Wednesday, April 11, 2012

First Impressions – Jormungand

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“I don’t give a damn.  Just tell me who to shoot.”

OP: "Borderland" by Mami Kawada
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As many really good shows as started last week, it’s hard to believe that this is the day the season really kicks into high gear for me – all of the shows that were at the top of my list going in (with the possible exception of Uchuu Kyoudai) premiere from here on out.  And the first on the list is Jormungand, based on the manga by Takahashi Keitarou.  Irrespective of anything connected to the staff and studio – mostly good, some worrying – this would have been at or near the top of my list in any season, because the manga is a very special piece of work.

Make no mistake, this is not going to be an easy show for many viewers to love.  In addition to being extremely violent and disturbing, with a preponderance of characters who aren’t exactly icons of morality, it’s about as unconventional a manga as I’ve read in the last few years.  The art style is odd, the narrative is disjointed and dismissive of conventional structure, and it just doesn’t fit neatly into the comfort zone of many readers.  It’s certainly seinen, but that’s a pretty big umbrella, and I haven’t read any other seinen series that try quite so hard to keep you at an emotional distance.  Have a little patience, because it took time for this series to close the deal with me, but once it did I saw that it had a kind of rough, brutal poetry to it – a strange beauty amongst all the chaos and insanity.

I think those qualities come across in the first episode, which I imagine will have seemed a bit odd to many viewers.  If it seemed to sort of pick up right in the middle, it’s because that’s how it was in the manga – there are introductions but no pleasantries here, and very little exposition.  That does come, but it requires a little patience.  As the anime begins we’re immediately introduced to Jonah Mare (Tamura Mutsumi), a child soldier of 11 years.  He’s joining the service of Koko Hekmatyar (Itou Shizuka, a personal favorite of mine) a young arms dealer working for international shipping conglomerate HCLI, who smiles a lot and immediately shows Jonah her unconventional personality.  The reasons for this alliance are not made immediately clear, but we are told that Jonah’s parents are dead – killed by a high-tech weapon of indeterminate nature – and he’s become a mercenary.

Jonah is, to say the least, not your conventional child hero.  With his dark skin and red eyes (he’s from North Africa, as it happens) he looks out of place in anime and is indeed, as Koko’s loyal subordinate and would be paramour Sofia Valmer (Ohara Sayaka) calls him, a “creepy boy”.  Jonah utters the line that starts this post and starts killing people in the first few minutes of the episode, rarely showing a break in expression.  He’s full of contradictions – a child and a willing soldier, a mercenary who hates guns working for an arms dealer. The only time Jonah smiles during the episode is when an explosion (one he caused) results in a stuffed dog being tossed into the car he’s riding in with Koko – and he even laughs.

The rest of Koko’s crew is introduced to Jonah, and meet him with considerable skepticism and confusion.  They each, as Koko says fondly, have a screw loose – but they and their bond form the backbone of this series and each is unique and a compelling character in their own way.  They don’t all get a chance to shine in the premiere, but their turn will come.  Of the lot my personal favorite is Lehm (Ishizuka Unsho, a veteran with so many great performances on his résumé that it’s almost embarrassing – most recently as Harada-sensei in Chihayafuru), a former Delta Force Ops man and Koko’s second-in-command.  He’s the most skilled and experienced solider in Koko’s little army, and the only one Jonah shows enough curiosity about to ask a question – why does someone like him work for a young woman like Koko?  His answer says a lot about him, and about the series. 

Introductions aside, the first ep is pretty much a thrill ride through a more or less typical day on the job when you work for Koko Hekmatyar.  The job this time takes the team to an unnamed Eastern European nation, where the arms Koko and squad are smuggling in may push the country into civil war.  They run afoul of rival dealer Kroshkin, and we get an abject lesson that for all her off-kilter behavior, Koko is no fool but rather damn good at her job.  And it’s Jonah who gets the role of finishing that job, leaving no doubt that if you’re looking for a cuddly kid, you’d best not look here.

For me, this episode was exactly what I wanted.  Everything clicked pretty much as I imagined it – the breathlessness, the brutality, the black humor, the odd glimpse into the bonds that tie Koko’s crew together.  I had no issues with any of the cast, I loved the BGM and if you watched Steins;Gate, you know pretty much what the visual style of the series is.  The character designs are faithful to the manga but the backgrounds and animation are very much White Fox, and this works well enough – I think Takahashi-sensei’s art style needed to be tweaked for the transition.  His characters are distinctive, but his panels tend to be very Spartan and minimalist – occasionally cut through with astonishing detail almost on a Mori Kaoru level, which I suspect will survive intact. 

