Blood Blockade Battlefront, Episode 1

My most-anticipated show of the season. Blood Blockade Battlefront (Japanese: Kekkai Sensen). It didn’t let me down, bringing great direction, true style, and surprisingly substantial characters to the screen for a first episode that was easily my favorite premiere. Thus far, Rie Matsumoto’s sophomore effort as a full series director has been an incredible effort of visual and cinematographic density that has basically become substance all on its own. They say style can sometimes become substance (which isn’t at all to say that BBB doesn’t have substance of the more traditional kind), and that’s certainly what’s happened here.

Blood Blockade Battlefront

Episode 1: “Building an Unconfined Space”

These episodic posts are probably going to be a bit different from my normal episodic posts, as I happen to really love Rie Matsumoto’s directorial flair and the way she constructs her shows. So, rather than breezing through in a relatively chronological fashion as per the norm, the structuring element to these posts is more likely going to be the cinematographic and narrative techniques Blood Blockade Battlefront uses to bring its story to life. I don’t know exactly how those focuses will play out week by week, but I’m hoping that they bring a different interpretive flavor to my writing for the duration of the show. With that said, the focus of this post is going to be on space, atmosphere, and building a the world.

The first thing I noticed watching Blood Blockade Battlefront on my phone screen was how expansive and BIG the world seemed. It’s one thing to achieve a such an effect on a big TV, but on a phone? As will probably be a common refrain for the duration of this show, give the credit to director Rie Matsumoto. One of the first shots of the episode, an image of Leonardo Watch’s sister reading his letter by the side of a lake, is a great example of how Matsumoto sets up her frames to direct the audience’s eye to off-screen space, letting us feel the world extending beyond the limits of the screen. The shot is built with Leo’s sister, Michella, as a small figure in the middle of the frame, flanked on both sides by four tall trees, the outermost trunks slightly farther back in the frame, leading the viewer’s eye deeper into the shot and towards the boundaries of the screen—this is a world bigger than just what we see.

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Just by the virtue of BBB being a cinematic effort, Matsumoto has her work cut out for her in trying to make this city feel like it’s larger than just what we see within the confines of the screen, especially when the city she’s trying to portray is a chaotic, violent version of huge New York City. Fortunately, Matsumoto is pretty genius at making manipulating and utilizing screen space, and achieves a whole lot of the feeling of a “godforsaken city of miracles” through her use of long shots, which specifically contextualize Leo within the seemingly boundless expanse of the city, and the inclusion of lots and lots of diegetic sounds. Why is this important? Because the first episode of Blood Blockade Battlefront is all about dropping us into the world of Hellsalem’s Lot and letting us feel how chaotic and massive and crazy it is.

The episode takes a notable number of shots away from the main characters of the story to show us the city itself—such as when Femt, the King of Depravity (interesting thematic implications there), makes his insane broadcast across the city and we see three separate cuts of him on TV screens throughout the city. These aren’t just wasted screentime; there’re essential building blocks in connecting the isolated visual experiences of the city (the particular shots) together through common occurrences and, in doing so, the cumulative effect is that the city feels like a giant, unified whole.

There’s also the matter of the sheer volumes of stuff that crosses the screen—whether it being people playing basketball, a girl crying over a dropped ice cream cone, or an alien giving a cello concert on the street (all shot in distinctly different ways). All these images come flashing across the screen, a hyperactive, concentrated experience of the city.

Blood Blockade Battlefront

Matsumoto also makes use of rack focus to create visual connections between both temporal and spatial areas. Early on in the episode, as Leo is in pursuit of the sonic monkey, the sound of an expositional conversation is overlaid across the scenes, delivered from a TV program. Matsumoto cuts back and forth between Leo’s chase and actual footage of the program, until one shot zooms out from a TV screen in the TV program back into a diner where a man is watching the program, before changing the focus to the outside window as Leo runs past. By doing this, the two scenes—the peaceful moment of a man watching a history of the city and the insanity of Leo’s chase—are connected by their shared visual space (as opposed to being separated by a cut).

