ANIME REVIEW: HERO MASK
Genre: action, thriller, sci fi
Release date: December 3rd 2018
Director: Hiroyasu Aoki
Writer: Hiroyasu Aoki
Number of episodes: 15
Runtime per episode: 25 mins
I love anime. That should come as no surprise to anyone who’s spent more than two minutes talking to me. But anime is not the only form of entertainment I consume on a regular basis. I also really enjoy western tv-shows and movies. And as anyone who’s also a fan of both will tell you going straight from a western piece of entertainment to anime often creates this sense of cultural whiplash. Anime is just fundamentally different from western entertainment. From its often more out-there narratives to its lack of tonal consistency to the simple fact that anime is often geared towards a teenage audience instead of an adult one like most western entertainment.
However, in recent years, especially with the advent of Netflix in the anime industry there’s become a real trend for anime to become more like western entertainment and tap into that more mainstream audience of working adults. However, much as I really like B – The Beginning and similar shows, the end result has so far always been a show that’s still quintessentially anime but with a somewhat more western inspired flourish. That argument however cannot be made for Hero Mask which in this reviewer’s opinion is the first anime that genuinely has a chance of breaking through into the mainstream. Of course, this says absolutely nothing about whether the show is any good on its own so let’s break it down, shall we?
The story of Hero Mask revolves around a man with the somewhat disconcerting name James Blood. James is an agent working for the SSC, a not very well-defined secret organization that’s somewhere between a security service and law enforcement. James is kind of a loose cannon, often employing more force than necessary, leading to a lot of a property damage and sometimes even civilian casualties. Much to the chagrin of his superiors. But angry superiors very quickly become the least of James’s worries as very early on in the show his mentor dies under very mysterious circumstances. Unfortunately for him, James doesn’t get the chance to get to the bottom of what led to her death as the poor woman is barely cold in the ground or the next big issue arrives. A serial killer believed to have died in prison shows up at the SSC headquarters wearing a mask that seemingly makes him able to change his face. How is it possible this man is still alive and what is the mysterious technology behind the mask? As James and his superior Lennox Gallagher investigate the case, they unravel a complex web of intrigue that leads all the way to the highest echelons of power.
Hero Mask is one of the most tightly plotted anime of the last several years with a main storyline that’s like a rubix cube of disparate events and characters and only when you get to the final stretch of episodes does everything fall into place and do you start to get a clearer picture of what is going on and how every character falls into the bigger picture. Thankfully the show doesn’t just keep the audience completely in the dark till then. The main story is divided into various arcs, each lasting between two and five episodes each. While the overall plot doesn’t really start to come together until the final arc, every arc prior to that does offer its own standalone narrative that ties into the larger story of the show as a whole.
The first arc revolves around said aforementioned serial killer. This arc mainly serves as an introduction to the main characters and how they all relate to one another. As such the main story of this arc is fairly simple and unfolds in a fairly predictable manner.
The plot of the second arc however is much more extensive and takes up pretty much the entirety of the runtime. In a way this arc really is just one very long chase sequence, but the terrific character work and unrelenting suspense kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. Willing against all odds, that all the characters would make it through fine. The visual direction and very taut writing really give off this vibe that anyone can be a target of assassination at any time. Even when a scene unfolded without anything of note happening you really do get the sense that something could happen any moment so when nothing does happen it feels like the characters got a brief reprieve. And this makes even the most bland, exposition scene, come across as incredibly engaging and makes sure that you as the viewer suck in every plot point relayed to you. While this arc is mostly a standalone story it is however also the canonical introduction of the Live corporation which plays a very large role in the main story from there on out.
The third arc also starts off as a mostly self-contained story, this time revolving around the CEO of a pharmaceutical company and her possibly shady dealings. But about halfway through the scope widens tremendously and the stakes are raised dramatically as the standalone story of this arc seamlessly merges with the overall narrative and what started out as a simple investigation becomes a desperate search for the truth that puts James and everyone he cares about in direct lethal danger.
This then moves over into the final arc which sees all the events brought to a climax where the various opposing forces arrive at a final confrontation after which we take a dive into the past and finally get some answers to many of the questions brought up so far. Not all of them mind you. Not even close. Another way in which this show clearly takes from western entertainment is that it ends on a nice big cliffhanger that really makes you want to watch next season to find out what’s gonna happen next. Except…this is still a Japanese show and unlike here in the west, few series make it past their first season. Which leaves the very real possibility that we may never get the answers to all of the questions left open by the end of this season. But that’s for future us to agonize over. What we have right now is still an absolutely fantastic story…just one that may not ever get the ending it deserves.
