The problem with antiheroes — and antiheroines, for that matter — is not that they're bad ideas, or that they're overused. It's that it's too easy to mistake the ability for a story to generate interest in antiheroes with a story's ability to say something insightful about them. Jormungand knows how to make entertaining hay out of its concept — a spunky female arms dealer who adds a sullen child soldier to her roster of cohorts — but after a certain point its inability to engage completely with its subject cuts the legs out from under it.
It would be a mistake to call Jormungand a poor man's Black Lagoon (by my standards one of the best properties to emerge in anime thus far), but that is one of the less inaccurate labels I could paste on this show. Jormungand works far too much in the vein of Black Lagoon to not invite comparisons, and it does deliver some of the same core goods: a morally ambiguous shoot-'em-up with a crew of antiheroes who are only the "good" guys by dint of being marginally less vile than the people they go up against. But there was far more at work in Lagoon than concept or attitude alone, and it didn't treat its most interesting ideas as nothing more than flippant plot points.
Holding out for an antihero till the morning light
Many of the problems with Jormungand go right back into its source material, the manga of the same name — further proof that being faithful to the original inspiration for something is not always the best idea. It deals with Koko Hekmatyar, a service-with-a-razor-blade-smile arms dealer who comes off like the scheming little sister of Lagoon's Balalaika. (Sorry, I'll stop referencing that show now.) Her outfit, HCLI, has no particular allegiances and is composed of gun-, knife-, and computer-wielders from across the globe. They form a surrogate family, one which we are invited to find worthy of our attention and maybe even our approval because they treat each other well even when they're shooting other people through the head.
Stuff like this bothers me, again not because I don't believe a show can use it as a legitimate device, but because the show always seems to be dancing around the full implications of the conceit. Even when they touch on such things more directly — e.g., when the sniper character is forced to shoot a girl through the head, because the girl is a gun-wielding lunatic — it never feels like it's part of what propels the show forward, but more about how plot threads are tied off and forgotten about.
The crew's latest addition, as of the show's beginning, is a dead-eyed child soldier named Jonah, whose contempt for arms dealers is absolute: they were directly responsible for the death of his family. And again, the same problem rears its head. Theoretically, this should create the kind of tension between himself and Koko that should propel the show forward, but the show doesn't choose to leverage much, if any, of that tension. Its attention is elsewhere, and in time Jonah's story — and all the potential energy that goes with it — gets subsumed into other things. Jonah's dilemma is mostly reduced to him commenting from time to time, in voiceover, about what an irony it is that he's now buddied up with an arms dealer.
We find, over time, that Koko has a tendency to waltz into people's lives and offer them a way out of their current jam, like Willy Wonka strewing Golden Tickets — except that she carries a pocketful of bullets, not candy. I liked the way the show weaves in the backstories about each of Koko's other comrades, but this being season one of that many more, it functions more as setup than context. These moments come in between the main meat of the plot, where the one-shot storylines involving the weapons delivery du jour are interleaved with a longer-building plotline about Valmet, Koko's one-eyed, knife-wielding sidekick getting revenge on the Chinese army man who massacred her unit.
Laugh? I nearly choked
This would be great if it weren't for another problem I had: the jokey way the show tries to shrug off its most interesting aspects. It's not that the show tries to find humor in this material that's the source of the problem, but how it does it. The humor always comes at right angles to the material, never growing out of it directly — e.g., did we really need to wring yuks from Koko and Valmet's relationship by giving the latter a crush on the former? Or by having Koko herself sport a dippy, girlish attitude towards her work? Again, it's not the incongruity itself that's a bad idea; it's that the show doesn't have any real idea what to do with it except present it, over and over again.
The fact that there are some people whose behavior shocks even Koko is also brought in as a way to further push her that much closer to the audience, but it's a disingenuous tactic: is it really hard to find someone, no matter who they are, who isn't shocked by something, somewhere? If the way Koko and her crew are made into the good guys is by simply contrasting them against the warlords and double-dealers she's pitted against, that doesn't give us much to work with. When Koko says, at one point, "Our job is evil; what kind of fool would take pride in it?" and then follows that up with an admonition to take pride in their teammates, I get the feeling the show's missing its own point.
What undermines all this even more is how Koko and her gang are constantly front-loaded as being the baddest of the bad-asses around. And the problem with having the main character be the baddest ass in the room, no matter what room she's in, is that it drains the show of any real suspense. We know Koko is going to somehow screw over everyone putting pressure on her and walk away laughing, because after seeing things play out that way multiple times it's not clear the show is aware of any other dramatic construction. A better-written show would have avoided this by making the protagonist someone who had to constantly fight to stay ahead of even the people he was working with. Every time he came out on top, it would have meant something, and it would have cost him something as well. Koko never seems to really be breaking a sweat. Even all the other ways the show tries to make us feel like a toll is being exacted (people getting wounded, etc.) feels, well, token. The concluding episode for the reason indulges in this in a particularly egregious way: every chance for the show to make us feel like something of genuine importance has happened is thrown out the window in favor of a goofy life-goes-on exchange in a hospital ward.
Whenever I review a TV series that I know has more than one season, I always hate to speculate about how things could improve the second time around. If they do, great, and there are hints of a more sophisticated and fascinating show waiting to emerge from the chrysalis of this one. But it hasn't happened yet. Throughout this show, I waited, in vain, for a moment that had the same caustic, blackened wit as that classic line from Dr. Strangelove: "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"