Friday, February 4, 2011

Beelzebub (Episodes 1 - 4)

Tatsumi Oga is not a good person.

Perhaps it’s his environment—after all, he’s a freshman at Ishiyama High, Tokyo’s mecca for delinquents—or perhaps someone who can knock out any of his peers with a sharp punch doesn’t need to learn social skills like patience, friendliness, or respect. Come to think of it, that seems to be how everyone at Ishiyama High socializes. Oga is just especially skilled at it, and that ends up landing him in trouble, but not with the authorities at the school (which is run by a fellow who would rather trim his garden than discipline his students) or with any particular gang of delinquents, since Oga is more than capable of swiftly handling any challenge.

No, in Beelzebub, Oga’s problem is that he suddenly becomes a surrogate father to the spawn of the devil.

The Great Lord of Darkness is too lazy to take care of his own son and passes that responsibility to two demons: the fashionably gothic nurse Hilda and a “dimensional transfer demon” Alain, who looks like a former member of the Village People. For reasons that weren’t entirely clear, they need to find a surrogate father on Earth to watch over little Baby Beel, and after seeing Oga easily manhandle several thugs, Alain thinks they’ve found the perfect match. Baby Beel thinks so too—attracted to Oga’s ability to quickly dispatch other thugs, he instantly becomes attached to Oga, making our hero the new caretaker of the Next Great Evil Destined To Destroy The World, whether he likes it or not.

And he really doesn’t like it. Like any human baby, Beel is temperamental, whiny, difficult to please and always hungry. The gulf in difficulty between raising a human baby and Beel, though, is massive. When Beel gets especially upset, he discharges lightning from his body, zapping anybody nearby. Oga isn’t happy about this and devises a plan to get rid of his Satanic bundle of misery—find someone meaner, stronger, and more brutal than himself. Since Ishiyama High is a school filled with delinquents, this shouldn’t be too hard, right? In a nice twist on the old Shônen Jump formula, Oga is now on a quest to find someone who can beat his ass, while learning the crazed particulars of raising a demonic baby.

There is not a lot of anime that can grab my interest just by its concept. Some of this is because of how often the same story ideas are recycled over and over again in anime, but some of this is because just describing a series’ concept rarely does it any justice. For example, Cowboy Bebop is about a bunch of bounty hunters in space and loud jazz music. Urusei Yatsura is about a magical girlfriend alien and her crazy friends. Azumanga Daioh is about a bunch of high schoolers doing high school things with their high school friends.

Beelzebub is one of the rare exceptions to this pattern. Your senses have to be iced over with cynicism if you don’t find “tough-juvenile-delinquent-suddenly-becomes-a-surrogate-father-to-the-Devil’s-baby” a fun idea. This isn’t so much because it’s a new idea, but because it’s a clever riff off the old “magical girlfriend” formula, with the creepy baggage that follows close behind it removed. Shônen shows are usually about the gimmicks, and this one has a doozy, but what made shows like Cowboy Bebop great was in the details—it was a carefully-made anime, filled with great characters and stories that were woven together with careful attention by a master craftsman. Beelzebub doesn’t have any kind of attention to detail—it is broadly made, conceived, and delivered.

There’s nothing wrong with that. I enjoy a gag comedy where a shotgun gets stuck in a baby’s dimensional diaper as much as the next guy. It also has such highlights as a cast of juvenile delinquents whose insanity falls just short of Sakigake! Cromartie High School, an amusingly “all tsun, all the time” Goth sidekick, and a baby who is more delighted with skulls as a toy than bouncy balls. However, most of the characters feel cut from reliable stock than conceived in an original form, and in four episodes, it hasn’t done a lot to develop its idea, making it a comedy with few surprises.

This means the only way to describe the quality of this series is with something that sounds like a backhanded compliment, and that is never a good thing. That said, the rule of Shônen Jump is as follows—it always takes a few episodes to get really good. For now, I’m content with what it has, and I am looking forward to see where it will go.

(Yes, that's a baby's penis. It's funny in Japan. - Ed.)

Stray Thoughts
  • When was the last time we had a series about juvenile delinquents in a juvenile delinquent school? For that matter, since the high school you go to in Japan is based on merit, do places like this actually exist?
  • Episode four was pretty good. I like that it took an obvious joke—Baby Beel peeing at a terrible time—and went crazy with it. This is the kind of thing that makes cartoon comedies good, and hopefully we’ll see more of it.
  • So it looks like we’ll be seeing Oga fight some more juveniles, tournament style. I don’t know how I feel about that.
(Beelzebub is simulcast on Crunchyroll every Saturday at 7 PM EST.)

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