Contains spoilers. Text version and links:
Analyzing What Good Directing Looks Like, via Zankyou no Terror Ep. 1: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x21hjuj_analyzing-what-good-directing-in-anime-looks-like-via-zankyou-no-terror-episode-1_tech
How to Do Exposition Right, as Seen in Zankyou no Terror Ep. 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCV79z1_-J0&list=UUHhnf3RgHabfk5f2gUX6EVQ
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Film Crit Hulk Smash: THE AGE OF THE CONVOLUTED BLOCKBUSTER: http://badassdigest.com/2013/06/12/film-crit-hulk-smash-the-age-of-the-convoluted-blockbuster/
At the start of the summer season, I released two videos regarding the first two episodes of Zankyou no Terror–one about how the first episode showcased excellence in anime directing and show-don’t-tell storytelling, and the second about how the show gracefully handled its exposition. However, as early as episode three, I began to recognize a big problem overtaking my impression of the series. As time wore on, I and many other viewers gawked in abject horror as Zankyou no Terror turned out to be kind of a giant trainwreck.
If you look around on anime message boards, or just talk to my brother, you’ll walk away with a laundry lists of reasons for why people didn’t like the show, but I think a lot of these reasons come down to the tangible details of the situation. Not to say that these aren’t issues in themselves, but I think that the biggest flaw in Zankyou no Terror is fundamental to the entire structure and style of the series. In spite of the technical proficiency of its animation, writing, directing and music, Zankyou no Terror failed because right from the beginning, it forgot to give the audience any reason to give a damn.
Film Crit Hulk has written at great length about the problems that come from writing a script around the ‘mystery box” mentality–a term which was coined by J.J. Abrams. The idea of the mystery box is that the audience is drawn in by their desire for answers to the big mysteries left open over the course of a film or series. However, when a script relies solely on its mysteries to carry the viewer through the show, it starts to claw at the viewer’s patience, and Zankyou no Terror very quickly and severely becomes a test of patience that never pays off in the end. In fact, despite the series clearly having been written with the “mystery box’ mentality, with the big reveals saved for the very end, I’m hesitant to call it a real mystery shows since all of the answers are readily apparent right from the beginning. The ending of Zankyou no Terror doesn’t offer any twists, but merely the confirmation of suspicions that the viewer has all along, so if you were holding out hope that the big reveal might make everything interesting in retrospect, you’ll be that much more disappointed in turn.
In the first episodes of the series, we learn everything there is to learn about the two main characters. They’re terrorists who were tested on as children, but escaped the facility that trained them. One suffers post-traumatic stress disorder, while the other seeks connection in a girl named Mishima Lisa. They’ve stolen a bunch of plutonium for some reason, and they keep bombing buildings while giving riddles to the police for some reason. However, they make a point not to get anyone killed. All of this can be discerned from the first episode, or at least in the first two, and this remains all of the information we have on these characters throughout the entire series.
We only learn why Nine and Twelve are doing all of this at the very end, and the reason is simply to expose the existence of Japan’s atomic bomb to the world. Because we’re never sure what the characters are after, it’s impossible to really care about their actions throughout the series, and when it turns out to be something incredibly simple which we could’ve guessed from the start, we find ourselves wondering why it was ever a mystery to begin with. Even if we ignore how asinine the entire terrorism plan is, and how ridiculous it is to paint these characters as moral or noble in any way, the story is just so badly structured that we can only recognize how stupid these characters are at the very end. Even if the whole terrorism thing really DID seem justified, we wouldn’t have known that at all watching the series, and thus had no reason to root for or care about the characters. Hell, even if Nine and Twelve had just been really interesting people to watch, it might not have mattered that we didn’t know their motivations, but every conversation between them is just a repeat of the stuff they talk about in episodes one and two, so they always feel like a waste of time.
Speaking of a waste of time, Mishima Lisa is the most pointless character I’ve seen in quite a while. She’s painted as important right from the beginning, and we’re made to understand her character very clearly, but all she amounts to is a sort of love interest for Twelve. There’s no chemistry between them, and neither are interesting in their own right. All of the dialog surrounding Lisa is either about how she’s in the way, or about how Twelve wants her around anyways. Her involvement in the story never feels justified, and she takes up ridiculous amounts of screentime just for the same repetitive conversations.
And if she’s not bad enough, there’s the rival character, Five. I use the word “character” with hesitation, as Five is more of a gimmick. Her only trait is an obsession with taking down Nine (the reasons for which we never really learn), and she tries to do so using over-the-top, immersion-breaking schemes that never amount to anything. Her entire subplot adds nothing to the story and changes nothing in the end. She’s purely a frivolous character used to pad out the runtime of the show and provide a rival who would seem to be on more equal footing with the main characters, even though Shibazaki had already proven himself more than capable of contending with them, and Five’s stupid plans only managed to make the script feel campier than it seemed to want to be.
Looking at Nine and Five, I found myself thinking about Death Note, and how that show’s central rivalry was so perfectly handled. We totally understood both Light and L’s motivations, and they felt like real, living characters, whose plans, however campy, all made sense in the context of the story surrounding them. These two had intense, meaningful encounters right from the beginning, where both sides were giving their all to winning. In this show, Five just comes off as a total psychopath who isn’t at home in the straight-faced setting of the story, and Nine is a boring, static character, who only regards Five as a very dangerous nuisance. There is no thematic weight to their rivalry, no drama, no characterization–it just feels like it’s going through the motions of what’s supposed to make a thriller story interesting, with no comprehension of how to actually make viewers care about characters.
Shibazaki is the closest thing that the series has to a real character–he’s motivated by past mistakes, and by his hatred towards nuclear terrorism, and there’s weight to his actions as he puts himself at risk to get his job done. However, Shibazaki is almost completely declawed as of episode five, with the arrival of Five, and even in the end his ability to solve the riddles never really amounts to much. Nine and Twelve enact their entire plan exactly as they’d had it laid out from the beginning, and while they see Shibazaki as integral to that plan, and it’s on him to carry the message in the end, it never really feels like he accomplished anything.
In the end, Zankyou no Terror is a series without a soul. It has no thematic weight to it whatsoever. It doesn’t tell the viewer anything but a fictional story about a game between two terrorists and two members of the police force. The bulk of the story is just a bunch of setups for explosive set pieces, none of which are involving or have any dramatic tension. None of the characters are interesting, and most of them don’t even matter. The only saving grace of the experience is the heartbreakingly phenomenal soundtrack by Yoko Kanno, and the outstanding visuals. However, I hesitate to say that the show really had any interesting scenes after the first episode, because in spite of the attempt to create a thick atmosphere and delicate use of pacing, it’s so impossible to care about anything that happens that I constantly found myself waiting for the series to get to the point. Every gigantic action set piece felt like a waste of time since I didn’t understand the significance of any of the characters’ actions, and especially the setups of Five’s plans were so ridiculous that I couldn’t even take them seriously.
I can’t say that Zankyou no Terror is even slightly worth watching. If you want a mystery thriller involving terrorist plots, go read the infinitely superior 20th Century Boys, or even just read or watch Death Note again. Any single episode of that show is more interesting than the entirety of Zankyou no Terror.