The Spring 2014 Anime Preview Guide Riddle Story of Devil
Review: At first, I wanted to reach out to Riddle Story of Devil, hold its hand gently, and whisper "Sweetheart, you don't have to try so hard." The score lances into hysterics and overwrought discord at every opportunity, abusing monochromatic "red means evil" closeups of teen killers and static-filled nightmare sequences bathed in blood and mystery. It's reaching for the same "cuteness mixed with horror" aesthetic that has worked so well for myriad other anime series, but with an embarrassing lack of restraint. By the time the camera starts lingering over a naked assassin girl floating through a red-soaked tub filled with hundreds of rubber duckies, I was exhausted from the relentless tryhard. It's all foreboding and protracted setup, but very little plot. Give me a story and characters to care about like Higurashi, and maybe then all that ominous slavering will have some bite.
However, the more and more it went on, with more plot details revealed and characters explored, I started to change my mind. Riddle Story of Devil could stand to try a lot harder on a script level, back to basics, before it expects anybody to buy its half-baked almost-story. The "Black Class," the tiny special unit of high school female assassins the story revolves around, seems like a unit outside of all reason, created only to slap a bunch of hot murderous teenage girls together. Where is this impossible institution? How did they get the funds to operate in the middle of a city in plain view in a giant building without suspicion? Why do they put one normal girl in the "class" for everyone to kill? Where do they get her? Can't this new girl tell something's up? (Oh, who are we kidding, it's not the sweet, innocent girl the episode tries to tell us that it is, it's our aloof protagonist who has amnesia or some junk.) On that note, wouldn't many of these girls already know each other, working in the underworld? You want to just say "it's fantasy, ignore it," but Riddle Story of Devil's premise seems so separate from any reality, even the one it has built for itself. All you can think is "this exists to get horny guys' juices flowing," which is a flooded market for storytelling in anime right now, that's for sure.
That brings us to the characters, which are all puerile and slightly uncomfortable fetishistic stereotypes made to appeal to male otaku, from the precocious lolita to the noble oujo-sama clad in a corset. Therefore, this is clearly lesbian lovin' for a straight male audience like Sakura Trick, and not yuri in the more niche sense, which is probably why it has a passable budget. Even if these characters are given compelling and tragic backstories, the stink of their pinup personalities will never fully wash away. Even the most meaningful kiss between our butch heroine and her lily-like love interest will be haunted with the specter of male gaze. Riddle Story of Devil is more watchable the less you think about it, so it feels like you are actively encouraged not to think.
It's not an unpleasant watch. Sensationalism has its place and is always a better waste of your time than stale boredom, but Riddle Story of Devil still feels like a waste of time so far. But if you've been waiting for a subtlety-free tale of girl on girl savagery and seduction, this anime has you covered, provided you can swallow the mountain of painful contrivances in its wake.
Rating: 3 (out of 5)
Azuma Tokaku, who really doesn't want you to call her by her given name, is a cold, apparently merciless student assassin. She excels in her deadly studies, but for some reason her teacher seems not to like her very much. That might be part of the reason why she finds herself on a mission to Myoujyou Academy, an elite school that has a special class known as the “black class.” Azuma has been told that one girl in the class is her target; the other students are all assassins too. But which girl is the victim? The first episode tries really hard to have you believe that it's cheerful and naïve Haru, Azuma's roommate, but she might not be who (or what) she seems. Will Azuma figure out what's going on?
Personally, I'm hoping that Azuma herself turns out to be the victim – it would be a nice twist on what looks like an enjoyable but fairly cut-and-dry story about teen girls trying to kill each other. There are interesting details scattered throughout the episode, like the fact that one of the target cut-outs Azuma is practicing on is holding a child by the hand, or the sinister scars on Haru's legs, to say nothing of repeated imagery that implies that Azuma is trapped. Her cold and emotionless state seems to be less her personality and more self-defense, which could grow into a good plot point. Unfortunately the other girls in the story really fall into very common types, from the pseudo-loli (really, she's not in elementary school!) to the scantily clad bitch, to the weird one with two personalities, one of which only emerges at night. They bring the story down in their lack of creativity, not to mention the sheer amount of named characters introduced here, although visually they're all interesting. The background music tries a little too hard to be dark and creepy, as do the rest of the visuals, but nothing is enough to seriously detract from the rest of the show.
