Director: Shinobu Yoshioka
Screenplay: Mari Okada
Voice Cast: Kana Hanazawa (as Mato Kuroi); Kana Asumi (as Yū Kōtari); Miyuki Sawashiro (as Yomi Takanashi); Eri Kitamura (as Kagari Izuriha); Mamiko Noto (as Saya Irino); Manami Numakura (as Arata Kohata)
Synopsis: At junior highschool, Mato Kuroi meets a quiet girl in her class called Yomi Takanashi, a bond developed between them undercut by Yomi's relationship with Kagari Izuriha, a housebound friend of Yomi's who has an unhealthy attachment to her alongside control through emotional manipulation. This problematic triangle opens out to include Yū Kōtari, Mato's best friend, Arata Kohata, the tomboy head of the basketball team, and Saya Irino, the guidance councillor for the students, all connected to another world where a mirror of Mato's called Black Rock Shooter fights other girls like her with superhuman abilities.
Black Rock Shooter is a difficult series to gauge, a work with immense ambition but also one that can be argued tries to bite on too much in terms of only having eight actual episodes being available at hand to tell a story, especially one that melds genres for a very emotionally deep plot. There's also the issue whether, based on a multi-media creation that went through videogames and manga already before this series came out, this spin-off could pull off something emotionally potent or is going to collapse into a half-hearted attempt on its subject matter. The Sword of Damocles hangs over this series and it's called Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011), both of them about the angst of young teenage girls being filtered into fantastical figures with potentially fatal consequences for those involved. Despite all the tie-ins and cute merchandising, Magica is an incredibly dark story which takes the magical girl trope, girls able to transform into magic welding heroines to fight monsters, and makes it a Faustian pact with real death and razor lined plot twists that tear the heart out of a viewer's chest. Black Rock Shooter, in its first episodes, is an odd two sided mirror.
As the drama of Mato's life unfolds, her emotional strife is shown through a heightened mix of videogame action and Gothic surrealism where fantastical feminine figures fire hundreds of clips of ammo at each other in apocalyptic fairytale wasteland, all of which is coordinated by Kill La Kill director Hiroyuki Imaishi. It's closer, at first, to Zack Synder's infamous live action film Sucker Punch (2011), where the emotions of its lead at specific times suddenly surge into fantasy action mini-sodes where pop culture tropes - school girl outfits, steampunk zombies, dragons - are all thrown together. The difference is that with Black Rock Shooter, there's an even more jarring change in that the real life scenes are played as melodrama set in a high school and that the world with Black Rock Shooter filters through imagery from that life, not only in the girls mirrored by doppelgangers, (horns, black trench coats, giant robot fists etc.), but also details like doll house imagery to macaroons being reinvented as giant explosive ammunition for a one girl tank carrier.
[Spoiler Warning. Skip if you don't want to know plot details]
As the series progresses, this mirroring starts to connect more. The truth is that Saya, the guidance councillor, starts to become sinister as she purposes pushes female students into becoming more despondent and traumatised, the effect being their mirror selves become more monstrous and powerful in the other world. This continues in that, in reality, she is part of an unorthodox emotional treatment where when these other versions are killed the traumas literally die in the girls in real life, a form of amnesia surrounding anything that triggers the emotions for them but able to cope without any emotional pain thereon. It's never explained how the other world actually came to be, which is for the benefit of avoiding the show tripping over itself in convoluted exposition it didn't need, but the streamlined nature of the sole eight episodes means that this is definitely a premise which could've easily stretched out to a more longer story. Whether it'd actually work or not is up to debate, but at least with what's here there's an interesting attempt at depicting how traumas work - jealously, the sense of being unwanted like for Yomi, heartbreak like for Arata, Mato herself realising she runs away from any personal pain of her own rather than for others etc. - made more poignant with the common motif of a childhood book with a very sober ending about a bird which collects the colours of emotion only to become blackened by them and die. The decision to depict this through CG aided action scenes is an odd choice here as the juxtaposition is one you have to suspend disbelief with even if its expanded upon, a show like Magica having more of a chance with thirteen episodes to weave these types of genre combinations more snugly together.
