On a summer day a massive terrorist bombing suddenly occurs in Tokyo and it seems that two teenage boys are behind it. The only clue to their identity is a strange video uploaded to the internet. The boys go under the code names Nine and Twelve. They become known as “Sphinx” and play a deadly game of cat and mouse with the authorities. Who are they and why are they doing this? A school girl named Lisa Mishima and a disgraced detective named Kenjirou Shibazaki get caught up in a battle between the boys and the Japanese government, who are desperate to cover up something called The Athena Plan.
Zankyou no Terror is quite possibly the most frustrating anime of recent years. It proves that, regardless of the quality of director and animation studio, a script does count for a lot. Perhaps dialling down expectations would have helped.
The hype over Zankyou no Terror was big considering the project saw acclaimed anime auteur Shinichiro Watanabe and skilled musical composer Yoko Kanno reunite to work together on an original title. Their names are synonymous with the sort of quality series that creates anime fans – just think of Cowboy Bebop (1998). That they were back together with studio MAPPA, the place where they made the well-received Kids on the Slope (2012), seemed to bode well. After amassing filmographies made up of critical and commercial hits, few doubt their collective talent, and with so few original ideas coming out of an industry increasingly reliant on adaptations of light novels and manga many people were intrigued by what would be produced, not least myself. However, when the credits for the final episode rolled it was painfully clear that the show did not quite reach the artistic heights hoped for because of questionable writing which tried to hitch adrenaline-rush action sequences and wild plot twists onto a more thoughtful political story brimming with potential for intrigue and interest.
Zankyou no Terror starts off strongly with a slow-burn investigation and great world-building as pointed out in my first impression. The initial promise of an attempt at a realistic story about terrorism in modern day Japan was established with painstakingly detailed animation that utilised visually comprehensive, rigorous direction and art design to firmly embed the story in a recognisably contemporary setting. Characters look and act in a somewhat realistic manner and are distinct in their physical appearances and actions. Efforts were made to give even minor characters a family life from scenes in Lisa’s fractious home to insights into detective Shibazaki’s wayward relationship with his wife and daughter and his fading career. After Nine and Twelve launched their terror attacks, Shibazaki’s investigation into their backgrounds as former inmates at a children’s home formed a delicious spine for a story that also sported a degree of interesting social commentary seemingly aimed at the present-day political establishment of Japan.
The exploitation of youngsters is a common subject for films and television but for it to be handled in serious terms in an anime was gripping stuff to watch. The story progressed in an assured manner, building up backstories and human relationships and, most excitingly, it seemed to be bold in referencing real world issues, even appearing to criticise the government. It cannot be coincidence that in the year Japan’s care system is criticised by Human Rights Watch, kids from care homes are the anti-heroes, and during the reign of a nationalistic right-wing government, members of which have controversially attempted to rewrite history and cast Japan as a victim of World War II, the Japanese government are initially front and centre as villains.
Nine and Twelve are both representative of those who are disenfranchised by society. Stuck in an unforgiving care system, they become exploited by shady government figures angry over the perceived shame of the nation following the end of the war and America’s dominance as revealed by characters who echo real world politicians. As Shibazaki probes into the case, his findings about abuse and cover-ups combined with the people he talks to create a heady atmosphere. This is reminiscent of paranoia-steeped 70s movies (trust no one, least of all the government) like Three Days of the Condor (1975) and even the works of Nagisa Oshima like Cruel Story of Youth (1960) as it touches on the heartlessness of modern society for youngsters.
The writing team of Hiroshi Seto, Jun Kumagai, Kenta Ihara and Shoten Yano looked set to produce something special as themes of the atomisation of modern society, loneliness, the value of connections between people and misuse of power by authorities were teased alongside real world politics. Few anime not directed by Mamoru Oshii attempt anything overtly political like this and it stood out as unique for the present-day anime industry, especially coupled with its high production values.
