Black Rock Shooter

Released in July of 2010 after some amount of hype, Black Rock Shooter is an OVA scripted by the respected Nagaru Tanigawa (Haruhi Suzumiya novels) and directed by relative newcomer Shinobu Yoshioka.  Although there isn’t much to anticipate from Yoshioka’s side—seeing as how he’d mostly worked as staff on other projects but none featured him in a leading role—Tanigawa’s involvement is enough to spark most fans’ interests.  Well, any who has enjoyed the Haruhi Suzumiya franchise, both its television series adaptations and original novel source material.  Although the storyline of the novel series hasn’t yet reached completion, Tanigawa has proven himself a capable writer with Haruhi’s rather intriguing thriller-like narrative, balancing the serious against the mundane with what seems like effortless ability.

So although expectations for Black Rock Shooter may have been somewhat high, I don’t mean to imply that anyone was expecting the next Yuasa artfilm out of this OVA.  At the most, a thrilling, action-packed, balanced story with at least marginally strong characters were of foremost importance and likely guaranteed based on Tanigawa’s track record.  And suffice to say, these aspects were certainly delivered—just not that well.  For all of its pretenses and for everything it DID manage to do well, Black Rock Shooter remains surprisingly unremarkable and dull.

Mato, cheerfully looking forward to the first day of high school.

It begins in media res, with battle-hardened girls swinging weaponry around in some desolate, foreign, surreal landscape covered in gothic decoration.  Then it smash cuts into the life of a school girl.  Then it smash cuts back to the fighting girls.  And then back again to the school girl.  At first glance, this gives the impression that the narrative is actually two seemingly unrelated narratives intercut without discernable reason or motive.  One involves two high school girls living an idyllic life in the city, getting along well, and developing a bond of friendship.  The other involves a growing list of flat-chested battle lolis attacking each other in some alternate dimension where dialogue is nonexistent and battle sequences abound.  While the two narratives aren’t entirely unrelated, the problem with this approach manifests in the confusion surrounding what, exactly, the work was actually saying.  But for now, let’s focus on the primary plotline of the story: the friendship between Mato, a cheerful average high school girl, and Yomi, the somewhat isolated newcomer from abroad.

Yomi, waiting patiently for her friend.

For awhile, things between Yomi and Mato are wonderful, as they spend long days together being girls and doing whatever it is girls of that age tend to do.  Club activites, studying together, hanging out over breaks, everything delivered in a well-placed montage communicates the general feel.  However, when Yuu, the manager of the basketball club that Mato belongs to, begins to get closer to Mato, an unintentional wedge between Yomi & Mato is driven.  At first, only Yomi notices as she is slowly and seemingly supplanted, but when she begins consciously distancing herself from her friend, Mato notices only too late.

So Mato sends a detached text message, one that appropriately hides the sincerity of the worry she feels yet still pushes out like fingers a tenderly brushing over a bruise.  She waits patiently for a response that doesn’t come, she guards her phone like a watchdog in case it does, she remains painfully aware of how ambiguous some friendships turn out to be.  It isn’t a matter of jealousy or hatred, nor ever was it; it’s merely an example of a lack of communication, a shut-in cyclical thought pattern of denial, detachment, and delusion, all brought on by a fear present in the various contradictions of interaction.  Real-life analogues of this kind of thing are common occurrences, and often there are no real conscious decisions behind the disintegration of bonds.  People come and go and fall out of contact all the time, and though some friendships can survive, close personal interaction does take effort.  Bonds sustained out of convenience will inevitably fall to pieces once that convenience disappears.

Well, it turns out that Yomi had disappeared.  There’s some drama with a pair of detectives, some rumors that fly at school, the looming possibility that she was kidnapped, but it’s obvious that the ambiguity of the situation is what bothers everyone, Mato included.  It parallels the the ambiguity of their friendship, and in doing so, that very ambiguity is suddenly blown up to a suffocating level that dominates the tense atmosphere of the latter half of the work.

Black Rock Shooter, being dark and grim and serious in a dark, grim, and serious place.

In the mean time, intercut among several interchanges between these three girls are the surreal battle sequences among flat-chested champions.  Early on, it’s apparent that the character models are recycled, but unclear as to whether this denotes some kind of metaphorical conflict, a dream sequence, or perhaps some unforeseen plot development.  It turns out to be a combination of all three, with liberties.  By intercutting these battles between lapses in conversations, montages of the girls getting along and living life, and generally feel-good scenes about the nature of friendship, Black Rock Shooter is inevitably drawing comparisons to friendship and battle—two innately contradictory ideas, though not by any means unrelated.  And as the story progresses, it becomes clear that these aren’t just metaphorical encounters, either; some sort of ambiguous trippy magic happens that propels Mato into the role of the Black Rock Shooter as she searches for Yomi, who had apparently been possessed by an equally ambiguous shadow.

On the surface, this narrative sounds like it could have the capacity to be a remarkably complex depiction on friendship, bonds, and social interaction, and that isn’t wholly untrue; it does have the capacity for that.  Whether it succeeds in exploring these aspects is a whole different problem, because due to both its runtime and its writing, it never explores any of its more thought provoking qualities and basks forever in its utterly ambiguous nature.  It’s a simple tale of redemption from despair through the power of friendship, and there’s nothing wrong with it remaining as such, but the way this story was presented did not demand the intentionally vague and confusing narrative.  Nonlinearity is a method of storytelling that reaps its rewards only when there is sufficient need for the story to be presented as such, and in Black Rock Shooter’s case, it only works to the tale’s detriment.  A little more subtle development would have been necessary to avoid the pit of rampant pretentiousness that the narrative falls into.

The animation isn't bad, but most of the cinematography is about as interesting as a bad music video.

For the parts that matter—namely, the animation, art direction, general design work, and CG integration—Black Rock Shooter is great.  Some of the action leaves a little to be desired, such as the opening inexplicable fight scene between Black Rock Shooter and an unnamed character.  The quality of the scene itself is fine, but the choreography of their battle did little to take advantage of any possible tension or suspense.  It was flat and uninspired, despite the surreal backdrop and wonderfully animated scenes of destruction.  Good, but puzzlingly unremarkable.

Unfortunately, that statement describes a great deal of the whole work.  It’s technically well-shot and decently edited, the narrative is strongly paced and the characters are well-developed for their short time on screen; the only somewhat tiresome aspects the work possesses is the soundtrack, which remains far too predictable and dull, and the uninspired surrealism present in the Black Rock Shooter sequences.  But despite everything Black Rock Shooter technically does right, the problem is that none of these parts form to make something great.  It’s good, but not nearly as good as it could have been, and I think this stems from the convoluted nature of its narrative.  If there can be only two words to describe it, those words would definitely be “wasted potential”.

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About Merridian
Merri lives with his wife in the USA. He is a happy human being. He wrote for Forced Perspective while the project was active, and he is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of QNUW. His newest project is YNRI // Transcendence, dedicated to poetry, short fiction, and artwork.

One Response to Black Rock Shooter

  1. Ellysey says:

    Eh?!

    So Black Rock Shooter has an OVA now? Really surprised to hear that. :O
    I mean, does it even have a story basis? ..Oh. I guess they just made the story up huh? (Based on your post, am I right?)

    Well.. It looks interesting though. The art is gorgeous and the story seems interesting. :) I think I’ll watch it. :D

    Thanks so much for the heads up. ^^

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