Assassination Classroom: The Series That Should’ve Failed

I find it hard to do a proper review of the series Assassination Classroom. The series is quite enjoyable (and I did place it in my favorite series list), but the flaws of the series tend to completely overwhelm the aspects it excels in. The pacing is completely off. The jokes don’t hit as often as they should. There are too many characters and none of them really get any substantial amount of time to shine aside from Koro-Sensei. Koro-Sensei is a boring paragon of virtue character. Much of the series meanders between the kid’s assassination attempts. Irina is a character who just shouldn’t have been written. The show bangs us over the head with the head master’s intention. That one twist kind of does come completely out of nowhere. The ending of the series is drawn out enough to make you think it’s trying for a Newbery Medal. There are so many things wrong with this series, but it just works. Why?

Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but it definitely works because of the unquantifiable qualities, mostly.

As a critic (granted, an amateur critic, but still), my objective is to properly convey my opinion of a work and why it was formed. As I’d hope I don’t need to explain, the job of a critic isn’t to say whether something is objectively good or bad (and anyone suggesting that really needs to step back and think why they’d even disagree with critics if what they were saying was whether something was objectively good or not, or why critics can even disagree with each other), just state my reaction to something. So, the issue of how I’d go about critiquing something is less “this is bad and this is why”, but more “I didn’t really enjoy this and this is why” (notice the difference).

Okay, but what does that have to do with me saying that Assassination Classroom’s successes are in unquantifiable areas?

Well, as a critic, while it is opinion that I’m sharing, there are many aspects of production (animation quality, acting, writing) that you can, at least, come to an understanding of how to determine their quality. Usually, if it’s animation, you can explain why a certain aesthetic appealed to you or didn’t, or how the motion is jerky, or how the color palette can affect how you perceive the show’s tone. If writing is what you’re talking about, then you can describe how a passage feels off to you, or how aspects can feel undeveloped, or how confused you can get at a convoluted fantasy world (something anime is somewhat notorious for). Even if you’re just talking subjectively, you can still quantify the elements that make a work succeed or fail to you.

Assassination Classroom, in most areas that you can quantify, is either actively bad or just okay. The anime is a passable adaptation of an alright manga, by most metrics, but for some reason, it just works. Why?

Well, as this is an editorial (in lieu of an actual review of the series), I’ll try to messily go through different elements of this series and try to pinpoint why it actually works so well with me.

PREMISE

Describing the premise of this series will be tricky, since it actually has three simultaneous premises, but, I’ll try.

The premise the show is marketed around makes it seem like a kid’s “revenge on evil teacher” story until the last sentence. Basically, an evil, literal monster becomes the teacher of a class and the class are assigned to kill the teacher. Let’s be real, this premise is probably why the series isn’t more visible in the US (what with the series featuring the imagery of students holding firearms and aiming it at their teacher), but it’s a solid premise to sell to kids (look at Roald Dahl, specifically Matilda, for proof of how a premise like this can appeal to kids). This premise, however, is undone by the last part: “but he’s the best teacher they’ve ever had”. This actually changes the premise a lot (and completely destroys the selling point it could’ve had before that phrase was introduced).

The actual premise is that a monster becomes a junior high teacher and tries to encourage the failure class at a prestigious school to become better through unorthodox methods. If this premise sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Beyond the most well-known Western example of this story (CARPE DIEM! SEIZE THE DAY! You can’t see me, but I’m standing on a desk because Robin Williams said to!), anime has two other examples of this story: Ultimate Otaku Teacher (whose anime adaptation ran concurrently with this), and Great Teacher Onizuka. When it’s described by this (slightly more accurate) premise, then the show seems very rote and uninteresting. Where the earlier premise at least gave the allusion to a childhood power fantasy that kids would be into, this premise is kind of a harder sell, especially since there are many people who just don’t like these “inspirational teacher” stories.

Luckily, though it’s only actually revealed in the last act, there’s a third premise at play. This premise is of a former assassin who found, then lost love and swore to become a teacher to work towards being constructive in atonement for his past sins. This premise is also not really a big selling point, partially because it’s revealed so late in the series, but also because it’s also just as rote as the “inspirational teacher” story. It creates an arc for Koro-Sensei to follow, but does not really make him an interesting character really (I’ll get more into that later).

These are all set up against yet another premise: the governments of the world want Koro-Sensei dead and spend the series setting up plans to immobilize and kill him. This is ultimately the biggest premise that takes up most of the time the show has, but it’s also the thinest and least interesting. This premise, until the end, sets Koro-Sensei up as even less of a character and more as a Japanese Bugs Bunny. We know he’ll survive, it’s just a question of how (which works against the idea of making him interesting like the series creator intended).

