Blood Blockade Battlefront shows director Rei Matsumoto in fine form, delivering strong action sequences and an outstanding musical score alongside genuine emotionally charged character conflict. However, the unfocused and nonlinear narrative does hamper the viewing experience.
Following a breach between earth and the netherworld, New York has been encased in a barrier, where the citizens of the netherworld and earthlings must coexist. However, now a group of terrorists is planning to destroy the barrier, and it is up to the superhuman staff of Libra to stop them.
From the very beginning, Blood Blockade Battlefront establishes itself as a high-speed, information heavy series, and those turned off by the very fast pace of the initial episodes should be advised not to continue. Alternating between an episodic action series in which Libra, a committee comprised of blood-benders, battles against whatever threats arise against Hellsalem’s Lots (the name of their district) and a heart-wrenching story about two siblings forced to make decisions that could tear New York apart, Blood Blockade Battlefront, for the most part, succeeds in both of these. The biggest problem lies in how estranged from each other these two aspects of the story feel, as it would probably have been stronger had it chosen to focus on one of them exclusively. Usually, the first 15 minutes of an episode is comprised of high-energy hi-jinks with assorted members of Libra’s colourful cabinet, and the last 5 consist of the unraveling the detailed history between White and her brother, Black, as they chose to identify themselves as. This leads to some tonal inconsistencies and narrative confusion, particularly at the beginning of the series.
The episodic segments of most given episodes are consistently funny, in spite of some of them carrying dark undertones or addressing heavy themes, such as discrimination or inferiority complex. The early episodes heavily consist of Leonardo, the main protagonist, getting kidnapped because he possessed the All Seeing Eyes of the gods, while Klaus, the manager of Libra, Zapp, the comic relief big brother archetype, and the other dozen members of Libra are forced to find him. However, the other characters, in particular Zapp and Klaus, do get their own episodes in the spot light, but those interested in the other characters may have to read Yasuhiro Nightow’s manga series for further details. Some characters, like Zed and Dog Hummer, are introduced as the story goes along, while others, like K.K. and Chain, are there from the beginning, but only serve as combatants. They all have some good action sequences, and often funny dialogue, but the real thematic meat of the series lies in the overarching story.
The journey of White and Black is much darker and more detailed than any of the content in the episodic events. However, it isn’t implemented well into the story, feeling more like a footnote at the beginning of the series. It does gradually get more screen time, slowly becoming more important as the series continues, and the Leonardo-White-Black relationship is certainly the emotional magnum opus of the series, but it often contrasts the earlier events of the episode, which were usually spent looking for lunch, or cage fighting. When this story does get full focus, however, which occurs in the last two episodes, of which the finale is double-length, it really stands out. Unlike the episodic events, the stakes are much higher, the fights more violent and the scope of the events are greatly expanded.
The character cast of BBB is also suffers from the uneven story structure. Leonardo is a functional central character, serving as an important piece in the antagonist’s plan and a likable and relatable lead, though he isn’t the most original protagonist. He displays growth in his time spent with White, but goes back to being the damsel in distress the very next episode, making it feel fruitless. Zapp does undergo some development in the hilarious two-part episode “Z’s Longest Day”, but this doesn’t result in any change in the story. Klaus and the other staff at Libra remain static, which probably wouldn’t have happened hadn’t had the cast been halved. As it stands, the most interesting part about them is their creative, though unclear, powers. The character of White is shown to change greatly over time, though Black is the one whom the finale all comes down to. On the whole, the series is much more interested in moment-to-moment entertainment than development, and this largely works out well, though this prevents the series from being as thematically engaging as it is entertaining.
The comedy of the series works very well, with on-the-nose references to other anime like Trigun, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and even Berserk, as well as films and popular music. The creative editing and skits are unique and very effective, though can sometimes feel a bit repetitive, with Leonardo getting beaten up by Zapp, and the rest of the cast, on a regular basis. Nightow’s strange blend of ultra-violence and passivism comes off as unbalanced here; for example, Klaus may be seen giving fatherly encouragement to Leonardo, only to turn around and decapitate a chicken in a way that makes the character feel more confusing than multifaceted. The drama based around White, though initially feeling tacked on to the otherwise light-hearted early episodes, gradually becomes more impactful, especially at the end. Though the story and characters are flawed on several levels, BBB succeeds handily as a spectacle for the eyes and ears.
