By Andy Hanley.
When Sting sung about being a legal alien in his song Englishman in New York, he was in fact alluding to the story of gay icon Quentin Crisp’s experiences in the city. However, the broader sentiment of feeling completely lost and adrift in a place which seems so far removed from the comforts of your own is one that will resonate with many, and for historical reasons and has often become the centrepiece for tales which focus on bewildering melting pots of civilisation at the core of their narrative.
You certainly won’t find a melting pot that runs much hotter than the New York imagined by Blood Blockade Battlefront, for this is a city that has a portal to another dimension. The result has been an outpouring of weird and wonderful creatures that have made the city their home in an area which has now become known as Hellsalem’s Lot, and with no option to turn them away, these interlopers have instead been allowed to integrate. In short, think Men in Black meets Space Dandy, and never mind whether they take coffee or tea, the dietary requirements of these legal aliens don’t bear thinking about.
Into this teeming mass extra-terrestrial oddities stumbles Leonardo Watch, a young man who has a very personal stake in Hellsalem’s Lot, given its effect on both him and his sister. In fact, it’s the unique power imbued unwillingly within him when the other-worldly portal was opened that drags him into joining a group known as Libra, self-appointed super-human arbiters of justice in cases where the police can do nothing more than run for their lives.
There are vast unchecked powers at work in Hellsalem’s Lot, and it’s now his job to help pick them out and resolve them. When the boundary between friend and enemy becomes as fluid as that between human and alien, Leonardo takes centre stage as the unwitting key that could unlock even more chaos across the city if his powers were to fall into the wrong hands.
I can’t help but draw parallels between Blood Blockade Battlefront and perennial classic Cowboy Bebop – a comparison which even the series itself seems to ultimately revel in, with its penultimate episode’s offering some overt nods in an episode knowingly titled Paint it Black. It isn’t difficult to trace these comparisons back in terms of the show’s staff either, produced as it is by Studio BONES, themselves born from Sunrise in the wake of Bebop’s success, and both with character designs from by Toshihiro Kawamoto.
But Blood Blockade Battlefront also provides a similar experience to Cowboy Bebop in terms of its style and story – Leonardo Watch is no Spike Spiegel, but the show’s broadly episodic outlook entwined with an on-going story allows the series to explore its fascinating world in ways that can be touching one moment and hilarious the next, yet always engaging and entertaining.
Whether you’re laughing at the antics of idiotic fellow Libra member Zapp Renfro or shedding an unexpected tear at the story of a little alien and his love of hamburgers, there’s never a dull moment in this series – or rather, it may be the case that there are dull moments within Blood Blockade Battlefront, but each and every one of them is hidden expertly beneath a layer of stunning visuals and fantastic direction that is almost unsurpassed in TV animation. Young director Rie Matsumoto, who cut her teeth on the likes of Precure and the brash and colourful surrealism of Kyousougiga, has done a simply astounding job here. Whether it’s breathing untold life into a mere game of chess, sending character names and those of their attacks crashing onto the screen in eye-catching fashion a la Kill la Kill, or ensuring that every bustling street or restaurant of Hellsalem’s Lot is teeming with life and activity, every shot is a feast for the eyes. At a time when many anime series employ empty cities and streets as a stylistic and budgetary choice (see SHAFT’s Monogatari series as a prime example of this), the desire to bring authenticity to its world is not only commendable but also eye-popping– I wouldn’t blame you for watching episodes a second time simply to pick up on little things you’ve missed in the backdrop.
At times you could accuse this visual treatment to be a case of style over substance, but there’s still more than enough in terms of narrative and character development to back up the show’s impressive visuals, and fans of Trigun in particular will detect a similar revelling in American culture, born from its writer who also penned Blood Blockade Battlefront’s original manga, Yasuhiro Nightow.
The only question mark over the series at the time of writing is how it all ends – the final episode of the series has been delayed indefinitely, both to finish its production and to find a suitable venue to air it in, given that its staff feel that this last instalment needs a longer running time than a traditional TV anime slot can offer to do the story justice. No matter how its finale pans out, Blood Blockade Battlefront is a real treat that shouldn’t be missed – we can’t guarantee that it’ll be talked about in the same revered tones as Cowboy Bebop in a decade or two’s time, but it’s certainly done all it can to provide an experience that lives long in the memory.