Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Blood Blockade Battlefront & Beyond
Three years ago, a catastrophe known as the Great Collapse left New York City utterly destroyed. In its place stood Hellsalem's Lot - a city floating between worlds, where humans now mingle with strange creatures from the realms beyond. Keeping the peace in such a city is no easy task, but the secret organization Libra have dedicated themselves to ensuring this strange metropolis survives. Libra's newest member Leo is no longer a stranger to this place, but Hellsalem's Lot is always full of surprises. Leo and his friends are always scrambling to protect the wildest city in the world!
When I initially heard Rie Matsumoto wouldn't be returning to direct Blood Blockade Battlefront's second season, my expectations for the show sharply dropped. Matsumoto's Kyousogiga is one of the most creative and visually dazzling anime of recent years, and it'd been a thrilling experience to see her apply those aesthetic sensibilities to Yasuhiro Nightow's bombastic manga. And indeed, when the new season's first episode premiered, I grimly noted the reduction in creative layouts and overall homogenization of show aesthetic, and decided the show was just not for me any more.
For quite a while, that was that - but having returned to the show to review it in full, I've been forced to grapple with my own preconceptions about what Blood Blockade Battlefront is supposed to be. And in the end, I'm forced to admit an unexpected truth - Blood Blockade Battlefront is quite likely better without Matsumoto's auteur presence.
The show's first season was essentially a compromise between two different stories. One, the story Nightow originally wrote, was a rude and rowdy series of episodic capers starring the diverse members of the crime-fighting Libra organization. Dedicated to defending a city suspended between worlds, their adventures proceeded like an irreverent, hyperactive version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. These adventures prioritized action and style over all else, while still finding time to highlight the humanity and common bonds between the Libra members.
The second story, which Matsumoto added, concerned the two siblings Black and White. This story proceeded somewhat similarly to her prior Kyousogiga (Kyousogiga's heroine even shares White's voice actor), focusing closely on the complexity of family ties, and leaning heavily on intimate, beautifully executed character moments. This story culminated in a cataclysmic adventure that embraced Nightow's use of “Blood Breed” vampires as central antagonists, pitting Libra against an enemy of biblical proportions.
Though each of those stories had their merits, neither benefited from the other's presence, and they often actually undercut each other. The Libra stuff made Black and White's story feel meandering and unfocused, while at the same time, the sibling story kept Libra's principle members often feeling like background characters. It was an awkward compromise reflective of incompatible goals, and resulted in a somewhat lopsided first season. Rei Matsumoto is genuinely one of my favorite directors, but attempting to paint within the lines of another artist may not be one of her strengths.
With Matsumoto having been replaced by Shigehito Takayanagi, a man who actually served as an assistant director on Nightow's prior Trigun, season two's priorities are absolutely clear. Beyond proceeds as a series of standalone adventures starring all of Libra's diverse members, generously doling out star turns to Chain, KK, and even Gilbert the butler. While maintaining many of Matsumoto's strong visual concepts, it embraces the gleeful absurdity of life in Hellsalem's Lot, bouncing from adventure to adventure while fleshing out the sympathetic nature of Libra's stars. In short, it feels like the show Blood Blockade Battlefront always wanted to be.
The majority of Beyond's episodes tend to focus on one or two priority Libra members, giving us some insights into their personal life while tethering those stories into ongoing Libra adventures. These vignettes are almost universally compelling, and full of great, funny concepts that build on this show's intriguing mythology. Chain's episode embraces her nature as an “invisible werewolf” to introduce a squad that is essentially the werewolf version of Charlie's Angels, while Zapp spends an episode trying to find a cat so a witch won't make his junk explode. In one particularly memorable episode, sniper KK must try to balance work and family as she attempts to run fire support while also attending parent's day at her son's school. In spite of its fundamentally comical premise, that episode actually hones in on the inherent tensions of parenting with incredible acuity, resulting in one of the most emotionally impactful episodes the show has seen.
In terms of art design, Beyond feels like a step down from the first season, but still a far above-average production by any metric. Hellsalem's Lot is an inherently enthralling visual concept, the city brimming with sprawling gothic architecture, bustling traffic, and inventive monster designs. I felt the color work was too consistently desaturated to really let the designs pop, but the show is still full of interesting visual ideas and dynamic layouts. And the animation fares similarly - there aren't as many lengthy standout cuts of fight animation, but fights still proceed with a great sense of fluidity, aided by the active direction. Plus, Libra “battles” aren't really about the clash of blows - they're essentially crime capers, where the fun comes through seeing how Libra will plot and collaborate to topple some unbeatable foe.
Beyond's sound design is also strong throughout. Hellsalem's Lot is brought to life through a diverse mixture of jazz, rap, big band, electronic, and rock songs, shifting its musical texture to fit the tone of whatever madness we're witnessing. The first episode even includes an alien dude who raps an explanation of the show's backstory, and the show leans on the natural sounds of the city whenever possible. The english dub is also quite appealing, featuring consistently convincing performances and blessed by a very punchy adaptive script (“you are one more thunderfart in this shitstorm that I do not need”).
Blood Blockade Battlefront & Beyond comes in a standard slipcase and bluray case, with the season on both bluray and DVD. There are no physical extras, and the digital extras are fairly limited as well - just the clean opening and ending, some promotional materials, and a dub commentary track for that KK episode. On the whole, while Beyond lacks some of the visual excellence and narrative focus of the prior season, it more than makes up for that in its array of fun, inventive action vignettes. Not every episode is great (the two-parters in particular both drag), but the balance is more than good enough to earn an easy recommendation. If you're looking for whimsical and well-executed adventures, Hellsalem's Lot is the place to be.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Diverse and exciting mix of adventure vignettes that do a great job fleshing out Libra's many engaging members
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