Friday, March 13, 2015

Zankyou no Terror Review

Year: 2014
Studio: MAPPA
Director: Shinichirou Watanabe


      It goes without saying that Watanabe is one of the most celebrated and ambitious directors in modern anime. He boasts a distinctive, artistically driven style that's rarely achieved by any director. You know a Watanabe work when you see one and you are missing out if you haven't seen at least one of his works. Visually and atmospherically, Zankyou no Terror is no exception – it's creative, poignant and wholly mesmerizing in some scenes. Thematically, it is complex and perhaps the most politically conscious work from Watanabe to date. But as almost all politically conscious shows go, ZnT faced the challenge of finding that fine balance between dishing out social commentaries while also developing its character into sympathetic personalities beyond vessels of ideology, and I think it has made a valiant effort on that account. 

      Actually, ZnT is very much a character driven show and almost deceptively simply in hind sight. All of its most profound and emotionally powerful moments come from the character interactions, though sometimes they are bogged down by the larger symbolisms. The biggest problem I see with the show is probably the Five/American plot thread. Whenever a show – especially one that tries its hand at political realism, involves a foreign government and its foreign agenda in a plot-altering way, things can get messy. It creates an onslaught of concerns on top of the existing ones that come inherently with a political show, which ZnT failed to address in one way or another. I do understand though, it's a short anime, there simply isn't enough screen time to explicate and tease out all the connections. But I think the integrity of the narrative did suffer as a result. It's frankly pretty ridiculous for Five to have so much power over so many important decisions that directly implicate the American government. I just don't think any government, and certainly not the American government, would be mad enough to let a dying little girl with neurotic breakdowns lead an entire anti-terrorist operation that could so easily jeopardize the country's good image. It's too ostentatious, too obvious and the gain involved too meagre relative to the risks. What is the gain anyways? The atomic bomb Japan is secretly making? What's the political agenda here? It also doesn't really make sense to me that they shoot Twelve only and spare Nine, using by the way, an entire helicopter squad. That's what I call an overkill. A little advice, if you want to be low-key, which I assume is what people need when they want their tracks covered, you might want to try assassination. All it would take is a good gunman, much more economic than a whole squad of helicopter. I get it, the American government is manipulative in implementing its own agenda and is evil enough to sacrifice any number of people for their personal gain. Not saying reality is all that different, but the American government is not stupid and probably much more meticulous and calculating with its missions. Also, when it comes down to it, politics is an ever so complex thing, the water is deep enough for all kind of fishes to coexist. It's not good writing when one side is entirely reduced to cartoony villains with no individuality to speak of what's so ever. I recognize that it's an anime and demanding political accuracy is nitpicking, but even an anime needs to retain some level of sensibility. However, I think this is one of those moments where the message is louder than the story. 

     Personally, I find Five to be an interesting character and I really wanted her to blossom. Her connection to the main characters should've been explored in more nuances so her motivation may come across less ambiguous. When she basically committed suicide, I was struck by the abruptness and the emotional weightiness of the scene. All along, it was clear Five was not driven by any political agenda but a personal one. But it was only until her last moment I realized that she is perhaps a even more more tragic figure than our two main characters. There was little purpose to her life and her connection with reality had been tenuous and fragile at best, thanks to the irreversible biological and psychological rewiring she was put through. Unlike Nine and Twelve, who were able to salvage some of their sanity and humanity through their mutual support for each other, Five really had no one. She lived a life of horror and callous detachment. The problem with her as a character is that all this empathy I have for her came in hindsight. It only happened after some very intentional analysis. Given her significance in the show, it's unfortunate that her past is so fragmented and we have such limited access to her internal dialogue.

