emotional notes here (raised in the shadow of a now-gone famous/infamous parent, torn between wanting to help but not wanting to kill, etc.), but it doesn't feel like they are just repeating themselves. As I mentioned above, it is fresh yet familiar. It just never really hits the home run. Renton has an incredibly complex story arc, and by the end of E7, his character has legitimately grown and changed, and those changes can be tied to specific events in the show. Ao's arc is far simpler, and while he does struggle to find purpose, it just isn't quite there. The same thing goes for the various relationships in the show. While the main relationship in E7 was the one between Renton and Eureka, it also contained several other interesting relationships that evolved over time. I found the relationship between Renton and Holland to be particularly interesting, and it went through multiple stages. It wasn't just your garden variety "I used to hate you but you saved my ass so now we're friends!" bullshit. Their relationship changed because they changed. Ao's relationships on the show, and the side plots between other characters all felt fairly shallow. However, there were hints of greatness there. Most characters had interesting backstories (the glimpses we saw of them, anyway), and most had clear motivations, at least in the first half of the show. After that it got a bit muddy.
The design and animation are certainly there (other than at the end. Yeesh, I'm starting to sound like a broken record. I should have called this article A Tale of Two AOs), and there is some great attention to detail. A little thing I liked was that the IFO computer assigns different targets to different missile pods, for example. In the style of E7, the musical terms are interspersed throughout (focusing more on classical music terms like the various parts of a mass), and the music itself is great (as are the theme songs, which were awesome in E7). However, once again, they just fall short. In E7, the music had a thematic quality to it. Everyone was always listening to the radio, and the music was often woven into the actual plot. This is especially true of what I consider to be the best episode of E7 – Memento Mori, where Ray Beams launches a suicidal attack on the Gekko to avenge Charles' death. The music throughout the episode is a combination of the KLF control signal and Ray's maniacal humming. It is emotional, action-packed, and all around terrific, and the use of music in this way really elevates it. AO certainly has good music, but it was just that – the music. In E7 it almost felt like they were using the music to flesh out the world they established. Make it feel more real. The music you heard was the music the characters were listening to. AO just had a good score.
I guess I could say more, but in the end I'll just keep on coming back to the same point – where E7 excelled, AO did fine at first, and then slowly fell apart towards the end. The reason that the short answer to the question I posed above is "yes" is that they set out to create a sequel to a show that captured lightning in a bottle and did a pretty good job on many fronts. They certainly set themselves up to succeed with an original twist on the sequel concept, and by creating the space to be both self-referencing and original. But in the end, the execution was just OK, and a truly worthy sequel to E7 can never be just OK.
It remains to be seen if they can tie AO up in any kind of coherent way. I definitely hope so, because like I said, it really isn't a bad show, especially for E7 fans, but only if they aren't expecting a repeat performance.
I'm not a fan of scoring things, but on a scale where Eureka Seven is a 10, the first 12-14 episodes of Astral Ocean would rate about an 8-9, but the mess that comes later drags it down to 6 territory. If the ending is very good, I would go as far as giving it a 7.5. A very bad ending could drag it down even further. Anyone out there watch Guilty Crown? If you have, you know what I mean.