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Stream This: Hero Mask is a little anime that wants to be a live action movie when it grows up
Hero Mask is an original Netflix anime series that really wants to be a live-action movie. The series raised eyebrows last year when it debuted with cinematic quick-cuts, dialogue-heavy scenes, and a lack of non-diegetic music — all unusual traits of an anime. Written and directed by Hiroyasu Aoki, unlike most of the other anime on the streaming service, this show is not an original manga adaptation. Often compared to Mission: Impossible and The Bourne Identity, Hero Mask is traditionally animated by Studio Pierrot, the studio that gave us such long-running hits as anime gems as Bleach, Naruto, and Yū Yū Hakusho.
Set in the near future, the story follows Detective James Blood, an agent of the SSC (Special Service of Crime), a division of the fictional Capital Police Department. A cross between MI6 and Section 9 (for all of you Ghost in the Shell fans), the SSC works just this side of the law to apprehend criminals and terrorist threats. Blood has been investigating the murder of Crown Prosecutor Monica Campbell, a high ranking official, as well as multiple bombings, which are all linked to LIVE corporation, a pharmaceutical company whose public face advertises a cutting edge research firm out to cure the world's diseases. However, behind-the-scenes, LIVE is secretly kidnapping prisoners and experimenting on them, using them as test subjects. One of their most significant projects was giving the men superhuman abilities delivered via seemingly innocuous paper masks. The powers were everything from shape-shifting and speedster reflexes, to stopping bullets like Neo.
The masks have one side-effect, though: They rapidly age and suck the life-force out of whoever wears one too often.
Blood's investigation aligns him with Sarah Sinclair, Campbell's subordinate, who witnessed her boss' murder and became an active part of the investigation as well. Rounding out the core cast are Blood's handler Lennox Gallagher and SSC tech specialist Edmond Chandler (every good hero needs a Q, right?). Meanwhile, the main antagonist of the story is Geoffrey Connor, founder of the LIVE corporation, a Sinister-like scientist (pun intended) who is hell-bent on collecting all of the masks. He wishes to master the technology to usher in the "next evolution of the human species."
The first 15 episodes manage to solve Campbell's murder and give us the backstory on almost all of the characters involved. The season also boasts one of the best tunnel car chases in anime. (Even John Wick would be impressed). But it doesn't wrap up the origin of the masks or Connor's ultimate plans for them.
Whereas Season 1 was focused squarely on Blood and Sinclair's perspective, Season 2 introduces us to few more characters to even out the storyline a bit. We don't see a full-on mask powered fight until later episodes, but since the second season is only nine episodes, audiences don't have to wait long. Connor, still on a quest to claim all of the masks so that he can reach his final form, appears frail and weak this season as the aging effects take their toll on his body. His fate is tied to Tina Hurst, a young mask wearer who, unlike her predecessors, has no idea how powerful she is or how she obtained mask technology, as she is the bearer of the last remaining mask on Earth and he will stop at nothing to retrieve it just as Blood will stop at nothing to protect her.
Hero Mask has very deliberate pacing. And while that doesn't seem out of place when watching crime serials like Law and Order or CSI, this is truly rare for an anime series.
One of the only drawbacks to this show is the dialogue; James Blood, (clearly a take on James Bond), plays a "cop with a chip on his shoulder" with a rather flat English-language delivery (the Japanese dub is only slightly better). He exhibits very little emotion in the show outside of his fight scenes or his reactions to his handlers admonishment to play by the rules. And Sarah Sinclair, one of the few female leads, exhibits equally cringe-worthy characterization; her continually thwarted efforts to aid in the investigation render her character vacuous at best.
Unlike the title's suggestion, there is no masked hero in this story. In fact, everyone who comes in contact with the origami masks either dies at the hands of the wielder or succumbs to the mask's rapid-aging side-effects. What the story tries to ask is the age-old sci-fi question of who should be allowed to control human evolution? But it never quite answers it. What it does handle well though are the fight scenes. Both Blood and Creighton are suitable opponents and well-animated. Even some of the faster fight scenes, although sometimes hard to follow with the rapid-fire editing, always end on a stunning blow with equally brutal sound effects. Even though the main storyline is wrapped up neatly on the 24th episode, we are left with a bit of an open-ended storyline regarding Blood and Hurst's characters.
Unfortunately, we won't be getting another season to clear any of that up, as Pierrot's Netflix collaboration was only intended to be 24 episodes long. As producer Mikio Ono, told Anime News Network recently, Hero Mask "has more cuts per episode than usual for a TV anime." That made production extremely labor-intensive and was one of the reasons that only 24 episodes greenlit. But Ono did show interest in Amazon and Apple TV, so fans might be able to enjoy a Season 3 or an OVA (Original Video Animation) in the future.