Clearly, the premise isn’t what works. But, no matter, you can have a show with weak premises as long as there are interesting characters. Unfortunately, the show also stumbles there.

CHARACTERS (EXCLUDING KORO-SENSEI, WHO GETS HIS OWN SECTION)

This part will be kind of tricky, since there are lots of characters in this show (too many, in fact), and most of them are fairly one-note. For the sake of time, clarity, and focus, I’ll just be talking about the important non-antagonist characters: Nagisa, Kayano, Karma, Ryoma, Itona, Karasuma, and Irina.

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Nagisa is arguably the main character of the series, seeing as he’s always the most prominent student in both marketing and the show itself, he’s the student given the most to do, and he’s the narrator of the show. However, rather than being a bland milquetoast protagonist, he’s given a decent amount of character and personality. He’s a good assassin because he can hide his intentions really well, he’s self-conscious and upset by his androgynous appearance (which is given a reason), he’s oblivious to anything he’s not focused on, and he has an innate ability to read people. However, I mentioned that he’s the most prominent student and that helps bring up a few problems with him as a character.

His primary trait is that he can read people well. This makes him good at reacting to other characters. That also describes what he primarily does in the series: react. Nagisa never acts on his own. He always needs another character to bounce off of, but he will never be the person leading a conversation, or the person who comes up with a plan of attack. I know that many heroic characters are reactionary by nature (it tends to be something that superhero writers can’t stop commenting on), but they usually have some level of initiative, some level of individual agency. Nagisa doesn’t really, which makes him a boring character to follow. Even in his own story (his relationship with his mother), he’s still more reactionary (or submissive, which would be more accurate with his mother) than anything else. This would be fine if e was the only character focused on, but he isn’t and he’s by far the least active of them, despite his prominence.

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Karma is his polar opposite as a character. Karma is very active, as well as a general hellion and sadist. His attitude is mostly what landed him in the class the show takes place in, but he’s easily a character who can easily do much better. Unlike almost every other student, he’s introduced as enthusiastic to try to kill a teacher, any teacher, just because he wants to get back at the one who placed him in this class.

Karma’s also placed in the slot of “sarcastic snarker” that many characters (including Nagisa), which makes his more hellish antics stand out less. Actually, as the series goes on, despite still being described as such, he’s toned down a lot, to the point of being an angry smart person who is actually competing with the school’s top student. Since he’s also not given much of a backstory beyond how he got placed in the class, he’s also kind of the most shallow main character, despite having the most clearly defined arc.

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Kayano is introduced in a similar light as Nagisa, but is slightly worse off due to being given almost literally nothing to do until the third act of the series begins. She’s ditzy, bust-obsessed, and somewhat short. Granted, she’s the one who comes up with Koro-Sensei’s name and is almost held hostage in the hotel arc, but until that one completely out of nowhere twist, she’s an unimportant character who’s being propped up weirdly as a main character.

Ryoma is introduced early on as something of a bully. He’s mostly prominent due to use, more than impact, but it also creates an arc where he becomes less of a bully and more as a grumpy friend to the class that he clearly destained right from the start. However, he’s a knucklehead and is around often to be the butt of a lot of jokes, since he accepts less than his classmates in terms of the craziness that Koro-Sensei attracts. Him being a prominent character is mainly an accidental byproduct from the writing, but it’s not an unwelcome one.

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Karusama is one of the teachers in the class and is probably the most boringly Japanese character in the show (and no, it’s less me strictly saying it, since it’s also most of where his humor comes from in the show). Deadpan, overly serious, unattached, mostly stoic, loyal mostly to his employers (the Japanese government) above all else. We don’t get an arc from him, or anything to really suggest much of consistent character writing from him. It’s subtle, but he’s got very inconsistent characterization, with his loyalties and motivations changing constantly to the point of being unimportant. He’s mostly there for exposition dumping, but his moments of “shining as a character” are  always undercut by a lack of attention to anything beyond “he’s serious in this scene, and angry in the next one”. But hey, at least he’s not their other teacher.

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Their other teacher, Irina, is a character I think should’ve been scrapped and rethought at the drawing board. Throughout the series, all of the students will refer to her as Bitch-Sensei, which becomes unfunny halfway through her introductory episode (so imagine how unfunny it is when it’s still being done constantly by the show’s end). This isn’t helped by her characterization, which amounts to “she’s a bitch”. She’s immature, vain, prone to anger, and places more stock in her seduction ability than anything else. She’s just unpleasant to watch in general.

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Itona is introduced later, initially as an antagonist, but also as a student. I should point out that he’s never given much of a personality after he becomes good, while his only personality as a villain is a lust for power. That’s all for him. Really.

