Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Terror in Resonance
BD+DVD - The Complete Series
No one paid much attention to the video when it first appeared. Posted by two masked boys who referred to themselves as “Sphinx,” it warned of a coming darkness in Tokyo, and of a violence to follow. But Sphinx's words turn out to be prescient, as their video is quickly followed by a bombing that brings down a major skyscraper. High schooler Lisa is almost caught in that bombing, but finds herself saved by the terrorists themselves. But what do these two violent boys want, and how far will their violence go? With the fate of Japan hanging in the balance and ugly secrets waiting to be uncovered, the police will have to race to find the truth before Sphinx bring everything tumbling down.
Shinichiro Watanabe is a name that carries a lot of weight in the anime community. Cowboy Bebop is one of the most acclaimed anime of all time, particularly overseas, where its scifi-western appeal and polished, inspired execution have made it a gateway anime for close to two decades. But since directing Cowboy Bebop and the tonally similar Samurai Champloo, Watanabe took a long break from directing, and it's only been in the last few years that he's returned to prominence. The three shows he's directed since reappearing have all been great in their own ways, but also possibly less of a direct expression of his vision than his breakout hits. Kids on the Slope is an excellent period drama, but it's an adaptation, and Space Dandy is more of a grab bag director showcase than a specifically Watanabe production. And so it falls to 2014's Terror in Resonance to stand as Watanabe's major anime-original statement of recent years. So what kind of statement is it?
The answer is “a searing one.” Terror in Resonance does not couch its ideas in scifi trappings or elaborate metaphor; it is a direct meditation on modern society and the cyclical nature of violence, rife with images meant to evoke the acts of terror that have become fundamental to the modern psyche. It opens with an explosion in a pair of towers, an inescapable echo of 9/11, and later on features a train explosion that couldn't avoid bringing up memories of the Subway Sarin Incident. Through its fast-paced thriller narrative, Terror in Resonance examines terrorism, youth disaffection, the breakdown of the modern family, the ways society informs our behavior, and the awkward relationships of countries in a global community all at once. It is angry and sharp-edged and driven, a shockingly ambitious message piece wrapped in a crime thriller shell.
The show stars two young terrorists known as Nine and Twelve, who are clearly blowing up buildings in order to make some larger point. In the course of their first operation, ordinary high schooler Lisa gets caught up in their plot, and when her home life and bullying at school become unbearable, she runs away in hopes of joining of them. Together, Nine and Twelve form Sphinx, an organization that releases videos online prior to each of their bombings. These videos offer riddles calling up Oedipus and other Greek myths, and challenge the police to both find the bombs and discover the links between them. On the police side, disgraced detective Shibazaki works to solve their riddles, and eventually discovers a conspiracy leading all the way to the top of the government.
Terror in Resonance proceeds as a series of breakneck bomb setups and investigations. Early on, Shibazaki and Nine act as foils for each other, with Nine slowly reaching the point where he can actually communicate with the detective through the clues of his bombings. Later, the introduction of Sphinx's former companion Five upsets the mix, as her chaotic actions (sanctioned by the United States' government) force Nine and Twelve to actually play the heroes themselves. All of these characters tumble through a sequence of bombings and near escapes and hasty alliances, leading to a final confrontation that may either destroy Tokyo or reveal the ugly truth behind the riddles of Sphinx.
The show's plot is, frankly, somewhat ridiculous. Crime thrillers often rely on significant suspension of disbelief in order to create exciting drama, but Terror in Resonance regularly stretches viewer belief to the breaking point. All of the cops outside of Shibazaki tend to come across as dunces, and the plans of Nine and Twelve seem so improbable that it's sometimes hard to feel much tension. And Five's introduction only amplifies these issues, as her ideas (like driving a plane with a bomb on it into an airport, for one) are so camp-action extreme that they essentially pull the show into another genre entirely. None of these issues really make the show any worse than your average thriller, but “average thriller” is a low bar given the quality of the rest of the show.
The show's limitations as a conventional thriller are unfortunate, but they are more than made up for by the show's other strengths. When it comes to ideas, Terror in Resonance is outright brilliant.
Essentially every single element of this story reflects thematically on every other element, with all its diverse pieces adding up to a legitimately incisive reflection on modern society. The true “story” of the show isn't the over-the-top confrontations between Sphinx and the police, it's what those battles say - what Sphinx's motives represent, and how Sphinx's behavior can be applied to nearly any other element of the plot.
Nine and Twelve are, like Lisa, “abandoned children” - abused by the society that was meant to protect them, they lash out in the only way they can. Sphinx could never have gotten the attention of the government through conventional means, and so they use violence, embracing terrorist action in pursuit of a truly honest dialogue. And Sphinx aren't the only ones who are unable to speak; it's Lisa's unhappy silence that drives her from society, and even the police are often hamstrung by the demands of their superiors. Shibazaki is only able to chase his quarry because he's already “died” once, already lost his career from pushing too hard against someone too high up.
