by Rose Bridges,
How would you rate episode 1 of
How would you rate episode 2 of
How would you rate episode 3 of
Fujoshi comedies have exploded in number over the last few years, in the wake of cash cows like Free!. However, despite the changes in formula and production values that recent trends have brought to the genre, there have been other versions of it present in anime for decades. Those older precursors are what come to mind for me when watching Nanbaka. Whether it's the gross-out comedy or the wild hairdos, there's something about Nanbaka that feels more 2006 than 2016. Even the title—the name of the prison in the show with "baka" added—feels dated.
Nanbaka's technicolor bishonen are all prisoners at Japan's top-security jail, because they're infamous for breaking out of the world's other best-secured places. You might expect them to act like hardened criminals, but this is a zany comedy, after all. The "numbers" are all goofuses obsessed with different silly things. One loves to eat and fight. Another loves gambling and women. A third one, with big eyes and vibrant green hair, loves anime and Japanese snacks. Finally, main character Jyugo's obsession is jailbreaking itself. He's the most troublesome and complex as a character (or at least, as complex as Nanbaka gets). He has the most potentially interesting backstory. He's also established as bisexual, although I'll be surprised if Nanbaka does anything with that. Jyugo is the voice of reason amongst the goofy crew of Cell 13.
For all the splashiness of their designs, Nanbaka's characters are pretty one-note and stereotypical, which shows no signs of changing as of episode 3. This includes the prison staff: from strict bald Hajime, to his frazzled assistant Seitarou, to warden Momoko. She alternates between intimidating authority and girlish gushing about her crush on Hajime. There are likely more colorfully one-dimensional characters waiting in the wings; we see a few of them in staff meetings. The same is true on the prisoner end. Episode 3 introduces Tsukumo, a trained ninja who distracts all the members of Cell 13—making more trouble for Seitarou. He's another trained escapee who wants to form a rivalry with Jyugo.
Simplistic characters are fine for a zany comedy like this, but what matters is how Nanbaka handles them. It sets itself up in episode 1 to revolve around the characters breaking out of prison every week. To the series' credit, it realizes how repetitive this would be, so it finds other adventures to occupy them for the next two episodes. Unfortunately, these subplots are rarely as strong, relying too much on the thin, repetitive mannerisms of the limited main cast. The series tends to be at its most memorable when it pivots back to a jailbreaking-related plot, as when Tsukumo first arrives. I'm glad that Nanbaka takes chances, but I wonder if the "goofy bishonen in prison" premise even allows for that many new ideas.
It's hard to know how to grade or recommend Nanbaka. It's a pretty standard, successful version of what fujoshi-targeted comedies used to be. If you like that sort of thing, you will love this show. In 2016 though, that audience is spread far more thin than it used to be. There's only so much you can do with Nanbaka's premise and style. If it isn't exactly what you're looking for, it gets stale quickly.
There is a lot to enjoy about Funimation's broadcast dub. Comedies can be particularly tricky to translate, and even in subtitled form, it can feel like a lot is lost. So when an anime comedy gets a strong dub, it's something to really appreciate. It brings me that much more into the show, and Nanbaka's dub is so far, so good.
The cast is largely comprised of newer voice actors, whose credits consist of other Funi broadcast dubs. The big exception to this is Ian Sinclair, who plays surly guard Hajime. He does a great job, and his voice is immediately familiar for better or for worse. If you've seen the dub for Space Dandy, it will be hard not to hear Sinclair's performance through that lens. I loved Sinclair in that show, but Hajime is a much more serious character, who serves as the straight man to Nanbaka's legions of goofballs. Playing him like Space Dandy, with more sarcastic dialogue, changes the tone of the show a bit. I'm not sure how I feel about that change yet; it will take a few more episodes to see.
The inmates are a middle ground between grizzled tough guys and the sillier characters of the Japanese version. It tones down the performances in a way that might not work for some, but it made the show much better for me. I especially liked Justin Briner as Niko. Briner plays him as more awestruck and childlike, rather than the broad chibi caricature he is in Japanese. It makes Niko a far more endearing character to me.
How you feel about the dub will depend a lot on how you feel about the Japanese version's comedy. The dub tones down its excesses, moving it closer to other anime comedy dubs. If that's what you like, you should really appreciate it. Either way, give it a listen.
Nanbaka is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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