So, while the main characters aren’t bad, per say, they don’t really have much of a draw to them. They’re mostly blank slates and one-notes. Well, maybe it’s the antagonists that let this series shine.

VILLAINS (NOT INCLUDING ITONA, SINCE I ALREADY BROUGHT HIM UP)

That this show even has villains is kind of bizarre, since it’s mostly a slice of life story (until that twist). However, they exist and should be accounted for.

Takaoka is introduced as a possible replacement as trainer for the students, but is discovered by Karasuma to be psychotic and utilizing herd tactics and corporal punishment to get them in line. Oh, and then he goes crazy after Nagisa almost kills him, leading him to try to poison half of the class, hold Kayano hostage and bury her alive with Koro-Sensei in an attempt to kill him (damn), and torment Nagisa with the death of his classmates as he drives Nagisa to actually kill him (damn). He fails, obviously, but he is presented as an actual threat, something the series lacked in the assassination plot up till then (keep in mind both that I only brought up the assassination premise). However, due to how much his reveal of the hotel plan revolves around a reveal, it also means that he’s not really given much to work with. He’s around for one episode before promptly leaving, then in the shadows for three and a half episodes before finally returning for two. Still, his presence did create tension.

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Then there’s The Reaper (well, technically the second Reaper), who plans to KILL EVERYONE! Despite being presented as a more competent and terrifying antagonist, however, his reasoning for doing this, as well as his more terrifying potential, are both not revealed until after that twist. On the plus side, he does become involved in the show’s final fight, so, there’s that.

Oh, and since there’s the school premise to account for, there’s Asano, the school’s Darwinian headmaster. I should point out that, as a villain, he is probably the most interesting and entertaining of them. While I’ll give him his own section in a bit, to explain Asano, imagine that Koro-Sensei was human but believed that his students could only succeed when given abject failures to look down on. Oh, and believes in those ideals enough to try to destroy their classroom and transfer the class to a prison school for trying to succeed. Every instance of this man on screen is an example of just how much an educator can infuriate and anger you. If there’s a great villain in this show, it’s him.

His son, also named Asano, is slightly less interesting. In describing him, I’d say that he is to Karma what his dad is to Koro-Sensei. Unfortunately, this mostly means that Asano exists to mostly antagonize E class, which softens the blow of how effective an antagonist he can be. Like Karma, he also becomes more toned down as the series progresses, although he’s given an arc which culminates with him asking E class to prove his dad wrong. It’s not a bad arc, but I can’t help but feel that more could’ve been done with him, especially in relation to Karma, since he could’ve helped them both become more interesting characters.

Shiro is the actual main antagonist of the series, being responsible for Itona, as well as for Koro-Sensei. How evil he actually is, however, cannot be discussed without bringing up that twist, which will get it’s own section, so just know that Shiro’s not an interesting villain, but he is a hatable one.

Alright, well, the antagonists even out to being about as interesting as the protagonists. Maybe people did only come to this for Koro-Sensei.

KORO-SENSEI (PRE-TWIST)

I specified pre-twist because his character changes drastically after that twist (mostly in background, but it does color his actions towards the end, hence that twist being discussed separately). However, his personality is ultimately what dictates the series’ tone, so it’s also important to specify when my cutoff for discussing him in this section is.

Koro-Sensei was named by Kayano to be a pun of korosenai, which means “unkillable”. He is a very goofy and overly-enthusiastic cephalopod-esque educator. While he isn’t strong, he is quite fast, reaching Mach 20 speeds. His tentacles give him his strength, but can regenerate and melt metal, so a special material is needed to harm him (and luckily, the material isn’t harmful to humans, so the kids are safe).

He’s also overly-protective of his students (a trait others have noticed) and all to eager for one of them to actually kill him, which is why he actually mentors them on figuring out ways to kill him. Oh, and he’s quite emotive and his feelings will actually change his face.

Koro-Sensei is effectively the ACTUAL protagonist of the series, despite being presented as a villain protagonist. However, where the series hits a tone problem is in how it actually presents him. Framing-wise, he’s basically the show’s hero, the one educator able to connect with these losers and help them strive towards greatness. However, despite the show framing him as a hero, the characters in the show, even those who respect and look up to him, see him as a villain who’s just biding his time until he blows up the Earth.

