Nanbaka is a rather remarkable show, in that everything about it is utterly insane. I’d be hard-pressed to find another show with so many different hair colors, dual hair colors, hair styles, character nationalities and odd abilities. Unfortunately Nanbaka doesn’t do much of note with all it’s wacky assets. There will be spoilers ahead, you’ve been warned.
What I think kills Nanbaka to me more than anything is that it parallels an anime I vastly prefer, Medaka Box, and does a poor job in comparison. Both shows feature stories that are initially comedy focused before switching to battle-heavy arcs. Both shows have casts full of people with downright bizarre weapons, abilities, appearances or personality traits. And both shift, seemingly at random, from lighthearted shows to shows with rather dark and heavy plots, with the differences between people and the difficulties of communication featured as prominent themes. Nanbaka even has multiple characters who have dual colored hair which changes color in the same spot that Zenkichi’s, Medaka Box’s male lead, does. Hell even though the setting has been changed from a high school to a prison both of them are so full of various forms of oddballs, and ironically enough equally violent enforcers, and the relationship between the various prisoners and guards relaxed enough that the only real functional difference is that no one can leave the prison and everyone in Medaka Box has to go home after school. I mean you could argue this is a more adult setting and therefore could play home to more adult characters and stories but considering how twisted, goofy or straight up inept these convicts are at basic social functions it might as well be Medaka Box’s Sandbox Academy with more locks, bars and sparkles. None of these things doom Nanbaka to failure in my eyes, though that is so closely resembles Medaka Box without being anywhere as good doesn’t help it’s chances. It’s hard to summarize exactly what’s wrong in simple, concise words or phrases, most of what the show tries to do just fails to coalesce into anything really entertaining or hard-hitting for one reason or another. That said if I had to point to a consistent issue than pacing would be the main offender.
Part of the problem is that Nanbaka is try to tell two stories at once, the goofy gag anime and the darker, more serious battle anime. Inherently this isn’t a problem but it seems like the creators don’t know how to pace events for this combination very well. Nanbaka introduces it’s first darker elements at the end of episode 1 in a soliloquy where Jyugo describes his black shackles and the scene ends with this fucking awesome shot of Jyugo where the artsyle totally changes and the colors undergo a dramatic shift, to make the whole thing look darker, more jagged and more badass. So far so good. The darkness doesn’t return until about halfway through season 1, where in the midst of stupid new year’s contest-cum-battle tournament, Jyugo is confronted by someone who knows about the black shackles’ creator and Jyugo goes berserk while fighting him. This is also fine though I think it’s weird for to it show up in the middle of the show, because it seems more like a climactic fight. This isn’t helped by the fact the next two episodes are slow as hell, with one being dedicated to getting Jyugo to realize he’s never had any desires before and now he does, and he needs to make efforts and be emotionally invested in his desires and… what? What the fuck?
That episode in particular is painfully boring and it seems like a classic case of heavy handed moralizing. That could work in theory but I don’t need a morality lesson thanks, and I’m not invested enough in anyone in this show to care about major, if entirely too basic, character moments for them. Moreover why pop out the biggest battle of the season in the middle? Wouldn’t it make more sense to do that near the end, after we maybe had a few more episodes to try and get invested in the main characters’ stories? That way the moralizing and exposition part could be more of an epilogue not a boring as fuck break in the story where nothing happens before the next dark bit. Of course that makes sense because that’s what Medaka Box did. In Medaka Box the sudden turn to a darker, violent story line doesn’t begin until episode 8 or 9 and the major battle and the resulting character moments happen before the final episode, which returns to a low key comedy episode which fills the space during Medaka’s recovery time and concludes the first season’s narrative. And it’s not until the beginning of the second season that we return to the serious stuff.
