Significant spoilers ahead.
Zankyou no Terror is the latest work by the acclaimed Shinichiro Watanabe, the man who brought us Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo and Space Dandy. Though his forte is primarily in relatively episodic anime, this show proves he can also do a linear plot, and do it well.
Like Watanabe’s other works, Zankyou no Terror contains a fair bit of symbolism and references, but unlike in his more episodic works those aspects are downplayed. Instead, Watanabe comes out with what certainly appears to be a rather bold commentary regarding terrorism, nuclear science and international politics, as well as blatantly obvious and direct criticism of the United States.
The plot of Zankyou no Terror can be summarized as follows: Nine and Twelve, two survivors and escapees of a covert human experimentation program, don the mantle of Sphinx and become a two-man terrorist organization in modern-day Japan. While they initially come off as violent and vengeful, the police deduce over time that rather than hurt people, Sphinx is trying to send a message to Japan if not the world. While the police and international community continue to pursue Sphinx as dangerous terrorists, special detective Kenjirou Shibazaki instead delves into Sphinx’s past and their motivations. He finally uncovers evidence as to the origin and nature of the experimental program they were involved in, but is unable to confront them directly due to pressure from both his own government and the United States. Eventually, Sphinx triggers an EMP burst above Japan to finally gain full international attention, then entrusts Shibazaki with relaying their story to the world.
Watanabe makes several rather daring social and political commentaries through this series, the most obvious of which is about terrorism. Terrorism, as defined by the FBI, is:
“The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
Using this definition, it’s very clear that Nine and Twelve are terrorists. They trigger fires and explosions, destroy buildings, and eventually threaten Japan with an atomic bomb. They do all this independently and with ultimate political and social objectives. There is little dispute that they committing terrorist acts, and that their actions are both abhorrent and illegal.
The little twist, though, is that they are the protagonists. The heroes. Even without having their situation initially revealed to us, even in revealing their history only a little at a time, and even through all their reprehensible actions, we still cheer for them. They’re likeable, sure, but there is also an underlying message that what they are doing is somehow right, despite being wrong. It’s very convoluted and difficult to understand. I’ve never cheered for terrorists before.
Of course, they don’t exactly go out of their way to alienate viewers either. One of their key principles that Shibazaki makes note of on several occasions throughout the series is that Sphinx never kills anyone, ever. If they can help it, they also never hurt anyone. Their actions stick to terrorism 101, but without the cruelty that’s become so prolific in modern day: make a lot of noise, draw attention, then make a bold claim. In their very first incident, the bombing of a government building, they purposely set of fire alarms well in advance of their bombs’ detonations. In another, they target an empty apartment complex next to the house of one of their old enemies. So on and so forth. The climactic moment of the series is when Nine publicly announces that he will be setting off an atomic bomb, which he then uses to create an EMP burst and knock out all electronics in Japan (again without hurting anyone).
It’s hard to hate a likeable pair of protagonists who have reasons (if of debatable morality) for their actions, and who never harm anyone. This becomes even more apparent via the character Lisa Mishima, a girl who becomes their friend and sort-of accomplice over the course of the series, in that they are required to put their own lives in jeopardy to save her on multiple occasions. The actions taken by the United States also drive us to Sphinx’s side, but more on that later.
A second issue Watanabe addresses is that of nuclear technology. At the beginning, we believe that Nine and Twelve steal enriched plutonium to use in creating an atomic bomb. We learn later that the same organization who leads the human experimentation project is still quite bitter regarding Japan’s defeat in World War II and so is secretly developing their own nuclear weapons in order to give Japan a more powerful international position. Sphinx’s actions in stealing and using one of these atomic bombs is not only to tell the world their own story, but also to reveal this attempt at creating weapons of mass destruction. Finally, at the very end of the series, Nine threatens to blow up more bombs planted in nuclear power plants if the United States continues to interfere in Japan’s affairs. The commentary by Watanabe is obvious and simple: nuclear technology, especially in weaponized form, is bad and any utilization of such technology should be terminated.
Finally, Watanabe makes a rather bold move by having the United States play consistently as villains for the entire series. The FBI shows up early on to offer assistance catching the terrorists, though we later learn that they had suspicions regarding Japan’s continued research into nuclear technology and were hoping to expose this fact for their own gain. Leading the FBI forces is Five, a girl from the same facility as Nine and Twelve and who possesses a singular desire to “defeat them,” though she doesn’t mention exactly how until later.
The FBI presence in Japan does not help the investigation, but rather sets it back. After obtaining information regarding the terrorists, the FBI stage a number of bombings of public transportation to draw out Sphinx and turn public opinion against them. In the first, they purposely hide the existence of one of Sphinx’s subway bombs and prevent any warnings regarding it from reaching the Japanese police in the hopes that it will detonate and kill a lot of people. In the second, they take Lisa hostage, trap her on a bomb-ladden plane, and attempt to drive the plane into a busy airport terminal for maximum casualties, again while restricting the actions of the Japanese police. Both attempts are foiled by Sphinx, who recognize Five’s involvement and are able to outplay her before any casualties can be inflicted.
