Last Hope (Part 1) – Anime Review
Synopsis: After causing the near extinction of mankind seven years ago, genius scientist Leon Lau must now fight the ecological disaster he unwittingly created. (Official Netflix Synopsis)
Review (Warning: Minor Spoilers to Follow):
Last Hope is Netflix’s latest anime exclusive. It’s a Chinese and Japanese co-production that actually began airing in Spring of this year, but Netflix delayed the western release of the series until a dub was ready for English and other speaking markets. Part 1 consists of just the first thirteen episodes, and the second half of the series (finishing airing in Japan this month) is likely a few months out from an official release.
The story follows one Leon Lau, who accidentally caused the end of the world when an experiment went awry. Living with his adopted sister, Chloe, Leon ends up getting pulled back into the city of Neo Xianglong, one of the refuge cities set up after the apocalypse. There he joins a group known as Pandora, an elite mecha fighting force aimed at protecting the city from the Brai, horrid half biological, half mechanical monsters born from the apocalypse. The plot is interesting, making for easy appeal for Sci-fi fans, with enough periodic world building to satisfy those intrigued by the setting.
But Last Hope is not a looker. Unlike Netflix’s Devilman Crybaby, or Kuromokuro, or B: The Beginning, Last Hope is much more in line with Netflix’s less than stellar title: Sword Gai. Like Sword Gai, Last Hope’s art flits between acceptable and disappointing. Last Hope does at least depict its post apocalyptic world with some incredible background art work. Each piece of scenery comes to life through these highly detailed backgrounds. Sadly the same can’t be said for the characters. While the designs for our heroes are fine as is, the artwork used to animate them often lacks detail. Sharp, crisp, detailed artwork is no where to be found, with many characters appearing muddy, off-model, or misshapen. They are easily the worst visual aspect to the series and can make it difficult to remain engaged as the art can hit real levels of visually unappealing.
In fact the mecha and monsters, both depicted with 3D models, are far more visually satisfying, even if their animation periodically suffers from the unfortunate frame rate dip/disparage so many 3D/2D melded series suffer from. Perhaps frustratingly we get a brief glimpse in the ending credits for what 3D models for the main characters might look like. More detailed, more uniform in quality, making one actually wish the entire show (save backgrounds) was produced in 3D, as it’s far more capable of maintaining quality visuals and actively grabbing your attention.
But delving past the superficial, lets talk about what lies at the heart of Last Hope. Despite all the talk of saving the world, and undoing the damage caused by Leon’s near-world ending experiment, not a lot of headway is made by Episode 13, marking the cap off on the first half of this series. In fact, the show is more concerned with a monster of the week type format. Leon and a slew of other characters become a pseudo super hero/monster fighting team of Mech pilots. But this often feels like little more than a backdrop for the real focus: character work. Each story tends to allow one character to spread their wings, delve into their backstory, and try to give us a better sense of who they are. While the show is a little choppy early on, it begins to nail this more evenly, often producing backstory with enough tragedy, and relevance to the present-day menace, to feel like a meaty twenty-three minute tale.
Characters themselves however, vary from straight unlikable to frustratingly flawed to passably enjoyable. One character, Gren Din, the young man in charge of the cities’ primary defense force, has little real depth to him, even after we get his tragic backstory. He shouts and screams most of the time, easily angered whenever people don’t recognize how bad ass he is. He’s never not annoying, and while his angsty persona is perhaps meant as comic relief, it rarely works. Another character, Queenie Yoh, a female martial artist, while explored through a two-parter early on, ultimately feels more like a side-character, rarely given anything more than a fleeting presence in climatic fight scenes, or relegated to comic relief that pokes fun at her quiet nature. It’s unfortunate as she’s the one of only two adult female characters who isn’t heavily sexualized.
The other adult female character, Neo Xianglong’s Princess, is frequently objectified and rarely explored as a true individual. She’s introduced with a tight focus on her bouncing chest (as seen above) and that focus returns periodically throughout the show, sometimes making it feel as if her ample chest gets equal attention as her face. As a character the Princess is more of a plot device/exposition tool, never actually getting her own backstory episode. She remains aloof the whole series, and while that produces, coupled with the sexualized artwork, an air of erotic mystery, she’s not someone you can grow attached to. More problematic are two characters who display chauvinist tendencies, and one who even partakes in sexual harassment when grabbing a nurses’ ass. Depending upon your adversity to sexual assault this can really damage one’s appreciation for the character. Because of things like this only a handful of the cast stands out as truly enjoyable leads: Namely Leon and his little sister, Chloe. Despite being an ensemble piece, the show frequently isn’t able to balance its cast nearly as well as it should, often sidelining female characters, introducing unflattering elements to its male leads, or more or less abandoning development for its heroes, leaving them feeling like they never really changed after their focal episodes. It’s a very stagnant show in that regard.
Despite these flaws, the tight focus on characters does help to make each narrative fun. Learning the truth behind Leon’s world-ending experiment, Gren’s tragic loss of his parents, Doug’s lost love, and Cain’s missing family, are all engaging narratives, but they just don’t feel like they mean much going forward, with characters hardly ever evolving. It’s also best not to think about certain elements in any of these narratives, as some of the internal logic starts to crumble. That goes for even more prevalent components to the series, like why is it no one tries to murder Leon, despite everyone knowing he’s the one who destroyed the world?
If you’re going into Last Hope hoping for some solid Mecha action, do be aware that the Mecha/Monster brawls are often only at the climax of each tale, meaning you get maybe one fight per episode, if not more like every two. The focus really is on the characters, thin or not. The greater offering is the sheer number of twists and turns throughout. We learn plenty of surprising details about our characters, the world they live in, and a building menace that seems poised to be the ultimate confrontation in the series’ second half.
Unfortunately this is where the more corny elements crop up. Last Hope tries to maintain a serious atmosphere, save for comedic relief and typical food segments that seemingly every anime over the last five years has included (is there an official checklist studios have to adhere to?). But this serious atmosphere is undermined by laughably silly nicknames for the villains, or over the top personalities that just don’t seem to fit with the atmosphere of this grave world. Even the Mecha action, which almost has a Sentai/Power Rangers feel to it, undermines the more grave tone of this post apocalyptic world.
Capping things off is Part 1’s Non-ending, a true indicator of how this series wasn’t really meant to be split in half. There’s no closure for this first half, or cliff-hanger leading into Part 2. It just feels like another day, another step in the ongoing monster of the week format.
Despite many of these flaws, Last Hope comes together better than you’d think. Rarely did I feel the length of the episodes, the ending credits coming up far sooner than I’d expect. While the characters hardly evolve over the thirteen episode run, a number of them remain fun, and the ones who delve into inappropriate territory can still be enjoyable, if you’re capable of overlooking their more off-putting elements. While some developments are quite predictable, the story is constantly fleshing itself out the more that gets revealed. It’s by no means one of Netflix’s exclusive triumphs, but sits as a more middle of the road title. If you’re yearning for a post-apocalyptic, character focused narrative, with plenty of twists and turns, Last Hope isn’t a bad pick and will get the job done. Just don’t expect more than the bare minimum and do be prepared for some of its more irksome missteps to drag your enjoyment down now and again.
Last Hope (Part 1) is available for streaming via Netflix.