Although he receives less attention in the American press
than he deserves, Shinichiro Watanabe ranks among of the most intriguing directors
working in animation, as the recent broadcast series Terror in Resonance (2014) proves. Cowboy Bebop remains one of the touchstone series in the history of
anime, but instead of repeating a successful pattern, Watanabe struck out in
new directions with the cultural mash-up of Samurai
Champloo and the jazz-themed warmth of Kids
on the Slope. If he seemed to be working below his potential in Space Dandy, Terror in Resonance proves he’s still an exceptional storyteller.
Teen-agers Arata “Nine” Kokonoe (Christopher Bevins) and
Toji “Twelve” Hisami (Aaron Dismuke) steal what’s believed to be plutonium from
a remote nuclear plant in a elaborate heist, leaving the word “Von” as the only
clue. They quickly move to Tokyo, where they begin a series of bombings. They
even destroy one of the landmark skyscrapers that house the city administration.
But Arata and Toji are singularly unconventional terrorists.
They take great care not to kill or inure anyone: They trigger a fire alarm to empty
the municipal building before they detonate the bomb. And prior to each bombing,
they release a video with a riddle that reveals where they’re going to strike.
The videos refer to the riddle of the sphinx and the myth of Oedipus. The
police are baffled–except for Shibazaki (Robert McCollum), an irreverent
detective who understands the references and can match the terrorists at their own
game. (Although he was the force’s ace investigator, Shibazaki was demoted to
record-keeping when he angered a power conservative politico.)
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As the terrorism campaign continues, the stakes grow higher
and the motivation for the attacks is revealed. Arata and Toji are orphans who
survived a series of illicit experiments involving a drug designed to give them
the highly focused abilities shown by some children on the autism spectrum, but
without the attendant limits and social problems. Are they out for revenge or do
they have another motive?
As he did in both the Cowboy
Bebop series and theatrical feature, Watanabe skillfully builds the suspense
to a dramatic climax that is both more and less than the typical
action-adventure explosion fest. The resolution of the story is not a happy one,
but it’s true to the characters, which feels more satisfying.
Many of the components of the story are anime standards: the
use of children as guinea pigs by sinister corporations with the collusion of the
Japanese government, the misuse of technology, the behind-the-scenes
intervention of US forces, the right-wing political cabals, the lone anti-hero.
But Watanabe avoids the clichés, bringing new life to the familiar elements.
Arata and Toji emerge
as clearly defined individuals, who could be cold-blooded terrorists–or the wronged
victims of an unspeakable plot. Their complicated relationship with troubled
high school student Lisa Mishima (Jad Saxton) adds depth to the characters. And
their conflict with Five (Jamie Marchi), the only other survivor of the
experiments, turns into an exciting game of cat-and-mouse—or cat-and-cat, as
it’s not always certain who is menacing whom.
In some ways, Detective Shibazaki resembles Watanabe’s two
great anti-heroes, Mugen in Samurai
Champloo and Spike Spiegel in Cowboy
Bebop. They’re all wounded lions, noir-ish figures with an edge and a past.
But Shibazaki is a three-dimensional character in his own right.
Some fans have compared Terror
in Resonance to Tetsuro Araki’s Death
Note (2006), and the potentially deadly game of riddles and classical
references Arata and Toji play with Shibazaki recalls the struggle between the
brilliant detective L and the self-righteous Light in the earlier series. But
Watanabe’s skill at creating complex characters makes Resonance more interesting and vital. Unlike L, Shibazaki has a life
outside his job; and although Light began as a decent high school student, he
devolved into a megalomaniacal vigilante, using the supernatural power he’d
acquired to eliminate anyone he disapproved of. Arata and Toji remains
sympathetic figures, despite the destruction they cause.
Terror in Resonance
is only 11 episodes long. Watanabe recongizes the story he’s telling has an
optimal length, and he doesn’t pad it to fit the usual 13-episode format. As he
did in his earlier series, he leaves viewer wanting more. In an era of tiresome
sequels and seemingly endless franchises, it’s refreshing to see an animated
story that ends when it should, rather than dragging audiences after exhausted
characters who seem weary of their own adventures.
Terror in Resonance: Complete Series
(Funimation: $64.98 Blu-ray/DVD, 4 discs)