Anime Theater: Black Cat

God, they all look like they work at a 50's gay bar...and we wouldn't have it any other way...

Imagine, if you will, the final lap of a 10 lap footrace. In front, you have the gold medalist. He’s obviously going to win, as everyone suspected from the start. And about 10 feet behind him, you have the runner up. The silver medalist, the guy who never really had a chance of winning, but by maintaining his pace he’s shown himself to be a respectable contender. No one will argue that he’s as good as the guy in first, but he’s won a few fans in the audience, and will be remembered fondly.

So they approach the finish line. The first place runner crosses with elegence and ease. The second runner up is about 5 feet from the line. He then shits his pants and falls down. Everyone sees it. His pants dirtied by the tragedy that just took place, he gets up and stumbles over the line, still the runner up. And the audience cheers apprehensively. Yeah, he still came in second, and the rest of his run was great. But holy shit, that ending. It’s kinda hard to forget that he SHAT HIS PANTS AND FELL DOWN.

That is what Black Cat is. For about 80% of its run, it is a perfectly likeable little show. It has a memorable, and frequently endearing, cast of characters, an appealing art style, good action scenes, some genuinely entertaining comedy, and is bolstered by one of the most rock solid dubs I’ve heard in a while. But then, all of a sudden, in the last fifth of the show, the whole thing shoots the fuck off its rails, becoming an absolute mess in the process. And it’s a real shame, because I actually liked this show a lot otherwise.

But let’s start from the beginning, shall we?

                                                Just a Stray Cat Wandering

Chronos is an organization dedicated to the preservation of the economic and moral balance of the world. Train Heartnet, our main character, is one of the “Numbers”, an elite group of hitmen who carry out Chronos’s dirtiest deeds, and are identified by a roman numeral tattoo somewhere on their person. They all wield weapons made from Orichalcum, the most powerful metal in the world, and are feared worldwide for their ruthlesness and skill. Even among this group, however, Train is uniquely lethal. He is Number XIII, the “Black Cat”, and is a sort of boogeyman even among the foulest of the underworld.

Like the other members, Train is superhuman. He uses a specially constructed gun to kill his targets. He moves with inhuman speed, grace and skill. And sinc ehis gun is made form the harders metal in the world, he can use it to deflect bullets fired at him. And he is utterly cold and efficient, traits that have made him a monster even when counted among the Numbers. That is, until he meets Saya Minatsuki, a kimono clad Sweeper (this universe’s bounty hunters) who is pure of spirit and whimsical of tongue. Because, of course, all bounty hunters are like this.

Armor? Pffft, screw that Boba Fett bullshit, real hunters wear easily spotable dresses and are full of whimsy and innocence!

She starts to rub off a little on Train, making him start to consider following his own morals as opposed to those of Chronos. This causes friction with the leaders of said organization, and goes over especially badly with Creed Diskenth, a “lesser” member of Chronos who is a little…obsessed with Train. When Creed decides to take action to reverse this change, and reveals himself to be far more dangerous than anyone could have imagined, things go south real quick.

So stuff happens (you can probably figure it, but I prefer to keep spoilers to a minimum) and after a timeskip, we eventually find Train traveling with some quirky companions of his own. First among them is Sven Vollfied, a sweeper in a very smooth suit who acts pretty much as the “Dad” of the group, keeping them on track and (mostly) out of trouble even though he’s only a few years older than Train. Although generally goofy, he is pretty effective in a fight, possessing numerous gadgets and a unique eye that he usually keeps hidden, but when uncovered, can actually see a little ways into the future.

Then there’s little Eve, a sort of artificial humanoid-thing of a little girl who is short on emotion, but extremely attached to Sven, the first person to ever treat her like a genuine little girl. She’s an adorably cold and aloof little thing, until she starts turning her limbs into sharp objects and trying to slaughter you if you harm a single hair on her surrogate father’s head. Her origins, and precise purpose form a subplot within the show that we’ll get into a little later.

The last, and frankly least important, member is Rinslet Walker, thief and sexpot extraordinaire. She serves as an information broker who frequently finds herself involved in the escapades of the group. She, being an older anime female, pretends to find them exasperating and annoying, but is actually quite fond of the group of misfits, and helps them out whenever she can.

