Tuesday, July 22, 2014

“Black Hole Love Triangle”: Come Out, Come Out, Assassin

Predictably, given the way this show works now, “Come Out, Come Out, Assassin” is another good one. I have a few issues with it that keep it from, in my estimation, quite reaching the same heights as some of the masterpieces Dirty Pair has done in the past, but it's still a welcome rebound that reminds us what the series is capable of.

And if nothing else the opening scenes are absolute knockout works of art. The 3WA loses one of its own, gunned down in a dark and rainy alley during a flashback Kei solemnly narrates over. Not since “Criados' Heartbeat” immediately followed “The Chase Smells Like Cheesecake and Death” has the show pulled a mood whiplash this severe on us. It would be even more so if you were to, as I would suggest, skip last week's episode entirely such that this follows the goofy Indiana Jones pastiche instead. I must confess I do usually enjoy it when Dirty Pair takes itself just a *little* bit more seriously, and I will say it brought a smile to my face to see Kei make her triumphant return to the role of narrator. But this story is doing something a little bit more clever then just giving a graceful nod to the show's source material: This episode is, at least in part, Dirty Pair taking on both film noir and traditional detective fiction and, as you might expect, it hits a home run.

One only needs to give Blade Runner a rewatch to discern that a big difference between the cyberpunk that tends to be more popular in Western territories and the kind of stuff Dirty Pair is doing is a perhaps somewhat concerning lack of self-awareness. Blade Runner played its film noir trappings uncomfortably straight, so there's no way Dirty Pair could do anything other than the complete opposite. While the internal monologue Kei delivers through much of the episode's first half is indeed about as grim and bleak as this show has ever been, this is constantly tempered by metatextual signposts and the story's other themes. What this manages to do is weave the episode's more somber themes together with Dirty Pair's signature postmodern humour exquisitely deftly. A thundering round of applause is really owed to Kyōko Tongū, Kei's voice actor, here: The way she segues out of Kei's recount of her colleagues death to the big punchline, that the “one clue” their fallen comrade left behind was blatantly and precisely when and where the assassin who killed him is going to be, is simply masterful. She doesn't audibly change gears, rather, she shifts the emphasis and intonation of her voice just so, making it seem like both the scene's pathos and its humour are subtle movements of the same dance.

This tone pervades the whole episode, elegantly balancing its deeply serious subject matter with the signature Dirty Pair humour, though it's most pronounced early on. Kei's inner monologue defines the first half of the episode, even as she gets odd looks from her fellow passengers on the doomed starliner who can apparently hear her. The girls are once again undercover: Yuri is (of course) a sexy flight attendant, but having Kei assume the role of a Catholic nun (i.e. a “Servant of God”, as Marcus explicitly calls her) is rather brilliant. It's an interesting example of Dirty Pair performativity, as the girls are undercover on two separate narrative levels: They have their roles on the plane, but they're also infiltrating a film noir plot. But as much as they groove on it, and they do, Kei and Yuri are not grizzled private eyes and this is not film noir: Their cover is blown the moment the commercial break cuts in, because they're the Lovely Angels and thus celebrities: Kei and Yuri can't go undercover even if they wanted to, and certainly not when they make themselves stick out like a sore thumb.

Similarly, as was also the case at the other end of the season with “Go Ahead, Fall in Love! Love is Russian Roulette”, we have a succession of plots attempting, and failing, to play out. This time, they're all tangential manifestations of the main mystery story. From the very beginning, people start dying: There's the unfortunate Trouble Consultant in the prologue, then at the end of the first half the captain locks the controls for the black hole and commits suicide. Then Marcus panics and advocates abandoning the girls and Sundric to themselves, followed by the other business magnate actually trying to steal the shuttle and triggering its self destruct mechanism. At first we think the show is going to pull an And Then There Were None style body count, but then nobody else gets picked off and, as is ultimately revealed, the businessman was actually Sundric in disguise and he had faked his own death in order to buy time to plant a bomb on the ship's outer hull.

