Many people have heard the term “Style over Substance”. Typically used for shows that are more interested in looking cool and aesthetically pleasing than conveying a tightly woven story, complex characters or deep thematic explanation. There’s plenty of stories like this, and there’s nothing wrong with having style over substance by choice- If your art is cool enough, and the overall set up is enough fun, then having entertainment that’s meant to be enjoyed for primarily aesthetic reasons is fine.
But I think that it’s a bit too easy to use this term to ignore the narrative provided by a story’s visuals- Not to repeat what others have already explained far more concisely than I’d be able to, but a series’ aesthetics can be all you need to tell a story. The first thing I think of when considering this would be the popular multimedia series, Black ★ Rock Shooter.
Now, when I say I think that Black ★ Rock Shooter’s aesthetics are all you need to tell the story, I’m not referring to any one story in the BRS Series in particular, though I will be using the OVA as my primary example. There’s multiple iterations of the Black ★ Rock Shooter character herself, and the exact narratives in the franchise are on a sliding scale of overall quality. No, when I say “Black ★ Rock Shooter tells you it’s story through aesthetics”, I mean the visuals of the characters and the world they inhabit tell you all the things you need to know about the story.
For an example, let’s take a look at both the titular character and antagonist of the 50-minute OVA, with both some images from the OVA itself and the promotional/character art.
Before we even get into the story, the character sheets for both Black★Rock Shooter and Dead Master tell us both quite a bit about them. For one, both have very, very pale skin which serves the purpose of giving them a more ethereal and inhuman look, which fits their roles in the story well. Both are wearing clothes in very dark shades of the pair’s respective colors, blue and green, and strike good contrast to their pale skin tones. However, the way in which their outfits are designed show the differences in the pair’s roles. Despite being clad in a blackish-blue outfit, BRS’ outfit is very revealing and shows far more skin than Dead Master’s petite dress. As Black Rock Shooter’s skin is practically white, and since her clothes show so much of it, it leaves her body in primarily white to indicate almost immediately that she’s the protagonist. It also shows her scars, which implies she’s a veteran and has been in dangerous situations before.
Dead Master, meanwhile, is wearing a dress of primarily black and/or shades of very dark green and very little white. Her skin, while pale like BRS’, also has a bit more of yellow-green tint to her that makes it complement the darkness of her outfit, not contrast it. The fact she’s dressed in dark shades and is complimented by it clues us in immediately to her role as the OVA’s antagonist. Aside from being clothed in black, which already gives her an ominous air, she has claw-like, skeletal hands, black stick-like wings and horns that mirror the look of a monster or a demon. Further more, her weapon is a scythe, which brings to mind obvious images of the Grim Reaper, which only adds to her dangerous look.
Moving on, one of the next most prominent design elements of both characters are their bright, strikingly colored eyes. Aside from being practically the only part of either character to have a bright and noticeable color, the way in which their eyes and facial expressions emote tell us further the role of both characters. For one, Black Rock Shooter’s eyes, and signature color are blue- The most popular color in the world, and once again, another clue that she’s our protagonist. While the color can mean a lot of things to many people, it’s very commonly associated with sad emotions, like sorrow and melancholy. Regardless of the story, the settings of Black Rock Shooter tends to be very desolate and remote, and when other characters are encountered, they’re just as likely to be an enemy as they are a friend. This fits into the overarching narrative of the OVA, in dealing with the struggles of maintaining a relationship, and give BRS a solemn look. Further more, blue is the color of the sky and strongly tied to imagery of heaven. While BRS doesn’t have much in the way of religious symbolism in the OVA, the way in which she watches out for Mato and Yomi would lend her to fitting into the role of some kind of guardian angel, especially when she fights with Dead Master who not only resembles the Grim Reaper and has ‘Dead’ in her name, but has an overtly monstrous, demonic look.