Now, this may be a personal preference, but I feel that describing Koro-Sensei reveals why he’s the type of character I should not like.You see, if you ask me to list my favorite characters in fiction, this list will be stuff like Grunkle Stan, Heath Ledger’s Joker, Alex Delarge, Severus Snape, Scott Pilgrim, Holden Caulfield, and Travis Bickle. The clear similarities are that, if they aren’t outright evil, they’re all self-centered jerks who are convinced of their worldview to a stubborn and irreconcilable degree (read: I like assholes and anti-heros, what a shock). My least favorite types of characters, by extension, would be characters like Superman, Goku, and Captain America: the morally perfect characters that we’re supposed to look up to as role models (fun fact: the MCU has made me begin hating Cap more than the oters, if only because I don’t ever want to see another plot involving him being perfect, so that’s another point against the MCU). Within the scope of this series, with it’s twisted morality and skewed priorities, Koro-Sensei is the latter type: a paragon of virtue who we’re supposed to look up to. By any metric of how I react to characters, I should hate him.

Instead, I smile whenever he’s on screen.

Part of it is the goofiness, I’ll admit. Yusei Matsui really understood how to get this guy to become such a complete goofball that it’s next to impossible to really take him seriously. He’s pleasant if only for that reason, because the other part of his character is, even to me, just sappy and unbearable. I get that he’s trying to instill important life lessons onto the kids, but the levels of over-sentimentality he can get to are just too much at points (the anime’s music accompaniment for these lessons doesn’t help, for the record).

But, of course, this, like many things, change when that twist finally happens (spoilers ahead).

THE TWIST

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Two thirds of the way through the series, we finally get the backstory for Koro-Sensei, who is revealed to be the original Reaper, the former mentor of the Second Reaper, and a test subject for an experiment by Kotaro Yanagisawa, the creator of the tentacles who is now going around as Shiro, as well as the ex-fiance of Aguri Yukimura, the class’s previous teacher who was killed in Koro-Sensei’s escape by accident. Oh, and Aguri had a sister, an actress named Akari who infiltrated the class right before Koro-Sensei arrived, hiding as Kayano, wanting to avenge her sister’s death by him. Oh, and the government is going ahead with a plan to use a particle blaster on the class to kill him. Oh, and he might not actually blow up anymore, but he will die, no matter what, so the class should kill him anyway.

If that paragraph sounds confusing, good, that’s what I was going for. Really, the reason I waited to discuss this twist until here is simple: it’s not a good twist. Parts of it were telegraphed (specifically the relationship between Shiro and Koro-Sensei), while others came completely out of nowhere (hi, Kyano). This was the plot point the series hinged upon and it kind of failed to stick the landing. It made it seem like Matsui was running out of ideas and desperate as he approached the ending.

Oh, and speaking of that ending, my Newbery Medal crack is quite accurate. The ending, obviously, needed to be Koro-Sensei’s death, but it is dragged out across three episodes, with the only redeeming factor being the final fight between Koro-Sensei and Shiro. But still, the actual death scene is dragged out over EIGHT MINUTES, halfway through which you just start shouting “JUST KILL HIM ALREADY”. I brought it up in Koro-Sensei’s section already, where the show likes indulging in over-sentimentality, but this is a tipping point, where even the biggest die hard fan must’ve gotten annoyed by how much the people behind this want us to feel sad about this. It’s unfortunate because it turns the last act of this series into a complete chore to get through, having lost most of it’s charm as it tries to be a tragedy. Clearly, this show doesn’t wear tragedy well.

SO WHY DOES THIS NOT MATTER?

…….if this show was a song or album, I wouldn’t need to explain this as much, since music is more abstract and works more emotionally than film or TV does. But, this is the path I’ve chosen, so I must explain why, after every criticism I made earlier, it doesn’t matter.

Because the series is fun. Even in the insanity and forced tearjerker nature of the ending, the show’s still fun. Regardless of how much it wants to give life lessons to the viewers and instill in them a sense of responsibility and self-sufficientness, it all pales in comparison to seeing the kids smiling while trying to stab Koro-Sensei, or seeing the encyclopedias he made being used to attack bullies, or even to seeing Nagisa’s mother just barely be stopped from setting the class on fire.

Fun is an odd thing. We can explain that something is fun, even if it’s incredibly mundane and, to others, quite dull, but it’s harder to explain why something is fun. I can say that JRPGs are fun, but I’ll never have a good reason why I love grinding in a dungeon to complete a 60-hour story. Similarly, I can’t really articulate why this show’s absurdities are fun to me.

But fun is exactly why I love this, warts and all, and why I do recommend this overly-sentimental, very confused, occasionally directionless, weird little series.

Assassination Classroom is available in manga form from Viz Media. The anime is licensed and available on home video from Funimation. It’s available streaming at Funimation.com, Crunchyroll.com, and Hulu.com.

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Author: criticoffilm

Amateur film and anime critic, animation enthusiast, hopeful writer

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