Anime Review: ‘Towards the Terra’ is Space Opera Done Right

A despised group of psychics search the galaxy for a place they could call home, while being persecuted by humans. Along the journey, the different motives of the protagonists clash, creating a truly spectacular story.

There’s something about moral ambiguity that is deeply disturbing but strangely enchanting. If the classic myths like the Ramayana talk about the struggle between good and evil, our modern epics like Game of Thrones talk about the struggle between…well, people. This grey versus grey morality, rather than black versus white morality, forms the bedrock of many fantastic anime, such as Tokyo Ghoul, Berserk, or Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

And then, there is Toward the Terra.

Toward the Terra (2007) is based on a late 1970s science fiction comic written by Keiko Takemiya, which in turn is inspired by a sci fi novel written in 1940 called Slan, written by A.E. van Vogt.

The series starts in way that is very familiar, nearly cliched. A 14-year old school boy named Jomy discovers that he is a Mu, a race of mutants with psychic powers. But in this dystopian society ruled by artificial intelligence, the Mu’s existence is kept a secret. What’s worse, once kids pass the age of 14, they have to take a test, and they are killed if the test shows any signs of them being a Mu. In the past, there were even genocides against the Mu.

Nearly killed himself by the humans, Jomy is rescued by other Mu who are in hiding…

The stoic Mu leader from Toward the Terra

Sympathy for the Devil

While all this is traditional Hero’s Journey fare, Toward the Terra does something really interesting after setting up the basic plot. From the 6th episode, the story shifts to the perspective of Keith Anyan, a student being groomed for eventual military leadership. Keith is unsure of himself and his origins, and is seen by others as too remote. However, Keith soon is able to stand up to bullies, and displays an ability to solve problems during crises. His struggles and difficulties in trying to fit in make you root for him. If you had started watching Toward the Terra from Episode 6, you would have thought Keith was the main protagonist, the hero.

But Keith Anyan is the villain of this series.

The series spends enough time with Keith so that we can grasp his motivations, so that we realise that he is fundamentally a good person. He is clearly on the side of Grandmother, the artificial intelligence that rules all of humanity. His distrust of the Mu is because of the threat they represent to the rational order of Grandmother. This sets up the eventual conflict of ideals between Jomy and Keith.

This attempt to make the villain someone you could sympathise with is one of the strongest points of this series.

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Keith (left) and his friend. The series spends a lot of time on Keith’s adolescence and upbringing, making him a relatable and nuanced villain.

Human Nature vs. Survival

How did humanity get here? Pollution and climate change had left Earth (Terra) nearly uninhabitable. To ensure their survival, humans place themselves within the restrictions of Grandmother, giving up all of their personal freedoms, so that the mistakes of the past won’t be repeated ever again. Even babies are born through artificial means. And once born, the system allots them to foster parents. Only when humanity’s basic instincts are fully under control can there be survival, the argument goes.

This is one of the main themes of the series: human nature, and whether it should be denied for the sake of survival, or should be let free for the sake of preserving what makes us human.

Destiny Changes Everything

One thing that surprised me about the show was the frequent time jumps. Skipping two or three years between episodes shows us how characters evolve over time, with entire personalities and situations changing. Jomy, for instance, grows from a reluctant and whiny teen to a capable and responsible leader. Another character, Shiroe, is full of enthusiasm and energy as a kid, but grows up to be unfriendly and annoying.

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Jomy, the hesitant and angry teen protagonist, completely changes in personality over the course of the show

Apart from character development, something the show handles really well is how small things can completely alter the future.

The best example is when the Mu settle on the isolated planet Nazca, far away from the humans and the dangers of being hunted. While the younger generation of Mu want to settle in Nazca and build a life there, the older generation are completely dissatisfied by this. They have experienced the horrors of genocide and persecution at the hands of the humans. They want to go back to Terra. Even if it means war.

The simple difference of opinion between the younger Mu and the older Mu leads to a huge chain of events, creating one some of the most intense moments of this series.

This is deep, powerful storytelling.

Verdict: Slow to start but well worth the watch

If you can get past the first 6 or 7 episodes, you’ll feel intrigued about how things will turn out, and over time the pace of the show really ramps up, with hardly any filler episode. It’s unputdownable.

Having said that, Toward the Terra is not for everyone. Terra has a lot of cheesy or sentimental moments. I actually found that the emotional moments adds more to the depth of the show, but you might find it more of a soap opera than a space opera. One more defect is the characters are often really incompetent, despite possessing psychic powers. I didn’t mind this, as a lot of people are incompetent in real life, but still it might be annoying to watch.

Whatever its shortcomings, this is one of the most ambitious sci-fi series I’ve ever seen, with brilliant characters, complex themes, and its 26 episodes spanning across decades.

I still remember a small but powerful scene is when Jomy walks alone in the desolate planet of Nazca, near a tomb, looking at a double sunset, thinking to himself…

The suns are setting. Two big red suns, unlike on Terra. The dried up land. This is a planet humans once settled, then abandoned. Here, we Mu are desperately trying to create new life and new history. I wonder if people from Terra had the same thoughts when they first descended on to this planet.

One tombstone made of white planet alloy. Barely visible letters. “Who can say to me how far my life will reach?”

A still from Toward the Terra, with Jomy watching a double sunset.

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