Jormungand (TV)

"Her name is Koko. She is loco." These hip hop lyrics are smattered throughout Jormungand-mostly in the next episode tease-and they emphasize its biggest selling point, saving grace, and wild card. Koko is a force of nature, wickedly funny, unapologetically brutal in the enforcement of her rules, and occasionally sweet and nurturing. Whether she's voiced by Shizoka Ito in the subs or Anastasia Muñoz in the dub, she's one-of-a-kind and keeps the proceedings afloat even as a military action anime with quite a bit of visual and musical muscle, the action is one of the least interesting aspects of this show.

Jormungand is a show that on its surface finds black-and-white morals exceptionally quaint. The main character is Jonah, a child soldier who will forever blame the death of his parents on arms dealers. In a twisted bit of fate, he is assigned to protect Koko Hekmatyar, a major broker in family-owned shipping company HLCI, whose most profitable venture is the illegal weapons market. Before Jonah can take out his hatred, he is given a talk by Koko who confesses to him that she knows every little thing about his troubled past and promises a way to live with his hatred of what she does while still being able to serve her. Asked why she's an arms dealer, she replies, "For world peace, of course."

Koko and her team of mercenaries are like a large family. A family with an explosives expert nicknamed Wiley Coyote. Koko knows the arms business like the back of her hand, isn't afraid of bloodying the carcasses of the people who cross her personally, and her ultimate plans may be something so extraordinarily sinister she can't even tell her closest confidants, but she also has many other faces. Caring towards Jonah, she seeks to give him the childhood he never had while still employing him to annihilate anyone that gets in their way. She's exceptionally accommodating to her closest compatriots, tolerant of her best friend going off to hunt butterflies, and even going so far as to occasionally indulge her bodyguard Valmet's lesbian fantasies with her boss. But her mood can shift like the wind, turning her smile from joyful to scheming to vengeful. What is constant is she has an undeniable gravity that draws people into her orbit.

Based on the manga by Keitaro Takahashi, the story of Jormungand doesn't so much have an overarching plot initially as slowly setting up all of the pieces that make up the world. Koko and her entourage travel the conflict hotspots of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia interacting with various frienemies, clients, rival arms dealers, and government agents. While there is a certain amount of grit and enough research into the ways of clandestine operations to allow some suspension of disbelief, the work is made much more palatable to an anime consuming audience by adding a great amount of quirkiness and strangely enough, cuteness. Many of the main players have bodyguards and assassins who are female. Some who are short on words and even shorter on hair, but many who could double as runway models or waifus. For instance, British arms man Curry has a rather posh bodyguard Mildo at his disposal who would seem more at home in something like Nana until she decides to do something like challenge her rival Valmet to a ravaging brawl over supper.

Even with a lack of a larger story, the series works just fine as a character piece with occasional bloody shootouts. Koko and her nine bodyguards are surprisingly very entertaining company and they each get their episode to flesh themselves out in relatively dramatic fashion. Like any good team, they have remarkable chemistry (The dub slightly more than the sub), and it's fun just watching them hang out together. It's only when the show feels like it needs to have a grand scheme that it gets shaky. The first twelve ride along with mostly no particular destination in mind, but the second season, Perfect Order, reveals Koko and her best friend Dr. Miami have a secret plan they've been working on since they were teenagers. The plan even attracts the prying eye of master CIA manipulator codenamed Bookman. The main problem is not so much the buildup, but the reveal. Not to get into spoilers, but Koko's endgame is ridiculously full of holes, hopelessly idealistic, and only accomplishes the goal of preventing the worst case scenario. It is held as a deep, dark secret for so long and the foreshadowing so heavy that it is underwhelming when unveiled. For an eccentric genius like Koko presenting the work of her life, I expect better.

