by Christopher Farris,

Black Fox

Black Fox
Rikka Isurugi lives with her grandfather, heir to a legendary ninja clan, and her father, whose technological research she dreams of carrying on. But on her sixteenth birthday, that home she loves is violently ripped from her. Left with no clear path of her own to succeed, Rikka dives into the darkness to pursue a path of revenge. But in hunting down those responsible for her tragedy, she may find others whose involvement was not so malicious, and she'll need to decide if they deserve her vengeance, or if they can instead be offered an empathetic hand of friendship. It's a challenging choice that may also save the soul of the girl who threw everything away to become the Black Fox.

Black Fox initially being intended as a television series before transitioning to a movie some time after its announcement might have been cause for concern. The initial trailers looked exceedingly cool, but were there issues going on behind the scenes that necessitated reworking the format of the project? Thankfully, having seen the premiere of the film, I can report that any worries were unfounded. Black Fox is just as good as it is pretty.

The main thing that jumped out at me about Black Fox was its pointedly familiar plot structure. As much as it's nominally a tale of Rikka seeking revenge, the way things play out is much closer in spirit to a modern superhero blockbuster. The revenge angle is just one component of Rikka's evolution, while the rest of the story's beats form her origin story as she gains the technology and hones the skills to become the titular super-ninja. Other empowered characters around her have their beginnings detailed for good measure, and by the end it's clear that this is definitely just the first chapter of a bigger, longer story. It's hardly at a Cinematic Universe level so far, but the film still has all the polished earmarks of setting up a broader franchise to work from.

If you're familiar (or even tired of) those Superhero Movie beats, then Black Fox's story won't surprise you. The most interesting part of the standard format is in seeing how what started as a television project got truncated into a film. In particular, the extended prologue feels like a TV episode premiere, and the next few sections move at a rather episodic pace. It's still smoothed together to work well as a complete story, but where things have been clipped and cut to run together can result in some pacing wonkiness. For instance, a scene setting up Rikka meeting and befriending Mia is almost immediately followed by Rikka breaking into the facility she lives in and discovering her secret. A weekly airing might have been able to give the setup and payoff some space between each other to breathe, while the movie's pace makes it feel like a perfunctory one-two punch to move these characters into place for the rest of the film. On the other hand, the movie's design lets the story cut more briskly through beats that 20-minute episodes might have needed to drag out.

The movie's familiar formula also keeps it from going to any complex places. Rikka's character development, especially as we get to spend so much time with her during her childhood before getting to the main part of the movie, has the most to chew on. The revenge angle sees her directing her anger at those responsible for her tragedy, rather than lashing out at anyone merely associated who may be victims themselves. It's tied into showing how her healthy upbringing by her father and grandfather taught her empathy, embodied by how she learned to get along with her Animal Drone friends and contrasting with Mia's less idyllic family life. It's solid conceptual stuff about how our connections with others can save us in our darkest times, and extending those same connections to potential new friends can offer them salvation as well.

Conversely, Mia's arc might be the source of more consternation from viewers. It's frustrating, because Mia's situation conveys an effective and unflinching depiction of parental abuse, and a lot of her actions in the story reflect how someone in that situation would react. But from a storytelling perspective, it can be incredibly frustrating to watch Mia use her limited agency to make the same mistakes over and over, with the same screwed-up result every time. As sympathetic as the character comes across, by the final section of the film when she'd made the same naïve decision again, it was prompting groans from the audience over any pity or understanding. This repetition does hurt the pacing of the film, though Mia at least isn't punished unduly for her believably poor reactions to her abuse, as Rikka does help her earn a happy ending.

The other characters all fill out the cast functionally. The main villain, Mia's abusive father, is an appreciably punchable jerk who's also believable as someone who started out with decent intentions but descended hard after feeling slighted too many times for his failures. He's clearly a starting enemy for our heroes to go up against in their journey, with the greater villain teased throughout the film, especially with the ending laying down so many cards for a continuation. Rikka's Animal Drone friends are cute supporting characters that get to do some cool and fun things to supplement her ninja antics. Obero the dog is the clear standout, while the hawk and squirrel feel more interchangeable. And then there's Rikka's roommate Melissa, a standard moe archetype if there ever was one, providing adorable comic relief and surprisingly forming the empathetic link between Rikka and Mia. She seems primed to be the fan-favorite of the film's cast. There is a major spoiler regarding one character that comes out by the end of the movie, but it's blatantly telegraphed about halfway through. It makes sense in-context, but feels like it was only teased out until the very end to serve as another sequel hook. The exact implications it has for the all the characters involved can't be explored due to its last-minute nature, but given how obvious it was to see coming, it may have made more sense to devote time to the twist's fallout and lend the characters a little more depth.

Anyway, even if the story is more formulaic, I don't want my mild criticisms to undercut the main appeal of the movie, which is how it looks. Studio 3Hz's staff knows their way around animated action incredibly well just from the first scene, which starts with a tense stalking section that then catches the audience off-guard by exploding into a flurry of dynamic ninja skills and weapons. Virtually any scene we get of Rikka performing feats of parkour or throwing grappling hooks or bombs around is a treat for the eyes. The comparison to modern superhero movies also lends this film a favorable contrast. Almost none of the action depicted is wasted on jumbles of cuts or too-busy frames. The camera stays centered and focused on everything our heroes are doing, as the keen-eyed direction and storyboarding let us savor all the shinobi-styled splendor. There are a couple points toward the end where some glimpses of action are pointedly unclear, mostly in the name of obfuscating that aforementioned spoiler, but those momentary blips can't detract from the overall thrill-ride experience. It's to the point where you don't mind Mia's repetitive mistakes too much, since they just lead to more explosive action scenes.

The parts of Black Fox that aren't action-driven generally look good as well. The main character designs are sharp and slick without being oversimplified. Some other characters do feel more derivative, especially the villains. The backgrounds do a lively job of bringing the story's oddly westernized cityscape to life, and the direction loves playing with ongoing contrast between the worlds of daylight and nighttime the characters inhabit. Some CGI is utilized for background pedestrians as well as some enemy mecha the characters fight, but the latter is integrated rather well, serving to facilitate more of those delightful ninja antics.

Black Fox is a success because it tailors its structure to suit its strengths. The plot development and ideas are just strong enough to keep us invested in the characters when they're flipping around and shooting lightning at each other. Its core structure is well-worn in this day and age, but it provides a dutiful framework to build all this appealing entertainment on, and I can't overstate how fun it is to watch once it gets going. On its own, this is a blast of an anime action movie, and as the kick-off to a longer franchise, it's a promising start to see what other fun stuff might lie in store.

Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A+
Art : A
Music : B

+ Outstanding animated action scenes, Rikka is an appealing lead with a solid character arc
Boilerplate story structure, Mia's arc can be repetitive and frustrating, one major twist is telegraphed too hard yet underdeveloped

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Production Info:
Chief Director: Kazuya Nomura
Director: Keisuke Shinohara
Series Composition: Naoki Hayashi
Music: Masaru Yokoyama
Character Design: Atsushi Saito
Art Director: Yūji Kaneko
Mechanical design:
Kenji Andou
Fumihiro Katagai
Sound Director: Jin Aketagawa
Director of Photography: Yu Wakabayashi

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Black Fox (TV)

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