Now, before we continue, I should point out that all of this was based strictly on the anime version of the story. I myself have never read the manga, but am aware that there are some pretty severe differences in terms of story and characterization. This review covers only the anime universe, and will only reference anime plot points and character developments. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s move on.

                                    Thirteen Problems, But a Cat Ain’t One

Oh, but the cast is quite a bit larger than just those four. It doesn’t take long for Creed to re-enter the picture, and this time, he has a legion of followers at his back, chief among them the Apostles of the Stars, a group of superhumans fanatically loyal to him. These run the gamut from ditzy Kyoko Kirisaki, a fire user with a retard crush on Train, to her partner Charden Flamberg, a fabulously dressed killer with a top hat who can control blood, all the way down to Durham Glaster, a sort of cyber gunman obssessed with being the best there ever was…in terms of gunmen.

Creed plans to use these supporters to take on Chronos, topple it, and lead the world in a new revolution. And to do this, he wants Train at his side. The problem is that, although Chronos may be more than a little tyrannical and Creed raises a few good points, he is also fucking insane, and no good will come of having him take over the world. He also got his hands on some serious mojo that enhances his already dangerous murder skills, including an invisible sword that he can extend at will, some body enhancements, some weird magic powers, and oh yeah, he is STILL FUCKING INSANE. 

Chronos is not taking this lying down, though, and the remaining numbers are also in the picture. The most important among them is Sephiria Arks, the beautiful but cold Number 1 of the group and undisputed leader who wields the world’s sharpest sword and can cut things so fast she makes no sound or trail. And then there’s Jenos Hazard, whose main power is his impossibly cool name but also has a glove that deploys a sort of razor wire that he can use to cut people to ribbons. He’s a bit of a womanizer, but has a unique moral code that, although not altering his choice of work, makes him a standout among the other Numbers. There are numerous others, all with alternately cool and stupid names and weapons (most notably a random dog who can speak like a human and has a steel tail that he uses to slash things), but those two are the ones you really need to know.

                                                      In Blackest Night

This cast of characters constitutes the greatest strength of the show. Almost without exception, every main hero and villain is either endearing or revolting to just the right degree. Train before the timeskip is a typical morose bishounen, but after he becomes a loveable goofball who is still capable of kicking your ass across three different continents. Jason Liebrecht lends both versions just the right combination of grave seriousness and goofy loveability. Sven, meanwhile, is almost always goofily exasperated with the shit he has to deal with acting as a sort of “caretaker” for Train, who is almost infantile in his attitude at times, and is played to perfection by Brandon Potter, yet another of my favorite underappreciated voice actors. Most of you will probably know him best as Kenji Harima from School Rumble, or as the minor but memorable character Detective Kurosawa from Darker Than Black. As in both of those, his gravelly voice contrasts well with the usually silly things he has to say and do, and he plays the whole thing with grand enthusiasm.

Then there’s Eve, who threatens to be a generic “emotionless android-type little girl who grows as a person through her travels” except for one very important difference: her relationship with Sven is one of my favorite things about the show. Early on, Sven rescues her from a life as a mere “weapon” under the use of a local crime lord. They meet, of course, in the typical cutesy way: Sven sees her in a park, and shares an ice cream with the awkward 11 year old with no parental supervision. After he rescues her, his relation to her becomes part big brother, part father and part little girl crush. She gets jealous when he gets too close to Train. She worries about him when he gets in trouble, and she pouts when he treats her like a child. And it’s because she’s otherwise played straight as the “emotionless child” type that these scenes are so completely endearing. For his part, Sven takes his role as guardian seriously, wanting the best for her, mostly a life not involving death or fighting, even if she doesn’t completely get why one thing or another is good for her. Rarely does a “guardian-ward” relationship strike me in an anime, but for some reason I really enjoyed the dynamic between them. As for her voice acting, Brina Palencia is in typically good form with her patented little girl voice, although she plays the more shy, awkward moments just as well.