As for Dead Master herself, her facial expressions all show her with a smug, self-confident expression, and very narrowed, reptilian-like eyes. Her face is generally more angled, giving her a sly and cunning, devious air. Her own signature color happens to be green, which while having associations to heroism, is just as often, if not more attributed to evil. The first thing that comes to mind for me is the fourth Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Death. While not only being directly tied to death and imagery of a grim reaper as Dead Master is, the Fourth Horsemen is not uncommonly said to ride a green horse (typically thought to refer to the horse’s sickly state). Sickness and death are easily tied together, as before modern medicine getting sick could very easily have meant the end of one’s life. Further more, green is typically associated with chemicals, acid and venom which can all be very dangerous and life-threatening. It’s also common for heroes to get primary colors (red, blue and yellow) included in their designs, whereas villains more commonly get secondary colors, like purple, grey and green. With all this specific imagery together, it’s very easy to guess that Dead Master is our villain from just one look at her.
Now that I’ve analyzed the character’s designs on their own, I want to take a minute to take a look at a few shots from the show itself.
The very first shot is one that zooms over a large open sea to what appears to be an island castle.
For one, this shot is great start because it starts off focused on the sky, before panning down to look over the water and then bringing us quickly to the castle. As I mentioned before, blue and white are Black Rock Shooter’s colors and by starting with a shot of a blue sky with white clouds, it immediately sets up who this movie is about without even telling us. Then it pans to what seems to be an empty ocean, before zooming to the sharp, craggy castle among the sea. The way the sea is vast and desolate and broken only by a single, solitary structure feeds into the lonely setting the action sequences take place in. It also gives us an immediate idea of danger, due to the sharp, jutting look of the castle, both in that it looks like a rocky, craggy shore and takes the visual idea of a shadowy villain’s lair in an armored castle.
After this, we zoom into the castle to get to see a bit of the interior of the island, and get introduced to one of our leads.
The zoom in to the inside of the castle goes through the opening of a cave, leading us to the inside to a place that seems like it’s underground. The ceiling is cracked and shines light down from above into a dark and heavily shadowed area, filled with stalagmites. The walls of the…cave? It’s not really clear if it’s a cave – are black and white, and shown to be worn and dirtied, with scuff marks and their age showing. From the bottom corner, we see Black Rock Shooter clash her dinky little katana with Blade Gold Saw’s big fuck-off sword from the right of the screen. This creates an immediate power dynamic, with Black Rock Shooter occupying the lower half of the screen and seemingly to be on the initial defensive. Following this, we see the pair clash more, with both ascending and descending throughout, but with BRS exiting from the same, lower angle she arrived from, while Black Gold Saw returns to the top corner for her retreat. This gives another hint to the power imbalance, and the scene’s eventual end.
Our first close look at BRS is as she retreats to a platform, some distance away from Black Gold Saw. In this we see her back flip onto it, then look up towards BGS with a solemn gaze. In this, there’s a few things to note. For one, the scars from her character sheet aren’t there, nor is her jacket, implying this is a fight is taking place between a less experienced Black Rock Shooter. The way she looks up, from a lower place towards Black Gold Saw further adds to this and gives another implication of the scene’s end.
Black Gold Saw’s own retreat and close up tell us all we need to know about her. Since she gets her retreat shown secondarily, and is shown exclusively from a low angle, we know she’s our antagonist, at least for now. It also gives a better look of her, showing her horns and claw-like hands, which make her seem more animalistic and feed into another kind of demonic image. Her weapon, a seeming mix of a saw and a sword is also much larger and has a more brutal, fearsome look compared to BRS’ katana. That Black Gold Saw’s retreat is always forward facing, towards BRS also implies a difference in experience, as where BRS flips backwards, exposing her back and head as she takes her position, Black Gold Saw never takes her eyes off BRS, and even when she lands and bends down, she’s quick to pick herself back up and take the higher position again.
The next shot gives a view of where the pair are in relationship to each other, with Black Gold Saw striking an imposing figure over BRS. It also shows more of the ruined environment, though beyond the differences in height between BGS and BRS’ pillars correlating to their abilities, I don’t have much to say.