What's odd about the action related scenes is that, while tied up in a perfect bow at the end in terms of its plot, it's a chamber piece with only six characters of importance, five of them including the protagonist Mato young teenage girls, Saya the sole adult and also female. Even though it has other characters, and one sub-plot about unrequited love for a boy, it's a fascinating story to examine as its literally a character piece about five girls having to adjust to their own emotions as they become more adult. These types of subjects are common in anime and manga, blended into other genres, but this type of drama is not always this melodramatic as well. It's also interesting that a lot of these types of plot - about frayed friendships, traumas, running away from personal anxieties - are usually surrounding female characters only, one of the only distinct examples of a male going through such severe emotional currents being Shinji through the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise. This is important here as, with a female screenwriter in Mari Okada able to bring more sincere depth to this type of drama about teenage girls, there is an unfortunate danger of cliché thick through Black Rock Shooter which under serves the great concept of such an internal drama having such a bombastic and frankly absurd outer coating. Sadly the show by its end used emotional shorthand for its last episode, which mars what good it builds up beforehand, when it could've taken more risks with its premise, like Magica or a series like Kunihiko Ikuhara's Mawaru Penguindrum (2011), in using its more "out-there" imagery and genre blending for depicting the emotions of its characters.
This show does take its emotional current further into the hyper-emotion which differs it from the clichés, helping it a lot more - such as Kagari turning into a character from What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) when she threatens to Yomi to throw herself down a flight of stairs - but particularly with the ending, where only eight episodes to work with causes it to have to work hard to tie up the conclusion, there's moments where it falls a little bit below expectations because of the aforementioned emotional shorthand, ideas of believing in oneself and others that is something you really expect Western animation to fall foul of when Japan anime tends to have a more layered attitude to such a concept even for a happy ending. It makes sense in anime and manga to deal with issues of adolescent angst, clear there's a reason why its constantly depicted in terms of reflecting real life emotions the creators likely had but maximalised to a greater level, but Black Rock Shooter does balance precariously between the serious and the hollow in its drama because of its ending, spoiling it a little. For everything that works, such as Saya's kind hearted adult who offers cups of coffee to everyone turning more creepy as she keeps appearing, its ending feels like a cop out when it was working up to something more rewarding.
Artistically this is an exceptional show, which helps soften the clichés further with some imagination behind how the drama is depicted. The other world is suitably freakish but in a beautiful, part Gothic Lolita but with sci-fi and post-apocalyptic aesthetics mixed in the best sort of way, anime and manga having a great knack for their own hybrids of aesthetic and pop culture style to make evocative imagery. From giant red irises eyes occasionally opening in the sky like a god looking down on the land to the near monochrome environment of rock chasms and mountains with mixes of bold colour in-between, the use of metaphors for the real world while obvious in their depictions helps add a greater weight to the content. By being so blatantly metaphorical, the disconnect between the mirroring plots is less out-of-place but entices the viewer to watch on to see how they work together. Musically, while its J-pop, the score is appropriate melancholic, and in a great little detail that shows how more taken care of the show is, the show occasionally plays establishing vocals and notes in the pre-credit openings that immediately jumps into the song for the opening credits like a prelude, adding a sense of grandeur to the procedures.
Whether this all culminates into a great TV series however is up to debate, taking in a lot of clichés alongside great aspects to get to its finale. The ending is a large part of why the show does feel flawed, and if it had more time to be more detailed, or an alternative ending was written, a lot of the problems in the show would've been covered up. I still find a great deal to love in Black Rock Shooter, its masala mix of horned, trench coat or black metal armoured Goth Lolita costumes fighting each other and high school drama a brave attempt at something original. It doesn't take as many risks as it should and the problems are clearly visible but it's a an admirable attempt regardless.