Occupying the awkward territory between gritty police procedural and daytime soap opera, B: The Beginning is the story of people who live in a country that is basically Italy but with a different name, where everyone speaks Japanese and has a supremely dumb name. Also there are homoerotic glam rock sadomasochists popping ampoules of what appears to be either piss or really nasty light beer in a zeppelin. When the RIS (it stands for something, I just forgot what it is, promise!) find themselves at a loss as to how to deal with a mysterious serial killer who only targets criminals, who else but disgraced genius detective Keith Kazama Flick (yep!) has to be brought back to active duty to advise. Flick, who is basically Sherlock Holmes but with worse people skills, quickly establishes connections between the killer in this case and those encountered in cases he has worked on in the past, and becomes personally involved, much to the consternation of the police force. Put it all together and shake it up and you end up with whatever the hell this is.
Well, that’s a little misleading. B is not weird, nor is it particularly original. It’s an anime conspiracy thriller that moves from police procedural to detective noir to total fantasy. But it does what it does with a certain panache. At its best, it reminded me of some creepy-as-shit moments from Big O and Monster, both of which I guess I would call better anime noir, but not being as good as those is hardly a harsh criticism. At least, it’s not harsh coming from me, because I love both of those series. B‘s downfall, for me, is its main story being wrapped up in teenager bullshit. I get it, I first became interested in anime as a child, I wanted the angst, because that was me, but now that anime has branched out into telling more varied stories, where’s something for the rapidly aging young people who are facing 30 and looking for something a bit less “smoking cigarettes whilst hanging out with ruffians to spite my father whom I hate very much”?
It’s not so much that teenagers can’t be compelling, but these ones aren’t. In fact they’re pretty much all whiny brats with no insight as to why they’re like that. They’re just kind of angry and stupid. While it is easy to think all teenagers are like that, for those of us who do remember the awkwardness and the seemingly inexplicable moodiness, the cloudmass of boredom broken into by the brief sunshine of exploration and small illicit joys, we know that isn’t the case, that something far more interesting lurks. B doesn’t have time for that, quite literally. With 13 episodes at 25 minutes apiece, it has to deal with the competing demands on time of its manifold genre commitments, and I think overall the people in charge made the right choice of getting as much of the juicy detective work in there as possible. It’s by far the best part of the show, and yet I feel like with an extended duration there would have been ample time to offer some pathos to the supernatural kids and their supernatural kid conflicts. There’s a lot of brutality carried out by, near, or against them, but any psychological torment these characters may be experiencing seems like so much affectation when displayed, just like the extremely homoerotic way some of them carry on seems like typical anime “haha gay dudes are creepy” with little substance behind it. I mean, it seems that way because that’s what it is. I believe gays are as much a valid target for humour (or source of horror) as anyone is, but here it feels particularly thin and flimsy. I don’t see that there is a way to cut back on anything else in the show’s 13 episodes to expand on this, so even just a few more episodes to explore the psychological lives of certain characters would have helped greatly.
Part of the problem is that really, when you get down to it, there isn’t much to the supernatural element of the story. At the beginning of the series we are told that researchers unearthed what amounts to the DNA of a fallen race of godlike beings, and that a project was launched with the aim of engineering new life in the mould of those ancient super-powered humanoids. Now, without giving away any twists, you can probably guess that this is revealed to be either not the truth or somewhat less than the entire truth. It’s pretty basic, not enough time is spent looking at the specifics of what went on in the laboratories where this project was being worked on, but you have to wonder if giving it more time to explore these ideas wouldn’t have made for a worse show. There’s nothing worse than getting to the end of a mystery story and discovering that there was actually nothing to it. The best mysteries, at least in my view, are the ones that provide revelations containing keys to the understanding that the real mystery, the “supermystery”, is one so vast and impossible that you could never hope to even begin to solve it. Gravity’s Rainbow, Twin Peaks, the better episodes of The X-Files (or how about that unfilmed Thomas Ligotti script?), you go in thinking the bigger picture can in the end be parsed into something simpler, some unifying summary, but it can’t, not because it doesn’t make sense or the writers were just throwing things together for appearance’s sake, but because it contains, or fails to contain a world. B is half-hearted as a mystery in the sense that what it contains is fragments of a world, the broader picture is missing. As it stands, for the 13 episode run I would have cut all the back story about ancient gods and whatnot and presented a stripped down murder mystery that hints towards the supernatural but in such a way that those elements could easily just be imagined, the psychological weathering of the characters being just as much a factor in what is seen and understood as the facts of the case themselves.
In its presentation, B fares about average. Visuals and animation are perfectly fine, what you’d expect from a 13 episode series. Perhaps the best of its visual information is its character design. Everyone has a distinctive face and body type. At least, that’s true within the confines of the show itself, there are clearly some clichés being drawn upon for certain of the supernatural homo murder dudes, some of which can transform, and upon doing so bear an amusing if slight resemblance to Baoh‘s Ikuroo in alien cat form. But that aside, it does among the supporting cast make characters who just aren’t important enough to be lavished with good screen time easy to recognise. It’s a great misfortune that the villains aren’t so well treated, they all have this neon glam thing going on, but most of them barely have any lines and are quickly disposed of, by the time you’ve heard their names once or twice they might as well be alien cat dinner. Sure, maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, I’ll own up if that’s the case, but I do feel like so much of what doesn’t work is attributable to time constraints and trying to pack too much in.
Hey, at last it’s one of my classic short, dismissive anime review paragraphs: the music is so forgettable I barely even remembered there was music. Oops, not quite. It is notable in that it doesn’t have a 90 second intro with naff J-pop all over it, rather what sounds like halo drum and solfège, and that in itself is quite nice. The end theme, though, you bet your arse it’s crappy anime music. I think I will have “SAAAHM DAY AHHLLL BE GAWWWWN TUH SAAAHM WEHHH WEE BEEELAWWWN” playing in my head, lingering quite uninvited like a drunken party guest who can barely walk, let alone find the door, for some months to come. In fact it may be with me for life, a grim shadow of late youth reminding me in old age as I near sweet death that I used to waste time watching anime and writing about it. Is B: The Beginning a waste of time? For me, no. I quite enjoyed most of it, its flimsiest and silliest moments, while they intrude upon and drag down what could have been a pretty damn good serial killer story, can be quite funny, if unintentionally so, and at its best it offers a compelling if not exactly sturdy mystery with its more richly defined characters helming the action, and can do equal parts creepy and funny with good timing and pacing and atmosphere. Despite strong reservations, worth a watch.