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Phrases like “good directing,” “good writing,” or “well put together” are used frequently by reviewers such as myself; but it’s difficult to actually articulate what good directing IS without extensively breaking down an example. It’s easier to do this when a show is presented in a really unique way, but there aren’t a lot of breakdowns out there of what good directing looks like in a fairly normal show.
Zankyou no Terror episode one is a perfect example of how a show can be beautifully crafted without being particularly stylized. Plus, being as its director is the legendary Shinichiro Watanabe, who previously directed Macross Plus, Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Kids on the Slope, Space Dandy, and some excellent short films, it has the credentials to be under analysis with assumption that the director is largely responsible for the show’s quality. I’ll also be comparing this episode against the first episodes of other currently airing summer anime to explain what those shows are doing wrong in comparison.
Going into this, the two main threads we’ll follow are coherence and faith in the viewers intelligence. You’ll be shown how this episode manages to introduce its main characters and story setup, along with orchestrating two high-tension action sequences, without ever outright explaining to the viewer what is going on.
The first shots in this episode are of an armored van charging down a snow-covered road. Here, we have on-screen text supplying one of only a handful of direct explanations to the viewer. It tells us that the scene is set in Aomori Japan, just to give quick context. (For those who don’t know, Aomori is one of Japan’s northern prefectures, and it snows there a lot.)
Right after this, we see a young-looking guy driving the van and humming to himself. The fact that he’s in a gas mask is immediately unsettling, as it suggests that he’s doing something potentially dangerous. However, the fact that he’s humming so enthusiastically also suggests that he’s enjoying himself.
From here, we cut to some quick shots of an eyeball scanner, and another man in a HAZMAT suit unlocking a door. Before we even get to the next shot of the interior of an industrial facility, we already know that whatever’s inside is important enough to be behind two kinds of security. Right after this, we receive our second piece of on-screen context, with text that reads “Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility.”
Some heavy machinery is seen packing a small orb inside of a much larger containment orb. Whatever’s in this orb is obviously important, and potentially dangerous.
As the armored car drives up, it puts on police lights, confusing the people manning the gates to the facility. They make a call to the guardroom, which seems to be fairly relaxed. Quick shots reveal a young man, distinguished by glasses, manning a fork list, and then we cut to inside the armored car again. Now, the young man here is humming while twirling a grenade. At this point, we can assume that he’s up to some kind of mischief. The way he handles the grenade suggests a strong familiarity with this kind of weapon and an utter lack of fear for what he is about to do.
Inside, the other young man starts spraypainting on the ground, and from the reaction of the other guy near him, it’s clear that this isn’t normal behavior. The significance of the word VON is not yet known.
As the gates of the facility start to close, the kid in the armored car chucks a grenade and knocks the gate off its hinges. We can assume that the use of police lights before had been to confuse the guards long enough for him to get in close with the grenade before they could close the gates. This also gives the impression that this is a well-planned event on the part of the truck driver. Back inside the facility, the mysterious spray-painter is already removing the orb from its containing unit by the time others notice that something odd is going on.
The armored van crashes into the facility, and the driver takes off on a snowmobile from the back–while his accomplice inside is hauling ass, leaving confused workers in the dust. In this next shot, the young man on the inside looks up at the security cameras and points a gun at the object he’s holding. The reaction of the security team makes it evident that if he shot this thing, it would lead to disastrous consequences. A chase scene commences, and the two accomplices meet up, stashing the orb carefully inside what looks like a gym bag. A guard opens fire on them, only to be stopped by another guard, reaffirming that hitting the object in the bag would be a terrible idea.
Unable to use weaponized force, the security guards aren’t able to take them out, and the snowmobile driver completely outclasses the skills of the large truck drivers. As the culprits drive off, the driver throws up a hand and hollers, suggesting once again that he’s having a lot of fun executing this plan. The opening theme kicks in here.
In this first three-minute scene, we’ve established two extremely competent terrorist characters, who clearly are both experienced and take great pleasure in what they do. We know that they are now armed with a nuclear power of some kind, and that they are highly capable of destruction. And we learned all of this in the midst of an exciting, high-tension action scene without a single sentence of exposition.
