After much delay and, depending on where you hang around, much hype, the 50 minute OVA Black Rock Shooter was finally released yesterday, July 24. Despite the solid visuals and music, the poor pacing and storytelling make this an anime that I can’t recommend, even to die hard fans of Vocaloids or Supercell like myself. You’re better off just waiting for the soundtrack and seeing some of the highlights.
For those who don’t know that much about Vocaloids or Supercell, here’s a brief introduction to Black Rock Shooter. Ryo, the only musician in the now professional band Supercell, got his start uploading his songs sung by Hatsune Miku onto Nico Nico Douga. One of his most popular ones, perhaps second only to Melt, was Black Rock Shooter, a song that he had written based off of a picture drawn by an artist who goes by the name of Huke. It was uploaded in June of 2008. You can see the original video with English subtitles on Youtube.
Some time since then, anime studio Ordet decided to pick it up and to create a 50 minute OVA based on the song – which itself was based on a picture. It was originally supposed to be released in September 2009, but it got pushed to Spring 2010, then again to Summer 2010. And yesterday, on 7/24, it was finally released, for free on DVDs that came with the September issue of Hobby Japan. There are a couple other magazines will also have the DVDs packed for free.
One of the biggest questions I had going into this was what the story would be like. After all, the OVA is ultimately based on an image, and the lyrics to the song don’t exactly build up a cohesive world. Well, contrary to the more fantasy oriented images associated with this production, Black Rock Shooter tells the story of a middle school first year named Mato Kuroi (Kana Hanazawa) and her friendship with classmate Yomi Takanashi (Miyuki Sawashiro). The 2 become friends on their first day of school and grow closer throughout their first year despite their being in different sports clubs (basketball for Mato, volleyball for Yomi). About half way through, the basketball team manager Yuu (Kana Asumi) gets into the mix as well. The main conflict manifests itself as jealousy when Mato and Yuu get put into the same class for their second years while Yomi gets put into a different class, stuck outside looking in.
Interspersed in this story are brief scenes of the eponymous Black Rock Shooter – an obvious stand-in for Mato – chasing and fighting against Dead Master – Yomi’s stand-in – in the dark fantasy world most associated with the work. The action scenes are short and inserted fairly evenly throughout the OVA, and it’s only at the end when Yomi disappears that a clear connection between the 2 settings is shown.
The core problem with Black Rock Shooter lies with the storytelling. The pacing is horrid, with pretty much nothing happening in the first half. 50 minutes is longer than a TV show episode, but it’s still not a long time, and you simply can’t waste that much time with the set up. The more action packed fantasy scenes inserted throughout that half didn’t do anything to help the pace, because they felt unrelated – at best, only loosely connected – to the main story in the real world.
On that note, the story just doesn’t tie together. There is a fundamental disconnect between the scenes in the fantasy world and in the real world. There are hints at how the events in the two settings relate to each other, but it is only at the end that a clear connection is made, and even then, the explanation is unsatisfactory. Clearly, the fantasy scenes were meant to serve as a metaphor for the emotional conflict taking place in real life between Mato and Yomi, but the rest of the connections, including the reason for Yomi’s disappearance or her blank text to Mato at the end, are left as exercises for the viewer. Same goes for the opening fight between Dead Master and Black Rock Shooter, which clearly happened before the events of the show. Having an open ended story up to the viewer’s interpretation is one thing, but this is either laziness or ineptitude by the director.
Heck, there is even a 3rd character in the fantasy who never does anything. Perhaps the entire purpose of this OVA was to set up a series. At least, that’s what it feels like with its open threads and the cliffhanger-style ending.
Even the fantasy scenes, while containing entertaining, visceral action and beautiful art, suffers from the fact that nothing about these characters’ motivations is revealed until the very end. There were hints here and there at the bigger story, but the mismatching chronology – the fantasy scenes have no connection to the real life scenes being shown at the same time – meant that I was left wondering why Black Rock Shooter and Dead Master were fighting for most of the time. And fights in which you have nothing invested in the outcome just aren’t as fun to watch.
