If you were to watch an episode of Cross Ange this week as it continues into its second half, you'd be tuning into a story with an excellently developed main character and well-built world. If you decided to watch from the beginning, however, you'd be in for a completely different experience.
Cross Ange is the story of Angelise, the princess of a futuristic kingdom where everyone can use magic -- well, almost everyone. In this world, people who can't use magic, and are therefore immune to it, are treated as inhuman abominations to be rounded up and imprisoned far away from normal society. But more than that, they are actually conscripted and forced to pilot giant mecha and kill dragons in order to protect the utopian society that has imprisoned them. Unfortunately for Angelise, while she may be a princess, she is also a non-magic user (though this fact was cleverly hidden from her by her parents). And when this is exposed, she is treated as any other non-magical human and is thrown in prison to battle dragons until she is inevitably killed.
As far as premises go, it is one brimming with opportunities for action and character development. And with Sunrise, the makers of Gundam, producing it, it looks amazing both in and out of the mecha and has a quality soundtrack to match the visuals. The problems with the show come from the way in which this plot is portrayed on the screen -- specifically in the first five episodes.
At the start of its run, Cross Ange literally made me sick to my stomach. While laying the groundwork for its setting and characters, Ange is put through a gauntlet of gut churning scenarios -- from rape to the graphic deaths of those close to her. The problem is that these scenes, clearly built to share the horror of her experiences with the viewer, are undercut by sexual fanservice to a ludicrous degree. It's cheap exploitation at its worst and greatly damages an otherwise engrossing story.
Of course, each season sees more than its fair share of fanservice anime, but what makes Cross Ange stand out is its pedigree -- especially with Gundam SEED's director, Mitsuo Fukuda, serving as the project's creative producer. Sunrise is a company famous for their mecha anime -- Gundam, Code Geass, Valvrave, etc. And while they haven't exactly shied away from adult themes in the past, Cross Ange is their first major attempt to present their signature mecha style with fanservice encroaching on every facet.
Yet, it seems, this may not have gone over as intended as there is an abrupt directorial shift six episodes in. From that point on, while still present, the viewer titillation factor is lowered to more manageable levels and no longer interferes with the story being told.
Plot-wise, the opening few episodes are concerned with Princess Angelise's fall from grace and her rebirth in the fires of the crucible as "Ange." And while that part of her arch is often undercut by the aforementioned sexual exploitation, it does serve as a solid base for the next phase of her development.
With the arrival of her maid to the prison (who, despite everything, still wants to serve her princess) Ange is forced to try and reconcile her princess self with the hardened cynic she has become -- and this struggle is at the core of Ange's character. Unable to make a clean break from the past, she still cares deeply for her family and friends, even if she is persona non grata in their eyes.
Thus, Ange's psyche is a complex battleground of hope and cynicism. She wants so badly to believe her relationships are capable of weathering any storm but at the same time fears this is a foolish wish as she begins to encounter more and more people from her past -- and with consistently terrible results.
Alongside Ange's continued character growth, the world outside of the prison is fleshed out. We not only see how the general public perceives the magic-less "normas" but also gain a more personal insight into the trauma that stems from discovering your child or sister is an abomination. It is truly tragic to see how the world treats normas and Ange, specifically.
Ange's former kingdom utopia is one that, like in the classic short fiction piece The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, is based on the suffering of others. So as to stop the various kingdoms from warring with each other, society has been given a target to hate, fear, and pity without guilt: the normas. The normas are "evil" monsters, thus all humanity has to do to be "good" is not be like the violent normas and live peacefully. All Ange and the others have suffered and died for is to perpetuate someone else's paradise.
With this realisation it is finally clear why there is so much violent, graphic content in Cross Ange -- especially in the early episodes. Ange has been abused at every possible level both personally and by society at large for one purpose outside of the context of the story: to make the viewer be completely on her side when she vows to watch the world burn. While the protagonist, Ange's story to this point is not one of a hero, but of a sympathetic villain. Her journey is one from being the most privileged of society to the one poised to destroy it. And despite some early fumbling, it is an excellently done character arc.
Ultimately, Cross Ange is an anime difficult to recommend. The first few episodes are borderline unwatchable and are not an experience I'd wish on anyone. However, what comes after is truly a well realised world with an excellently developed lead character. Perhaps in this case, the best thing to do is simply read episode summaries online before jumping directly to episode six. Sure, you'll be missing out on some of the anime's groundwork, but, honestly, that's a small price to pay.
Cross Ange airs on Tokyo MX in Japan. It can be viewed for free and with English subtitles on Crunchyroll.