I should just raise my hand and admit it — when picking up the Zone of the Enders game back in 2001, I was, like many others, mainly motivated by the Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty demo disc that it was bundled with. Back then, the still-exciting MGS franchise provided a measure of justification for shelling out the inflated UK price for a PS2, even as the console lay gathering dust while I played Dreamcast. At the time, compelling PAL titles for Sony’s overpriced machine were still depressingly scarce, and the fact that Hideo Kojima himself had been the creative drive behind the property offered a glimmer of hope for Z.O.E.
As it turned out, the MGS demo was a fun, albeit short, distraction. Played over and over again to impress friends who came to check out the PS2, the demo offered no indication of how flawed and pretentious the final product would end up. Z.O.E. itself, sadly, failed to make an impression, with the anime-styled cutscenes and mecha designs (by Metal Gear‘s Yoji Shinkawa) delivering more of an impact that the generic actual gameplay. The control system was typically Japanese, with a lock-on targeting mechanic meant to make things easier. In my clumsy Western hands, it felt somewhat illogical and frustrating, often making even the most basic attempts to move around levels downright infuriating. Though it helped while away a stoned weekend, I don’t recall ever finishing it. Most likely, it got ditched halfway through Sunday, overpowered by the call of Soul Calibur and Crazy Taxi.
Until now, I hadn’t bothered with the associated OVA, mainly because the DVD didn’t hit the UK until 2003, when the franchise had already fallen off my radar. Released in Japan to coincide with the game’s 2001 launch, Zone of the Enders – IDOLO is a 50-minute Sunrise-produced one-shot, serving as world-building, scene-setting prequel to the events in the game. It’s 2167, and mankind has made successful inroads into colonizing the Solar System, including Mars and the Jovian system. It’s not all smooth sailing, though — there’s a palpable Cold War continuing between Earth and its colonies. The Martians want independence, secretly developing a new class of mech (called Orbital Frame) that they hope to prove the leverage needed to break away from Terran control. Enter the show’s protagonist Radium Lavans and sidekick Viola, test pilots for the new prototype. Dubbed Idolo, this mech is built from a newly discovered material called Metatron, which makes it more powerful then existing models. The downside is that the substance causes a damaging and intoxicating psychological effect on Radium’s personality and temper, to the extent that he is nearly pulled from the project. When a plot by Earth spies to steal the prototype goes awry, they kidnap its inventor, along with Radium’s love interest. This causes Radium to go into a Metatron-fuelled rage and pursue a rescue attempt in violation of orders, ending up having to single-handedly take on both Earth and Martian forces.
So far, so Gundam. While it’s clear that Sunrise’s flagship franchise had an undeniable influence on both the game’s design and the OVA’s plot (and apparently, Kojima’s design work in general), Z.O.E. has enough interesting plot devices of its own to stand slightly taller than most of the other Gundam wannabes on the block. An early scene succinctly captures the animosity between Earth and Mars, as Radium takes a beating from a visiting group of arrogant Earth officers. His Martian heritage and low-gravity upbringing make it difficult to fight back — his punches are too weak, and the sneering tormentors merely laugh back at him. This quick, simple sequence efficiently demonstrates the racial hatred between the two factions, setting up a convincing baseline for the history of simmering tension without resorting to tugging heartstrings or drawn-out exposition. It’s a glimpse into a time when mainstream anime scriptwriting still knew how to present ideas visually and intelligently, a moment that by itself almost makes Z.O.E. worth watching.
Elsewhere, the show draws ideas from Evangelion (a sad, but unsurprising, trend for shows produced at the time), most notably in Radium’s berserk outbursts and hallucinations, as he becomes further intoxicated and influenced by Idolo. Idolo’s design hearkens visually to Eva as well; much more interesting to me personally was the realistic, Patlabor-esque look of the mass-produced rank-and-file mecha (or LEVs). From backgrounds to character designs, the art is always more than adequate, making up for a lack of flair or originality with consistent professionalism. Z.O.E. isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind with its visuals, but the art and direction feel surprisingly high-end for what was basically a marketing exercise designed to help kick off a new franchise.
In hindsight, this is perhaps Z.O.E.’s most striking and surprising victory: despite being a video game cash-in, it feels surprisingly earnest and fresh in today’s cynically pandering world of Japanese animation. To be sure, there’s plenty of mech fanservice, a necessary aspect of hooking the mecha fandom to a new franchise, but it never feels excessive. This is an effort that remains focused on its target group, without feeling compelled to cater to other fanbases. In contrast, consider the recent Devil May Cry adaptation, which felt the need to inject a bizarrely inappropriate moé/pedophile abomination into a franchise about a wisecracking jerk who kills demons for a living.
While Z.O.E.‘s short run-time certainly adds to its punchiness, it also feels slightly rushed at times. It certainly served its purpose at the time — the franchise became successful enough to spawn not only another game, but even a full 26-episode Sunrise TV series called Z.O.E. Dolores,i. I haven’t seen Dolores, but it’s now on my to-watch list. And considering the dearth of decent Japanese-produced science fiction or mecha shows recently, it’s looking like I may get around to it sooner rather than later.