And just to show that I’m not only hammering Nanbaka for not following Medaka Box, the way the story continues is a fucking snoozefest. After the two slow episodes following the fight, Jyugo meets a new antagonist, convinces himself he needs to leave to protect his prison buddies and tries to escape, only to get caught. Then the next seasons opens with about 4 episodes of slower episodes focused mainly on lackluster comedy and some character development for a couple of random prison guards and characters because fuck it, why not? Then the rest of the series is just a long series of battles between pre-established characters (mostly side characters), two noteworthy enemies, a couple generic prison guards and a bunch of killer doll-robots. It’s boring. They dedicated almost an entire episode to every character busting out their specific power, they wait like 6 episodes before Jyugo, the strongest one, starts to fight and to top it all off the whole is interwoven with random bits of backstory and character development, most of which is actually pretty interesting except for one minor problem- who the fuck cares about these guys? I couldn’t even get invested in the main characters, I gave no fucks about the side characters and while I admire the range of personality quirks, backstories and superpowers/special techniques showcased in the second season on the whole, it took way too fucking long. Every episode just dragged on and on while they dumped exposition on a character’s personality or power or skill and I kept waiting for them to a, hurry up and have Jyugo fight and b, fight the enemy boss Goku Enki. The former took too many episodes to happen and the latter didn’t happen at all, instead the season ends on a cliffhanger of him about to fight one of the other top prison guards.
It’s a little depressing really, because if I cared about these characters at all this show would have been a lot better. The pacing issues wouldn’t have disappeared completely but at least the battle section wouldn’t have felt so bloated and boring. The battle arc suffers from other problems as well though, perhaps most notably that Jyugo has actually fought and at least repelled Enki before and just forgot about it because he had no passions before and therefore didn’t bother to remember anyone. Wait, if that was actually the case why the fuck does he remember Musashi, the fire guy who knew about the black shackles from the main battle of season one? Why does he seem to have forgotten everyone besides Musashi, even though nothing about their first meeting implies that Jyugo saw Musashi as anyone important or interesting? Enki’s sudden prison break and rebellion is centered around taking Jyugo and other “monsters” down, so did they have an epic battle that Jyugo conveniently forgot for the sake of a plot twist or was Enki really weak before and was inspired to get strong by Jyugo? Nothing shown or said about Enki ever implies that he’s ever been weak and he looked more or less the same when fought Jyugo before so what gives? Does he magically not age or was the fight pretty recent? It can’t have been that long ago cause Jyugo’s pretty young, so why doesn’t he remember it? AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
So yeah. In addition to awful pacing there are some cringeworthy plot developments and plot holes and that sucks. It sucks because the broad concept of the battle arc was cool and a lot of the abilities/techniques were cool and it all would have been so much better if I cared about any of these characters, especially the main villain. He’s introduced as this badass but it doesn’t have any weight because the only person we see him fight is his little brother, who’s an annoying nobody with the worst dual hair combo in the series, I’m not kidding his hair is green and orange, it looks shit. This is fairly minor complaint but would it have killed the creators to make him look like a badass by taking down a character worth a shit? In Medaka Box for example, the main villain of the second season meets Medaka before the two are even explicitly enemies and demonstrates his power right away. He’s strong enough that Medaka, previously a nigh-invincible character seeks emergency training from her brother, whose special skill is the ability to manage and “level up” people exceptionally well. Then the conflict is given added weight when it becomes clear that the secret inhumane plan the villain supports could cost thousands of lives, making the battle a high stakes one. The conflict just keeps getting bigger and better as every enemy introduced is an important one, a serious threat to the good guys trying to shut the plan down. Not to mention these villains employ a mix of pure battle talent and excellent tactics that mean even the weakest of them is extremely dangerous. Now that’s a fucking battle arc worth watching.
Long story short Nanbaka is a wacky, but ultimately boring show. It has lots of interesting ideas and it certainly has the visual flair needed to give the story some much needed character, but none of it ever really comes together. The awful pacing, heavy handed moralizing and the weakness of the cast comes in and robs almost every noteworthy scene of there power. It needs something more, maybe that was efficiency in the story, better overall direction or less throw away episodes and more time devoted to getting us invested in the characters. Nanbaka just tries to do too much at once and the result is a goofy but altogether lackluster show. If by chance you like the plethora of crazy powers/techniques and the idea of the main cast being a collection of oddball characters, like me, then I’d highly recommend you check out Medaka Box. And in the off chance someone from Japan reads this, which happens sometimes, please I beg you, tell someone, anyone, everyone to forget about making a Nanbaka season 3 and make Medaka Box Minus instead. It’s got the manga’s most popular character in it and would totally do well, please, please make it. I need it. Anyway, I’m done here. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the next one.