Anime these days has plenty of variety in terms of locations. Kyoto plays a role in Sound! Euphonium, downtown Tokyo plays a role in Patlabor Reboot, and Tachikawa is basically the major selling point of Nazotokine–to say nothing of the more fantastical settings of BBK/BRNK and the different eras of history in Time Bokan 24.
The importance of the settings, and the apparent in-world realism and richness thereof, help to ground the characters in each show into their respective realities. This helps convince the viewer that the situations are unfolding in a living world inhabited by these people. That their actions have consequences, no matter how similar or different those worlds may be to our own.
Nanbaka is an anime series set in a prison.
Based on the manga of the same name by Sho Futamata, Nanbaka follows the adventures of a small group of inmates serving time in the “Namba” joint. There is a guy whose only hobby is breaking out of confinement. There is a kid who has bright green hair and takes so much medication daily that actual poison has no effect on him. The rag-tag band of oddball characters is supported by an equally crazy group of prison staff with their own weird quirks.
The action involves the attempts of the four members of block group “13” to break out of their cells and cause havoc for the staff. Sometimes the staff gives up trying to catch them, knowing that they are just fooling around, and gently tell them to get back to their cell. Sometimes they will forcibly throw them back in. And sometimes they will simply keep them entertained with TV and snacks, like children.
As is probably obvious by now, Nanbaka is an irreverent comedy with visual and verbal gags galore that often breaks the fourth wall. The one-liners come thick and fast with plenty of tsukkomi delivery.
Despite this excitement, it must have been quite the challenge to use the claustrophobic, confined environment of a prison as the setting of an anime. Remember the point that location and world-building is essential in anime. You have to believe that the characters really inhabit this world. How can you make a whole world out of a prison–almost literally the definition of seclusion from the outside world?
Firstly, by turning people’s general ideas of jail on its head.
In our mind’s eye, through media such as movies and television, we imagine prisons to be dull, dark, drab places with a sombre mood. A lifeless, depressing vacuum that eats away at your hope for eventual freedom. Nanbaka paints a different picture.
While seemingly being very careful not to justify or reward crime in any way, the show replaces this image of a moody, gritty place of repentance and atonement with a bright image of fun and mischief. Visually, bright colors exude from every pore. The searchlights are neon pink, the walls are lit bright lime-green. It seems more like an amusement park than a prison.
The guards’ uniforms are extravagantly overdone, and their hairstyles are out of control. Everyone and everything sparkles and shines. All the time. This is a unique setting, expanding the idea of a prison to give unlimited possibilities for stories even without needing to venture outside of the perimeter walls. We have no idea what the outside world of this reality could possibly look like. But as this is the prison, maybe our brains could not possibly handle even imagining it!
From a stylistic standpoint, Nanbaka also employs some interesting tricks and motifs. For example, often a character is talking in a closeup shot and the background would be a wash of solid color, with some gradation effect. This sort of thing is not uncommon in anime–not least comedy anime–but here it is employed with great effect: to take a visual break from the same, nondescript walls.
Nanbaka has to be commended in the lengths it goes to offset the expectations of its setting. The derelict, stony, cold image that a typical fictional prison has is incredibly challenging to base an entire comedy anime series on, if you think about it.
When you consider the fact that there are no scenes outside of the prison and are thus stuck with the same, single location, it runs the risk of being visually boring to the viewer. So the entire production design is colorful and shiny, with wild and highly exaggerated characters and situations, establishing the world in its own fun, unique way.
Nanbaka is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.