A wrench is thrown in the FBI’s plans when Nine turns himself in to the Japanese police following a second occurrence of Five taking Lisa hostage and trying to blow her up. He wants an international conference, presumably to disclose information regarding both the human experimentation project and the nuclear program to the world. Refusing to let him have the upper hand, the FBI kills all the members of Nine’s police escort and attempts to capture him for themselves, which prevents the conference from being held and so triggers the launch of the atomic bomb.
Finally, throughout the series we are made aware that Nine and Twelve will not survive the ending and will not live happily ever after. The first piece of evidence is how the experimentation program they went through only produced 1 survivor out of 26: Five (Nine and Twelve escaped). We then see multiple occasions of Five experiencing incapacitating headaches from an incurable brain degeneration as a result of the experiment’s enhancements. Five mentions to Nine that she doesn’t have long to live and wants to end her life on her own terms right before killing herself, and in the second-to-last scene we see Nine experience the same condition and drop dead as a result.
Which brings us to the final and most obvious instance of Watanabe’s criticism of the United States. It’s clear that Nine and Twelve are both going to die. However, during Shibazaki’s final confrontation with the pair, American military helicopters appear and threaten to shoot Sphinx. Nine warns that if they do not withdraw, he will detonate more bombs hidden within nuclear power plants and cause untold devastation to Japan. We then listen to a brief conversation between the military and their HQ during which they decide that Sphinx has to die, that the US involvement in the attempted bombings of the subway and airport cannot be revealed, and that any casualties inflicted as a result will direct negative attention towards the Japanese police and government rather than the United States. A sniper then kills Twelve.
The messages are rather complex, but if nothing else Watanable is criticizing a number of aspects related to US foreign policy, including:
- its insistence in interfering in conflicts that don’t concern it
- superseding the power and authority of other states’ governments
- the often brutal and unnecessary actions taken by its investigative and military forces
- its casual disregard for any non-Amerian life
- sabotage, conspiracy and information control
- continued reliance on weaponized nuclear technology
Of course, many of these claims are merely speculated upon by think-tanks and independent journalists, but they’re solid statements regardless. I personally believe that Watanabe’s primary statement is that he wants the United States to keep their hands to themselves and to stop interfering in the business of other states.
However, it’s worth noting that Zankyou no Terror did not air its episode that would have fallen on September 11th. Watanabe may be making criticisms and liberal leaps in genre selection, but he’s not insensitive.
To directly counter that little point, though, Zankyou no Terror is chalk-full of references to the September 11th attacks. The lead’s names are Nine and Twelve; from Japan’s perspective, the 9/11 terrorist attacks actually happened on 9/12. The cover art shows the burning government building that Nine and Twelve destroy, which looks suspiciously similar to the Twin Towers. Then the title of the show itself can be translated as Terror’s Resonance, or Resonance of Terror (“zankyou” can also be translated as “reverberation” or “echo;” the kanji character composition is 残, which means “remainder” or “leftover,” and 響, which means “echo” or “resound.”), which is possibly a reference to how the day after a tragic event is often more real and horrifying than the event itself, once the initial shock and adrenaline have worn off; this fits nicely with the protagonists being named Nine and Twelve as well. There are other minor references, but those are the most outstanding.
All that aside, let’s get more into the characteristics of the anime itself.
Characters were fantastic. The protagonists, Nine and Twelve, were executed very well; they were kept mysterious enough that I was interested, nice enough that I was sympathetic, and aggressive enough that I took them seriously the entire time. Five was a brutal antagonist whom I loved to hate, who managed to grow into a very sympathetic character, and upon her eventual death I was actually sort of sad. Lisa was another great character; though she played the role of an ordinary person, she provided an excuse to further develop not only the protagonists, but the antagonist as well. She also provided a sprinkling of humor, but not in an overdone way. Finally, Shibazaki sort of served as a foil to, well, all the other characters. He was the self-insert character of sorts, the guy that I almost sympathized with as much as the protagonists and whose line of thought I found myself following more than that of any other character.
Visuals were great. Nice and washed out, giving the scenery and backgrounds a more realistic look. Character designs for the most part avoided unrealistic details (with the exception of Five, who was intentionally contrasted as a weird character) and even managed to give most characters realistic-looking eyes. The animation really shone through during the few scenes with motorcycle or car chases.
Sound was similarly excellent. Fitting OP and ED themes set a good mood for each episode. Yoko Kanno arranged the music for the series, which was quite different from what I’m used to, a feature that I very much enjoyed. Voice actors were all good. I was especially impressed at the English voice acting, which though it was obviously done by non-native voice actors was still relatively crisp and clear, without too many obvious accents.
Zankyou no Terror is about as close to a masterpiece as a short, original anime can get. It’s not perfect, but it also possesses no obvious flaws. Everything was done exceptionally well. Objectively, this was by far the best show this season. Perhaps I’ll re-watch it at some point and revise my opinion, but at the moment I’m very impressed.
Final MAL score is a 9/10.