     Similarly to Five, Nine and Twelve are decidedly tragic characters because of what they had to endure. The melancholic undertone is very apparent througout the show. I always knew the ending is not going to be anything remotely happy for these two. The best and most emotionally resounding moments are those shared by Lisa and Twelve, and occasionally Nine. The artistic direction for some of these scenes are simply sublime and breathtakingly beautifully. For instance, the scene in episode 4 where Twelve takes away Lisa on his motorcycle, as she sits there in back looking at the night sky, the word "freedom" popped into my head. You can just feel her relief, having escaped her family situation and momentarily, her own helplessness. There is freedom in finally belonging somewhere and connecting with another human being, however fleeting that freedom is. It didn't seem like she even cared where the destination is. It speaks volume of the power of animation – I really want to know who did the key animation here because it is phenomenal work. It is easily one of my favourite anime scenes in recent memory, right up there with the new years karaoke party scene from Ping Pong. I think Twelve is drawn to Lisa precisely because he sees her vulnerability and it deeply resonates with his own. As much as he needs someone else, he also wants to be needed and depended on. It's a very human sentiment, and almost heartbreaking. I agree with many people that Lisa could've been better developed as a character instead of being someone who really lacked any sense of direction even near the end. But again, that expectation might be slightly unrealistic given the length of this anime. We are talking eleven episodes here and the screen time has to be split up between a good number of characters. Anyways, personally for me, Lisa's redeeming moment came in the ferris wheel scene when she calmly tells Twelve to forget about the bomb and escape without her. It is one of the few times in the story she does make her decision for herself, a decision of life-or-death for that matter. She drew strength from Twelve's words – she really matters to him. Humans are fascinating creatures indeed, seemingly so pitifully weak in one instance, but full of courage the next simply because there is someone else beside us, there is someone else who cares.

     It goes without saying that Nine is the more reticent and rational of the pair. He was critical towards Twelve's fascination with Lisa – for sensible reasons. Yet I think he very much empathizes with Twelve and understands his inner struggles well. I don't have very much to say about him because compare to Twelve, he definitely has less personal flair and is more emotionally opaque. I also don't fully grasp Five's obsession with him. In short, we don't know much about Nine. On that note, I do appreciate the twist near the end for its emotional revelation – we finally see Nine's vulnerability, stripped away of all its protective layers in the face of Twelve's death. In a sense, he is truly free, with his only human connection in this world erased. I think the scene would've made more impact if I wasn't so distracted by the inaneness of the turn of event. I was too busy questioning why is it that they only took out Twelve when Nine also knows the truth. Is it because the writer intended for us, the audience, to soak in the intense emotional reaction from Twelve in his last moment and better empathize with his pain? Is it to dramatize Nine's demise? Is it some kind of sadistic motive of the Americans to see Twelve break down over his partner's loss and potentially go on a rampage? Whatever the explanation is, we can only speculate. The whole thing appears to be a little contrived for my liking.

     I'm not going to comment a great deal on Shibazaki. I think he is more of a plot device in the service of uncovering the past than a character genuinely developed for his own right – though I question if a clear line can be drawn. The story needed someone who is relatively unattached to any body of authority but also connected enough to take advantage of the power offered by the position, someone who is willing to bend the rules and dig up the dirt. Shibazaki is the witness, the critical eye and the inside sympathizer.

     Watanabe clearly wants to convey his concern and skepticism for radical nationalist sentiment that Japan espouses. With ZnT, he paints a depressing picture of the dark side of politics, the side that Japan is once again gradually edging towards since the end of war. He draws attention to a number of things that mirror the present day Japanese politics – the mentality of perceiving the country as a loser, the effort to raise national morale amidst economic stagnation and the hidden agenda of creating a strong military base equipped with nuclear weapons to give Japan a stronger bargaining chip on the international stage. In a way, ZnT is a highly personal work wrapped in layers and layers of sharp social commentary. Watanabe sends the message that extreme nationalism is dangerous and self-destructive – the two-man terrorist group comprised of former human experiments is a direct reminder of its potential consequences. A lot of people commented that it's not realistic that no fatality occurred from the bombings, but again I argue that the message is the more important piece here comparing to straightening up the logic. In a way, I think Nine and Twelve represent Watanabe's own frustration of the current state of Japan and his wish to make those opinions known. Obviously, Watanabe is also not exactly pleased with America's meddling in the politics of foreign countries, though the execution of the statement is somewhat clumsy.

     All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed ZnT and found it thought provoking. It is a bold project from Watanabe and I applaud his audacity for coming forward with some much needed comments on the current state of Japan. It is by no means a perfect anime – far from it given the number of flaws I discussed – but it is worth watching for its messages, beautiful animation and art direction, and wonderful tracks from the great Yoko Kanno. As a director and writer, Watanabe-san is truly to be appreciated.

Overall Score: 8.5/10

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