Black★Rock Shooter

In the real world the hero Mato is being force-fed macarons by the creepy villain Kagari and generally trying to save all her classmates from their traumatic personal problems. Meanwhile, in another universe, a young warrior with a cannon for an arm fights swarming phantoms and mechanised monsters that happen to shoot giant macarons at her. A couple of episodes of this switch between scenes and the viewer quickly understands that the two worlds are related. In that respect, Black Rock Shooter brings to mind the parallel storytelling of Clannad, where a weird ‘robot and little girl’ subplot accompanies the main story. Unlike Clannad, I didn’t hate Black Rock Shooter – I merely rolled my eyes through most of it.

The show generally functions like a high school drama with psychological undertones. Everyone around Mato has a sad background and struggles to cope, which is the cue for a lot of overacting and facile philosophising. Only Mato has the unwavering faith in the human spirit to weather the emotional storm, making it her job to help the other characters find their way to inner peace. There is an avalanche of misery packed into these eight episodes and it rather devastates the plot. By the fifth instalment, I knew everything was so screwed up that the easiest way to avoid opening up my own carotids was to disengage completely and pray for the moment when it was all over.

Whatever comfort can be gleaned from the fact that character development matters at all to this show is quickly snatched away by the banal and ham-fisted handling. The writers treat the characters like pieces of a puzzle. Everyone has a role that fits neatly into the overall framework and everyone performs appropriately until the very end – just without any convincing passion. Despite a lot of talk about their feelings and what it all means, none of them seem remotely complex or even likeable. They just spend the entire show emoting different levels of pain. Confrontations inevitably descend into various combinations of high pitched screaming, emphatic declarations, or wobbly-voiced navel-gazing.

I admit, while the miserable vocal performances become monotonous, the visuals remain exciting in parts. The world of fantasy battles delivers a shifting landscape that sometimes looks like a children’s room gone bad or a hellish void of blacks, whites, and strong primary colours. Black Rock Shooter seems to borrow from Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica but adds a little more CG fanfare. The designs for the warriors and the phantoms are in turn pretty and imposing. Someone at Sanzigen (responsible for the CG in Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann, Tiger & Bunny) cared that this series should look cool, even if the actual content it represents is inane. The titular hero, Black Rock Shooter, herself wears a funky combination of hot pants and trench coat, and that blue flame emanating from her left eye is a gorgeous touch. Also, with such extravagant fights, the show serves as a comforting reminder that the use of CG in anime is improving.

The fantasy world in some way symbolises the real one. The obvious questions are why they are connected and whether the characters on either side of this dimensional divide are aware of each other. The more worrying question I ended up asking myself was why this plot device was needed at all. Black Rock Shooter boils down to the importance of friendship and keeping your chin up when things are bad. It’s an ‘Annie’ plot but one in which little abandoned girls get impaled by swords along the way. Are the swords necessary? Are all those bombastic battles even required to get the message across? I think not. The action-packed presentation, while objectively interesting at first, is superfluous to the message and wears thin by the end.

It’s also entirely lazy. Instead of dealing with the loneliness of the characters in a way that the audience can relate to, the plot short-cuts using pretty duels. The show seems to acknowledge this when Mato declares that the way to deal with problems is not to fight but to talk it out.  However, it’s the same hypocrisy I notice with more naive instalments of Gundam (i.e. Gundam Wing). The harder the franchise shouts ‘don’t fight because war is bad!’ the harder it becomes to ignore the fact that all problems culminate in and are resolved through the glorification of mecha battles. Black Rock Shooter makes the same mistake: there is a lot lost in the denunciation of fighting when violence looks so good and distracts so effectively from the human part of the story.

So, instead of getting to know the characters in balanced detail, we get an ever-intensifying sequence of excrement hitting the fan and then some fantasy battles to represent all emotional conflict. This shallowness might have a lot to do with Black Rock Shooter having no roots in story writing at all. The anime is inspired by a song (the OP by Softcell’s Ryo, no less), which in turn was based upon an illustrator’s concept drawing. Whatever heart might have been there to begin with no doubt got lost in the unlikely leap from fanart to full-blown cartoon.

4 / 10