Right before Geneon completely imploded and become a part of the Universal family of corporate synergy, they had a hit in the R-rated, amoral action series Black Lagoon, and I imagine they envisioned similar popularity doing an adaptation of this, especially grabbing animation studio White Fox just after their sensation Steins;Gate. They even had some decent staff that doesn't get top billing, like writer Yosuke Kuroda, who handled similar female-driven action with Madlax, one of the few Bee Train anime that is above par, bad ending aside.

To their credit, the work is extremely professional. It's a series where one really appreciates even the finest of points. Weapons are painstakingly replicated and animated. Complex effects like space launch plumes are given the proper effort to look right. Looking at the bigger picture, the wide array of characters are designed well and are easily distinguishable between each other, though the leads have a weird issue with extremely hairy eyelashes that's distracting for a bit. The show is essentially a travelogue between the beautiful cities of the world and its most devastating war zones, and each setting looks just right with little monotonous artistry.

In my limited time working with Infinite Rainy Day, it fees like I've bandied about the name of composer Taku Iwasaki more than a fair share around here. Mostly because he does a ton of work, and it's usually excellent. Jormungard is some of his best work. Mixing regional chanting with electronic backing reflects the effect of modern weaponry pounding these ancient lands, but that's only one trick Iwasaki has up his sleeves. Off the top of my head, there are cues that utilize blues, rap, jazz flute, techno, metal, and usually one style acts in tandem with another. Despite the variety, the music rarely feels out of character, though in typical Iwasaki fashion, it's usually the intense action theme and the heavy emotional track which can be used for both happy and sad tears that get the most play. The cherry on top is the adrenaline-pumping openings, though the series never quite finds the right note in its closing themes.

Unfortunately, as much expertise is spread around Koko's team, the same can't be said of their operations when they go sideways. When the series chooses to have elaborate sequences, they're quite nice for a television series, especially an extended car chase inside a tunnel. It is the quick and dirty route that is utilized in most cases, however. The team will be surrounded or pinned down, and they will break out their firearms and shoot in heavily-edited spurts and suddenly win without casualties because they are more elite. At one point in a firefight, Jonah jumps out of cover and is square within the sights of an elite assassination squad 20 feet away that somehow can't hit him even though they can instantly strike snipers from 200 yards away with the same weapon. Maybe the rifle's far-sighted. These sequences get better as the anime moves along, but they don't go away permanently. One of the centerpieces leading up to the climax is a prison break out of one of the most heavily fortified and brutal facilities in the world. The episode featuring this operation starts after the prisoner has been sprung. Anything's possible if you don't show it, I suppose.

This trickles down to the story where everything eventually becomes predictable. The cutthroat assassins are no threat because it's obvious Koko and her team are going to win anyway, and the other masterminds are going to bend to the will of Koko or be buried by it. Obviously, most series are designed so the people we follow and like will win, but it rarely is so blatant as it is here and there's absolutely no dramatic tension once it moves past a certain point. Not that Koko isn't awesome and presenting herself with no chinks in her armor is well within her character. A little weakness or daring to put her some kind of negative light would've gone a long way. The second half dabbles with the possibility that Koko is secretly a monster of a human being and her main scheme has one hefty sacrifice that must be paid for it to work. This is all swept away by last-minute revelations and an ending that refuses to show the consequences of the actions that ultimately get taken. So as much as this show wants to look at the dark underbelly of arms dealing and humanity, it actually doesn't get its hands as dirty as it may seem. There is a bizarre scene of sexual tension, but it comes way out of left field and is a twisted excuse to show boobs.

The combination of an undercooked overarching story and editing out of writing problems keep Jormungand from being stellar. Like the mythical world serpent it references, it has the entire Earth within its coil, yet is unable to take off into the sky for something grander. As critical as I may seem, I do quite like this series and I cannot state enough how enjoyable it is to just be in the presence of the cast, especially the blast of energy that is Koko. There's a surprisingly funny and effective core in Jonah trying to bond with his new team and them trying to make him more than a simple child soldier. But this is an action series with high aspirations, and in respect to those, it doesn't break through the ceiling of its own ambitions.


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