In contrast, Shibazaki's teammates are often framed both narratively and visually as tied to either their jobs or their families, constraints that give them strength but keep them from being honest. Sphinx and Lisa build a makeshift family, but their voices cannot be heard until they act through violence. Shibazaki can challenge the system, but his power only comes from the loneliness of isolation. Terror in Resonance's messages are heartfelt and incisive and wide-ranging, framing modern society as a self-propagating trap that simultaneously denies our ability to speak out or form human connections and punishes us when we do.
The show doesn't directly spell these messages out - they are embedded themes that emerge naturally from the base thriller elements of the narrative. Lisa's story inherently reveals what happens when we're isolated from society; Twelve's demonstrates what happens when our innate humanity is let back in. Shibazaki's isolation gives him clear power, while the cherished lives of those around him form natural bulwarks in the narrative. And the United States always looms overhead, Five's lunatic actions not actually that much of an exaggeration relative to the country's imperialist tendencies. Even the villain Sphinx are fighting ends up reflecting on the core themes, one more echo of Oedipus' myth, one more child lashing out at his father and dooming his son in turn.
Many of Terror in Resonance's episodes rise to moments of unbelievable catharsis and beauty, moments that take these characters and their broken lives and see fragments of grace. There's one early moment where Lisa is swept away on a bike that feels like the purest possible expression of freedom; another, where Twelve works to disarm a bomb as Lisa watches, feels almost tragically romantic. It's a moment of true intimacy, but it's broken, mediated by the violence that forms the only way these characters can speak out and actually be heard.
Terror in Resonance's aesthetics offer a gorgeous background to its ideas. Talking about character design or animation in isolation seems inappropriate for this show; Terror in Resonance is a holistic experience, one that creates a fully realized modern world. The summer heat bears down palpably throughout the show, an aesthetic choice meant to echo Shibazaki's post-Hiroshima childhood that comes through in the eery sound design and constant bleached lighting. Bright sunlight and heavy shadows make for sharp contrasts broken by shimmering streetlights, and restrained but confident use of soft focus and lens flares help enhance the filmic tone of the show.
The direction is basically flawless, and the semi-realistic art design keeps the show grounded while also offering consistent moments of larger-than-life beauty. The show's animation isn't ostentatious, but it's still terrific. Every character has distinctive body language, and there are many scattered setpieces where everything comes to life at once, like the first episode's point-of-view snowmobile sequence. Terror in Resonance is one of the most visually impressive shows of recent years, a show that demonstrates you don't need to discard realism in order to create an anime with a beautiful and distinctive visual identity.
Terror in Resonance's soundtrack is equally impressive, an eclectic mix of jazz, electronica, and rock jams that demonstrates one of anime's greatest composers at her best. All of Watanabe's shows have a strong emphasis on sound design, and he's even taken on music production for two shows by one of his proteges. Even when his shows aren't overtly about music, Watanabe still frames scenes not just around their narrative peaks, but at the driving, lilting, or slowly building pace of the songs that help them rise.
Terror in Resonance comes in a standard slipcase-fitted bluray case, containing both bluray and DVD versions on four discs. On-disc extras include episode commentaries by the voice director and main cast (vocal director Christopher Bevins actually plays Nine himself, and notes that he partially wanted to take this job so he could play Nine), along with a video feature of the main English script writer and cast digging into the ideas raised by the series. Both of these inclusions offer some nice reflections on the series, from the thoughtful character analysis of the commentaries to the discussions on cycles of violence and individual versus collective values in the video feature. You can't really watch this show without finding something to say about it, and these extras demonstrate the cast and crew were as caught up in its questions as anybody.
The show's dub is very solid. Bevins' performance as Nine doesn't have quite the icy tone of the original, but Aaron Dismuke is a perfect fit for Twelve, and the voices of the police force are uniformly excellent. Jamie Marchi's performance as Five seems perhaps a bit melodramatic, but considering the character herself is the most over-the-top element of the series, that may be appropriate. The dub also avoids the awkward issue of Megumi Han's difficulty with her English lines, which make the fact that her character was largely raised in the States a little hard to believe. One point of awkwardness is that the subtitles which were originally used to translate the Japanese version's English lines are still present in the dub, cropping up whenever Five speaks with her American collaborators.
Overall, Terror in Resonance is just short of a masterpiece, only held back by the weaknesses of its overt thriller dramatics. When it comes to ideas and execution, the show is absolutely bulletproof, a gorgeous and cutting meditation on the contradictory complexities of modern society. Its characters rage at a system that no one truly wants, caught up in cycles the show frames as tragically inevitable. In the context of its well-earned cynicism, its few moments of honest human connection feel all the more precious, brought home by expert framing and brilliant use of music. The show certainly has its moments of frustration, but few anime get better than this.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A+
Music : A+
+ A rich and passionate meditation on modern society that is elevated by some of the finest music and visuals in anime.
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