by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 5 of
MARS RED ?
Twists and backstabs abound in this fifth episode of MARS RED, which feels more like a late-season acceleration than a light midseason jaunt. However, the series' exceptional eye for mise-en-scène tempers these developments from what could have been a cascade down the stairs into a grand parting of the curtain. The world of MARS RED, full of vampires and military politics, already seemed plenty big, but now it looks a lot more complex, and it's all the better for it.
Maeda wakes up in the hospital after collapsing from exhaustion at the end of last week's mission. This portends poorly for his long-term survival, but it certainly wouldn't be the first time I've seen a stern dude cope with loss by having a death wish. Appropriately, the specter of Misaki returns both to comfort and torment him as he pours over their letter correspondences. Her last message, written in blood, stabs right through Maeda's (and my own) heart. Conversely, the episode's first bombshell passes by with nary a comment: Misaki was Lieutenant General Nakajima's daughter. While this isn't news to Maeda, for the audience, it colors his relationship with her and his superior officer in far more complicated hues. I highly recommend rewatching their first scene together from episode one (timestamp about 10:30), because knowing Misaki is both Maeda's fiancée and Nakajima's daughter reveals so much—notice, for instance, how Nakajima is the one to suggest killing her, which blindsides Maeda. Her letter, however, suggests that her father's pursuit of an immortal vampire unit came at the cost of much of his humanity. This episode's events also support that.
I don't like to spend too much time on plot summaries in my reviews, but given how much MARS RED expects the viewer to read in between the lines, I think it's worthwhile to break down this episode in particular (or at least provide my best guess). There's a lot going on! To begin, Okimura's clandestine meeting with Rufus last episode turns out to have been in relation to the aristocratic S-rank vamps from the opening scene. Using Rufus as a liaison, Okimura planned to import these powerful British vampires in order to create his own undead unit and undermine Nakajima's plan for a homegrown one. The military writ large was on board with this, ordering Special Forces Unit 16 to dissolve by the end of summer. However, this backfires because Rufus was a double agent in allegiance with Nakajima all along. Together, they orchestrate the incident on Yokohama, where Rufus poisons the haughty S-rankers while Nakajima's armored vampire platoon cleans up their mindless leftovers. They probably couldn't handle the strongest vampires, which is why Nakajima (presumably) conspired with Rufus to take them out via subterfuge, although admittedly I'm just working off contextual clues there. Regardless, the gambit works, and Nakajima kills Okimura to cover his tracks (and possibly so he can use Okimura as a patsy for the Yokohama incident).
The plot is undoubtedly twisty, but its themes are no less complex. Nakajima's obsession with an immortal military unit has a high price, and Misaki noticed it changing him before she was turned. The Code Zero team also comment on the blunt fascism of the platoon's appearance and methods. Nakajima might have started with noble intentions, but he's on a dangerous slide downwards. That's not to say Okimura's plan was much better, though. The S-ranked British vampires aren't soldiers, but haughty and hedonistic aristocrats eager to use Tokyo as their new feeding ground. They're opportunists who couldn't care less about protecting citizens. Rufus's interactions with them also reveal how ingrained the class system is, adding a tinge of righteous rebellion to his betrayal. Rufus, however, doesn't seem to be a good dude either. Instead, it's Defrott, the most mysterious and powerful vamp in the series so far, who exhibits the most compassion for humanity. He confirms this week that he tried to save Misaki with his own blood, and later he decries the savagery perpetrated in the streets of Yokohama. As unlikely a pair the two make, he might be the closest ally Maeda has right now.
Of course, a big lingering question is where Code Zero fits into all of this. If Nakajima has a whole army of creepy undead soldiers decked out in full steampunk armor, why does he need this small group of knuckleheads running around? It's a question they ask themselves, with no obvious answer available. Maeda is just as much in the dark, currently preoccupied with his memories of Misaki, but probably not on board with such an unsavory application of brute force. Personally, I'm delighted to see the conflict already navigate away from Code Zero versus rogue vampires and towards Code Zero versus the military itself. That's a rich set of topics to explore, especially at this particular time in Japan's history, when it's so embroiled in international politics amidst its own domestic tensions. MARS RED doesn't seem interested in easy answers either, given how much backstabbing and shadiness we see on both fronts. Code Zero's familial camaraderie, therefore, is an important outlier.
MARS RED's pattern of literary references also holds this week, giving us two very appropriate ones. When greeting Maeda, Defrott mentions the biblical story of Cain and Abel, which certainly fits this episode's long chain of betrayals and murders. Cain, interestingly, also has some potential ties to the concept of vampirism. God curses Cain to live a long life, so that any who would try to harm him would instead be harmed themselves, and it's not difficult to extrapolate that into the kind of cursed immortality vampires experience at the cost of others. Furthermore, Defrott blurs the identities of the two brothers, asking Maeda which role he will be playing. We've seen vampires be both perpetrators and victims, so they are not so easily distinguished either. Defrott also quotes Hamlet towards the end of the episode, which similarly fits the themes of political and personal betrayal happening on and off this week's stage.
Despite how much stuff goes down in these twenty minutes, MARS RED sustains its hypnotically laconic pacing. From the airy yet sinister lilt in the lady vampires' manner of speaking, to Code Zero's slow boat ride into the fray, the series loves to languish—making it much less an action show and much more a patient gothic drama. This episode also exhibits an especially strong sense of mise-en-scène, arranging the characters and setting in striking and meaningful ways. Consider how much of the lady vampires' cruelty comes through their poses with their boy victims, holding and manipulating them like dolls, or the way their shadows are later framed next to the blood concoction that poisons them. MARS RED uses its limited animation in smart ways, focusing on the creation of striking still images, or taking shortcuts in ways that complement the material (like the unsettling way Defrott teleports around Maeda in the theater scene).
I'm still loving pretty much everything MARS RED is giving me. If it keeps upping the dramatic ante like this, I can hardly bring myself to complain. There is, of course, always the risk of it biting off more than it can chew in terms of its themes and ties to real history, but so far I think it's proven itself nuanced and critical enough to make these grandiose gestures towards big questions like personal and national allegiances. I have a lot to think about while I wait for the next episode, and that's always a good thing.
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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