Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Riddle Story of Devil
DVD - The Complete Series + OVA [Limited Edition]
Tokaku Azuma is the scion of the Azuma Clan, a family of assassins with a lengthy and impressive lineage. Her latest mission: to join the mysterious Class Black at Myojo Private School, where she and twelve other girls will compete to be the first to kill Haru Ichinose. The winner will have any one wish granted; the losers will be expelled, and class ends when Haru is dead. But as Tokaku meets the other girls and learns about Haru, she finds herself changing her mission – rather than kill Haru, she will protect her...or die trying.
Do you want to be the Queen? It's an interesting cultural phenomenon that girls often proclaim a desire to be “princesses” rather than “queens,” and Riddle Story of Devil plays with that a little bit by bringing up the notion of the Queen Bee, absolute ruler of the hive. She's not a benevolent ruler and the drones will do anything to protect her – but do they have a choice, or is it all manipulation? The idea of “wants to” versus “made to” is one that permeates this action series from 2014 and helps it to rise above the basic premise of its plot, which is that a class of high school girls is assembled strictly so that one of the girls can be assassinated by the others.
At first it looks like fairly typical yuri-bait exploitation: Tokaku, the emotionless blue-haired girl, is ordered by her crazy, dice-rattling superior to enroll in Myojo Private School's Class Black in order to murder the seemingly innocent Haru Ichinose. Joining her in this mission are eleven other girls in different uniform styles of different character types, all of whom will be competing to off Haru before Tokaku can. It's a perfect set up for a very basic action story, from the other characters (the loli, the cross-dresser, the princess, etc) to the fact that Haru is such a perfect picture of innocence that you just know that there has to be something else going on. Even Tokaku's speedy defection to Haru's side isn't wholly surprising. What saves Riddle Story of a Devil is the fact that it takes the time to explore and develop its characters beyond this point, relying on our conflicted sympathy for the would-be killers to create tension and interest.
It works impressively well. Each character has a well thought out backstory that reveals not only why she's there in the first place, but also her feelings about it; for example, several of the girls don't actually want to kill, but circumstances have forced them into that life in order to survive, and killing Haru is their ticket out. Others are complete and total sociopaths who kill for the sheer pleasure of it, while still another is a killer as a way to show her gratitude to the man who saved and raised her, an assassin himself. (And also one half of a gay couple, making Isuke one of the few anime characters to be the child of a same-sex couple, a nice throw-away detail.) Giving each girl a reason to be the way she is makes the story more complex than it at first appears, and in at least one case, their pasts become entangled in their personal relationships with each other. Most obviously this is Chitaru and Hitsugi, whose story plays out against the backdrop of Class Black's production of Romeo and Juliet. It's a bit of a cliché but effective nonetheless, helped along by the English vocal cast, who get more out of their characters than the Japanese voice actors. Morgan Berry, in her first leading role, gives Tokaku a deeper, more monotone voice than Ayaka Suwa, and it overall works very well for the character. Generally speaking the dub is strong in terms of the variation and emotion wrung out of the characters; Natalie Hoover, Monica Rial, and Mikaela Krantz are especially good. And let's face it – no one can play a bitchy role better than Jamie Marchi.
One element of the show that does not work quite as well is the way the eye-catches are used to give us world-building information. In theory this is an interesting idea and a good way to get background information in without resorting to exposition heavy dialogue; in practice it means pausing every commercial break in order to read the text. Technically this isn't a hardship: pushing a button a few times is not going to destroy your enjoyment of a show. It is, however, kind of annoying, and the information itself varies as to usefulness. This is how the animation comes off as well – varied in quality. It isn't really up to the task of exciting fight scenes and the color palate's attempt at “subdued” results in something more along the lines of “dull.” Episode thirteen, the obligatory extra tropical bathing suit fanservice episode, shows a downgrade in the quality of the bodies as well, although, despite a laudable effort at giving everyone a different figure, they never look particularly great in the main part of the series.
Fortunately the music does work very well, both in terms of the background instrumentals and the thirteen different ending themes, which is an impressive thing in and of itself. The opening, sung by Maaya Uchida who is absent from the vocal cast, is catchy and driving, making a great introduction to the story. Textless versions of all fourteen of these vocal songs make up the major extras in this DVD-only set, although I'd argue that understanding the lyrics is important to really knowing the characters. (They're good songs in their own rights, though.) Other extras, apart from the obligatory trailers, are two commentary tracks, with the commentary for episode six being the more entertaining of the two, if only because Ricco Fajardo, who plays Class Black's oblivious teacher, has no idea what the actual plot of the show is, having only seen his scenes.
Riddle Story of Devil is the perfect binge-watch. The plot moves quickly, the characters are all developed with motives of their own, and the ending is surprisingly worth it. It stumbles in its animation and eye-catch world-building, but the fast pace and the unfolding character stories, along with the very good dub, make it easy to ignore the faults and just consume it. Despite appearances, there's really only one yuri couple in the show, so don't watch it for that, but if you like your girls cute and your action to come with reasons, it's worth giving this show a chance.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : B-
Animation : C+
Art : C+
Music : B+
+ Every character has a reason for who she is and why she's there, different ending songs are varied and interesting. Fast-paced, English dub is quite good. Story feels complete.
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