Throughout the first episode, the story repeatedly hammers home the point that the capital city is one messed-up place. Tatsumi, our initially doe-eyed protagonist, thinks he’s going to find a job in the city in order to help secure the financial well-being of his village. People repeatedly tell him, however, that city is rotting from the inside out. Those danger beasts he’s been slaying apparently have nothing on the true monstrosity of the people he’ll soon encounter. Sure enough, Tatsumi is eventually taken in by Aria, a well-to-do young lady, and her family. He thinks she’s all kind-hearted and everything, but he eventually learns the truth: this is a household full of sick, twisted sadists. In fact, Aria has been luring unsuspecting villagers much like Tatsumi himself into her home. Then once they’ve fallen for her trap, she and her family tortures them. Oh by the way, two of these victims just so happen to be Tatsumi’s friends from his village. Boy, this sounds like it’s going to be a dark anime! There’s just, uh, one small problem: it feels as though half of Akame ga Kill!‘s first episode desperately wants to be a comedy.
The way I see it, the story — at least in the very first episode — doesn’t really give a shit about the victims. Oh sure, Night Raid’s stated purpose is to go after the corrupted ranks among the rich and the powerful. Oh, I guess I should explain what Night Raid even is. It’s a group of assassins comprised of hot babes and some schmucks, and they like to target people much like Aria. If it was just unfair taxation or labor exploitation, however, we’d have no story. No, that isn’t quite right. We’d still have a story, but it just wouldn’t be a story that most people would want to see. Imagine going through all the motions to mount a protest, stage a labor walk-out, petition for new laws, etc. Gosh, wouldn’t that be boring? Yo, we want blood to spurt all over the place. We want limbs to go flying through air as if they weigh practically nothing. We want our characters to strike a pose after they’ve thrown a spear cleanly through a complicit guard’s neck. Let’s just come right out and say it: we want to kill.
That’s fine. The word ‘kill’ is even in the title. I didn’t go into this expecting to see sunshine, rainbows, and peaceful mediation between two sides. Still, there’s something off-putting about how the story’s been set up. Y’see, exploiting the poor and the weak certainly is evil, but we need superevil. We need evil so evil that executions aren’t just an unfortunate necessity. They become fun. These bastards’ deaths become a show and a dramatic one at that. Most of all, we need the poor and the weak to suffer so that we can have an excuse to hack some evil bitches up. Sayo and Ieyasu are the prime examples of this. Their deaths hardly even linger around long enough in the consciousness to leave any sort of emotional impact. Rather, they simply provide our hero with a quick and dirty impetus to immediately do an about-face and take Aria’s life. As soon after he does so, he is whisked away by the members of Night Raid. As our hero disappears into the darkness with his newfound allies, we hear him scream, “What’s up with this turn of events?! What’s going to happen to me?” Y’know, like this is some whacky shounen story.
There’s nothing wrong with mixing humor and the taboo, per se. Basically, this would give birth to what we commonly know as dark comedy. The thing is, however, what we get in this first episode isn’t dark comedy. In other words, the humor in the show isn’t actually trying to shine an ironic spotlight on the ugliness of human nature. Instead, the two elements are compartmentalized, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. On the one hand, we have a storehouse full of tortured victims. Tatsumi even sees one of his friends hanging naked and brutalized before him. On the other hand, we have these wacky moments which have nothing to do with the murders themselves. Dark comedy involves making light of serious subject matters. Why? Because they are so serious. Often times, we avoid the taboo because it’s too horrific to confront. As a result, dark comedy allows us to explore these topics in a safer, less traumatic environment. But like I’ve said, the humor in this first episode is kept separate from the actual horror of the story.
It’s actually typical anime humor, to be quite honest. Oh look, women sure do love to go shopping, haha. That giant present that Aria just bought is wacky! Hey, the Shredder-looking guy isn’t as intimidating as he looks! He might even be a little fruity! Watch yourself, Tatsumi! Man, isn’t Akame kind of deadpan in her responses? Oh, that incorrigible girl! So like I’ve said, while we do get both comedy and the macabre within a single episode, they never actually touch each other. It thus isn’t interested in making light of the dark and the taboo, thereby allowing us to explore these grave and serious issues. But that’s not even the problem. Rather, the real issue is how this ends up making those same serious subjects seem, well, insignificant but not in a good way. The humor doesn’t add anything to the show’s darkness. Rather, it distracts us from it. It makes Sayo and Ieyasu’s deaths feel like an aside, a footnote, a minor detail in the grand scheme of things. And when you have the poor and the weak being poisoned and tortured in some storehouse, I’m not sure how well that sits with me.
It’s not as though I want a grimdark series. After all, I’ve just extolled the virtues of dark comedy a mere couple paragraphs ago. As a result, I’d have no problems if the first episode had actually been chock full of black humor. The issue at the moment is that the anime doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. At times, it feels like a generic shounen series with all the generic shounen hijinks that we’ve come to expect and dread. At other times, however, it’s a story about a group of well-intentioned assassins going after villains that would put some of history’s most notorious serial killers to shame. I mean, c’mon, we have a storehouse full of tortured villagers, and this is just the first episode. What’s next? Mengele-esque human experimentation? Look, if Naruto‘s your thing, that’s no sweat off my back. To each his or her own, y’know. I just don’t think a Naruto–Shigurui crossover would necessarily make for a very good story. I’m not saying that Akame ga Kill! is very similar to either of those two series. I’m just saying that putting humor and taboo subjects side-by-side, but refusing to let them mix is a strange way to go about it.
Anyway, I can only hope that future episodes will get a better handle of what Akame ga Kill! truly wants to be. And if humor is going to stick around, I hope it’ll be used in a meaningful way, and not just some cheap visual gag that has nothing to do with the overall story. Plus, it wouldn’t hurt to spruce up the animation quality a bit. What we see in this week’s episode is honestly kind of mediocre.