Monday, October 8, 2018

Animondo: Jormungand (Season 1)

Welcome back to Animondo - today, we're going to be taking a look at how anime deals with the international arms trade.

Wait, what?

Just a warning that this review will deal with some potentially uncomfortable subject matter, including child soldiers.

Jormungand is the story of Koko Hekmatyar, an arms dealer who travels the world with her band of bodyguards, and the various troubles she finds herself a part of while selling weapons. It's also the story of Jonathan Mar, more commonly known as Jonah, a boy who was once a child soldier but now serves as part of Koko's bodyguard unit. As the show's opening monologue highlights, Jonah despises weapons and arms dealers, but finds himself traveling with and protecting one.

This review is going to cover the first season, simply known as Jormungand. The second season, Jormungand: Perfect Order, is different in a number of ways, and I'll be covering it separately. If you want the quick comparison...the first season is much better than the second.

Jormungand is, as I noted in my warning above, a pretty uncomfortable show. It deals heavily with war, violence, and the shady dealings and corrupt motivations that often drive such things...and it puts a boy who has been through one of the worst things one could ever imagine a child going through right at the center of all of it. It's all pretty dark, morally, and feels different than the normal sort of anime kid hero archetype - Jonah's not in some bright and energetic superhero story, even one that can sometimes get dark...he's in a war story. He's not a chosen one or a kid with cool supernatural powers - he's a boy who was forced to become better with weapons than anyone should have to be at his age, and had to become willing to use them to kill. And he's not serving some noble cause, like Full Metal Panic!'s former child soldier Sousuke - Jonah is using and defending the exact sort of things that screwed up his life in the first place.

This is emphatically not a feel-good show.

But it also isn't a show about unrelenting darkness. Jormungand is complex. Koko's and her bodyguards are doing some pretty shady things...but they also have a bond that feels familial. They use young Jonah as a guard and willfully get him involved in dangerous situations, but they also work hard to give him the education he's missed and help him become more than just a soldier. Koko in particular clearly wants him to have a more fulfilling life than he has, and frequently discusses the contradictory nature of his life with him to help him figure out his own philosophy. And while the group deals in weapons and is entirely willing to fight and kill, they restrain themselves from selling in ways that will perpetuate hopeless battles, and there are times that they assist humanitarian groups - for instance, a few episodes where they assist in smuggling some doctors into a war zone.

None of this is to say that Koko and her band are good people...but they're bad guys that are interesting enough and complicated enough to keep the viewer's attention, and while I found I didn't agree with what they were doing much of the time, I also found the feeling of a family bond enough to generally keep me invested in their well-being. While Jonah is obviously the most sympathetic of the characters, several of the other members of the group give you reason to sympathize with them at least partially. Former cop Lutz, for instance, struggles sometimes with the nature of the enemies the group encounters, while the group's close-combat specialist Valmet has a strong revenge tale related to the deaths of her old unit when she was in the military.

When the group faces off in violent conflict, it tends to be with those who are worse than them, as well - which definitely helps. It's easier to root for a bad guy when they're facing off against a worse guy - when there's something admirable, still, about the protagonist that the antagonist lacks. Not every episode does that, mind - there are some cases where Koko and her crew face off against another arms dealer, and really the only true difference is that we've been following Koko and company and not the other group - but there are enough episodes where Koko's bodyguards face off against psychotic assassins or out-of-control militaries that the show does leave the viewer with the feeling that while Koko and company are not good, there's a lot worse than them out there.

However, there's honestly perhaps just too many characters in Koko's group, more than it feels like the show can adequately develop. Valmet gets a lot of detail and a strong plot, as noted above, but other characters really are more personality than full character for large portions of the show. (Season 2 will try to rectify that, but...clumsily.) They do fine for the portrayal of the "family" atmosphere, and it'd be unfair to say they're cardboard cutouts or anything like that, but sometimes they feel like they're just filling out the numbers. They're entertaining, but mostly exist just to fill a job it feels like the group would need. It sometimes feels like Jormungand wanted to be an ensemble cast show but forgot to give its ensemble appropriate time and coverage.

