07 Jun 2016
The end of the world could come in any number of ways. Nuclear war, ecological catastrophe, planetary collision with a comet, a Gamma-Ray Burst, alien invasion... the list is as long as our warped minds can twist. Yet for all of our fevered imaginings of self-destruction - and however much Facebook has taken over our lives - I doubt anyone anticipated the end of the world coming at the behest of a yellow smiley face, straight out of a text message box.
That smiley face is the head of a writhing mass of shape-shifting tentacles, and its powers are as unsubtle as its banana-yellow colouring. The creature arrives before the leaders of the world and announces that it's here to destroy the planet, and demonstrates its power to awesome effect by blowing up the Moon in a second's stroke. This entity, who comes to acquire the name Koro Sensei, nonchalantly casts off anything thrown at it - capable of travelling at literally Mach 20 he easily outruns any missile and literally dodges bullets, and any lucky shot that does manage to snip off one of his tentacles is regenerated in seconds anyway. The creature's just plainly unkillable. Faced by the hideous rictus leer of that unblinking smiley face, there seems to be nothing left to do but prepare for the end...
...but it actually may be some time in coming. It turns out that Koro Sensei is quite a sporting chap, and rather than simply annihilate the Earth he presents a very curious set of demands. The planet is granted a stay of execution for a year - an academic year. Koro Sensei has the world at his mercy but he doesn't want to be World President... he wants to be, of all things, a teacher! His only wish is that he take over the education of a class of middle-schoolers, and over the course of the school year he will deliberately leave himself open and give his pupils alone the opportunity to kill him. If none of them can gain the skill and wherewithal to do him in before graduation day, then the Earth will be torn asunder as easily as the Moon was... but if they can kill Koro Sensei not only will they have saved the human race from extinction and realised the adolescent dream of taking the fight back to the faculty, but a grateful government will reward them with a cool 10 billion bounty into the bargain... and with that amount of money, graduating hardly seems like an issue anyway. It's a very mercenary motivation but it's judged to be the only thing that would appeal to the class that Koro Sensei wants to teach - class 3-E is the bottom stream, the dumping ground, the last chance saloon for the imbeciles who can't learn and the delinquents who don't want to. Yet bizarrely Koro Sensei is amazingly committed to his new class's education, and as perverse and obnoxious as it seems for the monstrous beast threatening to destroy the world to extend a helping tentacle for it, his pupils have to admit that their grades are improving... is this individual just a cruel predator toying with his prey before putting it out of its misery, or are all those wriggling tentacles concealing a feint for a grander scheme?
Assassination Classroom is based off a Shonen Jump manga by Yusei Matsui, a reliable workhorse in the Jump stable whose previous series Neuro: Supernatural Detective also enjoyed an anime adaptation back in 2008. We are playing catch-up with this anime - Assassination Classroom itself began in 2012 and has only just reached its conclusion, finishing a 21-volume run of its complete story this March, and while this first release of the anime on home video has come relatively quickly (it originally finished its Japanese TV broadcast last June) the second season can already be seen via Internet streaming right now and there are even two live-action movie versions as well. There's certainly a lot of extra-curricular material in the Assassination Classroom syllabus, but does the show deserve an A for effort or will it flunk out?
What immediately strikes you when watching Assassination Classroom is that despite having murder in the title and the stakes being the destruction of the whole world, it's nonetheless a very cheerful, light-hearted show. Appropriately enough where the baddie is a big yellow walking emoticon everything is very bright and colourful. Designs are well thought-out too - Koro Sensei's scholar's gown is a well-balanced garment that helps to give him a sense of impressive volume and girth while its open hem and wide sleeves also allow his tentacles to writhe freely, a lot better than if he was crammed into a pinstripe suit. The pupils of 3-E themselves are something of a mixed bunch, some with colourful anime hair - while the point-of-view character Nagisa has a vaguely androgynous design, there's really no more to that at this point than him having a bit of a girly hairdo and it's not a source of confusion in the story at any point - and others more plainly dressed; but while that would normally suggest a core cast and a bunch of irrelevant background extras, every pupil is an individual and has at least something to contribute to the action.
