Staring Down the Barrel of a Gun

August 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

I finished Jormungand last week. I know that doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment, but it felt like it, mostly because I didn’t really enjoy it at all. Hey, let me tell you why!

Lehm, Wiley, and Valmet open fire with their Magpul Masadas in Jormungand

Really, it’s all the fault of the Internet Movie Firearms Database, a website that catalogs the appearance and use of different guns in movies, television, video games, and anime. Right now, everyone there is going nuts over the latest Marvel movies, which have a surprising concentration of military hardware among their props, but when I checked out the site a few months ago, it was for the humorous entries under the anime Upotte!!.

I like Upotte!! despite its low reputation. Sure, it’s ecchi to the extreme, but if you look past all the infantilizing jokes about sex, there’s some inside baseball about firearms that’s quite good to digest, should you be the kind of person who’s interested in guns for their aesthetic qualities rather than their destructive potential. I know that’s a difficult opinion to hold in the United States these days, in light of the rise in gun violence by the state and by individual people, and certain reviews have reviled the show expressly for being about anthropomorphized assault rifles attending school, but…

I’ve lost my train of thought, haven’t I?

Actually, I shouldn’t waste my time defending Upotte!! from its detractors. The show’s really indefensible, but I enjoy it, which is why I was following gun nuts as they tore it apart on the internet. In the process, a lot of them brought up Jormungand as a superior example of attention to firearms in anime, so I let myself be talked into watching it, despite having seen the FUNimation release on store shelves for months now and having dismissed it as action garbage.

The thing is, Jormungand totally is action garbage. I was right.

Jonah blazes away with his FN FNC in Jormungand

Jonah blazes away with his FN FNC

I can’t fault Jormungand‘s clear love of firearms. The author of the manga, Takahashi Keitarou, and the director of the anime, Motonaga Keitarou, both seem to have a deep appreciation for weapons of war that resonates throughout the anime. Even when it’s at its worst, with one- and two-episode adversaries being knocked over left and right like paper tigers, the fun of seeing who’s using what gun in what way never really diminishes, even though it’s not nearly enough to sustain a full-cour anime.

Wait, that makes it sound like Jormungand‘s problem is that there’s not enough going on. That is incorrect and I’m sorry for deceiving you, even for an instant. Jormungand‘s problem is that there’s far too much going on and twenty-four episodes of anime can’t even hope to contain it the same way that eleven volumes and seventy chapters of manga can. You see, the show sells itself as the adventures of a globetrotting arms dealer and the wacky people with whom she deals: this rogue agent, that former actress, this bureaucrat gone bad… They’re entertaining, but they’re obviously trifles, particularly given the eagerness of the anime to cast them aside in order to reset back to zero for the next arc of the story, so it’s hard not to look ahead longingly for the central plot to emerge.

Well, emerge it did, at length, but in the process, it revealed to me a crucial flaw in the writing of the show. The main character, Koko Hekmatyar, does things that flatly make her come off like a Bond villain, an impression that relies upon the reactions of her nine-person team of bodyguards to be mitigated. The good opinion that these characters hold of her should make her own character more complex and therefore more able to bear the philosophical ramifications of her actions, only…

I don’t know who these people are, even after twenty-four episodes. They each get maybe one episode to explain their backstory and character, but in a show that turns out to be about the relationship between a squad of mercenaries and their employer, the majority of the characters are a disappointing array of caricatures.

Koko Hekmatyar and her team

Koko Hekmatyar and her team of violent anime stereotypes

Here, let me show you. I’m going to try to name all of Koko’s bodyguards off the top of my head, as well as their defining traits:

  • Jonah: A child soldier from the Middle East, I think? Supposedly smart and preternaturally talented, but it’s never seen in action. He hates weapons but uses weapons because…?
  • Lehm: Tough, blonde American who’s ex-Delta Force. Fatherly but sardonic, a natural mentor to Jonah. Formerly married to a lady with a creepy wide mouth.
  • Valmet: Ex-Special Forces from Finland, with a long pedigree. Huge boobs, gross “lesbian” crush on Koko. Shows a specialty with knives one time and never again.
  • Lutz: Former cop. A sniper who doesn’t really like killing. Gets shot in the butt a lot, which is meant to be funny.
  • Wiley: A black American who’s ex-Delta Force. Likes explosions and Lehm. Extremely unstable but no one seems to care.
  • Ugo: Ex-mafia driver. A big man who likes cars. Considered the weakest link by assassins that one time.
  • Tojo: Former Japanese intelligence officer. Smart…?
  • Mao: Chinese something? I don’t know.
  • R: Italian? Elite? There are some spoilers here.

At least I got all of their names, right? I’m pretty sure that I did. Laying aside any hyperbole for a moment, I really like Jonah, if only on paper. The perspective of a child soldier who remains a soldier even as he gradually ceases to be a child is incredibly interesting, even if it goes nowhere here. I also like Lehm, because grim professionals appeal to me across all mediums. Valmet is really and truly awful but that awfulness helps me remember who she is — not to mention being the only woman on the team! The rest, who cares? A bunch of faces, that’s all, but the dramatic tension of the entire series hangs entirely upon those collective brows. Do they approve or disapprove of Koko’s decisions? Will they obey or betray her? Maybe, if I had come to know them better, those questions would have been more difficult for me to answer in advance of actual events. Maybe the anime would have held some appeal to me. Who knows?

I see Jormungand as a classic failure of adaptation between different mediums. It is certainly possible in a manga for there to be small character moments woven into lengthy and wide-ranging scenes of violence and mayhem. That’s the power of the frame, to transcend space and time, in comic-like formats. The anime had no such luxury. There’d be no way for it to cut to what Jonah’s thinking in the middle of a firefight or to what Lehm remembers from his years of experience, it’d break the flow and make the action just as bad as the storytelling. No, content just has to be cut until the rest can fit: give CIA operatives Hex and Scarecrow two episodes each despite both being major antagonists, then introduce Curry the arms dealer so that he’s not missing from the plot, even if there’s no room to reference him ever again…

You get the idea. You probably shouldn’t watch Jormungand, unless you’re a devotee of the IMFDB who’s able to be sustained by gun porn alone. Really, I’m also just a little surprised to find out that the latter isn’t me.

Yamada celebrates some small victory in Working!!!

Yamada celebrates some small victory in Working!!!

In other news, the final season of Working!!! is airing right now, and it’s totally invalidating my old post about the show, one of my first posts on the website. What happens when a gag anime that’s all about maintaining the status quo starts tying up all of its loose ends? Well, good things, it seems. Count on a post about it someday soon!

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