Assassins are like dogs. They identify each other by smell. Or something.
Expectations were high coming into the premiere of Akuma no Riddle. It’s rare that I find myself showing much anticipation at all for what is ostensibly an action anime but despite the gory exterior I believe Akuma no Riddle has a lot more to offer than just violence. (and the yuri doesn’t hurt either) The first episode actually offered very little in the way of overt violence with absolutely no blood and no real combat save for the training sequence that preceded the OP. instead we got the introduction of an entertaining (if not varied) cast of characters and the setup of what I’ve found to be a very compelling dynamic between the two main characters.
Let’s be honest here though, subtlety in characterization was never going to be Akuma no Riddle’s strong point. A lot of the characters feel like over the top caricatures rather than acting like real people. Every single interaction that doesn’t directly involve Haru comes off as some sort of scheme to gain an advantage over one of the other assassins and they all come off as almost comically dastardly. The only thing these girls were missing is moustaches to twirl as they all act delightfully evil. Then again, maybe there’s something to be said for all of these characters not being normal. As Kaiba declares in the beginning, all of these people are either trained assassins or people who kill for sport: two sets of circumstances that aren’t exactly going to yield well adjusted members of society that know how interact with others in a reasonable manner. At some point, when you’re constantly thinking about killing those around you, you become concerned about making sure you always have the upper hand because who knows who around you might be out for blood as well. Still, the characters can come off as overly boastful and concerned not merely with gaining an upper hand but also pointing out that they’ve gained such an advantage. One hopes that this is just an artifact of the character introduction process rather than a long-term trend in how these characters will be written.
The sanest one (relatively speaking) is our main character, Tokaku, who comes off as the most redeemable one among a cast of psychopaths. She’s clearly perpetually on edge, constantly glancing around to see if anyone is watching her but she doesn’t come off as nearly as bloodthirsty as her fellow assassins. Rather than looking to pick a fight in every interaction she has, she instead opts to remain distant, only interacting with others when she has to. The show is heavily hinting at some horrific event in her past which may indicate that she wasn’t always like this and is actually more redeemable than the rest of the killers in the black class. I’m somewhat curious about the shot of Tokaku near the end of the OP where she grins evilly while covered in blood and holding a dripping knife. The impression I got of her is that she kills as a matter of course rather than due to any inherent blood-thirst so to see her almost taking joy in slaughter seemed out of character. It stands to be seen whether this is just a one-off shot to fill out the OP or the actual path her character will be going down.
By contrast, Haru is quick to interact and try to make friends with everybody she comes in contact with in the class. There’s a relentlessly optimistic quality to all of Haru’s interactions but her behavior often comes off as fighting for hope as if she really wants to believe that there is good in other people but she has ample reason to believe there isn’t. She seems to have a similarly tragic past to Tokaku if the horrific scars on her legs are any indication. Still, her insistence on “enjoying life” and that “Haru will graduate without fail” indicates to me not only that her optimism is somewhat forced but also that she is aware of the trying circumstances she’s about to find herself in. Still, she presses gamely forward which makes her fascinating to someone like Tokaku who has all but given up on humanity.
For all the lack of subtlety on display in the first episode of Akuma no Riddle, I really liked the way this dynamic between Tokaku and Haru was portrayed. Haru has this disarming, genuineness to her that plays really well off the perpetual suspicion of Tokaku. The way we see Tokaku begin to take an interest in Haru and the way she maintains her faith in humanity was played really effectively, especially in contrast to the hap-hazard writing when it came to the rest of the cast. The final scene where Haru implores Tokaku not to hate her and declares her belief (hope?) in forgiveness may have lost a little bit of this subtlety but it did a good job of driving home the contrast between how each of them is dealing with their own circumstances. It seems clear that both of them have done something worth being hated for in the past and I think the two will come to find that they aren’t as different as they seem.
The rest of the cast, as stated before, got short shrift in this episode, but that’s largely because the vast majority of the episode was devoted to setting up the character dynamic between Tokaku and Haru. I did want to make a special note of the teacher though since it seems that there’s more to him than meets the eye. The way he managed to sneak up on Tokaku was notable given her aforementioned extreme paranoia and constant sideways glances. He seemed in over his head while leading the class but I get the feeling that he’s just playing incompetent and that when push comes to shove he’ll be more skilled than you expect.
Visually, the episode was fine albeit unspectacular. There was more use of stills in the initial action sequence than I’d like but Diomedea has proven in the past to be a competent studio that can put together a reasonably wall animated product and that’s what I expect out of Akuma no Riddle. While the overall lack of high movement scenes prevented them from really flexing any kind of animation budget, I did like the stylistic choices that were made in terms of color and lighting. There were several cases where the lighting choices did a great job of highlighting the mood of the scene, especially when low light was used to enhance the sinister feel of the whole experience. In particular the scene where Haru and Tokaku walked across the bridge after dinner felt like a shot straight out of Madoka. Again, I can’t expect KyoAni or P.A. Works level visuals out of Diomedea but they’re doing what they need to do and that’s all I can really ask for at this point.
Overall I’d say this episode largely met my already high expectations for what Akuma no Riddle is going to be in anime form. I didn’t do anything to raise my expectations of the show as a whole but it also did nothing to overly concern me. I am curious how the show is going to be laid out overall since the title of this episode (and the title of the next episode) is related to riddles sent to Tokaku via phone mail by Kaiba. If they plan to move at a pace of one riddle per episode then they’ll complete the sixteen chapters of the manga I’ve already read within three to four episodes. That would seem like a blistering pace to me but with only thirteen episodes to work with that pace might be justified. Only time will tell and I must say that the hype train for Akuma no Riddle has plenty of steam yet. Bring on episode two.