Take all those overused rom-com anime clichés, throw them into a sci-fi thriller with dark themes and a liberal helping of ultra-violence, and you get one of the most entertaining and well-written anime of the Q2 2014 season.
Good — A Sci-Fi Suspense Thriller
Murakami is a high schooler studying to become an astronomer with the aim of one day finding alien life among the stars. He is doing this in memory of his childhood friend who died attempting to save his life. Then one day a new girl, Kuroha, transfers into his class; and she looks exactly like an older version of Murakami's dead friend. And while from the setup of the story you may think she turns out to be an alien, she is not — rather, she is a witch with explosion powers. But more than that, she is on the run from a secret organisation willing to cause an inordinate amount of collateral damage to get her back — or, at the very least, see her dead.
Thus, Brynhildr in the Darkness is a sci-fi thriller where Murakami helps Kuroha and several other escaped witches avoid capture and/or death from any number of dilemmas that the group faces. Over the course of the series, they battle against several other witches with seemingly unbeatable powers as well as deal with dwindling supplies needed to keep them all alive. It is one of those stories where everything keeps going wrong but somehow the heroes manage to stay just ahead of certain doom. Frankly, it's a lot of fun.
Good — A Clash of Genres
A lot of what makes Brynhildr in the Darkness so entertaining is how it directly conflicts with what you would expect in an anime of a similar setting — i.e., a high school fantasy love story. In fact, Murakami and the witches seem to be trying to force those anime clichés on their lives. However, their best efforts meet with little success as Brynhildr in the Darkness is not a high school rom-com but instead a dark, tragic tale.
For example, Murakami wants to take Kuroha to the beach — something he always wanted to do with his dead friend. Luckily, the school trip is coming up in a few weeks; so he encourages her to stay in his school and come with him. It is a cute and romantic plot device. Of course, it wouldn't be Brynhildr in the Darkness without taking that innocent idea and making it horrible and depressing.
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What Murakami doesn't know is that Kuroha is dangerously low on the medicine designed to keep her alive. When it runs out, she will die a horrible, painful death as her skin begins to rip apart and her organs liquefy. Thus, in order to stay alive until the upcoming school trip, she begins taking her medicine only at the last possible moment — often leaving her covered in painful, bloody lesions. And even then, it doesn't seem that the medicine will last.
Good — A Cast of Broken Characters
So with impending doom always around the corner, it's no surprise that the witches would long for the happy clichés of an anime rom-com life. But there is no hiding that, beneath the surface, they are all broken characters. Kuroha is driven to live the remainder of her short life trying to save others to repay all those who died to keep her alive this long. Kana is a quadriplegic who is thus forced to rely on everyone else's kindness to live. Kazumi deals with her impending death by becoming sexually outgoing — hoping to conceive a child and thus give meaning to her existence. The organisation-controlled witches hunting the main cast are similarly psychologically damaged and thus — like the main cast — are complex, interesting characters.
Good — A Smart Lead Character
What's great about Murakami is that he is a smart, logical protagonist. As he and the witches are always on the lower end of the raw power game when facing off against the organisation, it is his ability to see the implications — and thus weaknesses — of the enemy witches' powers that more often than not leads them to victory.
But it's not just when deciding battle strategies that he thinks things through. He is smart enough to avoid being traced when doing research and clever enough to figure out how to get the supplies the witches need to survive. And while he does have a pseudo-superpower in his own right — an eidetic memory — it is his intelligence that keeps the witches and him one step ahead of those hunting them.
Mixed — Ye Olde Ultra-violence
Brynhildr in the Darkness has its share of cutesy cliché moments; but do not be fooled: They are only there to make you lower your guard for the next impending scene of ultra-violence. In this anime, people melt, are sliced into pieces, and die any number of horribly painful ways. While the TV broadcast is censored (with the most explicit areas of the screen hidden by artificial steam or shadow), it almost seems to make it worse. After all, if your imagination is anything like mine, you'll have no problem filling in the blanks — and probably with more gruesome detail than the pre-censored frames. So if you have a weak stomach, you might want to avoid this anime.
Random Thoughts — Left Me More Confused Than Content
I was with Brynhildr in the Darkness up until the final scene in the anime — but that final shot threw me from contentment into confusion.
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That is because, in this final scene, it is revealed that Kazumi is alive — and I just don't see how that could be possible. After all, we see her cut completely in half, bleeding out, and dying in Murakami's arms. Now don't get me wrong, I get what the anime's creators want me to assume: that series late-comer, Hatsuna, who has the ability to heal fatal wounds in others (and even melting when it comes to herself) saved Kazumi. However, the logistics of this shatter my suspension of disbelief.
Let's run this down. Hatsuna used her powers to their limit (and thus "hung up," which prevented her from using her powers for a period of time). After Kuroha and Murakami left for the lab, she regenerated herself from a pile of goo (most likely hanging up again). Then, as Kazumi lay cut in half, Hatsuna somehow traveled to the lab (a distance that takes more than a few minutes even by helicopter), healed Kazumi (even more impressive as this implies Kazumi was still alive for several minutes more after being cut completely in half), and then likely hung up and/or melted again herself. Given the time, number of hang ups, and distance Hatsuna needed to travel, there is no way Kazumi could have been saved. And don't you try to tell me a former quadriplegic somehow lifted and carried a full grown girl all the way there, super speed or no. I question even Kana's ability to stand with muscle atrophy like that.
Anyway, regardless of possible justifications, leaving this reveal to the closing shot, without any explanation whatsoever given, ended the series on a low note for me.
When it comes down to it, Brynhildr in the Darkness is just behind No Game No Life for my most recommended anime of this past season. The way it plays with high school anime clichés by contrasting them with dark themes and broken characters was endlessly captivating. If you like smart main characters and have the stomach for a liberal helping of ultra-violence, then this one is most certainly worth a watch.
Brynhildr in the Darkness aired on Tokyo MX in Japan. It can be viewed for free and with English subtitles on Crunchyroll.