Kenneth Turan once side of Titanic, “It was best movie that was ever made from the worst script ever written”. Watanabe Shinichirou is no James Cameron – he’s a pretty good writer, for one thing – and this certainly isn’t the worst scripted anime ever (and FWIW, in the end it seems unlikely that Watanabe wrote it). But the larger point hits home for me – no matter how good the direction is, no matter how well a show is directed, no matter how lovely the music, if the writing doesn’t stand up to scrutiny there’s no way that show can ever be truly exceptional.
I’ll say up front that the last episode was one of the best episodes of the series, certainly the best since the arrival of Five on the scene. The ending was undeniably emotionally impacting, largely because of the way it was staged and because of the gorgeous music used for the closing credits. But the problem comes in when you start allowing yourself to think about what’s happening on-screen, because in addition to some serious missteps on the character side and a whole lot of xenophobia, it makes almost no sense.
Does that matter? Well, I suppose that’s in the eye of the beholder. Zankyou no Terror certainly doesn’t make less sense than say, Independence Day, or Air Force One. I would certainly never call either of those great movies, but to be fair to them I don’t think that class of film is trying for any degree of realism. The problem with Zankyou is that it’s presenting itself as something quite different than those popcorn adrenaline flicks – as if it’s trying to be a thoughtful and provocative political and sociological commentary. And heck, it even achieves that sometimes. But that puts the onus on it to avoid making absolutely no sense when it comes to most of its plot developments, because you just can’t have it both ways. If you want to be taken seriously, take your story seriously.
The first sign of trouble for me, in hindsight, was the conceit that no one was dying in these attacks by Sphinx. That irked me right from the beginning because it was clearly quite silly, and as the series was generally operating on a pretty high level in the first few episodes that incongruity really stood out. But that turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg, and the ending – poignant as it was – was really the cherry on top of the sundae (sorry for the mixed metaphor).
Let’s take the high-altitude nuclear explosion. OK, in itself that’s fine – the U.S. Military did indeed do such a test (it exploded a bomb at about 18,000 feet above the desert) and presuming this isn’t a “dirty bomb” (which is what true terrorists would likely try to build, but Nine and Twelve are no ISIS) it would indeed if detonated at 30-odd thousand feet cause a huge EMP powerful enough to knock out electronics but project its fallout into space. But what about the tens of thousands (that’s a guess) of people in hospitals, on life support? On dialysis, or ventilators? What about the planes that surely wouldn’t have been able to land in time, no matter how the episode just ignored that problem after bringing it up in the first place? What about the many people who would have died in the chaos and panic trying to flee Kanto in a matter of an hour?
It’s just silly, period – many people would have died in this incident, just as some would have died in Sphinx’ earlier attacks. The series would have been far better off accepting the reality that the boys were indeed killers, albeit ones who tried to limit the carnage and that society had royally screwed over, and arguably had a worthwhile goal in mind. That would have made them the morally ambiguous anti-heroes – tragic heroes, even – that it seemed briefly the series was setting them up to be. By (again) trying to have it both ways, the entire structural integrity of their story is compromised.
Then we have the ending itself, when the U.S. helicopters showed up at the ruins of the prison where the boys grew up. OK, making the Americans out to be cartoonishly evil is old news by now – “Just let ’em blow up the nuclear plants, not our problem.” But why in the world did they only shoot Twelve and not Nine (yes it’s obvious why for dramatic purposes but that doesn’t count)? And why in the world would they leave two witnesses who very likely knew most of what the boys knew, rather than blowing Shibazaki and Lisa away too and trying to Watergate the whole thing? It just doesn’t make any sense. And there’s too damn much in this show that doesn’t make any sense.
That’s a real shame, too, because the ending really called out that Zankyou no Terror had the seeds of a really good story that it didn’t quite have the chops or the guts to pull off. Twelve and Nine going back “home” to die – to live out the last of their days in childlike play (indeed, it seems that the same after-effect of the drug that killed Five was about to claim their lives too) as Japan sat silent and crippled and the questions they wanted asked started to be asked – that’s a powerful way to end the series. And if Lisa hadn’t been largely turned into a completely stock moe character with no development or backstory her finding a place where she belonged at last, with these ultimate outcasts, would only have made the scenes at the end even more powerful. As it was the final moments of the episode and the ending credits were fabulous, with the reveal of what “VON” really meant and the beautiful concert of image and music. It was a reminder of all the potential this series brought to the table, but only rarely realized.
Zankyou is going to be a tough one to categorize in the long haul. It’s certainly not as good as Watanabe-sensei’s last NoitaminA series Sakamichi no Apollon, but it does share the quality of having had individual scenes and moments that were among the most sublime in recent anime, but ultimately failing to come together as a whole (in Sakamichi‘s case because it was just too short to adapt the story from the manga). The relationship between Shibazaki and the boys was easily the best in the series, but it was largely abandoned for much of it, and Five’s presence made the entire middle third basically a washout. What matters more – how good a series is when it’s at its best, or what it is when you view all of it from start to finish, highs and lows alike? That too is in the eye of the beholder I suppose. I think both are important – what a show could have been, and what it actually was. And by that measure this one is decidedly a mixed bag, but as I’ve said before I’ll take a show with flashes of greatness over one that’s simply mediocre all the time.