by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 12 of
MARS RED ?
Regardless of whether or not the series has “earned” them, I'm still delighted each time MARS RED uses arthouse indulgences to communicate. In that sense, this week's episode begins auspiciously, with Rufus conducting an invisible orchestra as his clunky steampunk vampire boys wreak havoc, set to the evocative strings of Vivaldi. It's cartoonishly villainous—down to the cliché choice of classical music—but then again Rufus has turned out to be a pretty cartoonish villain (i.e. the titular “King of Fools”). It also does a good job setting the stage for this penultimate installment's narrative, showing us Rufus' braggadocio, Ayame's melancholy, and the destruction of Tenmanya's hideout in short and fiery succession. I can't deny that it's cheesy, but I also can't deny that it raised my spirits, heralding an episode that does an admirable job tying a tangle of plot threads together for next week's eventual conclusion.
Rufus is our focal character this time around, and at 12 episodes in, even the most compelling context wouldn't be able to salvage his undercooked presence in the narrative so far. And to be frank, MARS RED doesn't provide any context I'd consider “most compelling.” However, I do feel like I now have a better grasp of his place in this story and its themes, so to that extent, I appreciate this last-minute look at our King of Fools.
He has one line of dialogue that pretty much sums up his motivation: “Everyone stronger than me should just burn.” The series hasn't explored or interrogated its vampiric hierarchy as much as I would've liked, but Rufus makes sense as a low-ranking vampire lashing out at the boot that trampled him. It was easy, for example, to sympathize with him when he conspired to poison the undead noblewomen back in the series' first half. However, Rufus can't see beyond this hierarchical framing, and instead of rebelling against that boot, he chooses to wear it. He's a fool playing the part of a king—consciously so, in a sense, but also blinded by his own hubris. Nakajima's vampire units are fundamentally defective and keep whittling down their own numbers, but Rufus still believes they're his ticket out of servitude and into the ranks of the new global elite. It's fitting, then, that Defrott takes him down not with a show of strength, but by teasing Rufus with his own delusions. The ground finally gives way underneath his feet, and he falls to his deserved doom.
Ayame is Rufus' more sympathetic counterpart in this episode. She'd been hinted to be a traitor before, and it makes more sense now that we know Rufus was the one who turned her, but it also falls in line with her more cynical outlook on life. While Rufus turned his despair into megalomania, Ayame embraces self-destruction, betraying the location of the one place that accepted her, and flirting with the idea of complete annihilation. The humanlike paradox of vampires is that their immortality is as flimsy as a drawn curtain on a porthole. Suwa, thankfully, rescues Ayame from her own thoughts. Their scene together is my favorite of the episode, and probably one of my favorite of the whole series. Amidst all the vampiric flair and military conspiracy, here we get a simple confirmation of these two outcasts' shared humanity, stated and embraced in defiance of their curse. It's tender and genuine, and I think it best reflects MARS RED's heart. Even if Ayame can't bring herself to go back to the people she betrayed, Suwa will make sure she doesn't have to face the rest of the world alone.
Shirase and Kurusu's relationship, on the other hand, is destined to be more ephemeral. Unsurprisingly, Shirase finds herself right at home in Tenmanya's relocated refugee camp, but despite her reunion with her estranged childhood friend, we can infer that Kurusu has kept his distance during her entire recovery. He's come into his own as the protagonist of post-quake MARS RED, using his powers to protect his fellow vamps, but he still hasn't fully embraced his new undead life. Whether it's true or not, he tells Shirase that he has yet to drink blood; he wants to hold onto as much humanity as he can, presumably for her sake. In other words, they go through all the classically tragic vampire/human relationship beats—can't grow old, different lifespans, etc. It's more cliché than I would've liked, but their scene holds together because of the time we've spent with the two of them over the course of the season. I still want them to be happy together. And although Shirase is uncharacteristically acquiescent at first, Tenmanya is there to remind her of MARS RED's main thematic point: vampires are human at the end of the day. Chase that boy down, girl! Just please try not to get stabbed by Maeda.
In spite of the disappointing and lumbering framework of MARS RED as a whole—especially in its second half—I retain my fondness for the anime thanks to its ability to deliver isolated moments of emotional and/or artistic resonance. Sometimes it manifests as an allusion to a great canonical work of art, and sometimes it's just a heartfelt scene between two likeable characters, but either way, they've been consistent enough to keep my interest going. Weirdly, though, I can't tell you whether I think MARS RED has been too ambitious or not ambitious enough. It's thrown a lot of ideas at us, rooted both in vampire lore and in the anxieties of the Taisho period, but most of those themes haven't been developed as much as I would've liked. Maybe MARS RED should have tried to tell a simpler story with tighter development, or maybe it should have gone wild in the other direction, being as obtuse and indulgent as possible. As it is, MARS RED isn't anywhere near the best version of itself. It is, however, a rewarding aesthetic experience all the same, and even if I weren't reviewing it, I'd still be here to watch it to the end.
MARS RED is currently streaming on Funimation.
Steve is hungry for anime and on the prowl for Revenge this season. Learn about this and more (i.e. bad anime livetweets) by following him on Twitter.
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