Other than the duff and repetitive opening sequence the action is similarly bright, bloodless knockabout fun. An intriguing design decision is the weapons the kids attack Koro Sensei with - he's impervious to conventional weapons but he is vulnerable to a certain type of plastic coating, so the class attacks him with rubber knives and pellet-blatting Airsoft guns instead; the use of these "toy" weapons lightens the atmosphere up from grim, desperate struggle. That said, there is a risk of the action not just being light but lightweight - on multiple occasions the pupils clearly fail to take advantage of Koro Sensei being left open, for really no good reason other than the manga is a weekly serial and you've got to keep the updates coming (which also comes out in the voice-overs constantly repeating the scenario set-up over multiple episodes, clearly 'story so far' caption boxes clumsily and unsympathetically dumped straight into an anime). Nonetheless Korosensei's super-speed and sportsmanlike demenaour make for entertaining retaliatory strikes - he travels at Mach 20 to pick up international snacks during lunch breaks, and a running gag where he dashes around attackers with a grooming kit to give them gorgeous lashes before they've even finished their swing always raises a chuckle. Koro Sensei has a sense of showmanship too, such as the instance when one of the pupils pitches him a booby-trapped baseball and Koro Sensei doesn't just simply dodge it but uses his super-speed to zip back to the sports equipment shed for a pitcher's mitt to catch it; he lights a candle by firing the thrusters of a captured missile shot at him during an earlier lunchtime sortie across the Pacific to get a hot dog. Other plots are scuppered through a barmy sort of honour code like Kaede refusing to poison Koro Sensei's snacks because it'd be a criminal waste of tasty treats.
What does this constant failure achieve? Koro Sensei's constant thwarting of his class's assassination attempts are treated as opportunities for the pupils to learn (chemistry lessons involve the class testing poisons on him), and as he cheerfully points out where they went wrong with each botched job the pupils learn tough-love life lessons straight out of the High School Movie playbook that teach these dropouts and deadbeats to show more confidence and take more pride in themselves. The pupils grow paradoxically very fond and protective of the being they're meant to kill, and there's a bleak irony that this mutant abomination that's planning to murder them is also actually the only person that's ever shown any interest in them their entire lives. The real villain of the piece isn't Koro Sensei at all, but rather the crushing social conformity of an educational system that openly disregards the potential of Class 3-E and confines them to the dirt and penury of the bottom stream as bad examples to avoid, encouraging the higher classes to apply themselves more. While the theme of uncaring elites smothering the underdogs is a familiar one, the setup here not as indifferent detachment but a deliberate cynically manipulative policy from the headmaster does have some interesting effects. It sets up some good jokes as the snobby elite classes find themselves turning green with envy as a hunky Green Beret and a smokin' femme fatale join Class 3-E as teachers (outwardly PE and English teachers, actually to brush up the class's assassination skills during Koro Sensei's lunch breaks), and quite conveniently it provides an explanation for what would otherwise be a glaring problem with the show - that class 3-E really aren't all that much of a bunch of dropouts at all.
Only a couple of members of the class are even vaguely "delinquents" (and even that's petered out by episode two) and everyone is remarkably focused on both their education and their assassination - the class are even cast as the goody two-shoes in a confrontation with some thugs from another sink school later in the series. In other circumstances I'd call it tension-deflating and weak characterisation that all the classmates are so friendly and dedicated and even the few freaks are quite personable - knowing schools full of bratty adolescent contrarians who'd jump off a cliff if you told them to be careful near the edge, I'd expect that being the only heroes who can save the world should have made more than a few of 3-E just stalk off and have a sulk. However, the scenario here lets Assassination Classroom get away with it - 3-E is composed of good pupils, it's just that the system won't let them be. Maybe Koro Sensei's threat to destroy the world isn't so literal as we assume and should be seen more as driving people to alter the way of life as we know it.
These encouragements to always trust yourself etc. etc. are all very familiar and earnest, but outside of one toe-curlingly bum-squirmingly cringeworthy line early on when a dying woman admires Koro Sensei's "beautiful tentacles" - I can't imagine how many takes that took to get out straight in the voice booth, couldn't it have been his sunny skin or something? - they are delivered by an effective script that suitably adjusts some jokes for language (such as the naming of black widow Miss. Yelovitch). Assassination Classroom also boasts a superior dub with Sonny Strait as Koro Sensei particularly showing great range, reassuring us that the "broadcast dub" model Funimation has been adopting recently does not mean performances are rushed and phoned-in. The OVA episode included in the extras has also been dubbed, which is a nice touch, along with cast interviews which show a lot of genuine enthusiasm for the material. While the message of Assassination Classroom is a bland one and the class are unfortunately less interesting than the teachers, that grey wall is painted over thoroughly with the bright colours of an entertaining delivery to make it an appealing addition to the anime landscape.