This isn’t the only time we see rack focus used, though. Later on in the episode, as Leo perpares to explain how he got his mysterious eyes, we get a magnificent sequence using red flowers as the unifying image. A rack focus begins with Leo, Zapp, and Klaus, changing to focus on the flower in the foreground, followed by a cut, a beautiful dissolve, and another rack focus to reveal Leo and his family on the outskirts of Hellsalem’s Lot. Again, here the point is unifying disparate locations, although this time the connection being made stretches across time, linking Leo’s current self to the defining event of his past life. It’s still important to realize, though, that both the present and the memory occur in Hellsalem’s Lot. It is this city that holds in crucial pieces of Leo’s life.

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To close out here, I do want to say a quick word on the whole, “All BBB has is style” thing. Of course, I can’t argue that it’s fully fleshed out its themes already (how could it with only one episode?), but I do think there’s a great deal of substance here already for Leo’s character and a bunch of potential thematic seeds being scattered around.

In Leo’s opening monologue, captured through a letter to his sister (a very Matsumoto-esque framing device indeed), he laments that he once thought he was entirely worthless. In another show, this would be a set-up for just another male lead with self-confidence problems and no magical power to be able to change his situation. Except…Leo’s not that. The reason he writes to Michella in the first place is that he wants to capture the feeling of having purpose “before the pendulum swings back the other way” (as the first English fansubs so eloquently translated it). In other words, Leo isn’t the coward he professes himself to be—and he knows it. He just struggles to come to terms with that aspect of his identity, something both Klaus and the friendly waitress at his diner chide him for.

For me, that’s a much more fascinating conflict than the archetypal “weak boy learns to become strong” story. Is Leo really a coward? The events of this episode seem to disagree. But being brave is a scary thing on its own. And so, illuminated by the burning light of those people who have shown hope in him, I think we’ll see Leo continue to prove himself not a coward—hopefully, he’ll eventually come to see that bravery in himself just as much as those around him do.

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Of course, I’ve said all that and I still don’t feel like I’ve exhausted everything I could have possibly said about this episode, but I think that’s at least good enough for now. This is a good show, y’all.

10 thoughts on “Blood Blockade Battlefront, Episode 1

  1. I always find it interesting as someone who is not remotely versed in the nuances of the visual language of film to see someone be able to explain the effectiveness of visuals in such a digestable and understandable way, and there’s certainly been no shortage of effective visuals in this show so far.

    In spite of the amazing visuals and solid atmosphere so far, this show isn’t my #1 for this season right now (that distinction would go to Euphonium, but part of that opinion is probably tinged by my band/orchestra/choir background from high school). If I had to describe the appeal of the show so far I would probably end up using a term that I normally hate when people try to pass as criticism in “rule of cool”. That’s obviously a drastic oversimplification of what the show has been doing so far, but I noticed as I was watching episode 2 that a big part of the positive impression I got from episode 1 was the concept of the characters and setup combined with the superb visual execution. As episode 2 wore on it became evident that there still wasn’t a whole lot to the plot or any of the characters that was keeping me watching. I’m probably not giving enough credit to the subtle developments with the plot and characters that you mention, but I feel like the substance hasn’t quite gotten to the point where it’s keeping up with the visuals. I’m certainly willing to give it time, though, and even if it never quite reaches Cowboy Bebop levels of combining style and substance that doesn’t mean it won’t be something great and one of the best shows of the season, if not the best.

    Regardless of how it turns out, I’ll be looking forward to more of your breaking down the visuals and the show in general in the future!

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    • someone be able to explain the effectiveness of visuals in such a digestable and understandable way

      Thanks a ton for this comment! ^_^ I always worry that when I start diving into more technical cinematographic stuff that it’ll be less than accessible for my readers, but this helped alleviate that concern. Plus, it’s just a nice compliment in general.

