Since Beowulf at the very least, popular entertainment has glorified violence for our enjoyment. The “cool” character is often the most violent (although not the most vicious – he still has to have a conscience) and “strong female character” is often synonymous with “kicks the most ass.” Whether or not there’s something wrong with that is not a debate to be had here, but it is the jumping off point for the first half of Akame ga KILL!, a 2014 series based on the manga of the same name about a group of assassins in a corrupt fantasy world. While the members of Night Raid, the aforementioned assassins, do appear to be killing people who deserve to be taken out, they have no illusions about what they’re doing – murdering people. It makes for a brutal twelve episodes sprinkled with some levity about a battle that is anything but black and white.
The point of view character is Tatsumi, a fresh-faced country kid who has come to the city with his two best friends to make their collective fortune. Sadly all three fall prey to a sadistic family of nobles, leaving only Tatsumi alive. Saved by the assassin group who has come to kill the family, Tatsumi ends up joining the band known as Night Raid, an elite squad from the Rebel Army who take out individual targets. Night Raid is quick to reassure Tatsumi that what they do shouldn’t be mistaken for justice, however – they have no illusions about either what they do or their own chances of survival. It’s just that the child emperor is so under the power of a corrupt minister that something has to be done if the people are going to survive. In an interesting parallel, corrupt (and terrifyingly evil) General Esdeath has her own answer to Night Raid in a similar band of killers…who are absolutely positive that justice is on their side. That’s what makes them more frightening than Night Raid – they honestly think that what they do is right, no matter how much they might torture their victims. If the good guys do it, it’s not torture, right? This is really the strongest part of Akame ga KILL!. Fortunately it is one that doesn’t get left by the wayside as the discs go on, and the introduction of Seryu Ubiquitous really does drive the point home, albeit with a sledgehammer. (She’s still better than Dr. Stylish, however.)
Less successful is the very jumbled feeling of the story’s world. It’s a mix of fantasy tropes (The Capital! The corrupt government!) and strange real-world elements, making it difficult to decide if this is an actual fantasy world or some sort of post-apocalyptic setting. Costumes are the biggest issue, with several variations on the school uniform floating around, a Goth Loli character, and parkas galore. It can get distracting, as can the use of gaming terms as the series goes on, with people talking about “leveling up” among other things. There’s also a strange melange of humor and violence that doesn’t entirely work, with the mood-lightening elements feeling more cliché than the harsher parts of the story. On the other hand, Night Raid’s general joviality feels like a coping mechanism to combat their violent lives; in that sense, the slight imbalance of the tone does work. Other elements, like the gay stereotype that is Dr. Stylish and his bondage minions, do not work nearly as well, and Dr. Stylish treads very close to the line that separates “funny” and “offensive.” Generally speaking the anime is somewhat less intense than its manga original, although interesting artistic choices, particularly where gore is concerned, heighten the experience.
Both dub and sub tracks have their strengths, some to the point where it’s a shame we can’t mix and match the voices. Corey Hartzog‘s Tatsumi is excellent (and gets better as the show goes on) while Kana Hanazawa gets more creepiness out of Seryu. Hands down one of the best performances goes to Rob Mungle for his brief turn as Zanku, who completely steals the show during his one-episode appearance. If you do prefer the dub, however, there’s good news for you: “AkaKill! Theater”, the omake included on the second disc, are dubbed and really give Leone and Lubbock a chance to cut loose. These extras are also where most of the fanservice elements (apart from Leone’s outfit in general) comes in, and they have a good sense of humor about the fact that it has been kept out of the main show.
With its extensive use of character parallels (Sheele and Bulat are clearly meant to represent Ieyasu and Sayo, while Wave and Tatsumi are the same character on different sides of the war) and Night Raid’s unwillingness to sugarcoat their work, Akame ga KILL! has a lot going for it in terms of a war story that doesn’t play by the book. Its modern/medieval hybrid world can be a distraction, as can the fact that the minister looks like Evil Santa, the story itself is enough to keep your eyes on the screen. Strong use of interesting background music and good vocal casts help as well, and if it stumbles into Tropeville a few too many times, that can largely be forgiven. This may not be the best violent action anime, but it really is an interesting one as it points out that sometimes in a war, there are no good guys.