This anime represented something of a lesson in life for me: don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. You see, this is very much the kind of thing I don’t watch: a very hard sci-fi idea, lots of violence, barely a hint of a soppy romance to be found, a fairly frantic animation style, not really the kind of beauty in animation I look for. But my wife had read the manga series (21 volumes, if you’re interested!) and said it was brilliant, so I took the plunge and bought us the anime to watch. It’s a big commitment, with two series spanning 47 episodes, and at first it confirmed my expectations as being definitely not my cup of tea, but after a couple of episodes I was hooked. That all comes down to the intelligence of the storytelling.
The Japanese school system seems to work very differently to anything we are familiar with. Over here, students move from class to class to attend lessons. When I went to school we were streamed, but it was on a subject by subject basis. That played to our strengths, so for example somebody with a talent for science might be in the top set for that, but languishing among the lower echelons for English or History. From what I can understand by reading up on the subject and watching quite a few anime series set in schools, the kids in Japan stay put in their classrooms and the teachers move from classroom to classroom instead. So in each year you have a Class A, for the most able students, a class B, C, D, E, maybe an F. Children spend all day in the same classroom, while different subject teachers come and go.
Assassination Classroom examines the rights and wrongs of that traditional system. It is not the only anime to do that. Baka and Test is another good example, set in an F Class, but that looks at the issue with comedy, whereas Assassination Classroom is a scathing critique of a system that ranks children so ruthlessly by ability. The school is run by a principal who is focussed only on the most able, and sees E class as simply an example to be set to the other students. He wants to inspire the other children to do well, by wanting to avoid ending up like E Class students. They are his sacrificial lambs. He wants E Class to know their place, and stay there. They are segregated, taking their lessons in a separate building.
It takes a truly inspirational teacher to encourage those downtrodden students to rise above their disadvantages, and that teacher arrives in the form of an alien (not quite, but nothing is quite what it seems) octopus. He is going to destroy the world in a year, unless somebody from his class kills him before that happens. So E Class have to train to become assassins, but their new teacher just happens to be a brilliant motivator and is determined to make them shine academically as well, raising them up to a level where they can challenge the most able students in the school. Why would he want to do that? Well, if it all sounds like a contradictory idea, don’t worry. It makes perfect sense but you really have to commit to the series to get answers to the obvious questions and get to a point where everyone’s motivations are clear. It’s worth the wait.
The sheer quantity of episodes allows for each character to be explored in depth, and there are all sorts of interesting back stories for students and teachers alike. There are more than 20 students in the class, and you will feel like you know most of them individually by the end of it all. Inevitably, there is more of a focus on some than others, but virtually everyone gets an episode that allows them to shine. The whole thing builds up brilliantly to a conclusion that really packs an emotional punch, in so many ways.
Assassination Classroom shows how potential for greatness exists where you would least expect it. Nobody should be written off as an “E Class” student. RP