by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Talentless Nana ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Talentless Nana ?
How would you rate episode 3 of
Talentless Nana ?
Stop me if you've heard this one: a great evil threatens humanity, and our fate rests in the hands of rowdy superpowered teens training together at a special academy meant to hone their abilities and prepare them for their destiny as heroes. If you've watched at least five anime series, it's statistically likely that at least one of them fits this description. Thus, there's little that's immediately suspicious about Talentless Nana's disarmingly mundane premise, unless you count an abundance of mundanity as inherently suspect. For the record, I do—and I confess I indulged in some tiny fistpumps once the series finally dropped its façade. Talentless Nana revels deliciously as it reveals itself to be much more Among Us than My Hero Academia, and it earns that indulgence.
I don't think the first episode's twist is all that surprising, but I also don't think the episode is any weaker for it. Even though I fairly quickly surmised what was “really” going on, I still managed to derive a lot of pleasure out of the specific tropes Talentless Nana ended up skewering in pursuit of its first victim, Nanao. The narrative initially wants us to believe that Nanao is the anime's protagonist, which is very easy to do because his entire character can be summed up as Anime Protagonist. Every additional detail about his social life, his fraught relationship with his father, and his unique Talent serve to reinforce him as the most protagonist he can possibly be. And of course, since he's the main character, the new bubbly female exchange student latches onto him like a lamprey and makes it her mission to get all up in his business and solve his every psychological hangup for him. That's just what he deserves. He's the protagonist, after all.
I love Talentless Nana's premiere because it so succinctly bundles together everything that annoys me about male entitlement in an incalculable number of anime and manga series, and it quite literally shoves them all off a cliff. Nana plays Nanao (and by extension, the audience) like a fiddle merely by ingratiating herself wholly as a girl side character destined to prop up the “real” hero. Her sickeningly saccharine demeanor belies the delightfully acerbic commentary on old-fashioned storytelling biases. Such feminist commentary is hardly unprecedented, and I can't say I expect the rest of the series to be so concerned about gender roles, but the premiere still remains a singular success that sets a delightfully nasty tone for the rest of the series.
Our full suite of assumptions is thus inverted: the Talented kids in this remote academy are the true enemies of humanity, and Nana is a sleeper agent inserted into the class in order to kill them one by one. Unlike the Talented students, Nana has no powers aside from her wit and cunning, which allow her to pass as a mind reader by using her Holmes-esque powers of observation. The odds are inherently stacked against her, especially if she gets found out, and this asymmetry allows the story to craft tension despite her anime-absurd levels of genius. The second episode ends up being a good example of how the series might progress going forward: Nana targets a student, hangs out with them in order to discover their Talent and weaknesses, and carries out her execution based on those findings. Shibusawa's time-travel powers in particular make for an interesting roadblock for Nana to overcome, and the episode deftly and unassumingly doles out all the information we need before she resigns him to his watery (eventually icy) grave. Even though it ends with a dead teenager, I like watching Nana scheme. It's a fun time!
The second episode also, importantly, makes sure we question the new assumptions that replaced our old ones. The government officials sponsoring Nana's assassinations are so shadowy as to be almost laughably evil, so I don't know how much I'd trust their judgment on who is or isn't an enemy of humanity. The students themselves seem predominantly dumb and impulsive, but certainly not threatening. Naturally, having noble intentions is not the same as being responsible, and Nana is right to soliloquize and scoff at Shibusawa's wholly unearned cockiness. In fact, you could argue that anyone susceptible enough to be manipulated by Nana could also be manipulated by nefarious actors seeking to exploit their powers. But perhaps Nana too is being manipulated based on her own prejudices. After all, we still don't know her motivations for being an assassin. Whatever the big picture ends up being, all I can say for now is that I'm certain we're not seeing the full extent of it.
Any criminal worth their salt needs a rival detective hot on their trail, and the cat-and-mouse game is fully afoot as of the end of episode three. Kyoya is pretty much the antithesis of Nana in every way except their shared powers of observation and deduction (and taste in manga). It's also poetically ironic that his Talent, invincibility, is perhaps the single one able to completely thwart Nana's mission. He's the L to her Light, and even though it seems like he's already figured her out, I look forward to the contrivances both Nana and the storytelling will have to weave in order to keep her murder plot chugging along. Thrillers like this one have absurdity embedded deep in their DNA, so I don't care about plausibility nearly as much as I care about Talentless Nana keeping its characters on the razor's edge of meeting their doom. That's where all the fun is, after all.
Speaking of fun, I appreciate that Talentless Nana's presentation doesn't shy away from goofiness. This is rooted in the misdirection that the first episode pulls, but even after the show tips its hand, it still indulges in comedic asides and lighthearted school shenanigans. Rather than feel tonally incongruous, I take it as a sign of Talentless Nana's confidence in itself—if the show had instead tried to swerve into 100% grimdark seriousness after the premiere, I would have already been tired of it by now. Even Danganronpa knows how to play around. This also plays to the adaptation's strengths, since I learned just yesterday that the director, art director, and character designer all worked together on my favorite infamously cursed children's anime Heybot. Mercifully, Talentless Nana has nowhere near as much unhinged manic energy, but the look and feel are about as far away from Death Note as possible. And while I appreciate that, it's also a double-edged sword. Outside of a few outlying visuals, the direction has been largely uninspired when it comes to depicting Nana's duplicity in innovative ways. It usually just plasters a red filter over the scene and changes her facial expression while she delivers her asides to the audience. It works, but it quickly becomes stale when her scheming should look thrilling.
Talentless Nana won't ever be able to recreate the laser-sharp acidic twist of its premiere, so going forward, its quality will instead rely on how well it can sustain the thrills and momentum of Nana's increasingly scrutinized murder plots. That's still plenty of slack to work with, and these first three episodes set up enough promising developments to keep me optimistic. I hope, however, that it doesn't completely lose the bitter thematic clarity witnessed within Nanao's fate, and that it continues to interrogate the inconsistencies of its setting. But if all we get is Nana inflicting more ice-cold executions upon hapless super teens, that'll be pretty good too.
Talentless Nana is currently streaming on Funimation.
Steve is, most unfortunately, still in vtuber hell over on Twitter. We're all praying for his salvation.
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