The Summer 2019 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
BEM (TV 2019) ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
Though urban fantasy anime have become less common since A Certain Magical Index's heyday, it's still a popular anime genre that tends to feature an entry or two each season. BEM's premiere certainly isn't great, but it's an at least passable example of the form - unfortunately for BEM, this just so happens to be an “or two” season. And when contrasted against this season's similarly “gritty cops fighting fantasy crime” Cop Craft, BEM simply can't compare.
BEM's biggest issue is that it pretty much never looks genuinely good. The show settles for a murky approach to its backgrounds that is likely intended to conceal their unconvincing CG makeup, but mostly just makes it difficult to see anything that's going on. The colors felt washed out throughout this premiere, and when the show attempts to go for a “sleazy nightlife,” it tends to just drench the entire composition in one monotone color filter. There's also little animation, and this first episode's monster looked far more silly than genuinely threatening.
BEM also suffers from a paucity of new or well-executed ideas. This episode's cast of starry-eyed rookies, jaded superior officers, and mysterious vigilantes all felt both familiar and underwritten, and the show's simplistic division of Upper and Outside society felt like what you jot down in your narrative outline before you actually go back and fill in with distinctive names and concepts. Additionally, the seedy underbelly of Outside society never felt convincing; from its drunken revelry to its car-jacking scams to its drug deals, all of the “societal darkness” in this episode seemed scripted by someone who has no experience with and has done no research on criminal activity. All of this made for a particularly harsh contrast with Cop Craft, whose convincing dialogue and strong atmosphere made for one of the strongest urban fantasy premieres in recent memory.
BEM's premiere isn't outright terrible, but there's also not really anything exceptional about it. Perhaps worth a glance if you're a big fan of the genre, but an easy skip otherwise.
It's always nice during Preview Guide Week when a solid offering is tossed out right when things are winding down. I was unaware of the two series' that preceded this latest iteration of the fifty year old franchise, but even going into Bem cold I felt like I was watching a throwback. This premiere felt just like something I'd watch in the middle of a late-night Adult Swim anime rum back in the good old days, nestled right in between reruns of Yu Yu Hakusho and The Big O. It's the best kind of mid-budget B-grade monster movie material, which promises little more than a dose of good, goofy fun (with a smattering of the gruesome stuff, for good measure).
This is the second of the season's shows to be framed as a supernatural police procedural, though I reckon I enjoyed BEM quite a bit more than Cop Craft. Our audience perspective heroine is Sonia Summers, a goodhearted and outspoken officer who has just been transferred to the corrupt slums of the Outside of Libra City for pushing back against her superior officers. The city isn't just tainted by sleazy cops and insidious gangs, though – there are monsters afoot, including a shapeshifting water demon whose only goal in life is to drown as many people as possible. Enter Bem, Belo, and Bela, three mysterious figures who are monsters themselves, though they believe that saving enough humans and hunting down their own kind will allow them to become human themselves. Toss in an evil Professor pulling the strings from afar, and you've got yourself the premise for a solid action anime.
Bem is just as rooted in anime and cop show cliché as Cop Craft was, but it feels less slavish to its inspirations, instead choosing to adopt the general tone of a jazzy action series that would have felt right at home in the early 2000s. LandQ Studios isn't bringing anything especially dazzling to the table, production wise, but there's a consistent sense of personality to Bem that I appreciated all the same. The characters' monster forms are pretty neat, and the action, though brief, gets the job done. The cartoony design of the villain, along with the ample amounts of violence and gore, tell me that Bem isn't trying to take itself too seriously. This is the kind of turn-of-your-brain-and-pop-some-popcorn entertainment that doesn't ask you to expect too much of it, and the story told in this premiere was just solid enough to get me interested in watching more. People looking for sleeker art and more modern sensibilities will likely get more out of the likes of Cop Craft, but don't count Bem out this summer. I'll certainly be giving it the ol' three-episode try myself, and I might just have to check out the franchise's back catalog while I'm at it.
