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Twenty Years Later: Gilgamesh

7 min read

One of the things that truly made for a great time during the anime boom in the early 2000s was getting access to a lot of properties that we would normally not see or hear of but also through them getting exposed to some great original works that inspired the anime. One of those was the 2003 anime series Gilgamesh which was one of my first exposures to a work by Shotaro Ishinomori, whose later anime adaptations I’d become a huge fan of. Gilgamesh was a six-volume manga series by him back in 1976 and that came after creating things like Cyborg 009, 009-1, Genma Wars, and Skull Man before that. He died four years before this series came out but for me this was my first in really seeing their work adapted in full as Genma Wars was just not my thing. The adaptation ran for two cour and was directed by Masahiko Murata but also caught my attention thanks to Karou Wada handling the music for it.

Based on an original story by Shotaro Ishinomori and adapted by Sadayuki Murai, Gilgamesh is a fascinating if familiar journey into a world that’s going through hell before it can get back to where it once was. Ishinomori’s sense of style is adapted well to anime sensibilities with how things were put together at the time. Similar to how adaptations of older works these days breathe new life into 70s works while adhering to the design aesthetic, it was just as true with something as distinctive as this back in 2003. Where Gilgamesh has its biggest hurdle is in what’s required here; the ability to really pay attention and work at following the series. Gilgamesh isn’t made for casual viewing but rather those intent on the details and the possibilities of what may be going on here.

The series has an expansive cast that grows throughout the entire run but it does play a few tricks along the way. Characters introduced early that appear to be key players turn out to be secondary in nature while other secondary characters turn out to be major in the overall scheme of things. Morose and filled with a somber sense of attitude, Gilgamesh plays out in a world where two very different groups of people live. Those that grew up before the cataclysmic event that set everything in motion and those afterward. Like any generation gap, there is uncertainty as to why the other side feels differently than they do but it’s simply a matter of different experiences.

The setting for the story is a fascinating one as it delves into the history books by going after the legend of Gilgamesh, an ancient king who was thought to be half man and half god. The discovery of his tomb in the Middle East kicked off a massive project by an already well-advanced society that was adept at cloning and more. The discoveries made within this now quasi-religious enclave of scientists furthered their research into new areas. One of those scientists was the young man who found the tomb, Terumichi Madoka. Considered a genius but one who dislikes academia for the way they tend to ignore the consequences, he stayed on after the massive project got underway in order to make sure certain things were adhered to.

His discovery that the project may actually hasten the end of the planet due to the materials that they were handling was surprisingly understood by the higher-ups and they agreed to close it within a year as the projects were stopped. But something went wrong during the start of this as Terumichi was discovered to be inside the power plant of the complex and caused it to explode. The resulting explosion caused a change in the planet’s atmosphere that created something new called the Sheltering Sky. The blue sky that humanity had always known is now nothing more than a reflective mirror. Light comes through in a diluted form and millions upon millions died as nothing with a computer worked anymore. The world is now a gray place where humanity is still surviving but nothing feels right anymore.

The event was dubbed Twin X due to it taking place on October 10th and it’s now been twelve or fifteen years later. Terumichi, who became known as Enkidu after his act, has left his family to face the consequences of his actions. His two children, Kiyoko and Tatsuya, are on the run after escaping from a debt that was owed by their mother and simply live on the streets trying to survive. They want nothing to do with their father or his legacy and only want to find their own happiness. A chance encounter with a group of young men inside an abandoned house however sets them on a different path as the men are actually servants of their father. The group uses the name of Gilgamesh to operate with and are intent on using the Sheltering Sky to push humanity from its broken state into a new form of evolution so that it doesn’t become a cancer on the universe.

Their goals are rather understated and mostly kept to themselves, but their tactics against the scientists trying to remove the Sheltering Sky has earned them plenty of enemies. There are several powerful people that are aligned against them, few working in tandem with each other, but none is more fascinating that the Countess. Formerly a scientist who worked with Enkidu all those years ago, she suffered greatly in the tragedy of Twin X and was the only one to survive on her team, though it cost her several years of her life. Her marriage into a wealthy family before the event left her with a considerable fortune which she now uses to bring closure to those events.

A series like Gilgamesh is so completely mired in the past and the present that the links and slow revelations are what lets it work so beautifully. It does require a lot of attention however as well as there isn’t a lot of action or filler moments. Everything has meaning here, even when it’s repeated again in a different fashion later on. It is something of a slow starter, particularly as it’s using very familiar concepts, but the progression of the events and the characters becomes so completely fascinating and engrossing that you can’t turn away. I lamented not watching this series during its original release with all the great reviews it was getting and the word of mouth about it but I also have to come to the conclusion that this works far better in watching it in a set form. We took in this series over the course of three days and it made far more of an impact that way.

The design of the series in its visual arena is one that is going to be a hard sell for casual anime fans. It’s not slick, it’s not glossy and it’s very dark looking. It’s also clearly a budget show in order to get the two-cour run out of it. Using the kind of character designs that Ishinomori is known for but adapted for the modern style slightly, they all have something of a hard edge to them with an old-school bent. The stark color scheme has them awash in grays and blacks which adds to the overall somber atmosphere. This is a dark and dreary world made all the more so by the Sheltering Sky and the weariness is apparent to just about everyone. Those who are reaching for something more, such as Kazamatsuri, have some additional color to them which shows a different kind of vitality. The backgrounds and the overall design of the landscape fit in with the characters as well as much of the world is in ruin or empty due to the sheer amount of fatalities.

Gilgamesh is one of those shows that’s the exact reason I got into anime in the first place. With a dense storyline set in a familiar setting, intriguing character designs that avoid present-day pitfalls, and a real sense of mystery to all of it, the series requires an intense amount of attention but pays off in spades. There are no real obvious directions that it will go, there are moments that catch your breath and there are events that cause pangs of sadness for what the characters have to endure. This series is a real gem out there in a crowded sea of similar shows. This is the kind of series you hold up to people that say nothing good is made anymore and you beat them over the head with it until they watch it. This is simply great anime, one that I wish would get some renewed attention and a high-definition release to see what can be brought out by it with a proper new encoding.