Once the opening song is over, we fade in on a blazing sun and the sound of cicadas, which are trademarks of a hot summer day. This is a total contrast to the blizzard from the opening scene, meaning that we’ve likely chagned locations, and probably seasons as well. Shots of a road busy with cars indicate a highly populated city, which definitely puts us out of Aomori. The next cityscape shot indeed confirms with on-screen text that this is Tokyo, 6 months later.
The next shots are of a bunch of girls at what is most likely a school swimming pool, but they’re all in uniform rather than swim gear, and the pool is otherwise empty. Meanwhile, there are two young men walking across an overpass, and it’s pretty easy to deduce immediately that these are the same two young men from the opening scene. The fact that they are dressed in high school uniforms also suggests that they are teenagers.
At this point, I’d like to mention some of the techniques that are used throughout this episode to make the show feel more like a film, and therefore increase the sense of realism by calling back to the look and style of live-action movies.
The most persistent technique used in this episode is a subtle shaking of the frame, as if someone were filming these events on a hend-held camera. When dealing with animation, if you were to move the proverbial camera off-screen a little bit, there would ordinarily be a blank screen around it due to the size of the drawing. Therefore, in order to be able to move the camera around the screen, the image must either be drawn larger than the resolution of the frame, or the image must be zoomed-in on during editing and the frame moved around the image. Hopefully my on-screen example is making this easy to understand.
It’s too early to say this for sure, but so far I’ve only seen rips of Zankyou no Terror in 720p, leading me to believe that the show is broadcast in that resolution. I’ve seen other cases in the past, such as with FullMetal Alchemist Brotherhood, where a show was created in a lower resolution so that more of the budget could be allocated to the quality of the animation; so it’s possibly that Zankyou no Terror is deliberately made in a resolution just above 720p so that it can afford to have the camera move around the frame like this. That is purely specualtion on my part, though, and I have no idea how likely it is.
We also see in this scene on the overpass that the so-called camera deliberately goes in and out of focus, once again suggesting that there is a camera man trying to get these shots. The blown-out lighting also adds to the sense of realism, as if you filmed during this very hot time of day, people would come out looking really pale.
After our characters trade some dialog about the summer heat, one of them refers to the other as “Nine.” Right away, this suggests a lot of things about these characters. People being named by number immediately brings to mind test subjects and human experimentation. Strict numbers like this evoke formal systems like government, military, or scientific organizations. So right away, there’s a feeling that these characters are related to something like that, which fits in with the extreme and unatural actions that we’ve already seen them taking.
All of this is reinforced when Nine responds by referring to his companion as “Twelve,” and telling him to try his best not to stand out, and to act like a normal high school student. For this to be worth mentioning, it must mean that they are NOT ordinary high school students.
Twelve is quickly distracted by a little mascot character drawn on a bus called Kururin, which Twelve thinks is cute because he loves ants. We get the impression that Twelve has a flighty, easily distracted personality, and possibly a childish heart with how he gets excited over a cutesy mascot. This is also a small setup for events that will happen later in the episode.
Twelve gets distracted once again by the smell of chlorine. This time, his unnaturally strong senses suggest some kind of superhuman smelling capability, which again reinforces the abnormality of his character. A powerful sense of smell also calls to mind things like police dogs used for drug or bomb hunting, so again there’s a sense that this character has a background in being trained for government enforcement work of some kind.
Back at the pool, we witness a steriotypical bullying scenario as a girl named Lisa is goaded by her classmates to jump into the pool with her clothes on. When Twelve comes onto the scene, he reacts by saying, “Oh, I know! This is called bullying!” This dialog isn’t so much for the viewer’s sake, as we probably figured out what was going on already. Rather, it’s to further establish not only Twelve’s distance from the typical behavior of high school students, but also his role as an enthusiastic observer of these traditions. It’s possible that as someone who’s never lived a normal life, he’s extremely interested in the behaviors of normal people his age.