Riddle Story of a Devil could either truck on down the tried-and-true route or it could do something different. This first episode really makes it seem like either is a possibility, and the fact that it's fairly absorbing in and of itself is enough to put this in the “give it another episode” category.
Review: It's tough being a fan. Say you're a fan of yuri, and not a whole lot of it gets produced in the world of anime. That means sometimes you'll wind up sticking with almost any show, no matter how cruddy, if there's a chance it'll serve up some of that sweet yuri goodness. That's true of fans of every stripe of course, be they BL fans or romance fans or whatever, but I mention yuri here because it's the yuri fans who are going to take it on the chin with this one.
The setup: At a special school there's a special class called the Black Class. This class is populated entirely by assassins, with one exception. One student is just a normal student. No one knows who it is, and everyone is tasked with killing her. (And it is a her. The class is all girls.) Azuma is one of the assassins, an ice-cold killer of exceptional skill. She sniffs out the girl who is (most likely) the target immediately: sweet, open Haru. But there's a problem. When she looks at Haru she gets all of these… feelings.
We can take certain things for granted: Azuma will fall for Haru. Both of them will have terribly, terribly sad pasts. Boyish Azuma will have to protect girly Haru from all of the bad, bad girls in the class. None of which is necessarily bad, especially if you're on the hunt for that sweet yuri goodness. The problem is the show's tone. It's forced and stilted, in a way that doesn't imply purposeful stylization so much as a show that's trying waaaaaaaaaaaaay too hard to be badass. Everyone is always smiling psychotically and posing for the camera. The performances are keyed up to 11 at all times, the evil girls spitting venom and screaming their crazy-talk, Haru oozing treacle, and Azuma whispering frosty intimidation at every provocation. Watching is like being stabbed in the brain with a cool-stick for twenty minutes. Pass.
Rating: 3.5 (of 5)
Review: Tokaku, who has the unfortunate surname of Akuma (i.e., “devil”), has been trained since a young age to be assassin, and indeed she has proved to be quite talented: fast, dexterous, and skilled with throwing knives. For that reason she is assigned to the infamous Year 10 Black Class at prestigious Myoujou Academy, a class where all but one of her fellow students are girls who have also been trained since birth to be assassins. The only other girl is her target, while the rest of her classmates will have their own objectives. When she arrives on campus, the first classmate she meets is the girl who turns out to be her roommate: Haru Ichinose, a cheery girl who makes quite an initial impression on Tokaku, in part because she doesn't smell like the others, who more distinctly give the vibe of killers and thus have rotten smells to Tokaku. Haru also has some odd scars on her legs, provokes a memory from Tokaku's past, and has an unexpected answer to a riddle posed to Tokaku by the man who sent her to Myoujou, about what the world is full of.
This new offering is based on a manga which had only been in publication for a year or so when production on the anime started, which makes one wonder how far beyond its source material it will eventually go. Both its opener and nature of certain shots in it give off a strong yuri vibe, which suggests that this will eventually end up being a story about Tokaku rebelling against orders to kill Haru and instead defending her from a bunch of psychotic female classmates who will all literally be out to kill her. That's a combination that I don't believe has been done before in anime, and watching it play out could be very interesting if handled right. The director for it is Keizou Kusakawa, whose eclectic credits include most of the Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha franchise, the Asura Cryin'’ and Sekirei franchises, and Day Break Illusion (amongst others), so he is quite familiar with battling girls, and my, does he have a twisted bunch here to work with! Wicked grins and psychotic behaviors abound (is this where yandere girls get trained?), and a creepy musical score does everything it can to ramp up the tension, although it tries too hard at times. Character designs are all very sharp-featured, which is not exactly aesthetically pleasing but does somehow fit the tone of the series. The fan service is also handled in an interesting way, too, as one skirt-flipping scene which would normally be played purely for service has such visual significance for other reasons that it really does not count.
The first episode spends most of its time setting up the premise and introducing the cast, but it drops plenty enough hooks to reel viewers in and shows that, while Tokaku initially comes across as emotionless, there is at least something more to her than just being a killer (unlike, say, Alka in Blade and Soul) and perhaps something more to Haru than just being an innocent girl, too. How bloody will it get? How romantic? Who will die first or betray whom first? Should be fun finding out.
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