Visually, this may well be studio Bone’s most well animated work outside of their movies. With incredibly detailed and designed city scapes abound with creativity and historical relevance, Hellsalem’s Lot feels like a concrete and lively environment in spite of the fantastic nature of its denizens and how it came to be. Well-designed set pieces are plentiful throughout the entire series, ranging from ominous cemeteries to exciting theme parks. The character designs are brilliant and memorable, surpassing Yasuhiro Nightow’s other famous series, Trigun, in terms of variety in body types, fighting styles and even small details, like the way in which character move in casual settings. The aliens are well-designed, striking the balance between comical and emotional, which greatly helps them feel like proper citizens, rather than monsters or even common animals. To add to that, the lighting in this series is well done, particularly with the characters’ eyes. The standout of the series, on the visual front, would absolutely have to be the action sequences, with those at the end especially deserving praise. Boasting great fluidity, a strong sense of weight and even intricacy, no two fights in BBB are the same, lending the conflicts a great level of unpredictability. Even the CGI is well integrated, due to great shading and believable interaction with the surroundings.
The visual direction of the series bears a strong resemblance to Kyousougiga, which was also conceived by directress Rie Matsumoto. The cuts and editing are somewhat overdone, working well in the high octane action and slapstick comedic sequences, but feeling distracting and sometimes detrimental to dialogue-heavy scenes. If this series is to be viewed in Japanese, the viewer is required to read the subtitles and keep up with the frenetic editing, which can sometimes leave the viewer feeling exhausted after just 20 minutes. Combined with the aforementioned erratic story-telling and abundance of characters, and sometimes it can be difficult to even get your bearings. However, for every instance in which the visuals distract, there are four more where they shine.
The audio aspect of Blood Blockade Battlefront is even better than the visuals, largely due to director Rie Matsumoto’s outstanding sound directing. Unlike the narrative, BBB’s soundtrack is fast and exciting during high speed chase sequences, but much mellower and more emotional during the character driver drama moments. The jazzy, exotic insert songs are major high point, with the vocals and lyrics bearing an uncanny resemblance to 1920s American music, reflecting the optimism and feelings of eternal prosperity felt in the Roaring 20s. Tracks like “White Gloves” utilise more classy instruments, like violins, to give a sense of intricacy and sophistication to the more adult sequences, while “Catch me if you can” uses drums and saxophones to elevate the action heavy beats spectacularly.
Tasteful application brings out the best in these songs, with nearly every scene having an appropriate song playing over it without distracting the viewer from the events at hand. Even though this is Taisei Iwasaki’s debut soundtrack, he has already surpassed many more experienced composers, crafting a diverse compilation of tonally appropriate pieces with a rare balance of self-control and eclectic bombast that puts it alongside the likes of Baccano and even Cowboy Bebop. The series opening is a visual and musical extravaganza, starting with the sun rising, the main cast wandering through the city, and finally crescendoing in an excellent panning shot of the protagonists and antagonists. The ED is even better, with an effortlessly catchy song, well-choreographed dance steps and even some thoughtful visuals metaphors. Truly, Blood Blockade Battlefront is an absolute audio tour de force.
The Japanese and English voice actors match the kinetic energy and affection of their characters spectacularly. In terms of overall quality, the Japanese cast is slightly superior, thanks heavily to Klaus’s heavy, commanding voice, courtesy of Rikiya Koyama, while Daisuke Sakaguchi’s affectionate performance as protagonist Leonardo Watch, and the general banter between characters, makes the Japanese cast feel very organic. However, the English script removes much of the unnecessary ambiguity in the plentiful episodic chase and fight sequences, resulting in a more streamlined, digestible viewing experience. The voices, though not quite matching the best of the original cast, are still great, standouts being Ian Sinclair’s deceptively brash Zapp Renfro and relative newcomer Megan Emerick’s White. Aaron Dismuke, unfortunately, doesn’t always sell the comedic moments of Leonardo, perhaps due to his relative inexperience compared to Daisuke. However, the English dub on the whole matches the American atmosphere of Hellsalem’s Lot in a way that the Japanese cast couldn’t, blending in with the vibrant and consistent energy wonderfully. Flaws aside, both languages provide a great viewing experience.