Double-teams are staples of action-adventures everywhere - as much as the gruff lone wolf might be a gripping image, combining the odd-couple dynamics of a relationship with the confidence that you have a friend to watch your back enlivens any genre, whether it be co-op mode in a videogame, tag-teams in wrestling or the heartfelt and heart-aching doomed fratello of Gunslinger Girl, my favourite manga. It's a rich source to mine for both character and conflict, and that is what made me first notice Black Bullet - which takes the well-worn manga tropes of the imouto and the onee-chan, Cute Little Sister and Cool Big Brother, and sparks off their frisson with beasts and bombs. Is it a powerful bond that can resist any stress or will they be squabblers filing for divorce?
You may have caught the Black Bullet anime streamed on Crunchyroll last year, but even though this manga is coming out later it's actually an earlier work. Black Bullet is originally a light novel series which has began publication since 2011, and the manga version followed soon afterwards starting in 2012 in Dengeki Maoh magazine, with the anime version turning up only in 2014.
It is the year 2031, but however close its coming this near future is not one to welcome. A decade ago mankind came close to extinction with the catastrophic pandemic of the Gastrea virus - this demonic disease mutates its victims into massive monsters which destroy and devour everything around them. Completely incapable of containing the rampaging plague and the armies of aberrations it unleashed, the shattered survivors of the species withdrew to special green zones of old cities protected by mountain-high rings of the special element varanium, the only material which Gastrea are allergic to and which can reliably kill them... but in so doing giving up the rest of the planet to a monster-ravaged wasteland.
As titanic as the varanium monoliths are, looming over the highest buildings in the city, the barrier they project isn't watertight and some Gastrea still slip through to wreak havoc in the cities. The task of pushing them back falls to Civil Security Agencies - civsecs - private contractors who earn bounties for killing Gastrea. Civsecs are distinguished by their two-man teams, of Promoters and Initiators. Promoters are ordinary humans specially trained in the use of varanium weapons, but they're also the handlers for the pint-sized dervishes of the Initiators.
At the time of the first outbreak pregnant women infected by the Gastrea virus also contaminated their unborn children, but in the conditions of the womb they were born as asymptomatic carriers of the plague. Outwardly Initiators are marked only by their unsettling red eyes, but even though they're only ten year-old girls the virus has augmented them with superhuman strength, agility and fast-heal abilities which also make them an essential asset who can fight Gastrea monsters hand-to-claw on equal terms... but despite their vital role in protecting humanity these young initiators are still feared, reviled and abused by most people as "Cursed Children", ticking time bombs who could explode into monstrosity in the middle of the safe zones if the dormant viruses inside them ever reactivate and complete their transformations. Promoters are not only young Initiators' guardians but also their gaolers who must be ready to put down their charges if they go too far - a difficult task as many share a strong bond of teamwork.
One such team in the Tokyo safe zone is Rentaro - a Promoter even though he's still a highschooler - and Enju - an Initiator who despite the discrimination she's suffered since infancy is still a feisty and irrepressible wild-child who's too hot for Rentaro to handle. The two make an odd couple but a good team in the struggle against the Gastrea, but as Rentaro is called to the scene of a disturbance with lots of bodies but no mutant in sight, that relationship will be tested with the fear that Gastreans are not the only monsters.
That was a very long synopsis to give you, but I had to set it out in full because Black Bullet wants to make sure that every last bloody bullet point in the Powerpoint presentation is relentlessly drilled into you. Black Bullet suffers from the worst exposition-deadened storytelling that I've seen since Aria the Scarlet Ammo - while there are attempts to construct the worldbuilding alongside the action, this is done in such a clunky, clumsy, inarticulate way that it actually comes out worse than if they'd just had a chapter of talking heads asking us to take notes for the history lecture for the absurdity of the situations in which the infodumps occur. Despite a middle-aged police detective having lived through the original Gastrea war and survived ten years in the safe zones, he needs to have Rentaro interrupt a fight against a Gastrea to explain to him the vanarium weapons he must surely have already known about, not least because there's a giant black slab of it straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey casting a shadow over half of Tokyo; after a comedy section with the young Enju fuming at Rentaro for leaving her behind and making her late to the Gastrea fight, both she and the mood screech to a sudden whiplash halt as she starts narrating to an infected person what's happening to him as he mutates. This is not the only time this happens either, such as when Rentaro's and Enju's happy domestic soap opera is interrupted overleaf by thrashing women in labour with gore streaking from their nethers and rivers bobbing with drown infanticides... charming. Afterwards, when Rentaro and Enju are running along the road to their next appointment, Enju turns and as a complete non-sequitur starts reeling off the dimensions of the monoliths right down to the very foot while the two are still at a full sprint! Rentaro goes to a scientist friend for assistance tracking down a hidden Gastrea and she starts talking about the prejudice against the Cursed Children like Enju in what she herself admits is an entirely unrelated tangent. Explanation gets so ridiculously obsessive that Black Bullet feels obliged to tell us that the Ministry of Defence is "the place responsible for Japan's national defence" - wow, really? All this time I thought it was the place for Namibia's inspectorate of public baby-changing facilities.
