It's weird to think that for all the love Gunsmith Cats has gotten, it and its sequel are the only manga by Kenichi Sonoda that have been published in full in North America. Looking at today's review, though, and it's a little easier to see why some of his other works didn't connect with American readers quite as well.
CANNON GOD EXAXXION (Exaxxion), by Kenichi Sonoda. First published in 1997, and first published in North America in 2002.
Hoichi Kano is a skeptic. Just because aliens have lived alongside humanity for years and traded their technology with us doesn't mean that their intentions are entirely good. After all, Hoichi's grandpa is suspicious of them too, and he's a brilliant scientist! Well, it turns out that his grandpa was right - the alien forces were indeed lulling humanity in preparation for a full-scale invasion, and Hoichi is ready to fight back. His grandpa is more than ready to help Hoichi, sending him a beautiful battle android named Isaki. Isaki can transform herself into a nigh-indestructible fight suit, a flying cycle, and the key to a giant mecha that may be humanity's last chance at survival.
Cannon God Exaxxion is basically Sonoda's take on the mecha genre, and it's an old-school take on the genre as well. At a time when most people were doing their best to rip off Evangelion, he decided to go back to the basics of the genre, which meant embracing the ridiculous technology, the hot-blooded hero, and the enormous stakes. It's about as far removed as you can get from the relatively grounded action set pieces of Gunsmith Cats as you can get. That being said, Exaxxion also doesn't have the great characters and relatively progressive take on women which that series had, either.
Hoichi is your standard shonen hero kid: hot-headed, not terribly intellectual, and always ready for a fight. That's a good start, but he never grows or changes from that state, and because of that he feels less like a proper character and more like a space that says "Insert Hero Here". He doesn't act so much out of his own desires as he does at the command of his grandfather, so he's not exactly the most proactive of protagonists. In comparison, his best friend Akane is a bit more compelling. While she does nurse a massive crush on Hoich and has to suffer a running gag about her small chest, she has a devotion to good journalism and The Truth that gives her a stake in the battle between humanity and the aliens, and it gives her something to do while Hoichi goes off to play with robots. Hell, Isaki is a more compelling character than he is, and she's treated like an object! It's not just that she's sexually objectified, it's that she is literally an object, a sort of sexy Transformer there only to serve Hoichi. Mind you, this is mostly because she's part of a small army of sexy androids that Hoichi's grandfather can command and grope at will.
The alien invasion element is fairly standard. Yes, the assimilation through cultural exchange tactic is a relatively clever one, but it can also be easily traced back to works like V. What is interesting is that the aliens are not united in their desire to conquer. Many aliens had worked and lived alongside humans for years, and now they find themselves caught between the demands of their leaders and the prejudices and resentment from the humans who had trusted them. It was nice to get a bit of moral greyness in between all the meathead giant robot action, and I wish there had been more of it. Also, Sonoda's fondness for firepower is still present, even if the sci-fi setting means that he can't launch into tangents about obscure guns and muscle cars. He just tends to hand-wave the hows and whys with a cry of "SCIENCE!" before moving on.
Exaxxion is a lively manga and the way it builds up to the giant robot battle is brilliant. It's just a shame that it's hard to get invested in all that when the lead is so lacking, the sexism is so blatant and gratuitous, and the few interesting people or ideas get sidelined for more hot robot action.
Sonoda's signature style is well and alive here. The characters all have that mildly cartoony look, and the aliens are about as exotic as your average fantasy elf. The most creative he gets is with the proportions on Isaki and her fellow androids. They all possess what can only be described as torpedo boobs, and we see more than once that they're as soft and squishy as overripe tomatoes. That's still nowhere near as shameless as finding an opportunity to get Akane and a sympathetic alien naked in the shower. Apparently Sonoda's fondness for lolis cannot be stopped and he will find any and all excuses to shoehorn it into his stories. Still, his action scenes are drawn with a great deal of fluidity, even if he abused speed lines like no one's business. He also captures the grand scale of the battles, especially once he breaks out the mecha., and he lets the panels open up to capture it all. I just wish it was in service for a better story.
Exaxxion is a big, dumb, old-fashioned mecha story, but that's as far as it's willing to go. It never tries to bring any nuance to its characters and what few interesting ideas are present get steamrolled by the need for bigger, more outrageous action. Maybe he should have tried to rip off Evangelion a little more instead of doing something completely opposite.
This series was published by Dark Horse. This series is complete in Japan with 7 volumes available. 5 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.