Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Feb 24th 2014
Jormungand Perfect Order
You can't go selling missiles and attack helicopters around the world and not earn some unwanted attention. Koko has long been the target of Scarecrow, a persistent CIA grunt, but now she's entered the sights of George Black, AKA Book Man. Book Man is a shadowy Agency figure known for his far-reaching machinations, and he has his mind set on manipulating Koko to his own ends. Poor man. In the meantime Koko must deal with a traitor in her ranks, a brutal black ops agent with a vendetta, her own brother, and a wily Japanese spymaster-turned-gunrunner. But none bring quite the challenge that Koko's own actions do, when her long-germinating plans finally bear fruit… and threaten to tear her unit apart.
Picking up where season one left off, Perfect Order takes Jormungand into more complex territory—a dangerous move. Jormungand's charm is its simplicity: hard, fast, nasty action without all the twisty-turny plotting, self-conscious badassery and moral philosophizing that afflicts some anime action. This season finds the series extending its arcs to three episodes and more (a whole five for its final run), weaving certain side-characters and plot threads all through its length, and even taking time to ponder issues of ends justifying means and the human appetite for war. Not good—at least in Jormungand. And yet somehow it remains good dirty fun… just with more ambition and intelligence. There's some trading off involved to be sure, but more than fair in the end.
And, yes, part of what's traded away is the brutal, matter-of-fact action of the previous season's best arcs. There's nothing here to rival the running firefight of the Musica ex Machina arc, and the final five-episode arc features only one action set-piece in the entirety of its run—and not at the end, where you'd expect it. Of course the series has prioritized machinations over action before, and hell, while we're being honest, there was nothing in season one to rival Musica ex Machina's centerpiece either, so this isn't an entirely new thing. Still, between the spy vs. gunrunner mind-games, grand schemes, and general high level of plot, there is a sense that the pure joy of well-built bloodshed has been somewhat neglected.
Certainly the action feels less vital than before. The sequences are shorter and smaller in scale. There seem to be more speed-blurred stills and shortcuts in general. Frightening displays of emotion—Koko leaning madly into a coming rainstorm, or laughing malevolently at the idea that she could know the results of her own actions—displace artfully arranged carnage as the series' most memorable images. Blood still spatters with verve, cars explode nicely, and bombs dive in CG glory. Lonely blues licks serve counterpoint to violence, orchestras underwrite gunfights, and an eclectic mix of rock, rap, and Mideast musical atmospherics ably supports just about any mood. The strange character designs, with their toothy grins and dead sociopath eyes, still make killing look great. And yet it's clear that action isn't the central artistic concern it once was.
That said, this is still recognizably the same show; and that means that any given episode is as likely to devolve into bullet-riddled chaos as it is to detail unfolding plans or character backstory. The first arc explodes on a picturesque European street, as alternating double-crosses leave the sidewalks and rooftops littered with the dead. The second is spiked with dueling assassination plots, and built around a freeway battle. The final arc's one action episode is all muddy jungle warfare, the course of which demonstrates how scary a tactician Koko has become. The action can be swift and visceral (the freeway fight), or darkly funny (a doomed attempt on Koko's brother Kaspar's life), and it almost always hides a cruel sting in its tail. One firefight ends in a tragic duel, and the whole of the second arc is revealed to be one awful, suicidal misadventure—the full extent of which doesn't become clear until the arc's incongruous anticlimax of a conclusion.
And even at its talkiest or most introspective—mostly during the lengthy “New World” arc, but also in the backstory of “Dance With Undershaft” and the explanatory stretches of “Castle of Lies”—the new season has its compensatory joys. Often they come in juicy parts for secondary players. “Undershaft” molds callow ladies' man R into someone far more conflicted and complicated, “Lies” nicely fleshes out the rather square Tojo's history, and throughout it all Book Man shapes up as a tricky, complex, and sometimes changeable foe. He's the rare enemy whose weapons are all intellectual: lying, manipulation, double-dealing, back-stabbing… all the tools of the espionage trade. Wilee gets an episode too, though it's more in line with what season one did: cheerfully amoral backstory coupled with explosive current-day schadenfreude for fleet-footed action nastiness.
More unique to this season is the pure enjoyment afforded by its plotting. The arcs' increased timeframe allows more room for each story to maneuver, which the series uses both to build up Koko's respective opponents and to play around with different kinds of stories. “Undershaft” dabbles in triple-crossing, ripped-from-the-headlines espionage while putting together an antagonist whose history and motivation make her fate as sad as it is satisfying. “Lies” is a mystery masquerading as action, the behavior of its antagonists snapping into focus only when all is revealed. Most enjoyable, however, is “New World.” The monstrous outlines of Koko and Miami's grand stratagem slowly emerging from the fog of secrecy is a thrill of a different kind. And the boldness of the series' final two episodes, in which it plunges unflinchingly into speculative sci-fi, is positively exhilarating.
If you've bought one of Funimation's economy DVD/Blu-Ray sets recently, you know pretty much what you're getting here. That goes for everything from the packaging (four discs in a standard Blu-Ray snap-case) to the Blu-Ray transfer, which is pretty spiffy—some perhaps-intentional graininess aside—and a real asset when the show opens the throttle up. Extras include your usual trailers and clean OPs and EDs, as well as Funimation's standard audio commentaries and an equally unexciting behind-the-scenes video. In them you learn that Christopher Bevins has an awesome bowtie and that Mark Stoddard is a gun nut and that's about it.
The dub extras also give you a good idea of the cast's relationship with each other and the show, which makes it feel a little grinchy to criticize them. But you gotta do what you gotta do. The dub is reasonably respectful, reasonably acted, and reasonably cast. It's reasonably hard to hate. That said, it can really wreck the show. Not because anyone does anything unprofessional—although you get a niggling sense, especially when things get hammy, that the dub team doesn't always get the show—but for the brutally simple reason that the cast can't hack it. They do a perfectly decent job, and decent isn't nearly enough. The dub is simultaneously broader and flatter than the original, acted with (sometimes too much) color but not enough nuance or raw commitment. That's particularly true of Anastasia Munoz, who struggles well with Koko's thorny layers but ultimately can't help flattening her out.
And that's a serious problem. Because the real joy of this season is far simpler than the great supporting ensemble or the thickening plot. It's just Koko. Koko has always been the smiling, ruthless center of the series' universe. But where she was a seductive cipher before—perpetually hidden behind wolves' eyes and a viper's smile, all flirty capriciousness and razor-sharp wits—she takes on human dimensions here. She is shocked into indecision; scarred by tragedy; driven to terrifying rage. We see something of what made her who she is, see her worry and crack and betray weakness. And we see her channel it all into her final plan; a plan that makes perfect sense given her upbringing and personality… and also brings boiling to the surface the madness that they have bred. What do you call a woman who aspires to godhood but a madwoman?
The series doesn't deign to judge her—it makes it clear that she's embraced her own villainy, and that her evil methods won't necessarily fulfill her lofty goals, but it leaves judgment up to us. Is Koko a savior? A terrorist? Both? The ending gives no answers. It can be read as Koko's triumph over a world of war, or it could be used to reinterpret the whole series as an inside look at the creation of a team of world-dominating supervillains—the kind that anime heroes spend their careers trying to dethrone. Koko even has a throne by the end. Not that that settles the question. Either way, she deserves one
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Eye-opening final act; strong plotting and characterization all around; excellent development for Koko.
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