It sounds almost like a thought experiment; if a typical individual is immersed in an abnormal environment, do they cease to be normal? Blood Blockade Battlefield poses the question, but comes up short on answers. With ‘normal’ characters in anime, there’s an inescapable sense of ‘they doth protest too much’. Our protagonist, the gutsy Leonardo Watch, is a walking, talking example.
There’s a sort of love/hate relationship with Americana in anime, homage in one corner and outright ridicule in the other. Yet nowhere has there been an American city captured with the kind of gusto as in Blood Blockade Battlefront. Although some real locations are recreated to the letter, the New York of the series is wildly different. A gate beneath the city opens up to an alternate world, unleashing a menagerie of strange beasties and transforming the city into the newly dubbed Hellsalem’s Lot. This new New York (not to be confused with Futurama) is enveloped in mushroom cloud of fog, and whether read as a parable for 9/11 or a mirroring of the Hiroshima bombing, it’s a subversive political statement. Leo describes this anarchic hodgepodge as where the “abnormal is normal”, and over the course of the 12-episode arc, anything goes.
Leo’s the proverbial fish out of water, claiming normalcy and racked with guilt. Although he has the enviable, self-explanatory power ‘All-seeing Eyes of the Gods’, it came at the cost of his sister’s own eyesight. Talk about equivalent exchange. He turns photojournalist, bumming around trying to find some answers to his strange new gift, and how to restore his sister’s sight. He claims he’s there to hone his craft, until a sonic monkey pilfers his camera and leads him to Libra, a society of super-powered people who keep the peace. Unsurprisingly, Leo is brought into the fold.
Although the sprawling city is in constant peril, the overall story is one of personal stakes blown up to the size of skyscrapers. Others have argued that Blood Blockade Battlefield is a case of style over substance, the story coming up short. But that’s doing a massive disservice to the likable characters and their criss-crossing connections. No one can deny that the stylish flair, art direction and sound design are nothing short of excellent. The fact that studio Bones adapted Trigun creator Yasuhiro Nightow’s manga says enough about its style, but its huge cityscapes and kaleidoscopic visuals have more in common with SHAFT’s Madoka Magica than much of its own oeuvre. It’s not all flashes of the avant garde, as the goofy action will attest. One episode is storyboarded by My Hero Academia director Kenji Nagasaki. And it’s all brought together by savvy director Rie Matsumoto, who’s on her way to becoming one of the greats.
It’s on the audio side that the series truly excels, with a swing soundtrack that could give Cowboy Bebop a run for its money. The opening and closing tracks, from Bump of Chicken and Unison Square Garden respectively, are terrific anthems to bookend each installment. In one outing, Libra’s chief Klaus von Reinhertz (who somehow looks like both Wolverine and Beast) bets his own life in a game against an unbeatable opponent. It’s an episode that simultaneously uses Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ while playing fast and loose with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. What other anime can claim that?
Bonus points to anyone who picked up on the references to Twins and Scanners.
Extras: English dub; episode 10.5; clean opening/closing animation; interviews with English speaking cast.