Jormungand is also pretty inconsistent as to character abilities. For instance, in some episodes, Jonah is shown being capable of some pretty amazing combat - in one notable example, he single-handedly takes out a military base, and in another, he's pulling off crack shots from a moving vehicle to take down pursuers...but in other episodes, he does virtually nothing of any note in fight scenes, at best shown providing some cover fire or even actively ordered to just keep his head down and stay out of the way. Valmet is similarly inconsistent - in some episodes, she engages in some really epic knife fights or close range highly mobile gunplay, but in others, her only involvement is sitting there in place and firing shots. It's like the show has different writers and they have different ideas about what the scale and type of action in the show is going to be - some really want some high octane action with a lot of stunts, while others want a more grounded feel with lots of use of cover and careful advances. It's not that some situations are portrayed as within a character's area of expertise and some are not - that'd be fine. Instead, it's more like a character just doesn't even think to use the abilities they've been shown using before or will be shown using later, with no real sign as to why. Valmet feels like the biggest casualty of this - the version of her we see in some episodes is nearly a John Woo action hero, capable of running through hails of bullets and fighting with a superhuman level of prowess...but in other episodes, it seems like that's not even a remote possibility. Any individual episode is fine in this regard, mind. There's internal consistency within each episode, but when taken as a whole, the show feels inconsistent in its action and portrayal of its heroes' abilities.

It can also feel like some threats that would've been really interesting are kind of handwaved away - most notably, anything involving law enforcement. While there are investigators on the show who are after Koko, they're generally pretty easily manipulated into serving her ends. They never feel like a threat...despite points where Koko and company engage in open battles in city streets with assassins in which multiple people are shot dead or even blown up with rocket launchers. The show kind of just leaves it at "yeah, Koko has a number of powerful people in her pocket and can get investigations stalled." And yes, that does work for the show's plot, also means that any time investigators show up, we pretty much already know how things are going to work out. What could be an interesting element of the show, with Koko having to complete her arms trades or fight with enemies without letting the authorities know too much, tends more towards almost being comic relief. It's not a problem in episodes taking place in war zones or such, of course, but when the show heads to an area that hasn't fallen into utter chaos, it feels like there should be more consequences to making that area fall into utter chaos. There are few recurring threats on Jormungand...the investigators looking into Koko are one of the few, and they're pretty much squandered. Fun characters, but squandered.

There's also a few cases where it goes a little far in the sexual direction, as well - some just kind of unnecessary moments to the show. Not sure why there had to be a plot point about an assassin that didn't wear underwear, for instance. It's weird, doesn't add anything to the episode. Another weird trait could easily have been chosen instead. There's not a ton of stuff in this area, but what there is, as usual, weakens the show somewhat.

Another small note...the show sometimes deals with real countries, but when going to war torn areas, it'll usually instead refer to places by a generic "Country T" or "Country A" or some such. This is something I run into sometimes in anime, and it always feels a little weird. I'd like it better if they just made up a full name. It'd be one thing if it felt like the characters were referring to countries by code names, but it doesn't feel like that. It feels like Country A is actually the place's name...which just doesn't feel right. I totally get why you'd want to use fictional countries for a lot of the events of the story, of course - but give them full names!

I want to take a moment to highlight the art style, as well, from good and bad points. It feels like a unique sort of take on the anime style, and there's some great character designs - Koko and Jonah are excellent in particular. There's some effective use of some similar appearance traits between them - the same hair color, for instance, and similarities in how their eyes and eyelashes are drawn - to contrast with major differences - skin tone, eye color, and the like - that reinforces the theme that they're connected through their work but have major differences in their worldviews. But the show can also get a tad over the top with its character designs at times, mostly with some of the odd assassins that come after the group, which makes them harder to take seriously when mixed in with a show that more often appears pretty grounded in terms of design. It's a reasonably strong show artistically but there are some moments that make you pause for a bit and say, "Wait, that's really how that character looks?" Also, it's minor, but everybody in Koko's group of bodyguards is built beyond what might generally be considered reasonable.