There's also a moment I quite like where it turns out the password to unlock the navigational controls is the opening stanza to “Mary Had A Little Lamb”, a children's song. The song has been a motif throughout the episode as Jack plays it on his melodica, and it turns out to be significant as his father, who is revealed to be the suicidal captain, taught it to him. Yuri plugs it into the flight console, which lights up coloured shapes reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind-Yuri even explains it though Sol Fege. But, this too is a feint because entering the password simply locks the system even more and triggers the self-destruct sequence of the *entire plane*: So much for arc words and character development. Though on the one hand I'm a bit sad the music theme was subverted, on the other I can't complain too much for the way this gives a total up-yours to heavy-handed symbolism and similarly pretentious narrative cliches.

The big one though is when Kei actually loses her shootout with Sundric. Her tether is severed, and she's actually set adrift towards the black hole. Sundric, meanwhile, dies a shockingly gruesome death by being torn apart by the ship's maneuvering thrusters, which he drifted in front of right as Yuri activated them. At this point, Kei is once again left alone with her inner monologue (and us), and, much as she had in “Gotta Do It! Love is What Makes a Woman Explode”, seems to sit back and accept her impending death. There though it was all conveyed through subtext (which naturally meant it was a more serious and dire situation), whereas here there's a lot of weighty and dramatic speeches, which telegraphs her rescue by Yuri and Huey in the next cut. Here's where I actually have a few problems, though. The episode ends on a light, flippant note, which is fitting, but a consequence of the heavy focus on Kei this week means that Yuri is once again looking a little too hyper-competent for my tastes, though this can be excused , as usual, with the standard arguments and rules that apply whenever Kei is narrating.

The larger issue is Huey. He is, quite frankly, utterly detestable. An utter sleazeball on every level, he even attempts to rape Kei at one point, and to be honest, he's not beat up enough for it. When Yuri was propositioned in “Hire Us! Beautiful Bodyguards are a Better Deal”, she got to smack the daylights out of her aggressor in a wonderfully extended sequence of ass-beating. Kei doesn't get that luxury here, and furthermore, the rightly-named pervert winds up helping to rescue her in the end, and she even seems to soften on him, which leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. It's true that she had been attracted to him earlier on, before she realised what a terrible person he was, but that's never an excuse. I'm reminded of Inspector Bayleaf in “The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair”: He thankfully wasn't a rapist, but he was an ill-tempered, unpleasant blowhard who Kei initially tries to pick up before justifiably souring on him. But there, while Kei and Yuri continue to point out he's handsome after the fact, neither the diegetic or extradiegetic narratives ever portray him as *sympathetic*. That this episode is unable to manage something similar keeps it a few pegs short of a full victory in my estimation.

It perhaps says something about the status of the show now that this episode seems so much like something it could have pulled off effortlessly and with flying colours at the start of the season and is stumbling a bit on here. Though that said I'd still watch this one again in a heartbeat over any of the middling-to-terrible episodes this show has been churning out for the past seven weeks or so. It's a wake-up-call change of pace for Dirty Pair, and though its unrepentant dourness sets it apart from the rest of this particular show, it's actually rather prescient:. Sunrise's first Dirty Pair anime is in truth something of an outlier in its history with the franchise: The second series has much, much more of a heterogeneous tone and style, and with the exception of a few episodes of it and Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture, Sunrise's version of Kei and Yuri are never this cartoonishly slapstick again. Whether or not you agree with the decision, starting with the forthcoming Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia currently in production, Dirty Pair TV starts to get considerably darker and more complex, and “Come Out, Come Out, Assassin” is a revealing sign of things to come.


  1. I rather liked the noir feel of the first half and thought the whole story was shot well - especially beautiful and gripping was the whole fight above the black hole and Kei's floating through space expecting her death. Yes I cringed at the whole rape scene - a massive miss-step!

    1. Yes, I think this is another one that just doesn't come together the way it should. A shame, really, as there are a few interesting bits to it.

      Oh, and having since spent a *lot* of time with Affair of Nolandia, I can reassure you it's not at all grimdark and is a million times better.

    2. Yeah it is good though that the bits that are interesting are *very* good, disappointing as they are let down by the poor parts. Look forwards to Affair of Nolandia as I don't know it at all.