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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.