Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Black Rock Shooter
Episodes 1-8 Streaming
It's Mato Kuroi's first year of middle school, and like most students, she wants to make new friends. She turns her attention to classmate Yomi Takanashi, but standing in the way is Yomi's childhood friend Kagari, who has an emotional strangehold on Yomi. Can Mato clear the air between them—and help Yomi out when other personal issues come to the surface? Meanwhile, in an alternate world, female warriors who strongly resemble Mato and her friends are constantly at war. They take on the suffering of their real-world counterparts, but when the pain becomes too great, the results can be permanently damaging. After Yomi loses her grip on reality, Mato finally learns of the other world—and how her role as the cannon-wielding "Black Rock Shooter" could decide the fate of her friends...
First it was a character illustration. Then it was a Vocaloid song, and an accompanying music video. Then it was an OVA, a line of figurines, and a video game. But here, at last, is Black Rock Shooter in its most complete form: a TV series where psychedelic sci-fi trip and coming-of-age drama cross paths. This unlikely combination is surprisingly effective, if a little unbalanced at the end—but then again, it's not every day that animators try to express the complexity of youth through an epic end-of-the-world metaphor. Visually stunning and emotionally affecting, Black Rock Shooter runs shorter than the average anime season, but it will be remembered long afterward.
Those expecting an instant blockbuster may be disappointed by the series' slow start, where ordinary schoolgirls go about doing ordinary schoolgirl things. But that initial low-key approach is ultimately why the story succeeds: it takes time to set the foundation of who these characters are, how they relate to others, and how they tackle personal problems. How many times have we seen an action anime and thought, "That looked really cool, but it was hard to care about the characters"? Conversely, this story (penned by none other than star screenwriter Mari Okada) does make the viewer care, with day-to-day scenes of friendship, struggle, rejection, and even emotional abuse. And it's not like the characters are just one-note stereotypes in conflict with each other—as the middle episodes develop, we see that villains can be redeemed, and that apparent "nice guys" may be hiding deep-seated issues. Even Mato, the heroine of the series, is not entirely a pure-hearted messiah: her well-meaning friendliness can also be a weakness, as the later episodes reveal.
Once the series crosses over with "the other world," however, some of that subtle character development gets lost in the noise. Episodes 3-5 strike the right balance between schoolyard drama and gun-toting pyrotechnics, but as the end approaches, it tips too far toward the action side. The final battle ends up stretched over the length of two episodes, while flashbacks fill in technical details about the other world and the metaphysics of these mysterious fighting girls. Basically, it makes the mistake of most other high-concept anime: it gets bogged down trying to show off all these mind-bending ideas (Mato becomes Black Rock Shooter? One is inside the other's body? What?), when everyone just wants to watch the epic final fight. Fortunately, the emotional investment from earlier in the story makes this bloated battle worth sitting through, to see if the girls make it out okay in the "real world."
Of course, there's also the eye candy that makes the finale worth it. From the very first episode, the series puts on a grand display in the alternate dimension: haunting backgrounds, striking camera angles, seamless animation, and an imaginative variety of weapons. (We'll forgive the silliness of Kagari's explosive macaroons, since they do tie in to an early plot point.) But most important are the character designs themselves—instantly iconic, and not just because of all the figurines and cosplayers. Equipped with unusual clothes and accessories, Black Rock Shooter and her compatriots have a dark, surreal edge that makes them stand out: the kind of girls you regard with awe, rather than just as pretty faces for selling merchandise. The "real world" visuals are not as impressive, however, as Mato and her middle-school friends are drawn according to typical moe standards. Even more disappointingly, a number of slice-of-life moments seem to have been handed off to a lesser animation team, as proven by character inconsistencies and a choppy sense of motion.
If there's anything more iconic than the lead character herself, though, it's Black Rock Shooter's eponymous theme song—the supercell and Hatsune Miku hit with its soaring melody and galloping rock beat. Catchy as it may be, however, the 90-second opener obviously doesn't measure up to the impact of the original full-length version. But there's more to the series than just that song: the background music also covers a wide range, with piano-centric gloominess during real-world scenes and the grandeur of a full orchestra during battles in the other world. An avoidance of cheerful melodies also helps the series maintain its dramatic edge—Mato and her friends' personal problems would be a lot harder to take seriously if they suddenly switched to a happy-go-lucky mood at school.
Because of its origin as a fan-driven, mixed-media frachise, there's always the risk that a full Black Rock Shooter series would turn out to be a messy, incoherent bunch of ideas. But this bunch of ideas—a character, a song, a premise—ends up as a satisfying story in itself, with down-to-earth elements tied in to a more fanciful sci-fi setting. The main characters' tumultuous relationships provide something to emotionally connect to, so that even when the ending goes overboard with pseudoscience and philosophy, Mato and her friends are still worth caring about. The animation has its glitches here and there, but is a wonder to behold during the battle scenes, with unforgettable images that won't be replicated anytime soon. So don't discount it just because the franchise has been marketed to within an inch of its life: as a TV series, Black Rock Shooter is a work of substance and truth.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ One of the rarest breeds of anime: a visually stunning, high-concept piece that also happens to have a poignant story and relatable characters.
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