I want to tell you about Assassination Classroom, an amazing Japanese anime series I discovered, but it’s going to be a bit of a challenge, because I just don’t know that much about anime — it’s not something I’ve ever watched a lot of. In fact, the anime series (as is often the case) is based on the manga series, and I’ve never gotten into manga at all.
But I was so enthralled by this anime series that I have to give it a best effort. If you like anime, or even just animated storytelling, and especially if you like hard science fiction (the good kind), you have got to check this one out.
For one thing, it’s surprisingly deep! And it made me weep.
The setup is about as goofy as it could be (which, from what I can tell, isn’t all that unusual with Japanese manga and anime):
An incredibly powerful “alien” creature — who looks like a bright yellow octopus with a smiley face — has just destroyed 70% of the Moon.
For the next year, he (oh, definitely he) will be teaching the 3-E class of Kunugigaoka Junior High School. His students have that year to learn how to assassinate their teacher and get the ¥ 10 billion reward (about $100 million) promised by the Japanese government (the reward is also open to outside assassins).
If they fail to assassinate their teacher, in one year teacher will destroy the world!
No, seriously, this turns out to be one of the best things I’ve seen recently.
And the thing is, it turns out to be very hard science fiction, and the whole situation makes perfect sense once you understand everything that’s going on.
Which is part of what makes this a hard article to write. To fully appreciate just how great the story is, you have to see it all, because — as is often the case with good science fiction — there is much more going on than is first revealed.
Any real discussion of the story requires spoilers, and that would ruin it for you if you haven’t seen it (which I assume most have not).
What I can do is unpack the premise a bit and assure you that everything makes sense once you see the entire story.
For instance, I can tell you about the “3-E” class of the high school. The Japanese use the three-year junior high school system (grades 7, 8 & 9) followed by a three-year high school (grades 10, 11 & 12). The high school grades are not compulsory, but all grades up to that are.
Therefore, the 3-E class is the third year — grade nine. The ‘E’ comes from an academic caste system used at the school and which starts with ‘A’ at the top. The ‘E’ class is the “End” class — the students who have done the worst or behaved unacceptably.
In fact, the ‘E’ class is largely banned from the campus proper and must hold their classes in a decrepit building up a mountain behind the main campus. Their final year of junior high begins with this bright yellow octopus monster — whom they name Koro Sensei (a pun on “unkillable teacher”) — showing up to teach their class.
What happened to their original teacher (who was also rather ‘E’ class) is an important secret I won’t spoil.
The thing about the ‘E’ class (and their missing teacher) is that they are all really quite amazing people. In many cases their banishment comes not from being poor academically, but from being different (which can be a sin in Japanese culture).
One source of secondary dramatic tension comes from the principal of Kunugigaoka Junior High, who has an extreme philosophy about education, and who uses the ‘E’ class as a threat to the better students. As in: fly right and do well, or you will be banished.
One cool aspect of the story is that all the villains aren’t villains just to be story villains. They all turn out to have reasons for why they do what they do. You will come to understand, if not sympathize, with the principal and others.
Even the back stories of the kids in the class turn out to be rich and textured.
At its heart, the prominent theme of the story is education.
The kids have the mission of killing their teacher to save the Earth. Either he dies or the Earth does. One rather significant obstacle is that Koro Sensei turns out to be the best teacher any of them have ever had. Many episodes deal with how Koro Sensei tailors instructions for each kid in a way that elevates the kid to new levels. He makes the ‘E’ class more successful than they have ever been.
And it isn’t just academic excellence that he teaches — it’s also how to be expert assassins. Their teacher is fully complicit in teaching them how to kill him. And how that factors into their lives and education is just amazing.
I can guarantee that you will fall in love with Koro Sensei as much as they do. I sure did; he is charming and delightful! (You know, for an Earth-killing monster, anyway.) Part of that comes from how much he loves his students.
Another part comes from why he’s doing what he’s doing. Redemption, a favorite theme of mine, is a sub-theme here.
We learn in the first episode that Koro Sensei can move at Mach 20 and has highly developed senses, so he can easily dodge bullets or evade threatening situations. As the series goes on, we learn he has a variety of superpowers that do, in fact, make him seemingly unkillable.
The anime consists of two seasons, the first with 22 episodes, the second with 25. Run time is about 22 minutes each. There were also two live-action movies made — that would be something to see given Koro Sensei’s appearance and abilities.