Hero Mask is very much the story of James Blood. In fact, so much so that I think the “hero” part in the title is a reference to him. Thankfully he falls almost more into the category of anti-hero than being a hero in the traditional sense of the word. At first glance James is your average gruff male lead. His methods are unconventional and often destructive, and his superiors hate him, but he does get results. He’s good with the ladies but not to the extent he can get away with anything. And he has a massive chip on his shoulder. What I like about James though is that all of these aspects are properly explored and aren’t just there because they’re the tropes that belong with his stereotype. Yes, he has a rough relationship with his superiors, but there is also a strong sense of companionship. Like his superiors are parents that deeply care but also worry about their troublesome son. They scold him not because they hate him, but because they love the guy. Yes, he is good with the ladies but never to the extent they are instantly smitten with him. And yes, he has a massive chip on his shoulder but then his mentor did die under very mysterious circumstances and I actually quite like that it leaves him affected. I like that James is the kind of gruff male lead who actually emotes from time to time instead of quietly brooding and looking real tough doing it.
Also, while this show is very much about James, he does surround himself with a large cast of varied and interesting characters who also each get their own character development. The most prominent of these is Sarah Sinclair, the token love interest. Thankfully Sarah is not the kind of female character who just slavishly follows our gruff male lead around, looking lovingly in his direction and screaming at the appropriate moments. Not even in the slightest. She is a strong character in her own right who uses her own talents to get to the bottom of what is going on in her own way. In fact, after the first arc Sarah spends most of the show involved with her own investigation, separate from James’s. And while his is definitely the flashier and more action-packed story and as such, does get a lot more screen time, her investigation also gets enough screen time across the entirety of the first season to really get you, as the audience invested in her search for the truth. Also, while the majority of her story progresses fairly uneventfully, at least compared to James’s, when she finally does get very close to finding out what is really going on, she too finds herself in the crosshairs of some very dangerous people and has to do everything she can to stay alive. Also, interestingly enough, despite James’s story being so much flashier and action packed, Sarah is actually the one who cracks the case wide open.
The third main character of note is Lennox Gallagher, James’s long-suffering superior officer. Lennox may be a very by the books guy who prefers to have the SSC garner as little negative press as possible. But he cares every bit as much about getting to the truth and seeing justice done as James does. Also, as mentioned while he is frequently frustrated by James and his methods he cares deeply for the guy and as the investigation proceeds and things become increasingly more hairy and dangerous, he is the one who always has James’s back. Often at the expense of his own safety.
Besides these three the show is also populated by a large array of important secondary characters such as Harry Creighton, a former SSC agent turned assassin who functions as the primary antagonist for the first half of the show, before being replaced by an even bigger threat in the show’s second half. Edmond Chandler, the SSC’s resident tech guy and loyal ally to James and Lennox. And finally, Richard Burner, the head of the SSC and superior to both James and Lennox, who’s allegiance remains completely ambiguous until the final arc of the show which is where he is really brought to the fore. His arc feels the least complete of all, mainly because it feels like they were setting him up for a much larger role in the show’s second season. Which…as mentioned…we may never get to see.
ART AND ANIMATION
Before I start talking about the visuals of the show itself, I first have to talk about the show’s opening. Mainly because this is already one of my favorite openings ever. Instead of just making a generic opening that features all of the characters and some sakuga the director and animators instead decided on a completely CG sequence that depicts a sheet of paper being folded into a certain pattern which then smooths over and expands tremendously across the width of the screen. Then having that sequence repeated 21 more time with all sorts of shapes and expanding patterns. It’s a gorgeous sequence that not only ties into the main plot of the show but also forms as a terrific analogy for the incredibly intricate and continually expanding plot of the show itself. Despite all of the spectacular action sequences, really the main attraction of this show is trying to unravel its incredibly complex narrative. And this opening signifies that brilliantly. Telling you exactly what to expect from this show without showing you even a single frame of the show itself.
Hero Mask is easily one of the most well drawn anime out there. Like everything else the character designs take their inspiration from western media. Though interestingly enough, not western animation which often features very simple yet stylized designs. Instead it took inspiration from American comics with the character designs having a level of realism and detail to their faces that is we rarely see in anime.
