Koko Hekmatyar is a young arms dealer operating in the shadow of her family’s multinational shipping conglomerate. She and her team of elite soldiers travel the world, selling weapons in conflict zones and dodging government agencies out to shut them down. The newest addition to her team is a child soldier named Jonah. Though he hates weapons and arms dealers, his battlefield skills are too valuable for Koko to pass up, and they travel together as Koko’s ambitions come to fruition.
Before watching it, I’d had Jormungand in the back of my head for awhile. From what little I knew, it sounded like a fairly serious action anime about arms dealers. This intrigued me quite a bit, because a lot of anime tend to shy away from exploring that kind of subject matter, and the idea of following a group of anti-heroes (if not outright villains) appealed to me. Unfortunately, the show turned out to be a flat, run-of-the-mill action series that never really came together.
What Jormungand has going for it initially is an ensemble cast of characters, each with their own skills and history that contribute to the team and to the story. Every member of Koko’s team gets at least one episode focused primarily on them. Their stories are engaging, but most of them boil down to cynical military types becoming disillusioned with their work and moving on to become bodyguards for a rich arms dealer. Any individuality starts to feel lost after a while, and the similarities make the cast feel too same-y for anyone to stand out. Despite their wide array of skills, most of them just sort of stand in the background or run around shooting mooks with assault rifles.
This is not helped by the show’s obsession with tough military women and genius female scientists, of whom there are at least three or four each. While it’s nice to see men and women both get a shot at being the brains and the brawn, the fact that all of the best soldiers and all of the best scientists are women feels heavy-handed. Several of them get very little screen time and serve as nothing but plot devices, leaving them one-dimensional. A tragic backstory here, a little personal quirk there, and very little character besides. The scientists in particular are little more than tools that Koko makes use of, and could have been replaced with a laptop full of schematics for all they bring to the show. The fact that all of the women are also highly attractive and all appear naked at least once does little to reassure me that this was anything but a way to catch the eyes of a mostly male viewership.
Of the male side of the cast, Jonah is initially the most interesting. He claims to hate both weapons and those who sell them, yet travels with an arms dealer regardless. While this sounds like a setup for conflicts of interest or chances for his character to develop, such things rarely happen. He never goes against Koko’s wishes or stands up to her when she performs questionable deals until the second-to-last episode. When he does finally defy her, he buckles under the pressure and runs away for an extended period of time, after which nothing of value is learned or revealed. He acts more like a loyal dog than a person, and this lack of personal motivation stops him from being an engaging presence.
Like Jonah, Koko Hekmatyar also lacks development. The show has a hard time deciding if she’s a fair but ruthless anti-hero, just getting by in the role she has been given, or a borderline psychopath one step away from lighting off a powder keg beneath everyone around her. Picking one or the other could have made for a much stronger character to tie the show together, but the lack of anything relatable or gripping leaves her unlikeable without the flair or charisma to make up for it. I was actually relieved at the end when the show made it clear what kind of monster she could be, though the vagueness of the ending stifled that relief soon after.
As with the characters, the overall style of the show is dry, and it never feels like the creators are truly enjoying themselves or really trying to bring the story to life. The action scenes are stiff and predictable, and more than once, they cut away just as things start to get interesting. Most of the sequences amount to two groups of mostly identical soldiers running around the woods shooting at each other to little noticeable effect. There are few interesting tricks or tactics on display, and not even enough visceral impact to give the conflict any punch. If I feel a desire to check my phone while an action scene is running, then it’s not keeping me invested.
Contributing to this is probably the most glaring flaw in all of Jormungand; a lack of tension. We bounce back and forth between many different threats, each of which is snuffed out with superior firepower. Since Koko’s team are all highly trained soldiers or operatives with the backing of a seemingly omnipresent mega-corporation, they are rarely truly threatened. At one point, Koko calls in a B-52 Stratofortress to carpet bomb one of her few serious problems away. While it may be impressive, once they can call in an airstrike or ask the CIA to handle a dangerous warlord, it’s hard to be concerned about anything that happens to the protagonists.
The real shame in all of this is that Jormungand has a remarkably strong first episode, in which a government official is hunting Koko’s team in a desperate attempt to prevent them from selling his own government weapons. He fears that if they do so, his country will enter a war it is ill-prepared for. On top of this, there is another arms dealer looking to profit off the international tensions himself, and Koko’s method of dealing with him shows off her intelligence and ruthlessness. It sets the show up for a lot of twists and turns, giving the impression that the ‘heroes’ will be matching wits with other intelligent, driven antagonists.
Unfortunately, this kind of tightly-woven plot and characterization falls by the wayside very quickly. Most of the time, Koko is just moving from place to place, selling weapons to group A in country B who is fighting group C, most of which are given very little fleshing out. The morality of it is almost never explored, nor are the consequences of Koko’s actions. The team just drops in, sells some guns, fights the villain of the hour, and walks off victorious. Even when the CIA and other arms dealers are brought in to add intrigue, it rarely amounts to more than outsiders looking at Koko’s deals and saying how brilliant she is without much to back it up.
Comparisons between Jormungand and Black Lagoon are inevitable, and it feels like the makers of the former never quite hit their stride like those of the latter. Black Lagoon was a series that moved smoothly between being grounded in reality and over the top action movie craziness. The gunfights were dynamic and fast-paced, but always comprehensible, and they varied quite a bit. The small central cast was given a lot of fleshing out, and the conflicts between their viewpoints and ideals lent the show a lot of humanity. Rock, as an outsider to the criminal underworld the show was set in, was an ideal audience surrogate and reacted believably to the insanity that occurred around him.
In Jormungand’s case, the series tries to be realistic, but always has to add some extra craziness, like a woman with knives strapped to her pistols, or a pair of eccentric throwaway assassins that treat their hits like an orchestral production. If these were delivered with more conviction or lively animation, they could have carried the series, but instead they fall flat and break any immersion the show might otherwise have managed. The lack of interpersonal conflict between the cast also removes a lot of potential for interesting storytelling, and forces the writers to rely almost entirely on outside forces to threaten the protagonists. While Jonah is ostensibly an outsider drawn into the world of arms dealers, he’s still a child soldier. This is not something that most of the audience can relate to, and he rarely reacts strongly to anything outside of the show’s climax.
Jormungand fails to live up to its potential, and never becomes interesting enough to rise above the level of passable. Boring action scenes combined with lackluster characterization and a meandering plot remove any energy or spark of life the show might have had. It sits in a rut of mediocrity; not bad enough to hate, but not good enough to truly enjoy. While it does pick up a bit near the end, by that point it is far too late to make up for the preceding slog. Unless you’re out of other military-focused shows, I’d suggest giving Jormungand a pass.
Final Verdict – Not Recommended
- An interesting premise that focuses on antiheroes and villains
- Some engaging characters and interesting background episodes
- The plot wanders and fails to focus until the very end, which still manages to be unsatisfying
- Characters become homogenous and lack interpersonal conflict
- The animation quality in general and the action scenes in particular are poor and lack energy
- Jormungand / Jormungand: Perfect Order
- 24 episodes (2012)
- Streaming on Hulu
- Season 1 and Season 2 Available on DVD and Blu-Ray
- Links: ANN, My Anime List
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