All these segments are for the readers' benefit, not the characters', and the crudity of the writing makes the story fall apart at the first inspection. Reading it becomes exasperating - I was rescripting scenes to more naturally convey the information in my head as I flicked the pages. Say for instance when the detective is fighting the Gastrea, rather than expecting the bloodthirsty monster to politely wait a page for him and Rentaro to finish their conversation have him shout a line lke "Damnit you useless Promoter, I can't hold it back with my regular bullets! Where's your vanarium weapon?" allowing Rentaro to shout "right here!" and make an exciting explosive reveal of the black bullets of the title. Unfortunately I'm not going to be able to cash any royalty cheques for that, which only increases my resentment of this manga wasting my time.
What makes it even worse is that despite all of the effort invested in this worldbuilding, it's all for nothing because it still leaves an insecure setting that looks like it might fall over at the first puff of wind. Those huge vanarium monoliths are literally a mile high... a quick back-of-a-fag-packet calculation shows me that one would weigh more than every single bullet produced by every side in the entire Second World War - and Tokyo alone has at least eight of them! Instead of having these huge silly bricks, you could melt them down and literally drown the Gastrea in vanarium and have the world liberated in a week. But okay, mangaka are not materials scientists and that is unnecessarily nitpicky, we can ask some things to rest on suspension of disbelief. That excuse doesn't patch over the gaping plot-hole of the first villian Rentaro ecounters being a weird, cackling, sinister harlequin figure who makes a lot of ominous statements about a coming apocalypse, murders several policemen... and who is forgotten by the next scene and never followed up on again, not only by Rentaro but by the police detective whose own men were killed. If a construction company tried to palm off this ramshackle world-building on me I'd sue them for breach of contract.
Black Bullet also suffers from the same post-apocalyptic problem as Chrome Shelled Regios - the "cosy catastrophe", where the end of the world and the destruction of civilisation is just all a rather unseemly view hidden behind the silk curtains that doesn't even slightly inconvenience the comfortable middle-class routine of the protagonists. A point is made that within the safe zones of the cities protected by the anti-Gastrea monoliths, "impoverished societies rebuilt themselves to the standards of the early 2020s" - so in other words, everything is materially identical to as it was before the catastrophe and in the frame of this story it may as well not have even happened. The first two chapters take place in a Japanese suburb with parks, playgrounds, morning joggers and dog-walkers and clipped bushes behind the garden walls that could have been the mise-en-scene for any highschool romance published in the last thirty years; and once the battle is done Rentaro and Enju rush off to the supermarket to catch a limited-time sale (also the big obsession of this year's harem comedy Ben-to!) before it closes. The unanswered question is why there's a supermarket in the first place? If mankind is trapped behind these barriers, where does the food come from? What do people eat? Every square foot of open ground ought to be ploughed up for dig-for-victory allotments but while they're conspicuously absent, bean sprouts can still be tossed away for pennies a bag. Rentaro's boss at the Tendo Civil Security Agency hasn't eaten steak for ages but that's just because Rentaro's bad at making money for her, not because cows are extinct. I don't know, maybe I'm approaching this from the wrong angle; maybe instead of being a comic relief interlude popping off to the greengrocers is actually meant to be a tragic and mournful exhibition on the desperate scrabbling for the slightest sustenance in straitened circumstances... but somehow I doubt it.
Am I too narrowly fixated on these background details? After all Black Bullet is not a Cabinet Office memo on civil infrastructure, it's about kung-fu lolis launching flying kicks at giant spiders. The problem is though that Black Bullet has made a rod for its own back - it's the one that chose to spend so much time on world-building in the first place so it has no basis to make excuses if everyone else points out that world's rickety foundations.
It's a shame because the bit with kung-fu lolis launching flying kicks at giant spiders, when we finally get to it, is actually pretty good. The one thing that Black Bullet has going for it is some very interesting art. It has a much more distinctive style than the anime which was cleaner and blander to emphasise the moé of Enju and the other young girls of the Cursed Children - compare screenshots of Enju's thin, stringy hair in the anime to the thicker and full-bodied hairdo she sports in the manga panels. This manga contrasts favourably to the anime with sharper, more angular and deeper-shaded artwork that immediately sets it apart from other manga on the bookshelf with more detail and character - even the redesigned English logo on the cover is striking. There is interesting design at work - over the years I've watched anime I must have looked at literally hundreds of variations on school uniforms but Black Bullet still finds some interesting traits to Kisara's outfit with her fantail skirt and multi-knotted neckerchief. Interesting panelling is used when Rentaro is split in two by the gutter as the scientist and the mannequin she ventriloquises berate him from two different sides. The sharper style also makes an edge when it comes to the action, which has real kinetic cinematic quality with dramatic angles, sweeping limbs and wincing impacts, as the distinct lines of the characters slide smoothly and slickly into dense speed-lines without them seeming obtrusive, focusing attention to the vanishing point of a slamming fist or an angry thrusting face - it's genuinely exhilarating to read and has enough energy to even leap up and seize your attention despite the deadweight encumbrance of all that exposition.
That's the one thing that will keep me reading Black Bullet despite all the criticism I've laid upon it here - the hope that all of this drearily dull exposition that undermined so much of this first volume has set the scene, however incompetently and awkwardly it did it, so in future volumes it can be dispensed with and cast off to let the cast move more freely. The final scene of this volume introduces some other Promoter-Initiator pairs and they seem to be a motley crew of wild irregulars which should inject more energy into the coming conflict. Black Bullet's attractive art compensates a great deal for its bad background and one more volume will tell us if it has a stronger story to balance this lopsided manga out.