First Impressions – Kekkai Sensen

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That was one fascinating mess.

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.

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  1. D

    This premiere was incredibly wacky, but carried a lot heart. I feel like it's going to incredibly touching at some points. Either way, that heart was noticeable and made this my favorite premiere of the season. The episode just went by way too quickly. Not as in rushed, but I'm craving for more.

  2. "Incredibly wacky but carried a lot of heart" would be a good description of Kyousougiga, too. I think a big unanswered question about this show is how much of the final product will be Matsumoto, and how much Nightrow. As I said in the preview most of the feedback I hear about the manga isn't all that good.

  3. Z

    Somehow I don't think I'll like it… I mean I thought Trigun was pretty fun in my earlier days but I've moved on. And a mix of and a mix of Ryohgo Narita (DRRR!!) and Rie Matsumoto sounds unpalatable, personally speaking.

  4. w

    Aw man, accidentally deleted my own comment so I'll be brief:
    – It's been confirmed that Bones and MAtsumoto will be going an original route with the material (hopefuly not towards a.. Bones ending)
    – Most complaints I've heard about the manga have involved the messy plotting you've pointed out above, so if you're cool with that (I know I was), we should be golden.
    – Rolling Girls was awesome. Even if it was ineptly constructed. >_<
    – One would swear vintage Gainax invented animation, with the way almost anything with a bit of flair is labelled as an imitator. I know the influences are there, but it still bothers me…
    – Yes this show is awesome, I'm glad you enjoyed it too!

  5. s

    Is it weird that out of all the things that could get me hyped, it was the return of the black cat that got me hyped the most? For reference, said black cat appeared in every episode of Trigun as well. It's those little continuity nods that I really love, haha.

    Other than that, though, the premiere set all the right flags for me. It runs on the rule of cool, the OST is very good, something I didn't necessarily expect from Iwasaki Taisei who seems to be a newbie according to MAL, and in general it just feels… well, right. It's a bit funny how they gathered many voice actors from the Gintama cast though, so I expect some who watch both to be somewhat confused during watching this, I guess. With the combination of Bones and Nightow, I can sure rest assured that this'll deliver.

  6. Newbie he's not – Taisei has a long resume but it's not in animation. And yes, I did like the music here an awful lot.

    I just love what Matsumoto is doing as a director. Even if it weren't great to see a young female director making a splash when there are so few in anime, she'd be a shooting star on performance alone. She's the real deal.

  7. s

    Can't say much about Matsumoto yet – I haven't watched Kyousougiga so far, though it's in the list of the next 2~3 anime I'll probably watch, mainly to have a reference for this one here. It's mainly Nightow who attracted me to this anime – Trigun Maximum is still one of my alltime favorites, and Gungrave was pretty entertaining as well despite some shortcomings, so I'm expecting that I'll keep enjoying this one here as well. I mean, it really does feel like a mix of Men in Black, Baccano and FLCL so far. Can't see anything wrong with that at all.

    Ah, and wasn't aware of Taisei having a long resume, since I only checked on MyAnimeList. Back when the staff was announced I was initially hyped because I read Taku Iwasaki instead and was let down once I noticed my mistake, but now after the first episode I can say – I'm pretty glad it's Taisei instead.

  8. U

    Really enjoyed this premier. Lots of flair and solid execution in a way most anime nowadays fail to replicate. I get the Baccano Vibes from this too.

    It makes me wonder, if only Bones was picked for Durarara S2…. Who knows….

  9. A

    This was one big ol' mess albeit a very good looking one. I get the Baccano! vibe as well though I've never watched the other reference you spoke of. But in some ways I feel it reminds me of X'amd in that visually is really interesting but the story is so convoluted and plain messy that there is no point in watching anymore.

    All that said, I'm basing it off of one episode with no prior knowledge of the manga or the show so I'm hanging on for a bit but I'm effectively putting "the three episode" rule on this one. If by then it doesn't get it act together then I'm gonna drop it.

  10. S

    I really did love this episode. Then again, I'm a sucker for anything Rie Matsumo touches (post Pretty Cure, of course.) I did think the writing was fun, albeit a bit rushed, sloppy, and disjointed at times (maybe a product of the original manga?) The same could be said for the opening episodes of Kyousougiga (episode 0, specifically) and Baccano, so I'm not too discouraged. There's a strong sense of setting here, and the world is really visually convincing. It really sells this idea of a NYC inhabited by extraplanar creatures. The characters are fun, too- the lead hasn't entirely won me over yet, (though it's only the first episode,) but Femt's a riot, and the girl from the diner reminded me how much I like anime girls that act like actual people. Overall, it could end up falling on its face, but there's so much to like here, I have no qualms about putting my money on this one. It may not become a masterpiece, but I'm guessing it'll be the next Shingeki no Bahmut- and that's more than enough for me.

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