Monday, September 10, 2018

Riddle Story of Devil (Akuma no Riddle) only hints at what it could have accomplished (Anime Review)

I'm continuing in my quest to catch up on anime that people like and tell me I'll like too. Riddle Story of Devil is a yuri, torture-porn-light, action, mess-of-a-show that had flashes of promise but ultimately failed to live up to its potential while posing some serious problems.

Let me start by admitting that Riddle Story of Devil does not fall into my normal comfort zone. I tend to like heartfelt rom-com or rom-drama high-school and adult shoujo, josei and yuri. I like them to be character driven with emotional development and character development arcs.

However, as with all the arts (music, movies, books, manga/anime, etc...) I would much rather spend my time on something great in an less-preferred genre than mediocre in my preferred genre (hence why I routinely listen to opera on old records rather than Nickelback - god, they're like the muzak of post-grunge). So anyway, even if Riddle Story of Devil isn't my normal go-to genre, my intention is not to review it compared to what I normally look for in anime, but instead to judge it based on the genre it falls into and its overall artistic merits.

Sadly, it fails in that regard.

Riddle Story of Devil features a host of 12 teenage girl assassins assigned to the same classroom with the purpose to kill another classmate, Haru. She is apparently someone who must be killed and bears the scars on her body from many a prior attempt. She is, of course, wonderful, charming, happy, kind, determined, and hopeful. All we could ever want in a shoujo heroine (other than always talking about herself in the third person - at least in the subtitles).

Upon meeting Haru, one assassin, Tokaku, feels something, maybe for the first time in her own life. Naturally they end up roommates and Tokaku decides to forgo her mission to kill Haru and instead protects her against the other assassins. Each Assassin is allowed one attempt on Haru and must complete it within 48 hours of notifying Haru of their intention. So basically, each episode is one person trying to kill Haru while Tokaku protects her.

At first I had trouble getting into this world. It seemed insane to believe that there were this many trained teenage female assassins, who of course each had their own adults and large clans pulling the strings behind them. And of course, no police ever came during any explosions, carnage, etc... this is when I realized that I needed to judge it not on reality, but on the rules of its world. A world where what mattered was not the logic of the real world, but the internal logic that Haru must die, that there really were secret assassin societies with lots of money and resources, and that somehow, Haru would survive this (because she just had to, alright?! Damn you, making me care about her.).

Now that I was finally in the right mindset for the show, I realized how empty the first 2/3rds of the series was. It was pretty routine. There was no backstory provided, no character development for our two leads, the action scenes were fairly brief and perfunctory, the art was okay but not spectacular, and most disappointing...there was almost no yuri.

There was a bit of implied connection, maybe romantic, between Haru and Tokaku, but I was really hoping to see their relationship develop, to provide more motivation for Tokaku as well as a space for them to both develop as people. But really, it wasn't there. It was pretty much an action show about teenage girls fighting.

Then, in the final few episodes, it showed just how good it could have been if the whole series was as bonkers, crazy, and intense as the final parts. It started with Banba's episode. Seeing her split-personality bust through a wall with a giant sledge hammer and the crazy grin and all the bat-shit-crazy things she says and looks she gives demonstrated that if the show had this energy and chaos from the start that it could have been amazing.

Thankfully this was mostly sustained over the final episodes. We also get some backstory on our two leads, but still almost no real meaningful or insightful interactions between them. They don't seem fundamentally closer at the end of the series than on the first day they met (making the veeeeery ending scene ring hollow). Couple that with the most bow-tying, happy-making, completely out-of-character ending for a series I have ever seen, and it ultimately ended with the same disappointment that it started with.

Aside from not having the demented energy it needed, there were many other glaring writing issues throughout. One of my biggest pet-peeves is the Deus ex Machina. Those "whoops, I wrote the character into an impossible corner and the only way to get them out is to introduce something to solve that problem that had no narrative lead-up or foreshadowing so it comes out of nowhere" fixes happened a few times in the series. Most notably was when Tokaku is about to be strangled to death, and despite fighting the ENTIRE series with only a small knife and occasional handgun, she happens to have a retractable taser in her beautiful knee-high leather boots to save her. Um, the boots really are beautiful though.

But those are far from the only writing problems. For being Haru's sworn protector, Tokaku lets her out of her sight an awful lot. Also, why not just lock Haru up for the year in a fall-out shelter? Haru also likes putting herself into terrible positions with the very people trying to kill her. And, when you hear something in the distance that sounds very wrong, and you are protecting someone, don't run with her towards it, run away (silly Tokaku). Oh, and if you wanted to kill Haru, why would you put a bomb around her neck with a passcode option to defeat it (I'm just saying)? The "backstory" we are given to supposedly justify why the bomb could be defeated with a passcode was emotionally so minimal and stupid as to be belittling to the viewer.

Yet, there were some awesome moments as well. In episode 10, the scene with Haru and the grenades and the elevator was probably the best moment of the whole show. She finally gets to be her bad-ass little self.

Okay art, decent premise for the genre (even if logically stupid), two leads who we could care about (if they gave us any meaningful interactions of substance between them), but a mostly boring side cast of assassins (until the end), writing problems, and a terrible ending that was waaaaaaaaaay too redemptive but still didn't manage to deliver any believability to the Haru/Tokaku relationship and the series ended up quite a disappointment despite a few good episodes (8-10, 12).

I also haven't even begun to dive into issues of feminine agency (given that there were external adults, some male, some female, controlling the girls), the near-torture-porn of constantly putting Haru in danger and her getting cut regularly, the costumes (yes, there was buttcrack on the cyborg girl...yes, there was a cyborg girl), or any other social justice issues, but I've railed on the show enough as it is. And yet...I didn't hate it, I just didn't really like it either. Overall rating: 5/10.


For an alternative take on it, read Erica Friedman's reviews of the two disks of the DVD on Okazu: 
In many ways, I think we're saying similar things, but I have less tolerance for things not being as good as they could have been! :)

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