Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Yes and no – but this one was already pretty fond.
It’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to write about Kekkai Sensen – just a little over three months, in fact. And that’s too long, given the circumstances behind this episode (which clocked in at about 35 minutes) and the one the preceded it. Let’s be clear about one thing up-front – it’s better to finish a series on-time than the delay the ending for this long or anything close. No matter how much you love a show, something is lost with a delay like this one. It takes a while to get back into the place, the characters – something of the narrative momentum is missing, and it’s very hard to get it back.
We can make something else pretty clear too – there’s very likely to be more Blood Blockade Battlefront down the line. This is that rare anime that’s a commercial success and actually deserves to be. At over 17,000 per volume average sales as of now, it’s BONES biggest hit in a very long time and one of their biggest ever. So whatever the real reason behind the delay of this finale, budget probably wasn’t the culprit – perhaps the director’s statement that the studio simply needed more time to deliver the ending they planned to is true (though that would be a pretty biting commentary on their budgeting of time, if not money).
BONES is unfortunately something of a specialist in delayed finales (Eureka Seven AO is a recent example). And another reason why delayed finales are a bad idea is that they tend to raise expectations to impossibly high levels. This was certainly a conclusion that was very good indeed, but it wasn’t a transcendent one. It was a bid muddled and hard to follow (especially with the memory constantly searching old data trying to remember key points) and rather soft in the middle. Perhaps that last part is a function of the added length, perhaps not – though one does wonder if the ep might have been better being forced to come in at 22 minutes as usual (and on time in the process).
Still, there was plenty of the magic that made Kekkai Sensen one of the best series of 2015. I don’t think Matsumoto Rie is capable of being uninteresting – her visual flair may just be the most exciting in anime today. Matsumoto-sensei is clearly a director who loves anime from the old days, and FLCL is obviously a particular favorite – she keeps revisiting iconic imagery from it over and over (Kyousougiga – which in the end I’d put just a notch or two above this series – was loaded with it too), and her work has something of the same personality as vintage Gainax. Right now I’m as excited to see what she does next as I am with any director in anime – she’s a spectacular talent.
Matsumoto chooses (rather ironically) to frame much of the A-part of the episode behind the 50’s hit (and I do mean hit – 6 separate versions of it charted in the UK in one year) “Stranger in Paradise” (which is actually the first part of the “Polovtsian Dances” by Borodin with lyrics). It’s this part and the last five minutes or so that work best for me – they’re the most emotionally powerful sections of the episode, and feel most consistent with the first 11 eps. But the middle section does feel too long – it’s effectively a montage of the gang from Libra and the anime original cast members, and it’s hit and miss. We kind of know where the episode is going to end up, and this part feels a little too much like marking time until we get there.
As to what’s actually happening here, it’s a bit confusing – something that’s a common feature in Matsumoto’s work, and not wholly unintentional. My read is that Femt more or less lets Leo go because the end of the world would actually be pretty boring. But in any event he does let Leo go, and though he has to pass through many trials to get there, he’s always going to end up confronting Black/William/The King of Despair in the end. Some of this middle section does actually work quite well – I liked the conversation between Black and Klaus where Black referenced “The Shining” (encyclopedic awareness of American pop culture is a trademark of this series), and of course anything with Zapp is likely to be amusing.
So what actually does happen in the end? It seems that White really is gone this time – in effect, she died three years earlier when she became part of the force field. Thanks to Leo William does at least get body back from the K.o.D., and it’s he who’s able to use her remaining power to “patch” the force field and save the world again. But the emotional price is pretty high for both boys, and this is really the most powerful stretch of the episode as they confront the reality of the choice they’ve made (though it seems likely they really had no choice at all). I also loved the way Matsumoto chose to close with shots from Leonardo’s camera set to that infectiously fun ED song, followed by an epilogue of Leo writing to his sister (and a teaser for the second season).
It’s worth reiterating just how much of what Matsumoto and noted Japanese TV writer Furuya Kazunao did here was indeed original material. They’ve made an adaptation that’s more a spiritually faithful interpretation of Nightow’s original (it’s full of visual nods to him) than a literal transcription of it – and I think in doing so, they’ve made a better anime. Matsumoto is such a singular visionary that I want it to be her vision that dominates a series, and Nightow’s signature style is strong enough to shine through in the process. This works exceptionally will in Kekkai Sensen – it’s not a perfect series by any means, but one of the most interesting in years.
Given that William and Mary are entirely an anime creation, it would seem Matsumoto and Furuya have a wide swathe of possibilities open to them for the second season. They could go original again, or return to the reams of manga material that remains unadapted – I don’t think this ending closes any doors on the latter in any respect. I have so much confidence in Matsumoto at this point that I’ll be eagerly anticipating it regardless – I think Nightow is a good muse for her, but she’s the main reason Kekkai Sensen is such a memorable and successful anime. I just hope she and BONES wrap that one up on-time, because the series will be better off for it in every way.