Black Bullet Volume 1 Light Novel Review

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I previously reviewed the anime of Black Bullet and I found it fairly problematic but enjoyed the underlying story. I decided to try the light novel to see if it left a better impression. The answer… well I’m still on the fence.

Review:

There’s a lot to like about this light novel. The characters are interesting, the world we’re plunged into is tragic and yet feels like it could be a potential yet horrifying future. There’s action and drama and social commentary on a whole range of issues. Really it should work beautifully and be right up my ally.

For those who have never watched the anime, Black Bullet follows Rentaro and his partner Enju. They are civil security officers which essentially means they hunt down creatures that are infected with a virus called Gastrea and wipe them out. Renatro is fairly young still being in high school but Enju, like all civil security officer partners, is a child. One of the children born infected with the Gastrea virus making them not quite human enough to be given actual human rights but useful enough that they are employed to help humans. At least until they cross a certain infection threshold.

It’s a bleak kind of world we’re dropped into as it is after humans have already lost the war and the survivors live in cities surrounded by monoliths that keep the Gastrea out. Despite that they are still facing an ongoing threat and Rentaro and Enju are kept busy from start to finish in this book.

However, I feel my problem with this book is more or less the same as the problem I had with the anime. That is, we have a lot of characters and a lot going on but so much of it doesn’t feel fully utilised or necessary. Perhaps if the whole thing was expanded or if we weren’t spending so much time following Rentaro and we gave these other characters sufficient time to be fleshed out and made to feel more real the story would sit a lot better but as it is it feels like names are thrown at you, characters appear for a scene and then vanish before they suddenly return and are seemingly important.

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Then there’s the nature of the story. Admittedly, the links between the different events that Rentaro and Enju get caught up in are better explained in the light novel than they were in the anime, but the overall impression while reading is that we’re jumping from event to event. The ‘and then this happened’ approach to plotting almost as though the story can’t bear to put the brakes on for even a moment to deal with some of the ideas its already thrown at its readers.

Still, there are plenty of readers out there who will love this approach. The book moves quickly through the events never getting bogged down on details for too long. The characters are given enough description and characterisation but again the story doesn’t linger. The action is fun, the escalation of tension works, and the final sequence really sticks the landing. For those who like that sort of pacing in their stories, this is a really great read.

Which is why I’m sitting on the fence. I get that this book actually works quite well and there’s a lot to like about it, and yet I couldn’t get into it. This was one I constantly put down and found other things to do rather than completing and it took me nearly two weeks to actually get to the end of the story (and in that time I devoured several other books that I picked up for a break).

I’m leaving this one to personal taste. If you like your stories to just get to the events and keep moving then you will probably have a great time with this one. The plot that you get is solid  and there’s some fairly decent action sequences to be be found.

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If you’re interested in reading Black Bullet Volume 1 it is available on the Book Depository.

Black Bullet Series Review

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Overview:

In the near future a virus called Gastrea that can turn humans into monsters has broken out. Highly contagious, and very feared, war breaks out but very few survive. Those who do, live in regions surrounded by massive monoliths made of a material called Varanium which repels/hurts the Gastrea. To fight the gastrea, partners made up of a promoter (human) and an initator (one of the female cursed children who contain the Gastrea virus but have a slow rate of infection) fight as civil servants to defend the growing threat to what remains of Tokyo.

Review – This one is going to be spoiler heavy:

I watched Black Bullet once, a few years ago (probably just after it finished airing or sometime around then) and I remember not having liked it very much. Recently I stumbled upon this series on Crunchyroll and tried to remember what my problem with the series was and I drew a blank. Actually, I drew a blank on more or less everything to do with this anime other than the fact that the title didn’t really make a lot of sense. Sure, main character Rentarou does use a gun occasionally, and yes, his bullets are made of varanium which is black, but as he tends to punch or kick things as often as shoot them and the gun has no significance to the story, I’m still totally lost on why the show is called Black Bullet.

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Yes, he is a villain. Can’t you tell?

What I realised while rewatching this was that sitting underneath all the things that either annoyed me or made me feel a little disconnected from the events, is actually a pretty intense story full of rich emotion and great (if slightly obvious) questions about humanity as a whole. Unfortunately, the anime seems determined to help you overlook all of its positives in exchange for the generic and the lame and the balance between the two isn’t great.

Kisara is the best character to exemplify what I mean by this. Going heavily into spoiler territory.

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For most of the series I was wondering why Kisara even existed (having forgotten how the story ended her character seemed entirely superfluous and mostly I’d written her off as the character who would probably die right before the final battle – I know now why that wouldn’t have worked but possibly the story should have done a bit more with her earlier). Anyway, Kisara’s role is completely ill-defined and as a result she’s either absent for extended periods early on (to the point where you forget who se is) or she’s shifting into whichever anime trope they’d currently like her to portray.

Basically, she’s Rentarou’s boss. Though other than one scene early on where she’s telling him off and another later on where she essentially orders him to let her work underneath him (that makes sense) you almost always forget that she ‘runs’ the company. Mostly because the company makes no sense. Why do civil servants need a private company when essentially they get hired more or less directly by the leader of the city anyway? Cut out of the middle man, or lady, so to speak and nothing would have changed.

And it is this absence of any meaningful role that hurts Kisara. As the story goes on you learn that she feel indebted to Rentarou because when her parents died he was horribly injured… tragic back story, childhood promises, angsty teens, got it.

At one point the story sends an assassin after her, because why not? I’m guessing technically they did that because Rentarou was protecting the target but why not send the assassin after the actually civil servant rather than the civil servant’s boss? For a few moments, Kisara gets to show off her cool sword skills that we’ve seen her practice but never use and then somehow, right before Rentarou shows up, she gets to fall and become helpless. Then, a few moments later, she gets to ‘save’ Rentarou before collapsing into his arms all frail and helpless again. Pick a side already. Are you strong and fiery or are you the damsel?