When the other girls lie to him and say that Lisa is doing this of her own volition, he feigns ignorance not for their sake, but so that he can test Lisa’s reaction. She responds with weakness and a pain in her eyes that Twelve will bring up again later. He then makes a running jump into the pool himself. Whether he did this to diffuse the situation and save Lisa’s ass, or simply because he intended on doing so from the beginning, isn’t clear, but it’s likely a combination of both. Whatever the case may be, it seems to have a profound emotional impact on Lisa, who takes notice of Nine as well. We then get a title card, which is used to very quickly bookend the scene and transition into the next one.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciated this show’s use of scene transitions after watching shows like Tokyo ESP and Aldnoah.Zero, both of which bounced around so much that I kept finding myself saying, “oh, I guess we’re in another scene now.” It’s difficult to take in and appreciate a scene when it doesn’t begin or end with any breathing room. Leading into a scene with establishing shots, and leading out of scenes with fades or transitions is a basic of filmmaking, and yet we have shows that ignore this rule and end up feeling like a total clusterfuck as a result.
The next scene begins with establishing shots of a school, and of Nine transferring into class under the codename Arata Kokonoe. Amazingly, the sense of blown-out lighting and intense summer heat is kept up in the indoor scenes by having all of the lights off in the classroom, with the windows open. While natural classroom lighting is fairly common to anime in scenes set during the late afternoon, it’s pretty rare to see this in daytime scenes, and it’s especially cool because in reality, schools often turn the lights off on overly hot days. I also think it’s noteworthy that the classroom has an overhang TV, which is another thing I saw in a lot of classrooms in high school, but have rarely seen in anime.
Elsewhere, Twelve is being introduced as Toji Hisami, by a confused-looking teacher. He looks around the room, entranced by the site of an actual high-school classroom, and yells “Jumbo!” I found a theory on the fansubber’s page that he’s actuall saying “Jambo,” which is Swahili for, “hello,” which seems likely, and adds more to the exoticness of his character. It turns out that Lisa and her bullies are all in his class as well.
Our next scene transition happens fairly quickly, depicting another building, and an office inside of it. I have to admit that the first time I saw this episode, I didn’t notice the scene transition and had assumed that this was a teacher’s lounge inside the school, but I think it’s a pretty safe bet that this is actually a police office.
Inside are two older men, one of whom is quite literally watching cat videos on youtube, while the other plays a game of shogi by himself. The first detective ends up on a mysterious terrorist threat video and oh my god, it’s real youtube! Like, seriously, up-to-date current youtube, on what is either Windows 7 or 8! Most shows go for off-brand versions of websites and operating systems, but this one is painstakingly accurate. They’ve even gone to the trouble of putting a bunch of word documents and application launchers on the guy’s desktop. Now THAT’S attention to detail.
If you look at the close-up shot of the video, several related videos have CNT logos, which in this context is most likely a fictional news organization, suggesting that this video has probably found its way to the news media, which is why the detective came across it. The video consists of two young men in Super Sentai masks referring to themselves as Sphinx, and giving a cryptic warning for a terrorist attack. Attentive viewers will notice that in the background is a blueprint for the building that they will take out later that day. Also, for us, it’s extremely evident that these two kids are Nine and Twelve. Oh and remember what I said about attention to detail? When Twelve gets up close, you can see the camera they’re recording on reflected in his mask. I can’t tell what kind of camera it is, but it looks like it could be the outer camera on Nine’s iPhone 5 that we see him with later in the episode.
When the duo’s boss comes in the room, he tells the shogi-playing man, named Shibasaki, to stop acting like he’s a detective. It’s not clear what this means or what his actual job is, but he responds with a defiant smile, and plays another tile on the shogi board. We don’t know much about this guy, but it’s obvious that he’s got a history as a possibly troublemaking detective, and is going to be a major player in this show’s game.
Before I move on from this scene, I also just want to point out how much I love the shots that are used throughout. We get an incredible sense of space from throughout this scene as we view the room from several angles, and even at one point have the so-called camera stashed inside a bookshelf, which gives the impression that this room is too cramped to get a good wide-angle shot. I’m a big fan of scenes that establish what a room looks like from every angle, so this was much appreciated.
Returning to the school once more, we get another ludicrously detailed shot, where you can even see students moving inside one of the windows. Inside the classroom, Arata is being swamped by women asking for his phone number. He’s obviously listening to his headphoens to ignore them, as is the traditional technique of anti-social teens, but his attempt is for naught.
For the life of me though, I could not figure out why one of the girls asks if Arata has an IR transmitter. An IR transmitter is the device used in remote controls to send signals to other electronics. If you hook an IR transmitter into a smartphone, for instance, you can use applications to have it remotely control a TV or camera or something. I don’t know why the hell one of the girls would ask this, unless he does have one and she somehow detected it. In any case, Arata lies that he doesn’t have a cellphone, right before we hear a string of texts being received in his pocket. This girl on the left knows what’s up.
