MARS RED
Episode 4

by Steve Jones,

How would you rate episode 4 of
MARS RED ?

This week, MARS RED compounds its vampire-tinged military intrigue, further explores the tensions of the Taisho period, and takes some cues from zombie flicks. It's also a messier episode than the previous three. Tonally, it's all over the place, and the same goes for its various plot threads, which only seem to grow more tangled as time goes on. Under the surface, however, we can still find the meditations and artistic references that drew me to the series in the first place, and they continue to hint at the greater thematic ambitions of the story and these characters.

Each episode so far has featured a tragic vampiric couple at the center of its activity: Misaki and Maeda, the lovers who met their end at the hands of Code Zero, Yamagami and his wife, and now Suwa and Akesato. Each of the prior couples also featured an allusion to a past work of art that served as a metaphoric foundation for their romance and tragedy. In that respect, Suwa and Akesato are unique, because their tragedy is that they share no art to bind them together. It's appropriate in the sense that, unlike the prior couples, these two aren't lovers as much as they're both children thrust into similarly horrible circumstances that they are both similarly reluctant to leave. Akesato is a prostitute at 15, but she feels like the brothel life protects her from the “vampires” of the outside world. Suwa has been a vampire for 300 years, and Code Zero is probably the closest thing he'll ever find to a “normal” life. Despite their similarities, however, they each possess too much of a barrier—and too much of a gap in experience—to fully connect. Akesato asks Suwa for a song, and he has none to give her.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, this episode also has some of the goofiest material yet. With each subsequent mission, Code Zero seems less like a military unit and more like a dad trying to reign in his rowdy vampire children. And I do have to admit, that's a dynamic I'm quite fond of. In addition to providing comedic relief, it also lines up with the military's belief that Code Zero is dead weight they can't slough off quickly enough. This is a lot more interesting to me than having another super huge and super powerful top secret squad with a long history and as much money as they require. Code Zero is a scrappy group of misfits cobbled together from the few vampires they could sucker into joining it. Nakajima has grand ambitions of an army unit that can prevent further senseless losses of life on the battleground, but the reality is he's being humored by his superiors, not listened to. While intra-military politics are hardly high octane excitement, I hope we see more of this angle. Plus, it turns out that the salt-and-pepper-haired guy is also in cahoots with the freshly-introduced vamp Rufus Glenn, so it's possible there's more potential excitement here than I give it credit for.

The current string of vampire incidents keeps tracing back to these vials of the Takeuchi-dubbed V Virus, which we learn this week are being imported from Britain. It's hard not to read some East versus West tension into a group of British vampires trying to turn all of Tokyo into vamps like them, especially when the Taisho period was such a flashpoint for Western modernization. MARS RED, however, doesn't seem to be interested in taking sides. For one, it shows us that the British undead legion is not a monolith, with Deffrot sternly scolding Rufus about turning Tokyo into a hunting ground. Deffrot's overall allegiances are still unclear, but he clearly has affection for Tokyo and some of its denizens (Shirase in particular). This episode also highlights the cruelty under the surface of the bustling red-light district of Yoshiwara. Girls as young as 15 are forced to work, and dead sex workers are dumped at a rundown temple for disposal (likely a reference to Jokanji, where tens of thousands of prostitutes were buried). There's no “correct” solution to the conflict between tradition and modernity; the only cetainty is the conflict itself.

At first, I thought this episode broke the pattern and didn't call out a specific art allegory, but there is indeed another obvious one: Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel. While it's not as easy to draw conclusions from as, say, a play about a severed head, it still fits thematically into the transitory period of MARS RED. Wright's design of the hotel is frequently praised as a synthesis of Western and Eastern aesthetics—built, for instance, in the Maya Revival style, but using material like locally-sourced volcanic rock. Its emphasis in this episode is also a loud indication of where we can expect MARS RED's story to be going. In the show's timeline, it's currently the summer of 1923, and construction on the hotel is finishing up. It's due to open on the first of September, which is an important date in Japanese history for an even more important reason: it's the day of the Great Kanto Earthquake. Much of Tokyo will be razed to ground, yet the Imperial Hotel will still stand relatively unscathed. There's no way MARS RED won't make a big deal of this, and I can't wait to see how it integrates its melancholic vampires into the horrific disaster.

While there's plenty of interesting thematic fodder to chew on this week, it doesn't quite coalesce into a narrative as strong as its predecessors. Akesato's material suffers the most from a lack of focus. She isn't developed enough to be this week's tragic locus, and furthermore, introducing and killing a 15-year-old sex worker in the span of one episode, just to make Suwa sad, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I expect melodrama from MARS RED, but I also expect it to be a little more sophisticated than that. Regardless, I still can't fault the series for a glut of ambition. Perhaps by frontloading so much material, it is saving room for the big rumbles to come. And if the climax of the season will indeed be the Great Kanto Earthquake, then that is going to be one hell of a rumble.

Rating:

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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