It doesn’t help that neither of the two show any emotion through most of the fight. As they get hit, thrown, shot at, and tied up, their faces rarely change from their monotone dead stares, as if they were both Terminators programmed to fight each other. The closest thing up until the climactic moment was Dead Master’s evil smirk. They don’t talk, and they barely even grunt as they fight. The brevity also hurt these fight scenes, as none of them lasted long enough for a real story to develop within the fights. Just as the fights started to get into their grooves and made me excited, the OVA would cut back to a plain real life scene. There are things that can be done with single long action scenes that can’t be done with many shorter ones. They need time to build a sort of rhythm, something that Black Rock Shooter never managed to do.
That being said, Black Rock Shooter is still a very pretty anime. The real life scenes have the level of detail you expect from an OVA, and the stylized animation of the action scenes work very well. Some of the backdrops in the fantasy scenes are obviously created using CG, but they almost never stand out. The use of the color and light, as well as the architecture in those scenes do a wonderful job of creating an oppressive, dark, almost depressing mood to the speechless fights. I’m a fan of the character designs as well. The purposeful contrast between Black Rock Shooter’s tall, lanky, unbalanced design with Dead Master’s curvaceous and symmetrical one was not lost on me. Heck, they even put scars on Black Rock Shooter’s stomach in order to emphasize the straightness of her design (ironically, Yomi is taller than Mato).
And the music was very enjoyable as well. No, there was no Hatsune Miku music; not even Black Rock Shooter was played. Instead, it was a largely classical score, fitting for a school story. In some scenes, the music really took center stage in communicating the emotion to the viewer. One of the first scenes, in which Mato climbs the hill near her house before going off to school, sticks in my mind. In the world of TV shows, where usually some plot has to be fit into a 24 minute less 1:30 OP less 1:30 ED slot, the background music almost always stays right there in the background. Without such limitations (in fact, one might argue that they didn’t even fill the pressure to fit a story into its 50 minute slot), the OVA was free to implement more movie-like usage of background music, to good effect. There were also call backs to Supercell’s Black Rock Shooter song as well, with some of the music, particularly at the beginning and end of the OVA, using themes pulled straight from that song.
Ultimately, Black Rock Shooter is two separate stories connected only loosely by theme and character design, with 80% of the time spent on a, though heartfelt, tragically generic story about friendship, and the other 20% dedicated to the good parts: the fun, even if meaningless, action scenes. The uneven pacing and storytelling unraveled a technically solid production, and as the credits rolled, I felt sorry for all the people whose hard work went into producing what amounted to essentially nothing.
The only way I can see this OVA being somewhat redeemed is if it turns out to be just the 1st part of a longer series, one which explores the fantasy world that this one only briefly touched upon. Both the pre-credits ending and post-credits ending tease a possible continuation. But as a stand alone work, it is incomplete and not worth the time to watch it.
- As always, screenshots galore at Tenka Seiha and Random Curiosity.
- The free magazine-packed DVDs include 7 different languages of subtitles, including English. The other 6 are Japanese, Chinese, Italian, German, Spanish, and French.
- Other magazines that will have this DVD are Megami Magazine (7/30) and Monthly Animedia (8/10). (source: Anime News Network via Vocaloidism)
- The character Dead Master was never named in the OVA. I got her name from the figures of her they’re selling, such as this one.
- This is the 2nd anime for which Ryo of Supercell did the music. The other one was Cencoroll, and it also starred Kana Hanazawa as a leading role.
- Kana Asumi starred as Poplar in last season’s Working!!, in which one of the running gags was that she would always mispronounce the main character’s name “Takanashi” as “Katanashi.” Her character Yuu has no problem with that in Black Rock Shooter, however. The OVA also made the same pun as in Working!! regarding Takanashi’s name being able to be confused with “Kotori” (Takanashi’s name when he cross-dresses).
- At the point when Mato was giving Yomi the star cell phone strap, I started wondering if the fantasy world was far in the future, given the post-apocalyptic style of the setting. I was hoping that there was some falling out between the 2 that the OVA would show, before they somehow became Black Rock Shooter and Dead Master. I think that would’ve been a better twist than, “It’s a metaphor, lol.”