From there, we see BRS jump towards her adversary, with Black Gold Saw coming down to engage. Following this, we get some ineffectual sword crashing, until Black Gold Saw manages to bring down a heavy slice toward BRS.
From here, we see Black Rock Shooter take the defensive once more, only to be sent plummeting down against the force of Black Gold Saw’s blade. It strong enough to send her slamming not only into the floor, but through it, and land with a thud, face-down.
This is followed by Black Gold Saw descending from above, her weapon nearly missing as Black Rock Shooter makes a quick dash to escape. However, as it seems she’ll get away, Black Gold Saw breaks through one of the walls and manages to run BRS through before our heroine can do a thing about it.
The scene ends as Black Gold Saw escapes, back flipping BRS’ body off her weapon as the rubble from the wall cascades in from the right, consuming Black Rock Shooter and the screen in black as the scene ends.
Admittedly, I can’t say this is always a rule. The beginning of the Black ★ Rock Shooter: Innocent Soul leaves the exact role of the character unknown at first beyond her being the protagonist. However, I believe that what’s originally shown of the setting and secondary character in just the first chapter tells us plenty about what to expect from the story.
The first seven pages of the manga show us very simply just what kind of world it is that this story takes place in. The first page in color shows us one of the secondary characters digging through scrap piles in a warehouse, followed by more shots in the warehouse from the next few pages. While his outfit doesn’t tell us too much about Ret, the secondary main of this particular chapter, we can at least make some distinctions based on what he’s wearing. First of all, while his outfit certainly looks good, as most manga and anime outfits do, he doesn’t actually look very stylish or fancy. It’s a very practical looking getup, from cargo shorts, a cozy looking jacket and a pair of shoes that look like they’re meant to be sturdy and durable. His hair is a mid-length cut and looks kind of choppy and generally unstyled. The warehouse itself, while not in ruins, isn’t exactly looking well cared for either, with cracked and chipped walls and flooring, and given there’s a teenager running around inside it digging through the trash indicate that there’s probably no one looking out for either the building or for Ret and are visual cues towards the kind of run-down area he’s shown to live in.
After Ret and Black Rock Shooter – or Rock, as she’s referred to in this story- exit, we see a bit more of the exterior of the warehouse (which are in panels I didn’t include in the visual above), which is also shown to have cracks in the bricks. The paving of the street in the next few pages is also shown to be chipped and have chunks missing. After an introduction to Ret’s little sister, we’re finally shown a bigger shot of the town- Specifically, an alleyway in which a crime was committed. While the fact there’s a huge pool and bloody writing on the walls is an obvious indicator of the fact that the town Ret lives in is dangerous and tells us plenty about the kind of tone of this story, the buildings near the crime are all decrepit and run-down. The fact there’s also so little tape around the scene of the murder, and the fact that the blood is still there that indicate whatever kind of police or authority figures there are supposed to be to take care of such crimes have done a poor job in keeping the situation under control- Not to mention that the dialogue mentions the number written in blood in the number of victims, and that the murders always happen at the full moon, and the panel showing the crime was the previous happening from the last full moon which means the police have had roughly a month of time to take care of the evidence without even managing to clean up the blood.
In both these examples, the visuals make it very clear and obvious what kind of stories they’re telling – Or, at least, the kind of story we’ll be getting from the Other World scenarios in the OVA. Since I’m at it anyways, I think I might as well mention what’s widely regarded as the worst entry in the Black ★ Rock Shooter franchise- The eight episode, 2012 anime adaptation. While it follows a similar premise to it’s OVA counterpart, it ends up with a very different telling of events and isn’t really all that good. In this case, I’m going to compare the 2010 OVA design for Mato Kuroi, Black Rock Shooter’s human counterpart to the 2012 TV anime design.
