Well, I’ll be damned if I ever expected to see a manga inspired by Western superhero comics made by Katsura Masakazu, the guy who’s best known for drawing swimsuits and panties in questionable love comedies. While on paper it may seem a good idea to bathe the superhero mythos style in Japanese shōnen storytelling, it’s an operation that combines two things that are full of overused clichés, so it needs to be done well to work. And if a very long manga is to be adapted into a very short anime series, the balance gets even more unstable.
Ten years after the genetically-engineered beings called “Players” revolted and escaped, strange murders occur in town. Kanzaki Jin is a young boy of extraordinary strength who lives in a slum with a man he considers his grandfather; he makes a living by performing good deeds for money, together with his justice-minded friend Kōga and his sister Konoha, heirs of the Amagi family, head to Japan’s richest and most powerful company. When his grandfather is killed, Jin will soon learn of the superhuman powers inside him, of their purpose… and the threat he may pose to mankind.
After the premise got me really intrigued with its promise of a dark tone (it reminded me of Nagai Gō’s manga Devilman, somehow), and the beginning for the first time in my life made me consider dropping the show at the first episode, in the end I found myself enjoying Zetman. But while certainly darker than your average shōnen, it’s also full of many of the clichés that, combining with the clichés of the superhero genre, make it mostly predictable; it may take a while for it to draw the audience in, and the seen-before-ness (yeah, I just made that word up) makes it easy to lose them. Many of the developments are also very rushed and forced, but that’s probably because the anime is adapting more than 16 volumes in 13 episodes, so it’s pretty unavoidable and you can’t fault the story itself for that, but it does make it a bit confusing at times. I’ll say, though, that if Katsura’s intention was to write something reminiscent of classic Marvel and DC stuff, he succeeded: I only watched some movies and cartoons of that tradition (oh, and I read Duck Avenger. Shut up, he’s awesome), yet even I could clearly breathe the “superhero” atmosphere, especially of the Batman flavour. Of course, though, it IS Katsura we’re talking about, so a fair share of his trademark fetishes (panties, swimsuits, nude shots and I swear a gosh-damn pissing scene) will be there…
Anyway, through ups and downs, through few involving moments, through a lot of underwhelming battles, the series leads to an actually really good ending: the plot twist is prepared and pulled off nicely, managing to be pretty moving, and the finale itself is also quite satisfying. Of course, since as far as I know the manga is still ongoing at the moment of writing, how much it reflects Katsura’s plan is anyone’s guess.
This department is probably the one where Zetman suffers the most: most characters are flat and uninteresting cardboard cut-outs, with only one defining characteristic, if at all. To be fair, it’s probably due to how the whole manga was compressed into a mere 13 episodes unavoidably losing a lot of character exploration, I don’t know. The female characters are the worst offenders, as for the most part they aren’t but damsels in distress: Konoha is the heroes’ “that whom must be protected” kind of doll, Tanaka is given a bit more room and a very good plot twist but personality-wise she just has one big “’tis the love interest” above her head (not to mention how forced and dull her relationship with the hero feels), Akemi’s personality is a bit different but her role is very marginal. Most of the secondary characters are only walking plot devices without any real personality if not a very basic stock type; I could count as partial exceptions only the Amagi chairman, who has his moments but left most of his potential to expire in the fridge, Kanzaki, and inspector Sayama. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of them (Akemi and Tanaka in particular) actually manage to be likeable, but they’re simply… bland. Jirō and Haitani, on the other hand, are at least effective at being the manipulative bastard kind of villain, but again I feel like a lot of potential was wasted in favour of simple, bi-dimensional characters with poorly explained motives (Jirō does have something, actually, but it feels like a Batman villain backsto… wait, maybe that was the intention? OK, maybe, but it’s still stupid).
The heroes Jin and Amagi Kōga hold much more interest. Jin is still kind of flat, and his innocence as a kid felt very exaggerated to me, but his personality (dark and cold, but full of the sincerest ideals of justice) makes him quite different from the typical shōnen hero. Even more interesting is Kōga: it is constantly questioned whether his dream to become a “superhero” comes from sincere ideals of justice or a childish desire to be praised as he imitates his childhood cartoon hero, and his way is frequently put to test, leading to a sort of “breakdown” near the end. It’s a shame that both the conflict and its resolution are treated so superficially, because it’s a theme that could have filled a whole anime by itself.
Despite all my joking around, I actually think Masakazu Katsura draws some of the best faces and female bodies I’ve ever seen in manga, and in the end I can’t but praise his talent. His distinctive character design transpires nicely here, especially with the female faces, and despite Konoha being basically the female lead from I’’s, I’d say it’s pretty strong. Unfortunately, the anime has some close-ups with really lazy shading and weird-protuding lips that seriously mess it up. Apart from this, though, the art is just great: the animation is fluid, the landscapes are stunning, the design of Zet, Alphas and the Players is surprisingly intense… but, and this is another letdown, the battles are too often poorly choreographed and resolved with one-hit-kills, which isn’t a small defect in this genre.
As far as the soundtrack goes, we’ve got a collection of decently effective orchestral tracks cured by, fact I’d take pride in pointing out, Gabriele Roberto, an Italian soundtrack composer who made it big in Japan because my fucking country doesn’t seem to be able to recognise talent when she's got one in her womb. They punctuate well every moment, but never stand out. The ED song is the ObligatorySappyBallad™ du jour, while the OP… OK, maybe I shouldn’t be talking given my distaste for rap, but Zetman holds the record for being the first anime that made me skip the opening EVERY damn time because it felt like someone was sucking my brains out through my earholes with a drill. Am I the only one who, despite its very nicely edited sequence, thinks this track is completely out of place?
Well, the protagonists are two big stars known for their wide range of roles, Namikawa Daisuke as Jin (Italia in Hetaria, Anakin Skywalker in the Japanese dub of the Star Wars prequels surely doing a better job than Christensen, among God knows how many more) and Miyano Mamoru as Kōga (mainly known as Tamaki from Ōran and Light from Death Note… hey, again playing a character with a strong but flawed sense of justice, aren’t we?), and they both do an awesome job, especially Miyano. The rest of the acting is OK, but never stands out much due to the bland characters; I’d only give special mention to Yusa Koji as the manipulative Haitani, the awesome Romi Park (Temari in Naruto, Ichijōji Ken in Digimon Adventure 02) as kid Jin managing to leave an impression even in a one-episode performance, and Kanazawa Hana (Nadeko in Bakemonogatari, Mato in Black rock shooter) as Konoha, who while awesome can’t save the character from blandness.
In the end, I’d consider Zetman just another generic shōnen, only a bit darker and with some Western superhero comic book influence. If it wanted to attract attention to the manga it succeeded with me, because I’m seriously considering reading it, but as an anime by itself, it manages to involve only here and there and feels kind of cliché (Nagai Gō’s Devilman comes to mind as a comparison). It probably could have used an extra season, to avoid being so rushed and to show some proper battles, but Jin’s character, Kōga’s conflict, the good finale and the Batman-like atmosphere do give it some interest. In my opinion, it’s quite forgettable, but not that bad, and worth a try if you enjoy this kind of story.