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‘B: The Beginning’: Netflix anime gets a ‘B’ for effort

by Matt Schley

Contributing Writer

Whatever you’ve thought of their quality up until now, Netflix’s original animated series have definitely rocked the boat in some way, whether by assembling an international production team (“Castlevania”), putting an X-rated twist on a classic franchise (“Devilman Crybaby”) or, uh, inspiring people to take selfies with huge Toblerone chocolate bars (“Neo Yokio”).

“B: The Beginning” marks a less auspicious milestone in the streaming service’s original animation lineup: It’s Netflix’s first anime to feel, well, normal.

OK, maybe “normal” isn’t quite the word. “B” is, after all, populated by a cast of deranged psychopaths, who have been committing a rash of murders in the fictional quasi-European country of Cremona. Chief among them is “Killer B,” a mysterious serial killer who scratches a B-shaped mark into every crime scene.

B: The Beginning
Rating
Run Time 12 episodes
Language JAPANESE/English

Called in to crack the case is Keith Flick (Hiroaki Hirata), an ill-tempered genius investigator who likes writing complicated formulas on whiteboards (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) and, as it turns out, has secret motivations of his own for tracking down Killer B.

At this point, if you’re thinking of “B: The Beginning” as basically an animated take on “Sherlock,” you’re about half right. But the series also has supernatural elements: Several of the main characters, as it turns out, have paranormal abilities, including the series’ other chief protagonist, Koku (Yūki Kaji), who, when riled up, sprouts wings from his back and a sword from his arm. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

Is “B: The Beginning” a crime procedural or a fantasy? After a binge session through its 12-episode first season, I’m still not sure. The series seems to have trouble reconciling the two. (What’s the point of “CSI”-style deduction, after all, when the perps don’t even obey the laws of physics?) Nor does it ever really decide whether our hero is detective Flick or the super-powered Koku—and the overly convoluted plot can be as hard to follow as the latter when he takes flight.

One thing “B” definitely does settle on is a tone. Aside from a few moments of welcome humor, the series is dark — and a very particular kind of dark. Case in point: When the villains, a group with facial tattoos that wouldn’t look out of place at an Insane Clown Posse show, aren’t busy torturing their victims, they can be found angsting out at each other, riding purple skateboards around town or engaging in that strange, time-honored anime cliche: knife licking. This is a series for the “Suicide Squad” set.

Co-director Kazuto Nakazawa has long been known for his impressive work as an animator (one example is the anime sequence in “Kill Bill: Volume 1”) and “B: The Beginning” has some seriously fluid, well-choreographed action scenes. It’s got some nice character moments too, especially in the burgeoning relationship between Flick and his newfound protegee, Lily (Asami Seto). One of the more charming episodes, in which the two travel around eating gumbo (long story), almost made me wish the show had ditched the paranormal stuff entirely in favor of this crime-fighting pair.

Ultimately, there’s very little in “B: The Beginning” that anime fans haven’t seen time and again. Streaming services like Netflix offer the promise of delivering fresh, original content, but “B” wouldn’t feel out of place on any television programming block — and I’m not sure it would stand out even there.

The final episode of the series teases more to come. Maybe the next season will be called “B: The Middling.”