Sunday, May 8, 2016

Manga Review: Assassination Classroom

I may be jumping the gun a little bit here considering that the anime isn’t over yet (although it is ending in just two months) and the manga won’t be fully released in the US for another 2-ish years if Viz Media’s (print) publishing schedule holds steady (they've already run the final chapters in WSJ) but frankly having a review out earlier is better than later. Honestly I wasn’t even sure I would be able to finish the manga as it concluded serialization but as I went poking around online to see where the anime had adapted up to I was hit with manga spoilers everywhere and this was after the series two biggest twists.
Dammit fandom spaces.
So at that point it seemed like the only thing to do was to ricochet through a manga that the American Shounen Jump editors themselves said had no chance of being licensed here and talk once again (since I’ve highlighted AssClass before) about why the series isn’t nearly as dark as you would expect from the title.

Assassination Classroom (Ansatsu Kyousetsu) by Yuusei Matsui

At Kunugigaoka Middle School, the E in class 3-E doesn’t only designate that it’s the fifth homeroom in the grade, it also stands for “End” and the students there serve a special purpose. Isolated from the rest of the school and made into it’s whipping boy, they are an example of what happens when you fail. The students are rather bright, after all they’re only the lowest ranked students in an extremely competitive middle school (or simply the most violent), but when everyone is rooting for you to fail, they can't be involved in any school sports or clubs, and they aren’t even allowed to continue up in this elevator school (ie the only reason to be there in the first place) it’s understandably demoralizing.

Their teacher has other ideas however. Looking like an upright, bright yellow octopus, he announces to the class that he was the one who partially destroyed the moon earlier in the year and he will do the same to the Earth next spring unless someone can kill him first. While governments of every nation have sent bus loads of assassins after him, no one has succeeded yet so they reluctantly had to give into one of his demands, let him replace Class 3-E's deceased teacher and therefore give these 13 and 14 year olds the best chances at killing him. This unkillable teacher (literally, Koro-sensei) has no intention of being killed and yet he’s utterly determined to give his students all of the skills they will need to live happy, un-cowed lives past this year and some students start questioning if they should even kill him at all.

This series is what I like to think of as “themed shounen”, ie, everything in the story is going to relate back to assassination one way or another. This should tell you a lot about the story, that it’s not a grimdark story of survival but that it’s rather silly, the stakes are both rather high and very low, and when the mood shifts it becomes somber rather than violent. I definitely think that a lot of the “X is like assassination!” ideas/lessons in the story are stretching the premise a bit too far, if you believed them all you would think that assassins have to be the world’s greatest geniuses with their well-rounded qualifications. But if you can tolerate the silliness (I tended to think “okay this is taking it too far BUT that is honestly a good life skill in general”) then yes this is a fun series about trying to kill your teacher. And I’m an American, violence in schools is a tricky topic here! But this series feels far different than something like say Death Note which is almost infamous for popping up in news stories over the years (“‘death note’ found in local high school” etc). The lines between fiction and reality are much more clearly drawn which why I both understood the SJ editors reluctance to license the series and yet always thought this one could sneak under the radar of overprotective adults without kicking up that much controversy.

Part of the reason why I felt like this series would be just inoffensive enough to avoid major controversy in the US is due to the fact that the manga feels very carefully planned. I’ve talked before about how it’s easy to tell when a work (be it book or manga) is a creator’s first work due to it’s exuberance, careful details, and passion which sometimes feels more raw than refined. By comparison, a work by an experienced creator feels more meticulous, calculated, and more carefully reserved, saving that over-abundance of emotions for specific parts of the story. Neither of these styles are a bad thing however (this just means that I have read entirely too many things) but I think most readers would agree with me that you can tell that this isn’t manga-ka Yuusei Matsui’s first rodeo, and I say this having not read his earlier works like Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro. The pacing feels very controlled (it moves downright speedily for a Weekly Shounen Jump series!), character development and reveals are staggered, and of the two large twists I mentioned in my intro, only one of them seems to come completely out of the blue. That I think is possibly the series largest failing since there were a mere two panels in the entire story so far creating foreshadowing and Matsui had to point out one of them for the audience because it was so hard to see. Some of the other assassins do get a little too weird to take them seriously even when the story tries to make the story really tense. Most of the time you can with “it’s a silly story” but a few others don't hit the mark or simply occur too late to make the character sympathetic (although in hindsight that may have been the point).

 Otherwise the story does avoid the dreaded power creep tendency and it also does a genuinely good job at keeping the scale of the story believable. I mean yes, there is an international effort to kill Koro-sensei but as a reader I could totally buy into the idea that most people weren’t aware of it at all due to how the events played out and how isolated the setting often is. All in all, it’s a pretty strong work, the manga knows exactly what it’s goals are (kill teacher, show the students growing up in this way, work with these restraints etc) from the beginning and certainly doesn’t feel like it was being developed week by week.

I've spent so much time speaking about the plot that a newcomer might think that this is a densely plotted story and really it's not. While the plot does start to take more and more precedence as the deadline to kill Koro-sensei draws nearer, the story is largely held up by its cast. The story is loosely-focused around main-characterish Nagisa and about two-thirds of the other characters get a "day in the limelight" chapter or two focused around them. The story lacks the dark, detailed backstories that a lot of people associate with shounen and I think that was a smart call. I do think that this story would be a little easier to believe if the characters were high schoolers instead of middle schoolers (they simply seem a little too mature for 14), but their simple reasons for being in Class 3-E (they got too involved in an outside activity, they got into fights, they excelled in one subject but struggled in their others) both fit and helped really reenforce the story's ultimately small and personal focus. There's a lot of thought put into these little details really, such as the fact that the characters are very, very rarely seen outside of school/a school activity (I can only think of two examples off the top of my head) and are also very rarely shown by themselves. Even Nagisa is usually accompanied by at least a few other students and that unstated familiarity with each other I think also helps show, in-story, why Koro-sensei's plot is working, the students really do unite and that gives them strength. I suspect some people might be disappointed that there aren't really in-depth character arcs but I do think that this matches the tone better.

Before I wrap-up I will say that yes I've tried out the anime and eh, it has a rough first few episodes but even once the story got beyond those I just didn't feel compelled to watch it. I think that the story is ultimately simple enough that I don't really get anything out of re-experiencing it (although I am buying the manga volumes) and if I was to continue it I would be watching it as background noise more than anything else. I'm not terribly fond of some of the color and voice actor choices (okay guys, do we really need to cast Jun Fukuyama in every dang anime? I really preferred the person who voiced Koro-sensei in the earlier OVA) but neither of those are deal breakers for me. I am a bit curious about the live action movies though, from the posters it looks like Koro-sensei is CGI and man I want to see if that's just a trainwreck or not.

All in all I did enjoy this series, although the massive marathon I did to catch up by the end might not have been the best way to enjoy it. It's funny, sometimes heartwarming (and not too manipulative about it), and the students honestly are fun to watch, they're a nice mixture of genuine and "okay now this is getting just too dang weird", they have a very appropriate level of snark and sass towards their teacher and their situation in general. There's some fanservice that I thought always felt out of place (it's of one of the teachers and not the students thankfully) and you need to have a really high tolerance for ridiculous shounen villains to not spend the entire time eye-rolling at the other assassins. But it's also surprisingly concise, knows exactly what kind of mood it's trying to create, and the story expects the readers to be laughing along with it. I'm thrilled that Viz did pick it up after all (and if given a chance yes I would totally interrogate the WSJ editors to see how the heck it happened) and hopefully we will not have overly concerned adults try to get it banned over here!

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