Makes you think maybe Koko's got a side business in 'roids.

Jormungand does still come together pretty well. The plots are interesting, and feature a lot of great shadowy maneuvering as Koko and her team often have to confront situations from diplomatic and violent angles all at the same time, threading a needle to find a way out of a mess. For all that I complain about the less-than-effective law enforcement on the show, and for all that I think a more effective character set of that type would enhance's still a major and very fun part of the show. It's very cool how effectively the show mixes the different approaches together and portrays both the diplomacy and the violence as very necessary parts of Koko's strategies to get to her goals and get her team out alive. She frequently uses herself and her diplomatic endeavors as an effective distraction, buying time to let her team accomplish its goals. I like that she ends up generally heavily involved - it'd be easy for the show to just have her be the person who gives orders and then lets everyone else do the work, but instead she ends up working hard in support and being a major driving force on the show.

Jonah is another massive strong point for the show, particularly in how he relates to the team's goals and Koko herself. The contradictions present in his character and how he relates to the rest of the main cast give the viewer a lot of room to think, and there's not a lot of easy answers to the questions he raises - and that's before he asks some himself. His worldview is very different from the other characters, and the show's willing to spend some time on that, with Koko herself frequently encouraging him to express his opinions even if they tend to be against, well, everything she's doing with her life. It makes for an interesting dynamic, and it stops the show from getting too mired in one worldview. It would be easy for things to descend into a spiral of corruption, greed, justifications, and revenge, and it's largely Jonah that helps keep it from becoming too much of the same thing all the time. As a character, he's interesting too - it's genuinely nice to see him start opening up a little more as the show goes on, or catch those moments where he acts more like a regular kid. When the show lets him show off his capabilities, he can be terrifying, too...if sad at the same time.

Jormungand ended up being a show I enjoyed...if one that was sometimes hard to enjoy. There's a lot of darkness in it, and though it has a lot of humor as well, I never really lost sight of the fact that the moments that made me smile still involved people who readily fight and kill to get other people the things they need to fight and kill...and make a pretty profit from it. The inclusion of Jonah - while itself bringing up loads of moral quandries - is a smart thing for the show and gives it one character that the viewer can truly feel sympathetic towards without as many "Yeah, but..." thoughts. The episode plots are nicely varied, and I never got a feeling that it was just settling into a particular theme or pattern. If you're able to enjoy a show despite the fact that you're unquestionably following a group of villains (just villains that tend to be more honorable and less crazy than those they're up against), I can pretty easily recommend it... least, Season 1. I'll get to Season 2, "Perfect Order," in another review before too long. It will not fare so well.

Dubbed or Subbed?: Jormungand has high quality subtitles, but a high quality Dub as well. Performances are very strong on both ends and the voice actors chosen are pretty much perfect in both versions. There's nothing much I can think of to criticize either way. Between the two versions, I prefer watching the dubbed version - in the dubbed version, you get a variety of accents used for different characters Koko runs into around the world, and that enhances the global feel of the show. It's a small difference, but enough that it helped me enjoy the episodes more. (Those differences might be there in the Japanese voicing too, of course, but it's hard for me to detect.)

A small note, but this is a show that actually could have been even cooler in that regard - if it made more use out of actual variety of languages, for instance. Both versions of the show largely stick to one spoken language, but with the globe-spanning adventures of Koko and company, it would've been nice to hear more languages in the mix. Admittedly, with some of the countries being fictional, it might've been a bit hard to figure out what languages should be used, but regional choices could've been made in any case.

Additionally, it'd be nice to hear some of the accent work in the main cast, as well. The voice actors for Koko, Jonah, and the rest of the crew are all great, but they're from a variety of nations and it'd be nice to hear that more in their voices.

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