By Shelley Pallis.
The Royal Investigation Service calls in their top man, Keith Flick, to investigate a crime with a difference. A murderer is on the loose, targeting only the worst of criminals. But even criminals are under the protection of the law, and Flick is tasked with assembling the paltry evidence: the letter “B”, left at the scene of every crime. He’s poking around the latest crime scene when he and his erstwhile partner Lily get an emergency call: a clown has stolen a tank.
That’s only the beginning of B: The Beginning, a show described by Anime News Network’s Steve Jones as “off-the-wall bonkers and over-the-top, and I can’t help but be charmed by how desperately edgy it wants to be.”
“There were many things I wanted to try,” confesses anime director Kazuto Nakazawa. “There were a lot of things you could do in the olden days with TV series, which are not allowed to do now, so from the beginning, I kept saying to the producer that I wanted to try things I hadn’t done before. I wanted to do something, anything that showed what Japanese animation was capable of.”
Nakazawa’s project for Production I.G and Netflix began with a suggestion from producer Rui Kuroki that they should create a dark hero in the first fully original piece for I.G since the world-beating PSYCHO-PASS. One imagines that Kuroki probably had something in mind like the benign serial killer of Dexter, which wrapped on the Showtime network around the time that production began on B: The Beginning. But Nakazawa ran with the idea in a different way.
“The motif that really inspired me in this work was the colour black,” he says. “Did you know that the black of a formal kimono is blacker than any other black? Apparently, if you mix all the different colours of dye, black is what you get. I thought it was interesting that black is the sum total of all the different hues, and I had that in mind.”
As Spinal Tap might have said: how much more black could it be? Flick and his cohorts are put on the trail of men killed by poisonous gas, copycat killers that only throw them off the trail of the true murderer, superhuman opponents and a cult of killer clowns. Meanwhile, the show combines near-future computer technology with an oddly retro-aesthetic, acknowledging its overseas-funding with a setting derived not from Japan, but from the Mediterranean.
“The first place that came up was an Italian town called Cremona,” explains Nakazawa, “which isn’t really much of a tourist destination. It’s best known for making musical instruments, like violins. But we were also inspired by Cuba, where old cars are an everyday sight on the roads. There are many countries and towns with superior designs in the world, so I thought it would be interesting to mix them.
But Nakazawa kept coming back to the importance of darkness, pestering art director Takanori Tanaka to think of the absence of light in a new way. “Right from our first meeting,” remembers Tanaka, “he was saying that the light in Europe isn’t like that in Japan, because it has sheer darkness. He wanted to convey that somehow, and the request made an impression on me. I thought about how I could show it richly, using only silhouettes. I tried to keep in mind the atmosphere of the forests and lakeside out at Lake Tama and Lake Sayama, on the border between Tokyo and Saitama – away from artificial lights. The country and the region are different, but they gave me a guideline for the kind of world created by the light seen beyond darkness, as well as the way to express night that gets supplemented by the imagination of the viewer.”
As for some of Tanaka’s other designs, he worked with inspirations closer to home. “I only drew rough sketches for the RIS headquarters,” he admits, “but the lighting and size of the main room was based on the Production I.G main production room. As for the interior, I used the atmosphere of a café in Mitsubishi Ichigokan in Marunouchi, Tokyo, as reference.”
For Lily’s workshop, another important venue in the story, Tanaka was careful to limit the lighting in tune with Nakazawa’s policy. “I was conscious about natural light coming from the window, and its reflection on the floor in daytime to express an unconscious warmth. But from the evening into the night, we suppressed the brightness, which made it seem too dark to actually work in real life. Instead, I emphasised the atmosphere – putting focus on the character even if it would be unrealistic.”
But B: The Beginning doesn’t limit its lack of realism to lighting in workshops. Matt Schley complained in the Japan Times that it tried to combine mutually incompatible genres: the logical calculations of a police procedural, and the anything-goes quality of a supervillain fantasy, essentially featuring two protagonists in their own, only mildly-connected storylines. “What’s the point,” he muses, “of CSI-style deduction, after all, when the perps don’t even obey the laws of physics?” Then again, even he had to admit that Italian detectives taking down a coterie of knife-licking clowns was in the spirit of a number of big-name movies of recent years, not the least Suicide Squad, which similarly valorised the deeds of a bunch of anti-heroes. Which is probably why IGN Movies’ David Griffin was more forgiving, calling it:” a visually stunning anime with awesome action sequences and memorable heroes.”
B: The Beginning is screening as part of Scotland Loves Anime.