By Andrew Osmond.
Early in the Production I.G crime series B: The Beginning, it’s revealed that a mark resembling the letter “B”, left by an elusive vigilante at his killing grounds, consists of multiple symbols overlaid on each other. Equally the anime feels like two, possibly even three different shows in messy but interesting collision.
A police team in a fictional, beautifully depicted European archipelago looks for patterns in random-seeming killings and terrorism. At times B feels like a straight cop/psycho thriller show, simulating live-action as Production I.G shows often do. But the realistic scenes wrap around fantastically “anime” antics, as superhuman youths in luminous makeup and nonsense costumes zip round the landscape.
There’s hardboiled violence (stabbing, flaying, dismemberment), but there’s also a vein of rather British quirky character humour. The lead investigators are a perky (but not girly) young woman, Lily, and an introverted bearded sleuth, Keith Flick. Their idiot-savant collaboration smacks of some live-action British TV series: Jonathan Creek or the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock. In one lovely scene, Lily tries to visualise the increasingly clotted mystery in B using a table’s worth of sweetbreads.
B: The Beginning’s other highlights range from a lightspeed blade duel in a Japanese temple to a suspenseful car surveillance sequence. The show’s backstory involves terrible secret experiments, and a surrounding mythology with echoes of a previous Production I.G film, 009: Re Cyborg.
Given that B: The Beginning was expressly made for worldwide distribution – in 2018, it premiered simultaneously in nearly 200 countries – you might think the series would start with the “softer” elements first and work up to the gritter stuff. Instead, the opening scene is in-your-face horror – a terrified young woman running in a straitjacket, fleeing through woods at midnight while bestial men prepare to make the kill. It’s so disturbing that it’s worth saying it’s not representative of the show as a whole – as hinted when the would-be murderers realise too late something’s hunting them.
When B: The Beginning opened internationally, its biggest selling point was its world-famous studio, Production I.G. And indeed, B’s meticulously “real” background art (even as it depicts the imagined Ruritanian archipelago where the show takes place) is an I.G hallmark.
“The first place that came up was an Italian town called Cremona,” explains creator-director Kazuto Nakazawa, “which isn’t really much of a tourist destination. It’s best known for making musical instruments, like violins. But we were also inspired by Cuba, where old cars are an everyday sight on the roads. There are many countries and towns with superior designs in the world, so I thought it would be interesting to mix them.”
Art Director Takanori Tanaka had worked previously on the studio’s gorgeous series Moribito – Guardian of the Spirit. In B, he was determined to put Nakazawa’s emphasis on dark shadows in the human psyche, into effect in the lighting. “I was conscious about natural light coming from the window,” he said, “and its reflection on the floor in daytime to express an unconscious warmth. But from the evening into the night, we suppressed the brightness, which made it seem too dark to actually work in real life. Instead, I emphasised the atmosphere – putting focus on the character even if it would be unrealistic.”
Moreover, B is at least partly a police team procedural, a format which Production I.G has played with for decades, from Psycho-Pass to Ghost in the Shell, going back to Patlabor in the 1990s.
But perhaps looking at B as a Production I.G show is a red herring. Creator-director Kazuto Nakazawa has worked across a great many different studios and styles. For a very different example of his work, check out Nakazawa’s 2008 comedy short film “Moondrive,” which is included in the anthology Genius Party and Beyond. The film is a shaggy-dog tale with humour akin to Hiroyuki Imaishi (Kill la Kill).
“There were many things I wanted to try,” Nakazawa noted. “There were a lot of things you could do in the olden days with TV series, which we’re not allowed to do now, so from the beginning, I kept saying to the producer that I wanted to try things I hadn’t done before. I wanted to do something, anything that showed what Japanese animation was capable of.”
But notably, Nakazawa also crossed paths several times with Shinichiro Watanabe, including taking multiple credits on Watanabe’s 2004 Samurai Champloo. And one of the things which Watanabe is famous for is his genre-splicing, jamming together styles and scenes which a saner TV creator would see as wildly disparate. The eccentric super-fighters in B have nothing on the “Pierrot Le Fou” assassin in Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop, a human bouncing balloon, hailing bullets.
And B: The Beginning has an even likelier lift from a different studio’s franchise. Keith Flick, the detective in the series, is voiced in Japanese by Hiroaki Hirata. He’s the official dub voice of Johnny Depp, but Hirata is also well-known for voicing one of the most popular middle-aged characters in recent anime – superhero Wild Tiger, the floundering but gold-hearted star of the Tiger & Bunny franchise (returning to TV in 2022). Tiger was notable for being attractive and bearded, a very rare combo in anime. Now, look at Detective Flick’s proud black beard in B, listen to Tiger’s voice coming from his mouth, and tell us that’s just coincidence.
B the Beginning will be released in English by Anime Limited.
Sep 9, 2020Jonathan Clements