by Paul Jensen,
Karasuma and Nagisa have a few important things in common. They both tend to act as the levelheaded observers of Assassination Classroom, and their inner monologues play a key role in the show's attempts to explore its central themes. The trouble with these sorts of characters is that they tend to fall on the dull side. In a cast full of eccentric personalities, Karasuma and Nagisa are often the least interesting people in any given scene. As a result, trying to build an episode around them presents an interesting challenge. How do you turn a bland observer into a compelling main character?
For a start, it doesn't hurt to have a decent villain for the heroes to face off against. This episode provides exactly that in the form of Takaoka, a seemingly jolly soldier who takes over Karasuma's role as P.E. teacher and drill instructor. He seems like a nice guy until he institutes a brutal new training schedule and beats the snot out of anyone who complains. He treats the class E kids as expendable military recruits, offering a stark contrast to Karasuma's more considerate methods. Karasuma is hesitant to defy orders and side with the students, but that's exactly what he ends up doing.
As a character, Karasuma has been a real closed book in previous episodes. Apart from his occasional commentary on Koro Sensei's teaching style, we haven't gotten many hints as to what's going on in his head. Taking him out of his role as an instructor lets the series show off the conflicting emotions that Karasuma has towards his job. He wants to help the kids kill Koro Sensei and save the world, but the idea of turning them into professional assassins doesn't exactly fill him with pride. Whatever walls he's put between himself and the students come crashing down as soon as Takaoka goes into drill sergeant mode, and we see that Karasuma has become more of a teacher than a soldier. That's a surprising amount of depth for someone who normally just stands around spouting expository dialogue.
When Takaoka agrees to leave if any of the kids can land a single knife blow on him, Nagisa is suddenly pushed into the spotlight. Much like Karasuma, Nagisa's main role has been to serve as the viewer's window into the world of Assassination Classroom. His monologues are often used to tie up storylines in a neat little bow, while his seemingly neutral personality also lets him act as a stand-in for the audience. Well, it turns out that being unremarkable is a useful talent when it comes to sneaking up on overconfident bad guys. We've seen Nagisa turn his killer instincts on and off like a light switch before, but that ability hasn't really been examined in-depth until now. As Karasuma notes, there's something genuinely unnerving about Nagisa's talent for assassination. Not only does that talent make Nagisa a more interesting character, it feels more believable than the absurd tactical genius often ascribed to intellectual heroes in this genre. Rather than pulling some ridiculous strategic masterstroke out of his butt, Nagisa simply makes a single, clever move based on Karasuma's advice and his own observations.
My only major complaint about this episode is that it doesn't bother to throw much nuance into its storytelling. There's never any reason to wonder if Takaoka's teaching style might hold some advantage over Karasuma's, as it's clear from the beginning that we're supposed to hate the new guy. Nagisa's killing talents are also over-simplified in that we don't see him paying any social costs for putting on such an intimidating display. Someone cracks a joke about wondering if they were really looking at Nagisa during the fight, but that's it. A nervous glance or two, especially from some of his close friends, would've given the episode some extra emotional punch. While none of these things prevent this episode from telling an effective story, I wish it had done a better job of getting me to share Karasuma's conflicted feelings.
Assassination Classroom is never quite at its best when it takes on a serious storyline, but that doesn't mean these detours aren't worthwhile. This episode accomplishes its goal of adding some depth to a pair of previously flat characters. As much as I'd like to see it do more, there's a lot to be said for getting the basics right. The fact that this series has never been less than competent is impressive in and of itself.
Assassination Classroom is currently streaming on Funimation.
Paul Jensen is a freelance writer and editor. You can follow more of his anime-related ramblings on Twitter.
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