My big concern going in here was Motonaga Keitarou as director – his record is mixed and includes the abomination School Days.  But his work on that series was strong technically, and he seems to have a steady hand on the tiller here.  Writer Kuroda Yosuke, though, has enormous experience and most of his adaptation work has been very good to excellent.  With the strong source material and Kuroda to point Motonaga in the right direction, my sense is we’ll be fine.  Jormungand is scheduled for two cours, split by a break over the summer, and that should be adequate to tell the manga story well, if not expansively.  I know what they have here, and it’s special – and White Fox has earned my trust with adaptations at this point.  My hope going in was that this would potentially be the best series of the season, and while it’s way too early to make a call, I see nothing in the first episode to make me think it can’t  happen.

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ED: "Ambivalentidea" by Nagi Yanagi
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16 comments:

  1. Koko seems to have sides for me.One is of a playful, sensual young woman (something right Ms. Itou's alley) and the other of a ruthless businesswoman. Very interesting first episode, like Black lagoon but less all out, guns blazing action.

    I like that all the cars used in chase scenes actually look like cars we buy:
    Hummer
    X6
    E/S class
    Reno Lagoon
    5 series

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    1. Ah there was no lagoon but a focus instead and I forgot about what I think is Pajero

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  2. Love the first episode. Morally ambiguous characters in animes doesn't come too often and Koko and her crew are definitely right up there, similar to Fate/Zero's Kiritsugu. Can't wait to see more!

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    1. Especially morally ambiguous 11 year-olds.

      Koko is the flash, Jonah is the substance. You can enjoy the serious on one level focusing mainly on Koko, as she's an amazingly fun character, but IMHO if you want to appreciate it the way the author intended, it's really Jonah's story.

      And Lehm kicks ass.

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  3. I don't see the problem. this works wonders. And it is following the recent trend of having another season after a short break... October 2012, season 2...

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  4. When that haunting BGM started playing from the first second of the episode and the rocket shot up- I knew this is going to be an amazing series. Already getting Black Lagoon vibes- I love how Koko's voice is sometimes so dissonant with her context. Also that music played in the episode preview, wow.

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  5. The preview summarizes the anime quite nicely:

    "Her name is Koko, she is loco, I said 'oh no'!"

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  6. Liked this first episode a lot. I'm on board for all of the characters we've seen so far, but I'm ESPECIALLY on board for Koko, who is AWESOME.

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  7. Huh, usually when we have shows in common, it's either that I've read the source material for it(Bakuman, F/Z, Medaka), we both did not read the source material(Zetman) or we both read it(Mirai Nikki).
    First time that you're the one who read the source while I'm going in as an anime only viewer.

    I'm a bit jarred by the series of events. All happened a bit too fast with little break in between. Didn't sit quite well with me.
    I like Koko though. Helps that she's voiced by Itou Shizuka.
    Jonah is a bit bland but let's see how he develops.
    Art and sounds are okay. And I like me some guns and shooting to balance some other stuff I'm watching.
    So far I'm in the middle for this but I'm looking forward to how this goes, especially that it has a second season this Fall and all the volumes apparently will be animated.

    Just gonna leave this here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4aTJAQpJBdc&feature=player_embedded

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    1. I was certainly aware while watching that this might be a bit awkward for non-anime viewers, because there's so little in the way of hand-holding or even explanation. But to their credit, White Fox have pretty decided to adapt the opening faithfully - I think the mangaka wanted readers to feel "swept up" and a little disoriented right from the start.

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  8. Anime-only viewer here, but I'd heard about this being a lot like Black Lagoon. It didn't disappoint.

    We've got a collection of possible sociopaths with interesting backstories, set in a world of arms dealing. It's got everything a good spy/action thriller needs for a setup. It should be a great ride.

    And, if you watched the next episode preview, the rap song has the lyrics "Koko is loco". Yeah, this series is going to be awesome. :)

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  9. I hate Koko's eyes! it's so creepy. OTOH the girl with an eye patch is hot and has an awesome knife skills. I like the way the anime started - Fast paced and compact! I'll be following the anime along with Zetoooommmmannnnn!!!!!!

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  10. I have to say, those eyes are pretty faithful to the manga art.

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  11. Adults need only apply. Incredibly politically incorrect show, yet morally coherent mechanics (think how even the scums in Pulp Fiction live and die by their own moral code). Clever reversals so far, wacky characters, and guns, lots of guns. This thing kicks ass.

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  12. Tarantino is not a bad comparison to Tarantino at all, in fact.

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  13. For me, this episode was exactly what I wanted
    XD

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