I think that the best anime (and perhaps just the best media, period), regardless of what they actually leave you with. Make you feel as though you've learned something profound--maybe even lifechanging--by watching them. The 2011 TV anime Black Rock Shooter is one such property. Combining an absurd amount of talent under one roof for its all-too-brief 8 episode run, BRS is a masterclass in welding theme to presentation.

While the literal central point of the plot isn't introduced until a bit later, the actual focus of Black Rock Shooter is emotion, and not just any amount or kind of emotion, very raw, very exaggerated emotion, and a lot of it (more seasoned anime fans than myself would be able to guess this simply by seeing Mari Okada's name in the credits as the scriptwriter). Most anime that have serious narrative arcs deal with emotions in some way, shape, or form, and they're usually fairly stylized, so this in of itself is not abnormal. What kind of is though, is the sheer unrepentant melodrama that Black Rock Shooter presents, and the degree to which it intertwines that with its themes. This is simultaneously the series' hook and I must imagine, the thing that drives the most people away from it. If you're not able to get a handle on the show's very intense emotional barrages it can be hard to sit through it at all, much less enjoy it. So this is a double-edged sword, but make no mistake, Black Rock Shooter absolutely would not work without it.

To put it plainly, a lot of shows have emotional torque, BRS has an emotional jackhammer. Negative emotions; sadness, despair, anguish, loneliness, are often conveyed through exaggerated, despairing facial expressions, pained--sometimes wrenched or even shrieked--voice acting, and a soundtrack that sometimes borders on the avant-garde, often forgoing simple ambience in favor of deliberately overwrought (or poundingly percussive) piano or string pieces or disorienting, hard-to-identify dissonance. There is also a lot of crying; lovingly-animated, beautiful crying. Chipper protagonist Mako, shy artistic Yomi, damaged, willfully hurtful Kagari, the enigmatic Yu, and "school counselor" Saya all let tears fall more than once. There are definitely shows sadder than Black Rock Shooter, but few shove their characters' emotional problems in your face with this much gusto. And all of this ties into an overarching theme of surrogate pain. The audience is subjected to this as much as the characters themselves are, and this is put front and center by the battles.

About half of BRS takes place in a twisted, surreal gothic otherworld inhabited by alternate versions of the characters, who fight and die so that their human hosts don't have to suffer--though if they do die their hosts suffer amnesia, something that comes into play in the series' second half. The otherworld is beautifully designed, massive gears, chessboard patterns, colossal iron rubik's cubes, seas of lava, and metal skeletons give the place a look that rests somewhere on the same block as a heavy metal album cover, but feels fully lived-in despite how comparatively little information we're fed about it. The fight scenes, it must be said, are remarkable. CGI gets a bad reputation and it's often unfairly associated with budgetless schlock like the 2016 Berserk anime, but here it is used to incredible effect. The otherworld is done almost entirely in CGI and the combat here is well above par when compared to just about anything from the last decade. They're visceral too, the other selves' natures as literal stand-ins for emotional trauma seem all the more real when they're stabbing each other and technicolor blood goes spraying in four different directions. This is to say nothing of the surreal brutality of the weapon designs, which often evolve and twist in strange ways from scene to scene, sometimes changing shape entirely (such as when Strength's Dr. Octopus-esque bionic arms turn into a sort of railgun as she whales on Black Rock Shooter herself). And when they don't do that, they stretch the definition of "weapon" to its very limits, see Deadmaster's undead army, capped by a pair of gigantic, floating, glowing green skulls.

This is Black Rock Shooter's entire point, really. The violent ballet of fight scenes as code for human emotional struggle. The more Mato (and the other girls) avoid confronting their problems, the harder the other selves fight, and the more they risk losing their memories, and while the literal threat of induced amnesia is obviously not a real one, on a less concrete level, this applies very much to the real world too, it doesn't take a psych major to know that suppressing your emotions isn't very good for you. The theme is revisited repeatedly--most frequently through the in-universe children's book The Little Playful Bird--and through the abstraction rings crystal clear up until the finale. One of the very last scenes, where Mato just out and out squeezes Yomi and cries all over her, is emotionally cathartic in a way that a lot of media tries to be, but only rarely is the mark hit this well.

So is BRS ultimately just a very longwinded metaphor for the power of honesty and a good cry? Well, yes and no. Simple, resonant themes are worthless if they don't resonate. But it's hard, especially in 2017, to not feel for Strength whimpering that the real world is "scary", and in a cultural environment where more than ever we are encouraged to put on fronts and appear to be people we're not in order to appease others (let it be said that millennials are masters of code-switching), it's surprisingly poignant. Combine that with fight scenes that foreshadowed what Kill la Kill would do just a few years later and some of the best CGI the medium's ever seen, and it's genuinely difficult to not recommend Black Rock Shooter to anyone who can process its emotional extremeness.

87 /100
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