“I don’t give a damn. Just tell me who to shoot.”
OP: "Borderland" by Mami Kawada
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.
ED: "Ambivalentidea" by Nagi Yanagi