But this level of detail and realism doesn’t just go for the designs either. The series takes place in a not further defined European city that is very clearly based on London. And I can say that with absolute certainty because having been to London many a time, it really does strongly resemble the city. I’m convinced the animation department actually took a trip to London for study material. Unlike most other anime that takes place outside Japan this really does not feel like some fantasy land inspired by London. No, it genuinely looks and feels like London. There is no London Eye or Big Ben in any of the shots but the architecture, the street layout, the design of the industrial areas and even the skyline. Not to mention the designs of all the vehicles. It all looks pretty much exactly like the real London does.
Couple this with the incredibly detailed and realistic designs and you have a show where you can basically take any frame and you have a still worthy of printing out and hanging on your wall. Of course, this does come at a price and in this case it’s the animation. The animation is serviceable for the most part though there were a few moments where the lack of any real animation was quite noticeable. Other than that, it does its job but very little else. I would certainly not expect any sakuga from this show because as far as I can tell…there is none.
The same goes for the soundtrack which, with the exception of the opening theme which is amazing, I found completely unremarkable. It supports what’s happening on screen nicely but with the exception of the opening theme, I’d very hard pressed to remember any track that played throughout the show itself.
Because of the kind of show that Hero Mask is I went for the dub with this one and unfortunately, I can’t say it was really all that remarkable. While I never felt the voice acting was incongruent with what was happening on screen I was also never really that impressed with any of the performances. It’s a perfectly serviceable dub that does its job but really doesn’t add anything to the proceedings. Which is a real shame because I think this is one of those anime that really could’ve benefitted greatly from a strong dub.
As I said at the beginning Hero Mask is, to my knowledge, the first anime that really manages to tie into western sensibilities and truly gets what makes western entertainment into what it is. You can watch it back to back with shows like 24 or Alias and not have that sense of cultural whiplash. And for that alone this show is worth checking out.
But moreso than that it is also a damn good show. Incredibly well written and executed. With a very tightly plotted story, a uniformly strong cast of diverse and interesting characters who each get a good amount of development and artwork that really surpasses most other anime out there and of course one hell of an OP, Hero Mask is easily one of the year’s best shows. The only real downsides are the lackluster animation, unremarkable soundtrack and underwhelming dub. Really the only reason why I would be a little hesitant to fully recommend this to everyone is the lack of a proper conclusion and the fact we might never get one. Even so, what we got was still a very solid show.
Personally, I don’t think Hero Mask is going to lead to anime becoming more and more westernized. There is a trend going on with anime that really tries to tap into that western mindset and I do think that will continue for a good long while. But I think the vast majority of those will be hybrid shows like B – The Beginning, distinctly anime but with a western flavor. A show like Hero Mask that looks and feel completely western I think is and will always be a curiosity and little else. Even now looking at the most popular shows, they’re all distinctly anime and geared towards a teenage audience and even with Netflix getting into the proceedings I don’t see that changing in the next ten years or so. But it’s also precisely because of that, that Hero Mask is such a unique show and, if this wasn’t obvious yet, so absolutely worth checking out.
All 15 episodes of Hero Mask can be streamed exclusively on Netflix. No DVD or Blu-ray release has been announced though given the fact that all anime on Netflix have eventually had a physical release, that prospect seems more than likely.
The first recommendation goes to the only other anime, that I know, that feels more western than anime: Monster. While this series wasn’t made specifically to tap into western audiences, it really does feel like something you could find on HBO or BBC. And like Hero Mask it’s incredibly well plotted with a very strong cast of characters. Unlike Hero Mask however, this show actually has a definitive conclusion that answers all of the questions it raises. Also, this show has my #1 waifu in it. So there’s that too.
Second recommendation goes to Psycho Pass. This is one of those shows that squarely falls into the category of hybrid and perhaps skews even closer to anime than something like B – The Beginning does. But what it does have in common with Hero Mask is that they are both incredibly well plotted thrillers though Psycho Pass also adds a crapton of incredibly compelling thematic ideas into the mix. Making it even more of a thinking man’s anime than Hero Mask. Also, Psycho Pass has what is in my opinion one of the best male leads in all of anime and definitely the best detective character Japan has ever brought forth. As much as I like James Blood…he’s definitely no Kogami.
See you Space Cowboys…