This article contains spoilers for the film in question, reader discretion is advised.
If it’s unfair to call BLACKFOX an early anime of the season contender, it’s only because it’s a film and not a series. The movie’s bizarre production history became something of an anime journalist gossip-magnet over the past year. The film was originally planned as a single cour series and eventually reworked and delayed. This was ostensibly to put less pressure on the production crew, but BLACKFOX shows zero signs of being rushed or condensed. It is, instead, an absolutely superb action anime. That it gets everything it needs to say out of the way in 90 minutes instead of 3 hours is no detriment. It’s a strength, if anything.
To not put too fine a point on it: if you want a recommendation as to whether or not you should watch BLACKFOX, you can safely close this article, head over to Crunchyroll where it’s streaming, and come back when you’re done. It’s a great film.
BLACKFOX is the story of Rikka, the last scion of an ancient ninja clan, the Isurugi. This should not be taken to mean that you’re getting some sort of Naruto-esque narrative, here, though. BLACKFOX takes place in the near future. A sort of in-between time period before the “cyberpunk” properly becomes such. The film begins with two unnamed figures, an elderly ninja and a small girl, playing what looks to be a deadly game of hide-and-seek in an old mansion.
It doesn’t take long for us to be properly introduced to these two. The girl is Rikka Isurugi and the elderly masked ninja is her grandfather Hyoe. These games the two play (which are in fact, directly compared to hide-and-seek) are the old man’s attempt to pass on the ninja traditions to his granddaughter.
From here, the film pivots. Rikka runs off to go visit her father Allen, a roboticist. It’s here that the film brings its two contrasting aesthetics and moral focal points into play. One foot firmly in tradition, the other in the here and now. It’s also here that the film introduces a trio of important secondary characters. Three advanced robots, all shaped like animals.
After some straight-up adorable father/daughter bonding, we get a timeskip. Rikka is now a teenager taking her entrance exams for college.
A Girl Is A Sword
The good times don’t last. A shady group of suits want Rikka’s father’s research for their own purposes. Rikka arrives home to what she thinks is a 16th birthday party, only to find something has gone very wrong. The house is deserted, there’s blood on the floor.
Entering her father’s lab, Rikka finds him dying. The suits–now armed and armored up with futuristic weaponry–follow. This is bad enough on its own, but they’re backed by a mad scientist (Dr. Lauren) and a masked psychic with electrical powers. It’s only the actions of Rikka’s grandfather, who throws down an astounding heroic last stand, that she’s able to escape.
It’s here that the film truly reveals its hand. You’re not watching a film about the last member of a ninja clan, not really. This is a superhero origin story. Rikka escapes with the help of her grandfather and her three robo-animal companions, delivering one of the year’s best single lines and cementing BLACKFOX as a movie that absolutely does not play around.
BLACKFOX from here spirals outward into a tale of vengeance. Rikka throws away her future and takes up a pseudonym (Lily), living in an apartment as a detective’s assistant with her animal drones and a way too understanding roommate. This–in a place where many stories of this type fall apart–is where the film goes from good to great.
The plot moves at a brisk clip. Detective work leads to a run-in with Mia, a girl who we figure out long before Rikka does is the masked psychic from earlier. We’re shown flashes of her backstory, and it’s not pretty. Abuse from her father (Dr. Lauren) dressed up as scientific experimentation and a childhood scattered to the winds to feed her father’s egotistical obsession with outdoing Allen Isurugi’s robotics.
Rikka and Mia bond over a game of chess on opposite sides of a fence. The next time they meet, it’s as Rikka’s infiltrating a facility of the sinister corporation. Without realizing who the other is, they fight. Rikka almost kills her in blind rage before Oboro stops her. To say all this is “intense” feels like underselling it.
Without totally spoiling the film’s ending. It eventually concludes with Rikka freeing Mia from her father’s control, though not after a long struggle. Fathers, and how they affect their children, seems to be a running concern for BLACKFOX in general.
In a way, film dances between a few central themes. One is foregrounded, but the other two (which I’d argue are actually stronger) are only present by not-terribly-subtle subtext. This movie makes explicit its thoughts on the power of solving problems without killing. BLACKFOX is also very clear that it has a lot of feelings on fathers as figures. Indeed, for the many positive things one could say about the film, it does not technically pass the Bechdel Test.
A contrast is drawn. Rikka’s father is such a grounding, guiding figure in her life that he continues to shape her personality for the better even after he’s gone. Mia’s, in sharp contrast, nearly kills her with his own selfishness. It’s night and day.
“Good fathers are good and bad fathers are bad” is not exactly an earth-shaking sentiment, but it’s pulled off so well that it feels disingenuous to not engage with it. Another example: the last interaction Rikka has with her father and grandfather is finding a video recording of them among the rubble of her childhood home. Mia’s has him sucker her by feigning asking for forgiveness, and then slapping the mind-control collar he uses to keep her in line for much of the film back on her.
This is easy to read as metaphor. The recording Rikka finds is attached to the box that she gets her final “Black Fox suit” in, a gift even from beyond the grave. It’s a stand-in for the memories and the advice that linger with you even if your parents are gone. The collar around Mia’s neck is every controlling impulse and ill sentiment that a father as awful as hers has to offer. It’s un-subtle, but not so much that it’s on the nose.
Past & Present
There is one other thread that runs through BLACKFOX. One about the interaction between traditions and the present and future. It’s a bit subtler a theme than the others, but it’s distinctly present. Rikka initially rejects the idea of ever becoming the successor to the Isurugi Clan. She sees it as something archaic and stuck in the past, and at the film’s start actually wants to follow in her father’s footsteps. It’s made clear that she feels like she has to pick between following her grandfather or her father.
Their deaths changes this whole arrangement, and for much of the rest of the film she takes up the ninja traditions of her grandfather, even wearing his old mask. It is worth recalling that Rikka is essentially ninja girl Batman.
It’s in the film’s final minutes that she realizes this dichotomy isn’t real, just a product of her own mind. The final message from her loved ones convinces her that she can follow both of them, and be her own person, all at the same time. It’s a lovely thematic bow on the film’s entire storyline.
It’s genuinely amazing that BLACKFOX manages to say so much in just an hour and a half. Even if you chuck out all of its thematics, you still have a crackerjack action film the likes of which we sorely need more of. This movie might just be what establishes 3Hz as one of the premiere anime studios working right now.
It’d be remiss to not mention some individual accomplishments. Such as director and “chief director” Keisuke Shinohara and Kazuya Nomura respectively. The former is new blood to the position, having only a few episodes of Flip-Flappers under his belt as a director and having mostly been a key animator prior. The latter is well-versed, having worked on everything from some episodes of aughts cult classic Dennoh Coil to Robotics;Notes and Run With The Wind. Atsushi Saito‘s character designs deserve a nod too, they’re not as ostentatious as those employed by some contemporary studios (say, TRIGGER), but they’re full of charm nonetheless, and every single one looks distinctive.
Spotlighting the reams upon reams of talented key animators is beyond the scope of this column, but the (more middling on the film, an assessment I disagree with) Sakugablog article that alerted many anime nerds that the film existed is just one place you can find more granular analysis of the art.
If there is a small gripe to be made. The film ends half-openly. The core plot is resolved, but there is still clearly a lot more story to be told. We can only hope we get a sequel–either more movies or the TV series it was originally meant to be. Either way though, BLACKFOX stands as a fine example of some of the best anime 2019 has to offer.