It's kind of weird how anime has changed over the years. Once upon a time an anime series would be released, gain popularity and launch a franchise or merchandising machine. Nowadays in some cases the merchandise comes first, the anime little more than an advert for a card game or toy line.
Black Rock Shooter is somewhat
old-school in its creation, starting life as just an illustration on the
Japanese equivalent of deviant art. From there it inspired an
underground music collective to create a song based on it, and subsequently the
original artist joined the group to help make the animated music video.
The video gained popularity through video sharing site Nico Nico Douga
and in turn inspired a 50-minute video animation and a range of figures and
statues from leading manufacturer GoodSmile Company. It looks like
this could just be the beginning too.
So what of this anime? Well, attendees of the recent Hyper Japan event in London got the chance to get their grubby mitts on it at the GoodSmile Company stall and we were amongst them! The anime focuses on the outgoing schoolgirl Mato as she starts junior school and makes friends with the quiet and slightly awkward Yomi. Mato soon begins to get involved in club activities, joining the basketball club and becoming a bit of a star player whilst Yomi - who idolises her friend - joins the volleyball club that practices in the
same gym. The two are as close as friends can be, but the dynamic changes when Mato becomes friends with the energetic basketball team manager Yuu. As Yuu and Mato grow closer Yomi becomes increasingly withdrawn, and one day she disappears completely. Mato is distraught over her friend's disappearance, but there may be more to it than meets the eye. A strange otherworld exists where a mysterious girl does battle with a scythe-wielding adversary that looks a lot like Yomi - what is the connection between that world and our own? And does Mato have a chance of finding her lost friend?
Black Rock Shooter is an
interesting one. As you would expect from an anime based on a song
and music video it boasts some decent music and some great visuals, with
enigmatic characters doing battle in a strange gothic fantasy world
which just oozes cool. The voice acting is not too bad and it's
great to find a Japanese DVD with multiple European language options,
but it is also a bit of a missed opportunity. I've not seen the
original Black Rock Shooter music video, but it wouldn't surprise
me if the anime was just an expanded version of it. The anime
jumps between painfully average school drama and cool fantasy action
seemingly at random, with no explanation given at any point as to what
the fantasy elements are, how they relate to the real world and how they
are linked to the main characters. In a music video this would be
fine, as without dialogue the viewer just makes their own mind up as to
the story with the song acting as a guide. As a near hour long
anime story though it's confusing and a bit messy.
It simply doesn't hang together very well. Mato and Yomi are standard anime archetypes (although in fairness it is a bit of a change to see the quiet reserved one actually join a sports team), and much of their story up to Yomi's disappearance is pretty inane. The best I can really say about this aspect of the series is that it is handled quite realistically. When Yomi disappears Mato is questioned by detectives, there's nothing fantastical about their friendship and they text each other all the time just like real friends. It's actually quite
refreshing to see an anime with young school friends leading a life that doesn't include odd monsters, card games or magical powers. The fantasy scenes exist pretty much separately to the main plot and are really cool, with superb design and some great action, but they lack any real context. You want to know more about the two warriors - why they are fighting, who they are - but instead you have to just content yourself with somebody with a massive gun fighting a goth girl with a scythe. Which, admittedly, is not a bad thing. The action scenes are the best thing the anime has to offer, and you wonder why they bothered with the real world scenes in the first place.
With 50 minutes to play with and a perfect opportunity to set up a franchise, you are left with the impression that the creators of Black Rock Shooter have dropped the ball a little. The anime has its moments and really shines when it brings the gothic artwork that inspired it to the fore, but this doesn't happen enough. The action scenes are excellent, the animation and sound is great and the fantasy elements are interesting, but the main story is relatively simplistic and there isn't enough explanation of the other realm. Black Rock Shooter was a real opportunity to marry style with substance, but in the end it didn't quite manage it. In fairness it does come free with the related Figma or Nenderoid figures, which is good as it would be hard to justify paying for a retail DVD. It does leave itself open for a follow up, and if one is forthcoming it would hopefully delve further into the fantasy side of the story, but as it stands Black Rock Shooter is diverting and stylish, but ultimately a bit shallow.