Alas, at the midway point the writers introduced a new character in the shape of Five, another mysterious child, and the story soon finds itself caught between having the gripping low-key investigation and developing relationships between Lisa, Shibazaki and the boys, and the more bombastic action movie moments drawn from big-budget Hollywood popcorn films. How a person responds to these moments is subjective; personally I found that whenever the action scenes occurred, they presented a tone that ruined the atmosphere. These moments sat at odds with the initial story and exposed major plot holes, such as how there were no people perishing in the terror attacks (including the ultimate one in the final episode) and introducing the idea of the Americans as the bad guys, something which makes absolutely no sense by the end of the series when they are facilitating massive destruction themselves.
Maybe I expected too much realism but the show opened strongly with it. It’s a shame that the writers didn’t have the skill or confidence to retain the more sober tone because the series became an increasingly implausible action film and these moments sucked the meaning out of the story. This is most clearly felt in a nonsensical ending where America is painted as the ultimate evil in a series of action movie twists that ruin the atmosphere. Had the anime stuck to its guns and focussed on the themes of abandonment, loneliness, dehumanisation, corrupt government, abuse of power, and the duel between the boys and the Japanese government, it would have culminated in a more emotionally gruelling and painful finale for both the characters and the audience. At its best the show delivers relationships between Sphinx, Shibazaki and Lisa and even Five, and achieves a real, palpable sense of melancholy over the loss of childhood and brief joy over the moments that the three share just before they are taken away.
The weaknesses in the script does a disservice to the characterisation. Although not complex, the characters do fulfill specific roles in terms of demonstrating the connections between individuals. If Lisa did not evolve beyond being a moe character, she provided the essential function of being the key person to bring the human side out of Twelve and Nine, breaking down their wall of loneliness and making them feel wanted as people which, in turn, helped her grow in confidence and move on in life. The same happens to Shibazaki who shakes off his own fear and reemerges, determined to expose those who did him, the kids, and the nation wrong.
The poor writing also undercut some of the most visually accomplished pieces of direction from Shinichiro Watanabe and one of the most emotionally moving soundtracks by Yoko Kanno, distracting me from some breathtakingly beautiful, sublime scenes.
Throughout the series, one is aware that Watanabe is bringing some of his A-game to his work with complicated shot composition and colour schemes that frame characters in certain ways to suggest emotions, changing positions of characters and the deliberate and desperate decisions that make the story power along.
There are many stand-out moments where Kanno and Watanabe two combine their skill and vision to create some of the most beautiful scenes in anime that establish more details of the changing characterisation than the script does. One need only think of the heart-stoppingly gorgeous and desperate moment when Twelve and Lisa attempt to defuse an explosive vest on a Ferris wheel at the end of episode 9. On the fairground ride, lit a lurid neon green and blue against a night-time sky, the two are in the closest proximity that they have been from the beginning. Close-ups capture their eyes darting from each other to the bombs while Twelve’s hands move with a delicacy and dedication which, despite his concentration, betrays his determination and care. With the song, “Von” – a melancholy piece of weaving violins and a simple, hypnotic piano melody – swelling in the background as the kids realise that they have no time left, we witness how much Twelve and Lisa’s connection has grown and how much they care for each other. This is one of the finest pieces of direction Watanabe has created, the human emotion is clear and I could not help but think that the show should have been focussed on the characters at all times. The tragedy that these children are playthings for an uncaring government is most powerfully felt. It is a shame that the scripts squander it.
Zankyou no Terror really does frustrate because it could have been great. One cannot deny that Watanabe pulled out some fantastic scenes, Kanno made some of her best music in years and MAPPA created some stunning animation. Original ideas are much needed and the quality of the animation and music was top of the range, but these moments did not coalesce into an acceptable whole thanks to lazy action movie moments that detracted from the initial story. Despite flashes of genius, there were too many places when weak writing pulled me out of the story and made me feel that the show was underachieving. Maybe I expected too much. Of course, others may be more forgiving and it is heartening to see something new and original in anime given a try; I wish this had achieved more by being disciplined. As it is, the show is solid.