Of course the texts are smiley-laden demands from Twelve to meet on the roof for lunch and oh wow, that is one legit iPhone 5. Again I find myself wondering how they got the rights to use this stuff, considering they’re pretty much saying that iPhones and youtube are tools of the trade for terrorists.
Nine and Twelve share another quick banter on the roof, accusing one-another of drawing attention to themselves. In this scene, we learn of Twelve’s apparently extreme memory, as he’s learned the names of students who aren’t even in his class somehow. He also shows his perceptiveness by catching that Lisa is planning to eat her lunch in the outdoor bathroom to avoid the bullies that are always hounding her. It’s probably safe to assume by now that Twelve is some sort of genius. Nine tells him not to get involved, but Twelve is obviously going to anyways.
Inside the bathroom, Lisa looks at her Windows phone, which I’m actually not sure is a legit brand because all the pictures I found of Windows phones online had the buttons in a different order. She’s received a ton of texts from her mom which the fansubbers didn’t translate, but going by my limited Japanese knowledge, all of them seem to be asking if she’s eaten yet and if the food tastes good. Her mother is obviously fretting over her and has probably heard something about her not eating. Lisa gets sick at either the sight of this, or the smell of the bathroom, and tosses her food in the toilet. Most likely, she’s suffering some kind of stress-induced eating disorder as a result of the bullying she’s subject to.
From here we cut to an almost hellish segment, as high-pitched, noisy guitars screech over black and white footage with orange spot-coloring for fire. This seems to be some kind of memory, and a dramatic one in which Nine and Twelve were able to escape from somewhere that a friend couldn’t make it out of. It turns out to be a dream Nine is having, which oddly justifies the black and white coloring and vignette borders, as many people actually do dream in black and white vignettes with only splashes of color.
Nine wakes up covered in sweat in a sizeable loft apartment. Given that this is Tokyo, an apartment of this size would be outrageously expensive, meaning that these two kids are operating on some kind of serious budget.
When Twelve wakes up, we get yet another example of where the show uses dialog that informs the viewer, but also informs the characters. Twelve asks if Nine had “that dream” again, which informs us that this is a recurring nightmare that Nine has, but he also suggests that the reason Nine is having this dream is because Lisa had the same eyes as the kids whom they’d left behind at the institution.
Recently, when my brother and I talked about the first episode of Aldnoah.Zero, we pointed out how the characters were constantly explaining things to one-another that they should have already known, as a way of informing the viewer. One character would ask another, “do you hate that guy?” and the other would recount the entire history of racism towards that guy’s people which their conversant should’ve already known. This is totally immersion-breaking dialog because there’s no reason that these characters would need to explain these things to one-another.
If this was how Zankyou no Terror was written, then Twelve would’ve said something like “you’ve been having those nightmares ever since we left the institution and all of those kids died,” which is shit Nine already knows. However, since Twelve is actually telling Nine that it’s probably thanks to meeting Lisa that the memory is dragged up, he manages to inform the audience of Nine’s history without telling him shit that he already knows.
Nine goes on to muse about how both themselves and the others were too weak, and that’s why they couldn’t save them. Now, however, he believes they are different. With this, we get the sense that Nine is operating with a lot of resolve, because he doesn’t want to relive the weakness that he felt in the past. We’re halfway through the episode now, and with the commercial break card, we get our next scene transition.
The second half of this episode is really one long action scene, but whereas the opening scene was more focused on very fast, silent action that unfolds quickly, this one is a slow buildup of tension that ends in one big payoff. I think it’s likely that as this show goes on, we’ll see more scenes done in this style, probably over the course of entire episodes, leading to some truly epic moments. For now, though, we’ve got a pretty simplistic setup that sets the tone for where this series plans to go. I’m not going to break this down shot-for-shot like I’ve been doing so far, because frankly this video is getting way too fucking long, but we’ll have a look at what this scene does to create a feelings of realism and tension that make it thrilling to watch.