      I hope you’ll come back for my post on episode 2 (hoping to get it out tomorrow)! I really want to talk about how the visual style of the second episode actually did become substance. But, in the mean time, I wrote a little bit over on tumblr talking about the whole style versus substance thing!

      Anyways, I hope to see you in the comments of future posts!

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  2. If I had to guess, I’d say that BBB will indeed end up as style over substance. Which isn’t to say that I think BBB won’t have any substance – like you said, the seeds are already being sown – just that with this much sheer style going on, how could the substance possibly be able to match it?

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    • Well, I guess I disagree! I’ve been hearing this thought in a lot of places (not just from you!), so I wrote a thing talking about it in the theoretical sense.

      I’m hoping we end up seeing a show with a lot of “traditional” substance that has substantial style to work right alongside it!

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  3. Really liked it (and this post, too!). So beautiful. The pretty environments. The wide array of color used. The pretty magic circles. The outrageous skill name screens. The color contrast (the light emitted from his knuckle contrasted with the grey robotics background, light-gasm). Loved them all.

    Style vs Substance? I’m thinking that I get just enough substance from the characters for me not really worried about it. Plus its just episode 1 (actually 2 episodes already).

    Visual communication. I feel like that is something that us the audience are required to put up some efforts to look for what the visuals are trying to say, to be able to understand it. Which, in my opinion, might be why many feel that this show has less substance than style.

    (Myself probably included, but I have found many things I liked in the show to get past the whole argument without giving it much of a thought, until this post that is.)

    Also, it looks like you have found your best girl candidate. Staph it. Please don’t make me fall in love with more characters. Every time I see a best girl candidate, I thought “Oh she’s cool.”, then I read your tweets and posts and it goes “Oh she’s so freaking cool and amazing and lovable!”

    She then becomes the best girl and I have yet another character I wish her personality and behavior exist IRL.

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    • Heh, outrageous strikes me as a really good way to describe BBB.

      Anyways, I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who thinks the characters already do have enough substance on their own; it’s just not as superficially available as in most anime, but comes in little hints and pieces here and there.

      I think another big part of the whole visual communication thing is that people just aren’t trained to look for it. The vast majority of cinematic techniques are based on the principle of being unobtrusive and invisible. In other words, we’re not expected to see them or be conscious of them—indeed, the filmmaker’s goal is that we not be. And so, when something like Rie Matsumoto’s cinematic code comes along—which is incredibly self-aware and announces its presence—people are aware that it’s different, but don’t have the language or the understanding to know why.

      It might be a liiiitle too early call Chain a bests girl candidate, but I’m quite given to effusive (perhaps overly so) language when I see things or characters I like, especially on Twitter. But if you’re falling for her, I count that as a good thing. >:)

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  4. Watched the first ep last night, and it pretty much left me cold. Not so much as “more style than substance” (though that played a part), as much as it didn’t strike me as well done and nothing there really attracted my attention. I must add a disclaimer though – supernatural and quasi supernatural are my least favorite genre and as I’ve said before I’m not fond of “trapped in a world he never made”, and BBB is all of these.

    In the end, it didn’t really leave me with a good answer to the Big Question (“Why should I care about these people?”). Too much rushing about, too many things shoved in my face without adequate explanation and then quickly pulled away to leave an open target for the next. (It was almost like a half hour long MTV video in some ways.) I appreciate style, but it’s no substitute for and must work with plot, pacing, and performance – and all three were lacking IMO.

    So, dropped. My lady thinks seeing the second episode is in order before making her decision. (Unlike me, supernatural/quasi supernatural/action is right up her alley.)

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    • While I think I can understand the plot and performance complaints (although clearly those elements aren’t bothering me), the pacing is one thing I definitely disagree with. I think Rie Matsumoto’s command of screentime economy is phenomenal; every shot does what it needs to do—not more and no less. But I’m also pretty lenient with rushes of information (as I said in the post, I think that was a deliberate attempt to invoke the atmosphere of the city).

      In the end, it sounds like it might just not be your kind of thing. Which is totally cool, although I’ll miss you in the comments!

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