Akame ga KILL! Episodes 1-8
by Matt Packard, Sep 1st 2014
Akame ga Kill! does not take place in a kind world. It takes sadistic delight in teaching both the viewer and main character Tatsumi just how unkind its world is. On a journey to the capital with hopes to join the army and make a name for himself, Tatsumi finds that the entire city is full of evil politicians who oppress the poor and make ghastly examples of those who oppose them. When he discovers that his two best friends have fallen victim to the perils of the capital, he joins Night Raid: a group of elite assassins who kill corrupt government officials. Tatsumi quickly learns the ropes of the job, making these first eight episodes an opponent-of-the-week, teammate-of-the-week affair—he slays his foes while also delving into the identities of his fellow Night Raid members.
The former is far more fun than the latter. Night Raid and their toughest opponents wield Imperial Arms, scarcely-explained devices which bind to their user and provide them with unique powers. Explanation is not the show's strong suit, and this is basically an excuse to stuff each episode full of ridiculous characters who can do ridiculous things with little explanation. I can't say the result is boring. These battles are not exercises in finesse or choreography; each is a blur of clashing swords and kinetic movement loaded with weird abilities and over-the-top personalities. The show's promise that a conflict between two Imperial Arms users ends with the spectacle of death has held true.
When they're not fighting, our protagonist and his friends cease to be fun. All of the characters (Tatsumi included) are painted with the same trite brush. They've become assassins devoted to slaying the Bad People because the Bad People did Something Bad to them in the past. Backstories usually take the form of a two-minute flashback, obligatorily dropped into the mix when it's determined that the time is right. It's all too hasty, too black-and-white, and too formulaic to come across as sincere. The same refusal to stand still that lends Akame ga Kill! its crazy speed also makes it impossible to find a point of focus or become attached to anyone in Night Raid. The antagonists don't fare much better; they're one-note savages resigned to "grinning insanely while being killed."
The members of Night Raid seem just as likely to meet brutal ends as anybody else, so at least there's some internal consistency here. It's a selling point of the series that every character seems like a human bowling pin—they all stand in formation and whichever one the plot thunders toward is crushed in a climactic blood-soaked moment, expected or not. Unfortunately, the lackluster writing and heedless nature of the pacing assure that the shock is only skin deep. There is no catharsis to be obtained from the deaths of such caricatured villains, and there are no genuine heartstrings to be pulled by such contrivance-laden heroes and heroines. There is only a cheap and reflexive utterance of “that really just happened,” to be forgotten within the length of an episode.
Akame ga Kill's desire to be thought of as more than cheap and reflexive fun is the biggest strike against it. It flings shovelful after shovelful of needless depravity into the viewer's face in a desperate ploy to be misconstrued as mature. Civilians are killed left and right. Women and children beg to be spared, only to be beheaded or skinned alive. Quarter houses are stuffed with hundreds of drug-addicted prostitutes. The portrayal of humanity's bad side is omnipresent and cartoonishly excessive, yet it's presented in a tone so self-serious that it seems to be begging for a close examination.
Frankly, it's stupid and childish. There's nothing mature about the idea that evil always takes the form of a psychopath or a power-hungry glutton, or that people become soul-dead assassins because something traumatic happened to them once, or that the physically weak are destined to become slaves and die weeping. These are the rules of Akame ga Kill! and they are cheap fictions. I'm not opposed to cheap fictions; they're often fun. However, they're fun when they're self-aware enough not to wear the guise of worldliness or cynical wisdom. I'm not sure that Akame ga Kill! is so aware of itself.
That leaves the show in a gray area. The outrageous battles and sheer momentum of the story assure that it's watchable despite its writing problems, but the juvenile overload of carnage and cruelty masquerading as profundity reeks too much for me to label it a generic popcorn watch. There's plenty of time for it to rally around its strengths and turn itself upright, but whether or not it makes use of that time is anyone's guess.
Akame ga KILL! is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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