The title character in A.I.C.O. Incarnation, Aiko, is separated from her suffering.
Crippled in an accident that killed her father, a highly experimental procedure was undertaken to save her life. Her entire body, including her brain, were effectively replicated, and the brains were switched. Her original mind resides in an artificial body, and her “cloned” mind resides in the original. It was all to facilitate healing– create an artificial body so that her mind can be placed in it temporarily while her original heals, and create an artificial mind so that her body doesn’t die during the rehabilitation process. The two entities, original and copy, were meant to be separate– with one existing to allow the other to cope and recover– but the two are psychically linked and often see and feel what the other is experimenting. One is a normal girl recovering in a hospital and going to school, and the other is an amorphous, tumorous being lashing out unconsciously, effectively causing something akin to the Apocalypse, turning portions of Japan into a devastated wasteland filled with murderous monsters. The “normal” girl has glimpses of the suffering of the “monster,” and the “monster” can see through the “normal” girl’s eyes and vicariously find some semblance of peace during moments of lucidity.
It’s not unlike the way some sufferers of depression speak of how they view themselves. This person who is suffering and incapable of handling reality can’t possibly be “me,” and they view their daily activities with a level of distance where the self feels more like an avatar in a virtual reality than anything else. It’s a way to cope with things– that the suffering is something experienced by something other than “me.” You effectively become two people– the person others see shambling about in reality and the person inside your head looking at things the way you would playing a video game. At least that’s how it felt during my early college days, where the Landon who lived in the dorms and dealt with asshole peers and professors while dealing with Acutane-induced depression was someone wholly separated from the Landon who found solace watching Ah! My Goddess, perusing early days internet chat rooms, and pretending to be “with it” by giving help to friends via Tarot card readings.
Couple this with recent movies like Annihilation and A Wrinkle in Time, which deal with similar situations to varying degrees of success (the former exceptionally, the latter not as much). That individual way of coping is coming to the forefront, spreading like The Shimmer, and entering a larger public consciousness. We as a society are that tumorous mass, wrecking the world and causing harm on more than one level, yet we divorce ourselves from that reality by blaming “the other” and pretending we’re completely removed from the hell we’ve created. People are realizing that inherent disconnect between the world we live in and the world we project in our minds, and it’s coming out in things like A.I.C.O. and the aforementioned movies.
If we’re even capable of emerging from this haze, the question is how and what form we’ll take once we see through the fog. A Wrinkle in Time is hopeful, seeing us embrace our faults and illogical nature of humanity by emphasizing love. Annihilation sees us as becoming something entirely different, for better or for worse, and that we as individuals may not even exist after the fact– it’s title being very concrete. A.I.C.O. thinks we can co-exist with our pain, but can never really escape from that separation. It’s a coping device, and you can’t become the device. You just learn to accept it for what it is and hope you can be a better individual. It may not be the best piece of entertainment out of the bunch, but it may have the most realistic answer, minus the Akira-style body horror.
As far as the actual anime goes, the most remarkable thing about it is how devoted it is to its “quest.” After a couple of episodes setting up the scenario, the mission to deliver Aiko to the source of the “attack” is the plot. The remainder of the series isn’t quite a 10 episode long chase, but it’s fairly close. While there are asides to the actions of those outside of the devastated area, the main cast spends the vast majority of the series on its mission. Any dealings with back story and the like are all handled “on mission” so to speak, and things never delineate into subplots outside of the core mission. Many anime series eschew episodic plots, but they often form smaller “missions” strung together by interconnected plots– one things leads to another. A.I.C.O. has a singular high concept and plays it through for the majority of the series. It’s a structural choice that makes what would have otherwise been a fairly standard action (thematic material aside) show stand out a bit. In that sense it feels even more like Annihilation. Kinda fitting that the two were released on Netflix within a week of one another.
Other than said structure, nothing else about the show really stands out. The “monsters” feel a bit repetitive, since they’re just variations of body horror mounds of flesh. The action and mecha stuff isn’t bad, but given that the things they fight rarely change, it makes said action scenes feel very samey. It’s a shame, because the roller skate body suits and various weapons the scavengers/mercenaries use could have been used in all sorts of neat situations. None of the characters outside of Aiko and the requisite mysterious young transfer student dude who isn’t what he says he is don’t get much to do. The four scavengers clearly have unique personalities and personal stories going on somewhere, but outside of a couple of throwaway lines we don’t get to see them really play off of one another outside of their introductions. They ultimately become vessels for the action and some light tension in the ranks. Maybe you can blame that on the show’s single-minded pursuit of the goal, but it’s more due to just focusing on the two leads to the exclusion of everyone else.
All in all, A.I.C.O.’s more interesting for the ideas brewing under the surface than it is for anything that actually transpires.