It's a workplace anime, but with the minor twist that the main characters are genius fast-track students in a combined school/work group called A-TEC. Anime needs schoolgirls, right? It's fine, though. It works in context. Anyway, it's a political workplace drama of double-crossing superiors, dirty deals and bitter vindicative bosses who ask you to do the impossible, then shout at you when you do it anyway. It's slow and possibly a little annoying for a while, but it keeps improving until the finale might get you punching the air.
It's the future and mankind's colonised the solar system. Our heroes live on Mars, in Tokyo Four city. Interplanetary space travel was made possible by a space aeronautics mega-corporation named Kirishina Corporation, which today pretty much owns Tokyo Four. Politics, the unions and business are in each other's pockets.
Kirishina make rockets, although lately they've been expanding into other fields. They sponsor A-TEC, a class of geniuses whose hot-blooded idealistic teacher is Kaito Sera, the best engineer in Kirishina. A-TEC spend half their time drinking in everything Kaito teaches them and the other half inventing the rocket engines of tomorrow. They're incredible. Admittedly they burn through ridiculous amounts of money, but hey.
Unfortunately they're about to be sent a new transfer student, Nagisa Kiryuu. This boy is upper management. He's been ordered to shut down A-TEC by any means necessary and he's got ice in his veins. He destroys people. (They're still alive afterwards, mind you, but their careers aren't. We see him do this, although unfortunately he has boardroom enemies who are just as slippery and machiavellian as him.) He's the kind of man who'll tell you off for wasting money while rescuing him from kidnappers. He appears to have deep-frozen his sex drive and if anything seems bored and/or annoyed by any kind of relationship that doesn't involve budgets and spreadsheets.
He also has a shocking backstory. A-TEC will eventually help Nagisa thaw out and even become friendly, but he's not going to make it easy for them.
What's both great and slightly frustrating about this show is how it lives and breathes its workplace setting. Our heroes are half-killing themselves just dealing with all the stuff that's stopping them from doing their jobs. Management are hostile. Your budget's being cut. Applying for a budget extension isn't just about being right, but about putting together a proposal that's talking all the right bullshit. You might be able to get something done if you talk to the unions, but be aware that they're almost as cynical as your bosses.
All that's fantastic. It's taking the premise seriously. It's not just a generic action SF show that's using its corporate setting as a backdrop, but instead a story that's full-bloodedly about the challenges of that world.
The frustrating thing is that its take on this world isn't quite as on the ball as I'd like. Fundamentally it's solid. Everything makes sense in hindsight. The stupid management decisions that had annoyed me in the early episodes are exactly what our enemies get nailed for in the deeply satisfying finale. The priorities, values and arguments are right.
However all that "destroy A-TEC" stuff is desperately stupid from Kirishina's management. It's so absurd that it could only make sense if the real reason were office politics and/or a boss who hates you and is pushing his own agenda. Bingo. Guess what! As soon as we learned that, I was happy. However in real life, a Kirishina-scale company will spend brain-dissolvingly insane sums on research and development. Billions will be thrown even at speculative chances of yielding the next-generation technological breakthrough. Similarly, A-TEC is a super-motivated group of the hottest young engineering geniuses on the planet, whose favourite activity is working through the night on rocket design and would crawl across broken glass to invent a new kind of engine for Kirishina.
If you ran Kirishina, you'd give those kids anything they wanted. Anything. Money can't buy people like that. On top of all the other reasons for keeping them, you couldn't buy a better advert for your company. That's the kind of talent that attracts other talent. (The show even includes an example of that: Dr Jason Li.) What you don't do is discipline them for violating overtime regulations, shout at them for using too much paper and bully them until half of them quit. Angelina the accountant in ep.3 makes some sensible security points, but mixed in with nitpicking so petty that I wanted to throttle her.
I get it. The villains have agendas. In hindsight, it fits. However the decision-making is so obviously risible that for me it broke the show, until it became a study of suicidal corporate decision-making from evil/stupid management. Decisions that stupid do indeed often get made, for reasons a lot like these.
Similarly the argument against Kazuhisa's proposals in ep.11 could have been more rigorous. Some worthwhile points are made, but the "customers" line (good though it is) isn't actually a counter-argument.
It all builds up, though. Ep.13 is intelligent, logical and downright triumphant in how it skewers all the weak points in the villains' methods. I loved it. Pretty much everyone who's seen ep.13 seems to think it was awesome... but unfortunately there probably weren't enough of us to justify a second season, since much of the audience bailed during the season's relatively slow first half.
I like the cast too. Nagisa is fascinating, obviously. Mizuki is sweet. (She's the one who looks as if she's flashing her cleavage, but isn't because she's actually wearing a white T-shirt underneath.) Angelina is paradoxically lovely, in a prickly, aggressive way. I liked Iris a lot too, especially in the last few episodes, but I'm not delighted about the way they ended up love-triangling her. It's logical, it's cute and it works, but they'd previously set up her lesbian feelings for Mizuki so heavily that to me it felt like a betrayal of what she'd been until then.
It's a great show. You've got to stick with it, but in the end it is. Sometimes it even has action, some of it surprising and shocking. I'd love to see a Season 2, although to be honest I think the conclusion we have here is almost perfect already. (Its sequel-hunting moments aren't significant, e.g. "dad".) I like the way that our heroes are logical and sensible. I like the romance (with just one subjective caveat, above). I like the way that the spartan regime does actually improve A-TEC. They learn about efficiency. They stop solving problems by throwing money at them. Above all, really, I love the fact that it's so wholeheartedly built about its unglamorous subject matter and that it ends up making it awesome.