So first of all, there’s the art design. While anyone’s individual take on the style is very much down to personal opinion, I think most people would agree when I say the look of the 2010 has a far more interesting art style to it. Mato is drawn with a higher level of detail and shading, with linework very similar to the look of something like K-On!, or Tamako Market, which makes sense because the director of the OVA (and the TV animation) is Shinobu Yoshioka, who formerly worked with Kyoto Animation and did storyboard, direction work and key animation on the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya alongside story board and direction work on Lucky ★Star and Kanon, while the character designer and animation director of the OVA, Matsuo Yuusuke, also did Key Animation work on Haruhi and Kanon. Either way, the general look of Mato in the 2010 has a very realistically proportioned look with lots of fine details. Mato in the 2012 anime, however, is not nearly as stunning. The art is generally a lot rounder with a softer overall style. On the whole, it just looks a lot less unique, and whereas the character sheet for the OVA had a style that looked like Matsuo had poured his art into sketching it, Mato’s second design just looks really generic, and doesn’t have any kind of unique quality that makes it look different from any modern anime.
Now, secondarily, there’s the posing and color design. In the 2010 OVA, the color pallete is consistently very low-key and subdued, with very realistic skin-tones (again, my thoughts go to the art direction of K-On!) and and lighting/coloring on the clothing. This a very important to the overall look of the OVA, due to the way the original Black Rock Shooter artwork by Huke very intentionally used primarily varying shades and intensities of black, white and the theme color of the focal character. This allows the theme colors to stand out against the desolate look of the setting they often live in, and made the real-life portions of the OVA feel more grounded. The TV Anime’s color design, uses much brighter color choices, with Mato’s skin being much more peachy and her uniform being a particularly bright yellow. I can say it at least complements the blue in her uniform, eyes and hair, but comparatively it doesn’t do much in the way of looking very unique. It just looks very bright and doesn’t have much in terms of a distinguished look compared to most modern anime.
Lastly, there’s the posing. The posing in the OVA character sheet is far more aesthetically pleasing based on the things that make good poses- It’s asymmetrical (although not hugely), has a more well defined line of action and looks much more dynamic, and gives a way stronger impression of the kind of girl Mato is supposed to be. Everything about the design and posing telegraphs the genki girl archetype she’s meant to fit into, and does exactly what it needs to. Comparatively, the 2012 character sheet isn’t just worse, but excessively worse in just how dull, lifeless and boring it is. There’s exactly four images of Mato, and none give us any semblance on what she’s supposed to be like as a character. It’s the most bland posing you can get- The full body shot is literally just her looking straight on at the camera with a very simple, inexpressive smile. Her weight isn’t even focused on one leg, which is one of the most uninteresting poses ever. Absolutely no one in their right minds stands perfectly straight with their arms just hanging down at their sides. It’s not just a boring look, but it’s just a really awkward way to stand. The one expression that isn’t just a blank smile is a dull, unimpressive looking close up that doesn’t have much of a clear emotion. I’m guessing the emotion she’s expressing is vague curiosity, but who knows? It looks more like Mato’s just unimpressedly acknowledging someone who told her that the fact she doesn’t shift her weight to one foot when she stands makes her look like a fucking weirdo.
These characteristics are pervasive throughout the rest of the both versions of the anime. While I already took the time to dissect the opening scene in the OVA and how it effectively uses the art direction to complement it’s story, the things I mentioned with the shoddy implementation of the Black ★ Rock Shooter aesthetic into the visuals of the TV anime are just one of it’s many problems.
So now that I’m summing up this 3000+ word essay on how the aesthetics of Black Rock ★ Shooter are a core to it’s way of communicating story and narrative, my hope is that even if you already knew all this, and agreed with my points that I’ve at least made it easier to identify what I think is the most interesting thing about Black ★ Rock Shooter as a series on the whole- And, if you hadn’t realized all of this, then hopefully I’ve given you a lens to be able to examine more thoroughly just how the overall franchise is able to skillfully use it’s aesthetics to create the stories it wants to tell. That’s about all I’ve got left to say for now, so thanks reading and hopefully you enjoyed this analysis.