After establishing that everyone’s bags are checked on the way into this building, we see a number of Twelve’s classmates, lead by his teacher, walking in. It seems that his class is on a field trip to this building. Nine informs Twelve that there are three minutes until the power goes out, followed by a twenty-six minute window before the backup generators come on. Twelve plays with the little Kururin dolls that he mentioned earlier, and responds to Nine’s concerns with confidence, as if to get them both fired up. Seemingly upon realizing that she can’t get away from her classmates all over the building, Lisa retreats to the bathroom. Once again, there is a trail of texts from her mom asking her about food. Our players are in place, and with Lisa’s declaration that she wishes everyone would disappear, we launch into the action.
It begins with a crane knocking out a bunch of power lines, which we see knocking out the power all over the city. How this was orchestrated isn’t clear, but it’s possible that there are more personnel in this operaton than just Nine and Twelve. When the lights go out in the detective’s office, Shibasaki catches on that this is what the youtube video earlier was referring to. The shots we get of people evacuating and general confusion are all to establish a feeling of tension. Nine and Twelve leave a bunch of Kururin dolls at key locations, while Lisa finds her way to a stairwell. Here, she runs into Twelve, who mysteriously instructs her to hold onto a Kururin doll until he tells her not to.
After the generators kick in, Twelve reveals to Nine that he found Lisa in the building, just as Nine has called in for the Kururin dolls to start exploding. I’m not sure what kind of chemical it is that melts down and sparks in such a way, but it most likely is related to the nuclear ball that the two collected in the opening scene. In any case, it was cool to see the way this scene was handled, with the stuffed animals not ouright exploding at first, but instead causing things like fire extinguishers to explode. It’s possible they did it this way so that people would be alerted to the danger early on. Not only was the building being evacuated from the power outage, but the early explosions would signify the danger of being in the vicinity before the final explosions take out the building.
Twelve reveals to Nine that the reason he gave a Kururin doll to Lisa was so that they could either decide to leave her for dead, or to rescue her from the burning flames as they had failed to do in the past. He’s set this up in the hopes that Nine won’t be plagued by nightmares anymore if they succeed. Nine informs Lisa that she can either die where she stands, or become an accomplice to their actions, seemingly a test of her will to live. Once her desire to live is confirmed, Twelve springs into action.
As explosions continue to rattle the building, the tension starts to shoot up, with shots of explosions, Twelve hauling ass on his motorcycle, and shaky blur effects as Lisa runs down the stairs. I have to admit that while I understand what they were going for with this blur effect, it ends up looking kind of cheap. By Nine’s instructions, Lisa blows a hole in the building’s overpass, and then makes a leap of faith into Twelve’s arms… I think. That’s when we get our incredibly well-animated depiction of the building falling apart, as the payoff to all the tension buildup. Nine takes a picture of their handiwork, tells Lisa that there’s no turning back, and the episode ends.
In the end, what’s so impressive about this epidode is how, in spite of more than half of it consisting of action sequences, one of which has almost no dialog, and the other of which is mostly a long build-up of tension with a fairly cool payoff, we still managed to learn so many things about the characters without ever being outright told anything. We learn enough just from the way the characters are animated and the way that they talk to one-another that extended expository dialog is unecessary. I’d hate to see this show go back on its style by explaining things outright in later episodes, which I’ve seen some shows do, but for now I’m just basking in how well this episode was put together, especially in comparison to other action thrillers being released this season.
And before anyone tells me that I’ve been reading into this show too deeply, or that it’s not as special as I think, or that no one thinks about this stuff while watching anime, let me clarify that it’s not like I was breaking the show down like this while watching it for the first time. After all, I haven’t told you anything about the characters or setup that you didn’t already know, right? I mean, it’s possible that you missed some things on your first viewing, but if you’ve seen this episode already then you probably came to the same conclusions that I did about the characters.
The point of this analysis isn’t to explain to you something you didn’t notice, it’s to explain what the people making this show did to cause you to notice those things. It’s about how you already knew that Nine was a professional terrorist who really enjoys his work before you ever even saw his face, because the show communicated that so well in the opening scene. It’s to explain to you why that building falling down felt so much more satisfying than just some random explosion, because the way it was executed was so unique, and so well animated, and came after such a long tension buildup. The building blocks of what makes a scene work may not be something you notice… but your brain does. And when it all comes together like this, you can tell immediately that a show like Zankyou no Terror is something special, even if you’re not really sure why.