DVD Review: BLACK ROCK SHOOTER Is Twee, Goth And Awesome
(Do Schoolgirls Dream of Apocalyptic Amazons?)
For lovers of Japanese animation it pays to keep track of those series which are being broadcast in Fuji TV's famous noitaminA slot. In general these will be aimed at a more mature audience than run-of-the-mill anime is, and often contain daring subject matter combined with distinctive artwork.
Black Rock Shooter is such a series, being part of the noitaminA slot earlier this year. Still, looking at the marketing materials you'd think it to be a loli-goth wankfest aimed at adolescent boys. Babes in bikinis, corsets and capes epically fight each other through several dystopic landscapes, using an assortment of big guns, swords, robots and monsters. Doesn't sound all that mature, right?
But now you can judge for yourself: Australian distributor Siren Visual is the first to release an English-friendly version of the series and their edition has been out on DVD for the past few weeks.
Did I like it? Yes, a lot! Read on...
Mato is a girl starting her first year in high school. She befriends Yomi, a troubled, distant girl in her class and the two become best pals, soul-mates even. Even so, at times they have fights as good friends tend to do, and there is the occasional jealousy when someone else butts in.
Meanwhile, in a different world, scantily clad Amazons wage wars amongst themselves in ruined science-fiction landscapes. Both the fighters and the fights seem to mirror persons and events that Mato and Yomi experience in the real world. Is one a dream version of the other, with the fighters processing emotional hurts from the real world as physical pain through combat?
Whatever it is, the fighters' world does not seem to influence the real world much. But when Mato and Yomi suddenly manage to resolve Yomi's troubles, some of their friends start losing parts of their memories. What is going on? And who or what is the Black Rock Shooter, who might totally destroy the fighters' world?
Ah, high school ... you enter as a child and then you get battered and punched into an (almost) adult in the years that follow. And as part of that process you learn to grow a thick skin, shielding your feelings.
Black Rock Shooter shows this happening to a young naive girl, but the story told takes a rather unique approach by making all the mundane heartache literal. Does a hateful remark make you feel like your stomach was stepped upon? In Black Rock Shooter, there exists a world in which your alter ego will really have his or her stomach ripped out and stepped upon. Does it feel like a former friend stabbed you in the back? In this other world, that is exactly what happens, only both you and your friend will be wearing Loli-goth cosplay gear, and the knife will be an improbably huge sword.
This juxtaposing of soap-ish high school friendship and stunning over-the-top violent fantasy action works fine throughout the series, being just weird and fascinating at first but slowly getting more exciting as the two different worlds start to make more sense. The "other" world is not just a dreamworld and the stakes get to be very high in the end, leading to a tense and satisfying finale. And as Black Rock Shooter consists of only eight episodes you arrive there quickly enough, the series as a whole not getting enough time to outlast its welcome.
That the series has turned out to be intelligent and mature enough to earn its place in the noitaminA family may seem surprising, given its origins. The whole concept behind Black Rock Shooter started with a single image of a white thin girl in a black bikini, hot pants and a cape, sporting blue flames in her left eye and a big gun. This image inspired pop group Supercell to write a (rather silly) Black Rock Shooter song, the videoclip of which needed additional imagery. From there on the concept went viral, with the Black Rock Shooter girl getting her own OVA, an anime series, a manga and a videogame. Interestingly enough, these iterations are all completely different: in the game she saves our future world from aliens while the manga puts her in a weird purgatory-like afterlife where she fights demons.
In contrast, the new anime focuses on the friendship between two regular high school girls in our own world, with the Black Rock Shooter girl only showing up occasionally in Mato's dreams at first. A lot of time in the first five episodes is spent on character development, setting the stage for a kaleidoscopic end-fight for the main cast's sanity. It marks this iteration as high on maturity and relatively low on fanservice. Despite the fetishistic look of the main characters they are not overly sexualized, nor does Mato's relationship with Yomi wander into lesbian fantasy even though both girls are obviously closer to love than to friendship.
As for the animation, this is definitely a strong point of the series. The real world is lovingly drawn as mostly hand-painted animation, while the flashy fighters' world is entirely created using 3D CGI. Through careful tweaking of the graphics, these different styles do not clash, though. All CGI characters are cell-shaded to appear hand-drawn, and the frame rate of the epic fights has been kept intentionally low to make them blend in better with the traditional animation used for the real world. Only in the opening credits do you get a glimpse of what the fetish Amazons would have looked like if smooth CGI had been used throughout, and while it looks damn pretty, it would indeed have been jarring as hell.
In the end, Studio Ordet must be commended for what they did with this franchise. They took some much reviled cliches from different types of anime, like Loli-goth (urgh...), Moe (eek...), Cutesy Girls (bleh...) and Big Guns (yawn...) and still managed to make a pretty compelling blend out of them. The story is interesting and the series' look is striking, with all the flash actually being on top of real substance for a change.
Uniquely telling a very mundane teenage drama in our world as a hyperkinetic science fiction extravaganza in another, Black Rock Shooter is a weird but wonderful series. It blends two distinct genres of anime and does it well enough so that fans of the one will not be overly bothered by the other.
If you allow yourself to be surprised, this series comes very much recommended.
On to the Discs:
Siren Visual has released Black Rock Shooter as a two-disc DVD set, coded for PAL region 4. I'd have loved to see a Blu-ray of this (the hyper artwork almost audibly cries out for HD) but the DVD sure does not disappoint in the audio and video department. I'm just glad this series is available so quickly, being a noitaminA that was only aired on Japanese television less than a year ago. As is often the case with Siren Visual, there is no English dub, but the subtitles are excellent.
As for extras, unfortunately the old 50 minute OVA pilot isn't here, nor is the stop-motion promo which was created some years back. Story-wise, you do not miss much, as the pilot was a condensed alternate version of the series' first two-thirds (and the promo just a cool wink towards The Nightmare Before Christmas), but it would have been interesting to see the changes which were made when the story got embellished into an eight-episode series. Ironically, the blurb on the back of the packaging details the pilot's plot instead of the series' (there is no "splitting up in second year" in this, the extended anime).
But the extras which ARE there are pretty good nonetheless. You get a 22 minute making-of documentary, a short (two minutes) item on the creation of the CGI elements, a whopping 13 minutes of TV-promos and the text-less closing credits.
All in all, this is yet another fine release by Siren Visual of a very recent noitaminA series. Kudos to them, and this release is much appreciated!