Another point in the series has both Kisara and Rentarou begin teaching at an open air school for the cursed children. They all fall in love for Rentarou (another issue with the show I’m going to get back to later) but Kisara mostly just stands at the front and occasionally interjects a comment. Her presence there would have been completely unmissed if they’d just not drawn her. When the school and all the students are blown up, Rentarou is the one who walks in on the police doing the clean up because Kisara slept in. Rentarou is the one who identifies the bodies and mourns at the hospital before having to deal with Enju (his partner and also a cursed child) as she discovers what has happened and mourns. All Kisara does is wait for him to come back. She taught at the school too, so why doesn’t she get any of these moments?

By the time we get to the end, there’s so many other things happening that Kisara becomes a point that you just kind of toss to the side, which is kind of a mistake given where they take her character in the final episode. If Kisara had been introduced in episode 8 or 9 (as a lot of other characters were) and had taken that character arc to episode 13, it could have been brilliant. From trained fighter but inexperienced in actual combat and starting out with a new partner under someone uncertain of his own command, heart burning with revenge for a previous wrong that was linked to the current wrong, to the character who coldly executes her revenge without another thought and clearly understands that she’s drawn a line between herself and Rentarou, it is an excellent character arc. But you don’t get to enjoy that arc because of all the other rubbish that this character has been put through prior to them using her for anything of value.

Spoilers continuing.

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As I said before that extended ramble, it kind of exemplifies everything I loved and found problematic with this show in one character. Black Bullet has some truly heart wrenching moments and some really interesting moral conundrums to throw at the characters and the audience. It has moments of poignancy that just hit home hard. The final scene with Enju and Rentarou on the train where Rentarou finally lets everything that has happened over the past few days hit him and he breaks down weeping, head buried in Enju’s lap, is the perfect final note for these two characters after everything they’ve gone through. When the show plays the drama and emotion of the scene it gets it right and it does this enough throughout the series that you can’t just dismiss this as frivolous. Yet, it can’t commit to those moments either.

Rentarou could have been a truly interesting protagonist but he is plagued by the every single cursed child falling in love with him syndrome and self-aware harem and pervert jokes being thrown at him by all of the older women in his life (boss, patron, doctor who saved his life and now… hangs around). The relationship Rentarou is forging throughout the series with Enju is touching and heartwarming but when he plays the same big brother character to Tina and the blind girl and everyone else and they just sign up for the ‘I love Rentarou’ club it kind of buries some of the better Enju and Rentarou moments.

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Enju’s insistence that Rentarou is going to marry her isn’t as irritating as it might be in other shows where an overpowered little sister character makes such a declaration. In this, it is heart breaking. You know Enju doesn’t have the time and any dreams she has of growing up are just that, dreams. They will never be fulfilled so Rentarou has no need to puncture that ideal of hers, but you can see it twists a knife into his heart every time she says it.

There’s a moment fairly early in the series where Enju has been to the doctor and they’ve checked her ‘corrosion’ level. Essentially once it hits 50% Enju is going to be killed because otherwise she’s going to turn into a Gastrea. Rentarou lies to her and tells Enju her level is somewhere in the 20’s when in fact she’s in the 40’s. Enju’s time is really close. That’s dramatic and you can see the look on Rentarou’s face as he lies and then in case you didn’t get it, he looks deliberately at the charm she gave him which was meant to break if he didn’t tell the truth and he’s removed it prior to speaking to her. It’s a great moment. That never, ever gets revisited. Enju’s corrosion level never comes up again in the entire series.

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One final issue I had with this before I get on with recommending why you should watch this show anyway despite the fact that I did just spoil most of it, and that is Takuto. I get that in all of these types of stories there’s that one idiot who is out for his own agenda and has it in for the ‘hero’ to the point where he’ll do something stupid. But there’s a time and a place for stupidity. This guy takes it to a new extreme and what really bothers me about this is he doesn’t do it alone. A whole group of soldiers help him sabotage the only line of defence the city has in that final battle. What were they thinking? Even if someone successfully argued that Takuto was just mental, what about the others who contributed to this scheme? If the line falls, all of you are going to die. Did that not somehow sink in? Anyway, Takuto gets the award for an act that is just too stupid for words and that is in a series where one of the earlier antagonists ends up just joining in the final battle because, why not.

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So, yes, Black Bullet has its issues (not the least of which is a title that keeps making me type Black Butler and then having to correct). There’s a ridiculous harem set up, there’s overly cutesy moments thrown in to what is otherwise a fairly grim tale, there’s boob grabs, and totally unnecessary rivalries, and there’s some obviously stupid decision making along the way. Countering all of that though are some truly touching moments, some scenes that know exactly what they are doing, a lot of moral gray areas for our characters to walk, and fight sequences that are pretty good. There’s also a lot of violence and gushy purple/blue liquid usually stained by blood.

There’s no problem when a show tries to mix drama and comedy. Many shows manage to successfully add levity to fairly heavy plots in order to not depress the audience entirely. The issue with this show is it never finds the right balance and you are never quite sure if this was ever supposed to be a serious drama (though the ending kind of leaves no room for doubt that this situation was dark and the cost of survival is high). But that means that for a lot of the run time you are switching between cute girls doing cute things, cute girls killing things, two teenagers out for revenge/justice/money, a whole bunch of other characters with similarly ill-defined motives, and then some monster bug things thrown in just to stir things up. All and all, it is just a little bit messy.

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For my second watch I had a lot of fun with this though I honestly don’t see me going for a third watch. Providing of course I remember it this time.


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Karandi James.

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