In 1968, a series known in English as Human Monster Bem, about three yokai who seek to become human through their actions, debuted on TV. The series was remade under the same name in 2006 and rebroadcast in 2018, along with two sets of gag shorts, and the franchise also saw live-action TV and movie adaptations in 2011 and 2012. Now the franchise is getting a dramatic stylistic reinterpretation to update its look and feel for the late 2010s and, I suspect, nudge it towards more mature audiences. Based on the first episode, I am convinced that the franchise is going to be successful in this endeavor.
Earlier installments in the franchise look like they were more basic “good-guy monsters fight bad-guy monsters” stories. While that approach does not look like it has entirely changed, it is definitely being expanded upon and becoming more nuanced. This new version focuses on the original trio of Bem, Bela, and Belo in the context of Bem's encounters with Sonia Summers, a “girl scout” of a police detective whom I believe is an entirely new character for the franchise. Despite her horrified reaction to Bem's true form and her attempting to shoot him several times in fear, she's much too conspicuously-placed to not wind up eventually being the trio's contact within humanity. She also provides the vehicle to explore themes of corruption and socioeconomic disparity which can foster a setting where people get turned into literal (instead of just figurative) monsters by a mysterious figure called the Professor. Sonia's idealism about justice is already being sorely tested by things like the bribery which underlays the structure of order in Outside, and now she has to deal with the supernatural as well.
The most notable technical change for this version is that the design of Bela, the one female of the three yokai, has been radically revised. In earlier versions she looked like a fully adult vampiress, but here she has red hair and looks more like a teenager. Belo is still a boy but now has white-and-black instead of bluish hair. The overall visual style is now something more akin to Baccano!, with more muted colors and a much grittier look, and the musical score now leans heavily on jazzy themes. The energetically jazzy opener is a memorable number, and the closer also has its merits. This could be a series whose soundtrack is worth owning.
If you're in the mood for a gritty, modern-looking monster story which skews more towards adults, definitely check this one out. If you didn't know that it was linked to earlier incarnations then you could never tell that it was a remake.
If BEM's first episode reminds you a little bit of GeGeGe no Kitaro, there's a pretty good reason for it – the series' original run dates to 1968, the same year as the first Kitaro anime adaptation. This episode definitely feels like it's trying to be a grown-up version of the 2018 reboot of Kitaro as well: we've got the Kitaro character in Bem, Bela filling the Cat Girl role, and Sonia as Mana. (And, like Mana, Sonia is original to this reboot.) Cynical me says that this is absolutely on purpose as an attempt to piggyback on Kitaro's success; practical me notices that it does work as a hook. And Kitaro-loving me? She says that this is lacking in one very important thing that makes the other show work: something to say. Not that all stories need to have symbolism or some great overarching message, but that's what helps to set Kitaro above the pack, and BEM's first episode seems more like it's just interested in being dark and edgy.
The good news is that it's working on that level. Sonia's refusal to be corrupted by her new assignment in a city run by people all too eager to bow before the all-mighty dollar (or whatever their currency is) is impressive, and I loved when she swatted away the offering of cash that her no-longer-living former partner simply accepted as the way things worked. Knee-jerk reaction of shooting Bem when he appeared before her in his monster form and then transformed into a naked human aside, she's someone who looks as if she's willing to do what it takes to stand her ground, and if Bem approaches her fully-clothed and human(ish), I do think she'll work with him. And he's clearly keeping an eye on her – almost from the moment she drives into town, we see him in the shadows watching her, assessing her actions and wondering if she could be a human police officer he could work with. Bela and Belo seem to doubt her suitability, but I suspect that that's their thing.
The idea of transformation threads its way through the episode, which could lead to interesting themes later on in the series. Bem, Bela, and Belo's wish to become human (through helping humans, a very Hans Christian Andersen move), Bem's transformation into what the Mysterious and Probably Evil Council calls “Alpha,” and even Sonia's refusal to become corrupt and to instead transform the city by her honest actions all speak of desired changes that could come about by the characters' own hands. That may bring what I felt was lacking here plot-wise to the story, and it does make me want to see more and figure out where things are headed. Hopefully BEM can become something more than Gritty Kitaro, because it has the seeds of something interesting.
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