Crunchyroll has had a series of wins with its slate of original anime released this year. To close out anime in 2020, the streaming platform and anime lifestyle brand has released the one anime I’ve been waiting for all year: Onyx Equinox. The series is a Crunchyroll Studios Production and was created by Sofia Alexander. The series follows a young Aztec boy named Izel who is saved from death by the gods and is chosen to act as “humanity’s champion,” forced to discard his apathy toward his fellow man and prove humanity’s potential. Izel’s will takes him across ancient Mesoamerica to save humanity from a war between the gods. In Onyx Equinox episode 1, “The Last Day,” we’re thrown into a world of gods that focuses on the richness of the myth and culture.
Onyx Equinox episode 1 begins with Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the dead, initiating a blood war which leads the other gods to consider destroying humanity altogether. Quetzalcoatl, a creator god, and Tezcatlipoca, the god of night and sorcery, make a side bet to see if the “lowest-of-the-low” can serve as humanity’s champion to save the human race. This sets the stage for the series by trusting the audience to learn mythology as it presents itself instead of relying on heavy exposition. Additionally, it puts humanity into perspective. Humans are playthings for the gods and ultimately a source of their power.
But while the focus seems to be Aztec gods, there are multiple references to the Olmecs, the most ancient Mesoamerican society, which predated the Aztecs by thousands of years. This sets the characters within a larger historical context and begins to showcase the diversity of Mesoamerican civilizations that are almost always condensed into one monolithic group. This is furthered when the story moves to Uxmal and we learn that the town is home to people from different cultural backgrounds. This impacts how they’re viewed by other people in the city. It also allows the viewer to understand how vast and varied the cultures are.
Then, comes the sacrifice, and a tragic decision that sets Izel’s destiny in motion.
Unlike other representations of Mesoamerican sacrifice, Onyx Equinox situates it not as violence, but as a sacred duty. Ultimately, the way the series handles death and sacrifice in this first episode is appreciated, mapping it across religion and mythology. Additionally, Onyx Equinox episode 1 isn’t just about death, it’s also a vibrant look at culture and life in Mesoamerica. In Uxmal, we see vendors, we see children, and we see a community. There is a beauty to this, especially watching someone who has always been told stories of our pre-colonial past but couldn’t connect to it outside of murals of Aztec warriors and beautiful women.
Aside from the beauty of representation, seeing characters with deep brown skin like mine, Onyx Equinox’s animation is striking. Using thick bold, black outlines, each character is defined against the background. The richest beauty in this episode comes from the character designs for the gods. Clearly inspired by kaiju, when the gods show up in the opening of the episode, they’re bright and beautiful and terrifying all the same. Yet, the designs are still uniquely Mesoamerican in color scheme and identity. Color is the strongest element of the animation.
When it comes to animating brown skin tones, too often animators make brown skin look too yellowed, too ashen, and don’t necessarily take the time to light it in a way that makes it seem equally as luminous as the fair-skinned characters on screen. But with their all brown characters, the animators on Onyx Equinox capture the beauty of brown skin, especially in using colors like teal and greens to highlight it. When you combine the inclusion of body paint on large portions of the skin, there is a beauty that has to be commended.
While I am a fan of both the story and animation, my only issue with Onyx Equinox episode 1 is the voice acting. My issues with voice acting are two-fold. The first is that there isn’t a standardized accent across characters. This is most glaring when we see Izel, voiced by Olivia Brown, speaking with his sister, Nelli, voiced by showrunner Sofia Alexander. In these moments, Nelli has a slight accent that carries into the beautiful pronunciation of Nahuatl names. But Izel doesn’t have this. The second element to my issue is that some voice actors seem to struggle to pronounce Nahuatl names. Izel has no accent and when Izel pronounces indigenous names it sounds forced. This problem is also apparent in the exchanges between Quetzalcoatl, who is voiced by Zeus Mendoza, and Tezcatlipoca voiced by Arin Hanson. It’s very clear when the voice actors are not used to pronouncing sounds unique to Nahuatl, and it’s frustrating. But it could be forgiven if there was at least a coherent and consistent use of accents across characters.
As much as I love everything about Onyx Equinox, the voice acting is a hurdle that is extremely hard to overcome, and at times, I found myself not only pulled out of the episode but frustrated deeply. The animation and story are elements of pure joy that showcase the vibrancy and richness of a time period we never see depicted from the perspective of a culture that has been largely misunderstood by Hollywood. But with the love and attention put into those elements, it makes the voice acting stumbles all the more glaring.
Overall though, Onyx Equinox episode 1 is a powerful first episode that sets up the story to come. The series is going to be amazing, if “The Last Day” is any indication. That said, I think I’ll find myself watching the Spanish dubbed to hopefully get away from frustrations I have with the English voice acting.
Onyx Equinox airs exclusively on Crunchyroll every Saturday.
Onyx Equinox Episode 1 - "The Last Day"
Onyx Equinox Episode 1 is a powerful first episode that sets up the story to come. The series is going to be amazing, if “The Last Day” is any indication. That said, I think I’ll find myself watching the Spanish dubbed to hopefully get away from frustrations I have with the English voice acting.