On the antagonist end, we have Creed Diskenth. Hoo boy, Creed Diskenth. If there was ever a posterboy for the interplay of violence and sexuality, it’s this guy. I usually don’t note the whole “sexual tension between hero and villain” thing anymore, since it’s so common in these kinds of shows, but Creed plays it to a whole new level. He is VERY obviously excited whenever he fights Train, and is very much “In love with his violence”. He thinks that Train, in Black Cat mode, is the most beautiful thing in the world. And even more than his world conquering ambitions, Creed lives for the day when Train will be at his side killing once more. Oh, and he wears shit like this.

Apparently, he arrived at the Amadeus costume party dressed as a leather clad stripper doing his impression of a crow. I'm just kidding; there's no party, Creed just likes dressing like this...

 Voice acting-wise, Creed is played with relish and cheese, and several hotdogs, by Chris Patton, another of my favorite voice actors who is, tragically, mostly retired at the moment. Mr. Patton goes full keel on all his roles, be they deep and cerebral (Like Sato from Welcome to the NHK) or bombastic and fun (Greed from Fullmetal Alchemist). Here, he is in the latter and beyond. He plays Creed with so much oozing delight and sexually-charged madness that you worry that the microphone is just going to pass out.

The other antagonists are an interesting bunch as well, but to run down all of them would be too time consuming and spoiler-filled, so let’s stick with the big ones. Jenos is a smooth operateor, charming and sophisticated, but utterly ruthless when he gets a job. He’s definitely one of the more likeable characters in the show, and is played well by a very suave and confident sounding Troy Baker, who seems to revel in his character being just one step away from an anime James Bond. Meanwhile, the Apostles are a pretty enjoyable bunch, but really the only one with any appreciable development is Charden, who slowly starts to question just how much their fearless leader really cares about them, and Echidna Parass, a woman who is hopelessly in love with Creed, regardless of his being loonier than a season of Sailor Moon. For Charden, Kent Williams is typically great in his conniving, complex way, while Stephanie Young uses that sexpot voice she was born to use to great effect as Echidna.

The show is an interesting mix of dramatic action/storytelling and slapstick humor that makes liberal use of superdeformed charicatures of the leads. This leads to the show having a slightly schizophrenic feel that, although occassionally jarring, manages to give the whole thing a uniquely enjoyable mood. The story, although mostly standard, has a pretty strong conflict at the center. Since the events of a few years ago, Train has been living under a “no-kill vow”, similar to that of Himura Kenshin of Rurouni Kenshin. And it’s been easy enough to do, since also like Kenshin, Train has skills incredible enough to non-fatally outfight almost all comers. But when Creed re-enters the picture, the vow will be put to the test, not only for the safety of the world at large, but because of Train’s own bubbling rage at the events of the past. Will he continue to live in this new, happy-go-lucky way? Or will he give in to old impulses and take the vengeance he so craves…

                                                And so the Other Boot Must Fall…

Now, before we go any further, I must warn you that this section, although not completely ruining any of the plot threads, will have to skirt very close to spoiler territory, and occassionally dip into it, to make my point. If you are one of those who cannot stand to have even the slightest detail of a show ruined, then proceed to the next bold-faced paragraph title. You have been warned.

So this review has been, mostly, positive so far. I’ve had substantial praise to give for the characters, writing and universe. So you may, by now, be asking yourself why the opening was so severe in its metaphor. Well, as any writer will tell you, a bad ending to a story can taint even the most finely crafted masterpiece. And boy does this one taint.

By the end of Volume 5 (episode 20), the main conflict with Creed has been resolved. How it was resolved I will not tell you, but it has been enatly wrapped up in a way that, although not masterful, would allow me to satisfactorilly move on. All of a sudden, though, the writers seemed to realize that this was, in fact, a 24 episode anime and not a 20 episode one, and proceed to engage in the biggest villain asspull I have ever seen. Several characters who we have barely even seen, and some we’ve only slightly seen, all of a sudden go turncoat, and join together to do some evil deeds involving Eve and her barely alluded to purpose.