I am totally head over heels on this. It is one of the best visual stories I’ve seen in a good long time.
And it’s good science fiction — hard science fiction, my favorite kind. It’s one of those that beg to be watched at least twice, because it’s different when you know what’s really going on.
It’s absolutely rated a strong unqualified Wow!
Thanks to Hulu (and, to a lesser extent, Netflix), I’ve been exploring the world of anime.
The Japanese seem to tell more complex and textured stories than I find Americans do (because American culture has turned so mind-numbingly stupid).
A lot of it turns out to be only semi-interesting to me, though. I’m not huge on fantasy (been there, done that) even when it’s presented as being part of multi-player online virtual game reality (such as Sword Art Online and others). Just not really into the swinging sword stuff — especially when the swords are bigger than the person wielding them.
I do like stories with magic a bit better, and I’ve started watching a series, Fairy Tail, which is a popular, rather comic, series about wizards. Fairy Tail (yes, tail) is a wizards club that gets in trouble with the wizards guild due to their tendency to wreck things while fighting bad guys.
The series is a hoot (one key character has a flying blue cat companion, named Happy), and it has a lot of fun with animation styles. In addition to the richness and texture of their stories, the Japanese are hugely interesting and clever when it comes to animation.
It’s just pure fun to watch. I give it strong Ah!
Until now, my experience with anime consisted mainly of the classics. I saw Ghost in the Shell back in the late 1990s (it came out in 1995), and I saw Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001) not long after it came out (thanks to the Cartoon Network).
But that didn’t really prepare me for how great the Cowboy Bebop series is. I didn’t realize what a ground-breaking work that is in story, animation, and music (the last thanks to Yoko Kanno). It’s a work that’s worth studying and watching multiple times — rich and textured.
I also didn’t know about Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which continues the story rather nicely (and, bonus, also features the music of Yoko Kanno). The original may be one of the best film animes ever made, and the continued series follows it up very well.
And I just love the Tachikoma! Those weren’t in the original.
One thing, just part of the awesomeness of GitS, is: How many animated movies have a credit for Weapons Designer? That’s taking things seriously!
There is also that GitS is hard science fiction with a strong Blade Runner design ethic. And, as with Assassination Classroom, there is a lot of depth to the concepts involved.
Cowboy Bebop, likewise, is hard science fiction — the characters fly around the solar system in their spaceship — and, again, there is a serious back story and depth you just don’t find in Western storytelling.
The original Ghost in the Shell I rate a strong Wow! I give the Stand Alone Complex series a strong Ah! And Cowboy Bebop also gets a Wow! (but not as strong as the one for GitS).
They’re all “must see” if you enjoy anime and haven’t seen them (in which case you should watch them again).
I’ll leave you on a lighter note: I couldn’t resist (especially as it was just one season) an anime titled The Devil Is a Part-Timer!
The premise involves an alternate world, a magical one, ruled by the Demon Lord Satan Jacob. Who has been defeated by the hero Emilia and her companions. So he flees to our world. Where he appears as a young man. Without magic. He takes the name Sadao Maou.
He is accompanied by his number one general, Alciel, who is likewise transformed and takes the name Shirō Ashiya.
The hero Emilia Justina follows him and is transformed into a young woman. She takes the name Emi Yusa.
Sadao, to make ends meet, must take a part-time job at MgRonald’s — a fast food burger joint. He lives with Ashiya in a one-room bachelor apartment.
Yusa does a bit better, taking a job at a call center. Soon she meets her nemesis and is, of course, thrown together with him. It almost becomes a love-hate thing, but she tries to keep it mostly hate. Meanwhile Chiho Sasaki, a high school aged co-worker of Sadao’s has a crush on him…
It’s cute. Really, really cute. And fun. Really, really fun.
I’ve come to realize how much I value fun in storytelling. Even the grimmest stories need a dash of fun. I think this is why I liked NBC’s Grimm more than ABC’s Once Upon a Time. The former has some fun.
It’s also why I’m a bit iffy on the SciFi channel’s The Expanse, but I really got a kick out of their Dark Matter. The former is pretty grim — really quite good hard sf, but grim — while the latter is a hoot. Zoie Palmer, alone, is worth the price of admission!
p.s. Happy Pi Day!
p.p.s. Requiescat in pace Stephen Hawking.