Review: Netflix’s Original Anime ‘B: The Beginning’ Is Fun but Muddled
Among the many decisions Netflix have made during their recent multi-billion dollar splurge to ensure universal streaming service domination, one of their savviest moves has been to invest further in anime. Their surprisingly decent back-catalogue serves as the ideal primer for newbies to the medium, with hit series like Death Note, Cowboy Bebop, Attack on Titan and Trigun serving as gateway drugs for the inexperienced viewer. For those of us familiar with the big hits, the joy of being able to re-watch them repeatedly knows no bounds (hey, anime is expensive and often tricky to track down and I’m too cheap to shell out for a Crunchy Roll account). Anime fans have a tendency to be very into anime, or at least that’s what the market research tells us. They watch a series, then another, then keep going all while they feverishly recommend it all to their equally devoted friends. Given Netflix’s business model of binge-watching and encouraging addiction as much as they are legally allowed to do so, getting into the anime game was inevitable.
So far, the streaming service has released a handful of original anime series, including Warren Ellis’s middling adaptation of Castlevania, a new take on Godzilla and the delightfully named Devilman Crybaby. Big name talents have been enticed to the platform and, clearly, they’ve been given the budgets most animators would only dream of. Who wouldn’t want to work on something that’s guaranteed an instant worldwide audience?
B: The Beginning feels like the kind of anime that was made to appeal to as many people as possible. You could never say that it’s bereft of ideas, but there are so many themes and threads left hanging that the end result ends up simultaneously over and underwhelming the viewer.
Directed by Kazuto Nakazawa (the guy who did both the anime sequence in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and the music video for Linkin Park’s Breaking the Habit), B: The Beginning is a crime procedural with elements of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery and horror. Set in the near mythic nation of Cremona, the series focuses on a mysterious criminal organization whose robberies and heists seem designed to conceal something more insidious. As the Royal Investigation Service examines these crimes, they must also deal with the murder spree of serial killer, Killer B. Former investigator Keith Flick returns to Cremona to help, although it’s unclear how up to the task he is.
Watching the series - and it remains immensely easy to binge-watch over its 12 episode running time - I kept wondering if Nakazawa went into his Netflix pitch meeting with several show ideas and ended up mashing them together in the final few minutes. That’s not to say that this madness is without method, but the sheer ambition of this multitude of themes and genres often feels like a runaway train. It veers so wildly in tone (which, in fairness, anime often does) and jumps around with basic story elements to the point where I thought I’d missed crucial details when they hadn’t actually been shared.
Keeping up with every element of the story is tough for the viewer but made harder by the show’s inability to do the same. The villains are intriguing, but we get so little from them that they feel shoe-horned into the story. The investigators fare better, although it’s hard to watch them without thinking of some kind of cross-over between Sherlock Holmes and Death Note. Keith, our apparent protagonist (it takes the show a while to settle on who the lead really is), is essentially a bearded L who doesn’t like cake. He’s your prototypical ‘genius detective’ who’s predictably tough to work with, has a dark past, never explains his methodology but is always right, and is disdainful to his cohorts. Your mileage may vary on how appealing such a protagonist is, given how we see him in every procedural these days.
The supernatural element of the show takes until the second half of the season to truly get going. It’s worth hanging in for, although it only further emphasizes some of the questionable storytelling that preceded it. Omitting key information for no good reason does not a good mystery make. However, the supernatural subplots are where the visuals kick into high gear. B: The Beginning is a truly gorgeous show. Clearly, Netflix did not skimp on the budget for their original anime. The bombast and frenetic energy of these moments make for some of the season’s most striking moments, and the city of Cremona itself is a feast for the eyes, blending past, present and future in ways than demand another viewing. They also help balance out the more generic elements of the storytelling, which oddly happen more often with the supernatural side than the police procedural parts.
The thing about a show like this is that it’s super easy to keep watching it, even when your enjoyment level never consistently gets past ‘pretty good’. You think about trying out another show or going to bed, but hey, another episode has already started so you might as well. That’s always been the vaguely evil genius of Netflix, and it fits perfectly with anime. It’s a problem the service can only get away with for so long, however. They have a tendency to allow creators to treat first season runs like their own over-extended pilots, which feels like the major problem for B: The Beginning. Then again, I did watch every episode in reasonably quick succession and I can’t say I didn’t have a good time doing so. There are better anime series to watch on Netflix, but if the service are truly serious about investing in the medium, then B: The Beginning can act as a strong enough calling card.
The first season of B: The Beginning is available now to stream on Netflix.
Have you seen the series, and if so, what did you think? Are you an anime fan who’s excited for Netflix’s future plans? Come join us in the comments section and let us know.
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