Thoughts on the original OVA: here
Studio Ordet are likely here to stay, for while the full series of Black★Rock Shooter was a little disappointing, it was also extremely memorable, visually striking and really came into its own in its final two episodes. If this is what happens when KyoAni bow to pressure and fire one of their directors (Ordet being founded as a direct result of the backlash against Lucky★Star leading to director Yamamoto Yutaka being sacked), maybe they should do it more often.
Until near the end, I was finding Black★Rock Shooter something of a disappointment, which is why I fell out of the habit of watching each episode as it came out – the series ended back in March. It was, I felt, little more than the OVA stretched out a little and very slightly altered. After all, this series only got 8 episodes of prestigious noitaminA airtime, while the OVA was 50 minutes long – about 2 ½ episodes. And I wasn’t impressed by what was added.
One of the things I liked about the OVA was one of the things that I saw criticised most widely – the contrast between the exaggerated and fantastical world of Black★Rock Shooter and the rather mundane world of two girls, and how the small, rather silly problems of who is best friends with whom seem like the world-shattering battles that the alternate world makes literal. The very first episode of Black★Rock Shooter did all it could to destroy that nice subtle, observation by making the things that lead to the internal battles of the girls’ other selves generally screwed up: new character Kagari is a screwy wheelchair-bound Munchausen’s sufferer and masochist who is openly hostile when she meets young Kuroi Mato, making jibes involving macaroons and having loud screaming fits. This all gets translated to macaroon cannons and a creepy voice repeating ‘Kaere’ in Black★Rock Shooter’s world – it’s all just a bit too exaggerated to work and would have been much better if Kagari were subtly cruel and manipulative.
After the situation with Kagari gets resolved, the plot settles into a slight variation on the OVA’s – there, Mato and Yomi make friends, but Mato also making friends with Yuu causes a lot of tension. Here, Yuu and Mato have been friends a long time, and everyone’s relationships are manipulated by a creepy student counsellor at school – which is the stage at which I became a bit bored. I was also slightly saddened by the treatment of the sporty Kohata, whose story arc was pat and whose counterpart(s) in the other world didn’t impress at all.
However, it was all rather redeemed in the last two episodes where many things were revealed: the manipulative counsellor was hiding a connection with Yuu and had a very interesting relationship with her, told in a rather adorable flashback; Yuu herself was rather unlike what everyone had assumed; Dead Master was unexpectedly not going to have the role expected of her and there was actually going to be more of an explanation of who the characters in the other world were and why they looked like the main girls. While the OVA heavily hinted they existed independently of the girls and could simply enter their hearts – which made the physical resemblances as random as some of those in Kingdom Hearts – here, they were ‘other selves’ who take on the burden of physical pain for the girls, and when they are defeated, all the stored up pain disappears, though seems to take memories with it. This made for some interesting moral questions as to whether or not it was acceptable for the girls to offload their suffering, though some of the passive-suffering-while-another-fights when Mato became aware of the world was as creepy a glorification of suffering as anything in Loveless. Indeed, the series probably could have done without taking every opportunity to get its schoolgirl characters naked. It could be handwaved as showing their vulnerability, that they had been internalised by their counterparts, that they existed outside of any normal plane as something of an essence – but ultimately when it happens that much it just looks like fanservice.
That aside, the story ended up being quite an interesting and thought-provoking one and certainly better than I had expected at the beginning. The characters were likeable and the otherworldly designs were awesome – I had a particular fondness for the giant arms of Strength’s body (no matter who inhabited it). The CG work here was superb, cel shading good enough that most of the time it just looked like extremely dynamic hand-drawn animation, but allowed for great sweeping camera shots and those staples of girls-with-guns fans’ favourites: huge weapons and a rain of glowing bullets.
Perhaps it could have been more, and it got off to a bad start in my view, but its aesthetic was extremely memorable, its story turned out to be surprisingly strong for the limited number of episodes, and it eventually hit the right emotional notes. A near thing, but ultimately a success story.