Black Fox opens with a young girl -- probably no older than 10 -- running for her life. Scurrying into the attic of an old, Japanese house, she hides, breathing heavily, as her pursuer is revealed: a masked assassin clothed in typical shinobi garb. As he moves in for the kill, however, the tides turn. The girl expertly defends herself and the two engage in a fast-paced, acrobatic fight to an explosive finish. When the smoke clears, the girl's determination suddenly softens to concern as she asks her grandfather if he's okay.
As film openings go, these five minutes of dialogue-free action are impressive. Unfortunately, the rest of the proceeding 85 never quite lives up to them. As well as her grandfather, the girl, Rikka, lives in a rural home with father, both descendants of the Isurugi clan of cutthroat ninja warriors. While her grandfather maintains his family's traditions -- and has passed them on to Rikka -- his son has instead become a researcher, specializing in state-of-the-art artificial intelligence. His prized creations are a trio of drone animals: a bald eagle, a dog and a flying squirrel, who Rikka names Kasumi, Oboro and Madara, hoping to befriend the robots rather than act as their "master."
Her father's innovation hasn't gone unnoticed, however, leading to a showdown when Rikka is in her teenage years between her family and two of her dad's former colleagues. They now work for a nefarious technology company called Gradsheim and are looking to forcibly steal his research.
The story then picks up six months later with Rikka -- using the pseudonym Lily to hide her identity -- living in a futuristic city with her homely roommate, Melissa and her father's drone animals by her side. This is where Black Fox will begin to look familiar to anyone who knows the beats of a superhero origin story: by day, Rikka works as an assistant "in-training" to a private detective. Even with her own squad of robotic assistants and parkour-inflected acrobatics, her clumsiness is reminiscent of a newbie Peter Parker in a homemade Spider-Man costume. By night, dressed in ninja-black with her grandfather's fox mask, she hunts down leads on Gradsheim; switching from fumbling pet rescues to dangling said leads over the sides of buildings in a manner Batman would approve of.
There's also a dash of Kiki's Delivery Service in there too, both in the set-up of a country girl trying to put her abnormal skills to work in the big city, and in the cutesy character designs and moments of quieter domestic sweetness in Rikka and Melissa's apartment. Certainly, the gadgets that Rikka is able to equip herself with -- taking after her father's profession -- are advanced enough even in Brad City to appear almost indistinguishable from magic.
Magic is something the film itself only produces in spurts, however, with too many ideas whirring around to be able to fully explore them all in the brief 90-minute runtime. Most of these ideas might also seem a little too derivative for some viewers, from a vengeful, disenfranchised teenager turning to a life of vigilantism to a technology company headed up by a scarred Lex Luthor that maintains it has everyone's best interests at heart. (Spoiler alert: It doesn't.) The main antagonist that Rikka faces is also little more than a paper-thin anime "mad scientist" archetype, right down to some menacing displays of strabismus for added madness.
These clichés might make Black Fox feel somewhat inconsequential were it not for the charm it oozes elsewhere. The animation balances vibrant, sketchy backgrounds with smooth CG characters models for beautifully fluid movement and expressive faces. The action sequences -- best demonstrated by the opening -- are tightly choreographed and well-paced. It's a colorful, eclectic style reflects the film's overall lightness of feel; preferring to stick to shallower thematic waters than wade into the deeper ones the plot teases.
There's definitely a lot more focus on character than story. Responsibility and loss weigh heavily on Rikka, who is caught between the legacy of her martial artist grandfather, intent on preserving their family's ruthless past, and her science-minded father, a pacifistic futurist. Naturally, Rikka's internal struggle to coalesce two generations of family history with her own identity collides with her external one. Where she expects to find resolution through simple bloodshed, she's met with more complex problems that require less simple solutions. It's a shame, in this regard, that the underbaked story itself doesn't meet this same level of complexity. While the post-finale sequence is plainly a sequel set-up, the many story strands left deliberately unresolved or underexplored for this reason leave you with the feeling that Black Fox could have worked better as a television series rather than a film, which, as a whole, plays like one long, exposition-laden TV pilot.
Most deserving of praise, however, is the predominantly -- and unexpectedly -- female cast, which is fast becoming a hallmark of the company behind it, Studio 3Hz, perhaps best-known for its work on the all-female espionage caper, Princess Principal, and Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale. 3Hz' heroines may look deceptively docile in design but they don't pull their punches. Rikka is exactly the kind of headstrong and conflicted protagonist you'd expect in any male-led superhero origin story, except that, refreshingly, Black Fox trades the standard romance subplot between hero and victim for friendship instead. Each of its main female characters are distinct in temperament and individually motivated; each have their own strengths and weaknesses that are completely untethered from their gender. And there's not -- thank god -- the barest hint of sexualization that often plagues the representation of women in these kinds of stories. For all its flaws, this is something Black Fox should really be applauded for.
Black Fox is streaming now on Crunchyroll.
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