Kekkai Sensen has been one of the great unknowns of the Spring schedule for me, a series from a great studio (Bones) with a hugely promising young director (Matsumoto Rie, Kyousousgiga) from a legendary mangaka (Nightrow Yasuhiro, author of Trigun). The staff and cast are off the charts, generally speaking. Yet I know more people that seem to dislike the manga than I’m comfortable with, and that’s given me considerable pause as I try to figure out just what my expectation level for the anime should be.
Cue the premiere, and while I would say it was a bit of a mixed bag on balance, my overall take is very positive indeed. My feeling based on one episode is that the vision of the director is very prominent here, as we see a lot of the same frantic visual style, absurdity and comic timing in Blood Blockade Battlefront that we did in Kyousougiga. But just as much as that series, what I was reminded of was Baccano! – for obvious reasons like the New York setting and jazz soundtrack, but also because of the jazzy attitude running through the piece and the way Matsumoto connected the dots (albeit loosely) and jumped around in the timeline. Baccano! was like a jazz composition in a way – it felt improvised, yet in the end one could see how everything fit together. And there’s something of that in Kekkai Sensen, at least for a week.
A combination of Baccano! and Kyousougiga sounds a pretty heady mix – those are two series I love dearly. And mostly this works in the premiere, as it seems to me that Matsumoto’s vision is a pretty good match with Nightrow’s. One could also say that this premiere had a vintage Gainax feel, though the mention of Kyousougiga makes that almost redundant as that was the most Gainax show since Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. We’ve seen other shows recently try and bottle that magic – Rolling Girls and Yoru no Yatterman spring to mind, along with that one by the director who should know better – and fail pretty miserably. But to me, the eventual failure was obvious a the start of those shows – they had the basic template roughly copied, but none of the spirit and soul, none of the cool factor Whatever “cool” is, Kekkai Sensen has it. Kyousougiga had it, Baccano! had it, vintage Gainax had it. Going through the motions doesn’t mean you have it – it just makes you a poser. Matsumoto’s pedigree makes it clear she understands the kind of show she’s trying to make here, and the success in pulling it off in the first episode gives me considerable hope.
As to what’s actually going on here, I have to say as someone who hasn’t read panel one of the manga, I have very little clue. But you know, that’s fine – can anyone honestly say they had Kyousougiga figured out after the ONAs? We know that New York is inside some kind of dimensional bubble and is now known as “Jerusalem’s Lot” (nice nod to King there), and that humans are trapped inside with a bunch of rejects from the cantina scene in Star Wars. We know (from his own words, in a letter to his kid sister) that the protagonist is a “shrimp” with no self-confidence who’s gone to Jersusalem’s Lot and seen his lot change. And we know that JL is a chaotic, violent clusterfuck that gives Matsumoto-sensei and her crack team of visual artists (mostly Bones and Gainax vets) a fantastic canvas on which to paint.
I’m not generally nuts for Sakaguchi Daisuke, but he seems well-cast as Leonardo Watch (the crazy names are another reason for the Baccano! vibe). Something happened during a visit to the border of JL with his sister (who’s never been able to walk) Michaela (Mizuki Nana) and parents, resulting in Leonardo hating himself as a coward and now having “God’s Eyes” which he perpetually keeps closed. He’s broke, searching for some kind of answers whose nature we don’t fully know, and hangs out at a diner patrolled by waitress Vivian (Sawashiro Miyuki). One day his camera is stolen by a “sonic monkey” and the chase ends with his almost being killed in an explosion and being found by Zapp Renfro (Nakai Kazuya), who mistakes him for a dead person named Johnny Landis.
Landis was apparently supposed to join the group Libra (pronounced like “library” and not the astrological sign), which is headed by Klaus von Rheinherz (Koyama Rikiya), with assistance from Zapp and Chain Sumeragi (Kobayashi Yuu). Just what Libra does besides pull off fantastic swordfighting poses is unclear, but they’re apparently some sort of principled resistance group trying to maintain peace and order by kicking asses. There’s also Femt (Ishida Akira at his most trollingly outlandish), like Klaus an extra-dimensional being and seemingly focused on relieving his bordeom by fucking with people. This chance meeting between Leonardo and Libra is seemingly the butterfly flapping its wings for the rest of the story, though just how the pieces fit together is still a mystery.
All of this is, as a I said, a mess – but I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be. We’re not supposed to understand all of it, not yet, and that frees us up to enjoy the ride. And a hell of a ride it is, a real rollercoaster of dizzying speed, slo-mo, violence and visual humor. The exposition at the start is clumsy, but like Baccano! Kekkai Sensen sort of makes a joke of it. Simply put this show looks and sounds fantastic, and it’s a great deal of fun. It will need to do more soon enough, and perhaps that’s where we’ll find out whether the source material does indeed have shortcomings that will hamstring the anime. There’s so much talent on display in the premiere, though, that I’m feeling pretty good about this series’ chances.