# Nothing of Value was Lost (Akuma no Riddle) When it comes to animé, *Anna Karenina* got it wrong. Every great show is great in its own way - but terrible shows are all alike. *Akuma no Riddle* is such a show[1]. This very blandness makes it hard to describe, or even to think about. I'm writing the day after I was subjected to yet another episode of this travesty. It's dull, yes, *Michiko to Hatchin* dull - but many shows are dull, including some that I would defend (*Ergo Proxy*, or even *Kurozuka*). Its episodes are formulaic, attacker-of-the-week stuff - but so are series I count among my favourites (*Absolutely Lovely Children*; much - admittedly the weaker parts - of *Heartcatch Pretty Cure*). Its production (particularly animation) is at a level of shoddiness I'd call disappointing if there were any merit to the rest of the series - but it's no worse in that regard than, say, *Sakura Trick*. And while I wouldn't call that show *good*, per se, its pleasant world and cute characters meant I felt at least some positive emotions while watching. Characters are one place where the flaws with *Akuma no Riddle* are clearer. I've long thought that thirteen episodes is time for about four fully developed characters; more and you can't characterize them enough, fewer and there's too little to work with. *Akuma no Riddle* makes a valiant attempt to split the difference, with a lead couple supported by a series of one-episode antagonists. It ought to work; *Katanagatari*, which we're watching in parallel, pulls this off beautifully, (admittedly with twice as much time to work with). But it falls flat because of the incredibly crude characterization. Everyone is thoroughly one-dimensional, and the attempts at backstory have the grace and subtlety of a brick to the head. We see one girl's friend/mentor dying in her arms - but with no sense of who either of them are beyond this, no idea what they're fighting for or why they care about each other, it falls flat. We see the dozen girls who another antagonist regards as family - but no actual interaction between them. In fact, the serial killer who kills because she enjoys it comes across as one of the more well-rounded and better realized characters. (The contrast with *Katanagatari*, which knows how to approach a character's essence obliquely, to reveal someone's personality through their everyday actions and conversations, could not be greater). The situation with the leads is, if anything, even worse. Haru, who I might describe as the feminine lead[2], is an equally blunt character, defined by a naïve friendliness that sees her walking blindly into an assassin's trap in the second episode. And the third episode. And every episode thereafter, until her stupidity becomes not just infuriating but outright unbelievable. A lab mouse would have learned by now[3]. Tokaku is a better character - the last flashback to her family life even managed something that might qualify as nuance - but only by comparison; she's a killing machine, uninterested in anything else, and her protection of - I can't even say "affection for" - Haru feels like plot fiat rather than anything organic. You can see the formula the creators are going for - the stiff professional is paired with the friendly ditz, and initial hate becomes respect and friendship, with both ultimately learning something from the other. But I'm almost halfway through *Akuma no Riddle* and the leads are no closer than they were at the start. Each episode I find myself wondering where the 23 minutes have gone. A friend insists this is an action show, but the action scenes are usually just a few minutes at the end. The school lessons are shown in more detail than is usual in animé (with good reason - they're irrelevant to plot, characterization, or anything else), but surely that can't be where the time is going? But if the time went towards character development, why are the characters so flat? If it were spent on fleshing out the setting, why does that setting still feel utterly contrived? "Contrived" is perhaps par for the course for a light novel setting, but it's the biggest way that *Akuma no Riddle* misses the point. If you want to tell a story about life-and-death decisions, it's hard to do that in a realistic modern setting. A well-crafted story can make the viewer care about superficially lower stakes (any teenage romance show), or can explain how the specific circumstances the story needs arise naturally from a less contrived universe (*Starship Operators* is my favourite example, but a lot of sci-fi works this way). But some stories (and it's disproportionately light novels) prefer to jump straight in with a detailed, arbitrary premise. They front-load the suspension of disbelief, sacrificing credibility with the viewer, but in return they can get directly to the more interesting parts of their worldbuilding (not so long ago we watched *The Sunday Without God*, which asks us to accept a world where people stopped dying and then explores the consequences), or jump straight to the life-and-death story itself (*Attack on Titan* comes to mind). I thought I knew where *Akuma no Riddle* was going with its premise: an extended metaphor for the teenage mindset. One problem with telling stories about teenage relationships (romantic or otherwise)is that, from an adult perspective, the problems that dominated our teenage thoughts can seem unimportant, trivial even. So to tell a faithful story of teenage feelings, we need to make it a story about events that make adults feel the same way, about matters of life and death. (This is part of what the *-Monogatari* series do; *Mysterious Girlfriend X* pulls a similar trick with ickiness rather than importance). But in fact *Akuma no Riddle* makes very little commitment to its life-and-death premise. This may be a class of killers, but its members treat it like any other high school[4]; Tokaku makes some token effort to persuade Haru to leave in the first episode, but quickly settles into this most clichéd of animé settings. And the life-and-death fights very quickly reveal themselves to be anything but; even though the antagonists are disposable, leaving the class after their failure and playing no more part in the story, this show can't resist having most of them survive by blatant plot fiat. It's an astonishing level of disrespect for the audience; while these fights break up the monotony of the rest of the series, nothing is on the line - which in turn means there's no reason to take the premise seriously. It's like this show wants to be *Black Rock★Shooter* - school drama interspersed with occasional cool fights - but forgot to keep the two worlds separate. Or include the drama. This is not just a by-the-numbers light novel adaptation - it's a show that doesn't understand what it's trying to ape. It knows to give people tragic pasts - but doesn't realize it needs to make us care. It knows you need more than one lead - but not that their relationship needs to develop. It knows assassins make for cool stories - but doesn't realize that they're supposed to kill people. It knows to include a shower or bath scene each episode, but doesn't even think to try to titillate with them, never mind integrating them into the plot. The absolute best I can say for *Akuma no Riddle* is that it can deliver a respectable fight scene - the animation rising above its usual mediocrity, the choreography fitting together, the unique environment of this week's faceoff weaving through both. But without characters or stakes we care about, even the appeal of this is limited. And for the other 20 minutes of each episode, there's nothing. This show isn't completely without merit, but it's quite possibly the worst animé I've ever seen. Do not watch. <br /> <p /> [1] I'm basing this off five episodes' watching; while I will unfortunately be socially obliged to watch the remainder, I'm happy to declare it irredeemable. More to the point, I need to express my burning rage and hate. [2] The main cast is exclusively female, but Tokaku (the other lead) is distinctly masculine in appearance and personality - defined by her fighting prowess and single-minded focus. More than that, her relationship with Haru is one of pursuit and protectiveness, where Haru is passive and more widely sociable. Of course masculine girls exist and I'm happy to see stories featuring them - but at times it can feel like Tokaku-as-female was pasted on after the fact. [3] Though maybe I'm being unfair: Tokaku arrives with just as much regularity to save her, turning up in the nick of time with only the flimsiest of plot excuses, so perhaps Haru has realized how little danger she's actually in. [4] This actually makes sense given that the characters are professional assassins, but emotionally it's very unsatisfying, and the story has already sacrificed plausability by adopting this setting. [Home](/) <div id="disqus_thread"></div> comments powered by Disqus