If this had been foreshadowed AT ALL, then it would have been acceptable. Not ideal, as we’ve had no time to know these guys and therefore the gravity of their actions is diminished, but I wouldn’t have as much of an issue. The thing about foreshadowing is that, as much as people mock it when it’s obvious, it’s a necessary part of many stories. It puts in place the elements to be used later on, so that when these elements do come to fruition, it doesn’t feel like the writer just wrote down whatever he was thinking at the time. 

However, they just spring this plot point on you at the end of episode 20, with the guy basically saying “Oh yeah, I’ve been doing stuff too!” and moving the story in this unbearably sloppy direction. Over the next three episodes, things just kind of…happen. I got WHAT was happening, and WHY, but I didn’t give a shit because the whole thing has just sprung out from nowhere.

But all of that, ALL of that, would be forgiveable if the last episode wasn’t the utter clusterfuck that it turns into. As mentioned above, the action scenes of Black Cat are quite good. Characters animate fluidly, and all the unique weapons and abilities make for some fun battles. But earlier on, the director took a strange approach to his action scene and actually decided to show the aftermath, with characters ruminating on the battle, while cutting back to the battle as it took place.

Now, this is not a bad idea, per se. It’s an interesting way to do your pivotal scene, and if done properly, can lend more weight to an already climactic battle. But, he didn’t quite do it that well, and so that battle felt a little clumsy. But everyone is allowed a few missteps, right?

The problem is, though, that he decided to use this technique for THE ENTIRETY OF THE LAST EPISODE. All of it, from front to back, is interspersed with these bits with the survivors talking about what just happened, usually before we know their fates. The issues with this are manifold. First of all, it muddies up an already muddled series of events. Some characters are fighting other characters in confusing settings, while others are having possible hallucinations, and jumping back and forth between past and present DOES NOT HELP when trying to figure out what’s happening where.

Perhaps more grievous is that it robs the whole final conflict of any emotional tension or weight. I know halfway through the episode who has survived and who hasn’t, and so it’s impossible for me to care what happens in the actual battle since I have been showed the ending already. If your battle was exciting or meaningful, then perhaps I’d still want to see HOW everything happened, but as said above, everything is so fucked up that I don’t really care. On a final note, Train, our main character, feels kind of out of place in this whole thing. Sure, Eve is dear to him, and of course he’d want to help. But it’s like they didn’t know where to put him, and so gave him some weird confrontation with a sort of vision of his dead mentor which seems like it was just placed there so he could say he did something.

It is stunning how badly the whole ending of this show was handled. If things had ended at their natural point, after the whole Creed incident, then the show would have been substantially better. But they chose to drag it out with a ill-conceived story filled with vaguely defined characters doing something for some purpose, while the writers and artists still tried to be creative in ways that just served to make things more messy and confused. Add to that one of the worst final episodes I have EVER SEEN, and the whole final part of the show is an utter disaster that manages to badly harm the show it should be wrapping up.

                                                     What’s New, Pussycat?

The music for the show, while not extraordinary, manages to fulfill its purpose reasonably well. More memorable are the opening and ending themes. The sole opening to the series, Daia no Hana, is a good mix of high energy instrumental with some melancholy lyrics, fitting the show’s mood.

There are two ending themes to the show. The first one is Namida Boshi, which despite the fairly mellow lyrics, is sung in a really upbeat tone and is coupled with one of the most entertainingly silly ending animations I have ever seen.

The second ending, Kutsuzure, is actually the odd man out of the themes, being a typical slow ballad type song set to images of all the characters looking pensive.

                                                        Feline Aide

I wanted to give Black Cat an 8. I really did. For the first 20 episodes of its 24 episode run, it’s a perfectly enjoyable little show. It has endearing characters, a decent storyline, some good writing, and generally ticks all the boxes for a solid shonen time killer. Even the voice acting is far above average, and the show does occassionally try some new things.

However, the mess that is the last disk is totally unforgivable. Never in my entire life have I seen a show more effectively shoot itself in the foot when it was right near the finish line. As it was, Black Cat could have been standing right there on the podium, not quite as high as that gold medalist, but able to bask in the warm appreciation of its fans. As it is, though, the show instead has to sit in the locker room, wipng off the feces that has dribbled down its leg.

Such a waste…

A Very Sick Cat: 6/10

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