Netflix has got to have one of the most wildly varying track records when it comes to anime. You’ve got a mixed assortment that varies from the most janky 3D animation being used on great source material and then there’s more palatable fare that you’d barely realize was produced by Netflix.
High-Rise Invasion is one of the latter. Maybe I’m exposing too much of a personal bias, but thankfully it’s hard to see Netflix’s fingerprints on this one.
Publishers: Kodansha, Netflix
Director: Masahiro Takata
Premiere: February 25, 2021
If I had a nickel for every Japanese series produced by Netflix involving strangers abducted into a series of mysterious death games… I’d have ten cents. Which isn’t a lot, but it’s weird that it’s happened twice.
High-Rise Invasion follows high school girl Yuri Honjou who finds herself in a mysterious place consisting of high-rise buildings as far as the eye can see. These buildings have no elevators, and the stairs only lead to other floors if there are stairs at all. There’s only one way down, and that’s the direct route right off the edge.
These high-rise buildings are stalked by mysterious assailants referred to only as “Masks”, for they all wear a white mask with a simple face on them. These masks control them and compel them to drive the non-mask wearers to suicide, though they will also kill their victims directly if it suits them.
Like most “death game” psychological thrillers, there’s some greater purpose involved. It’s revealed in the first episode that the masks are actually controlling human hosts. Looking at the backside of a mask seems to irreversibly corrupt someone into serving the “Command” (with a capital C).
These commands are mysterious and possess thorough contingencies in the case of a mask-wearer’s injury or worse: if the mask breaks. The mask has a strange hold on its wearers but they become able to speak when the part of the mask covering their mouth is destroyed. But when they can speak, they aren’t given the opportunity to talk for long; those with a broken mask already have a contingency installed in their minds to kill themselves when the mask becomes too damaged.
Through these brief conversations with mask-wearers, viewers are fed bits and pieces of the overarching conspiracy alongside Yuri. Thankfully, the series also tells the story from another side, from the third episode onward perspective swaps between Yuri and a mask-wearer with a partially cracked mask. However unlike those before him, the crack is so slight that while he has the barest awareness of his actions, he isn’t forced to kill himself; instead he’s an aware passenger in his own body as he follows out the commands of the mask.
Those expecting a more cerebral sort of death game like the ones in Alice in Borderland or the more social ones like Battle Royale will be disappointed with the depth of the series. Yes there’s a mystery involved, but there’s a very clear line drawn in the sand between those with masks and those without (that isn’t to say some of the maskless won’t take advantage of the lawless situation).
Barring two exceptions in the first three episodes, most unmasked are willing to work together or at least tolerate one another’s presence. The same is arguable true of the masked, but they lack any real organization when in small groups and will readily commit sadistic acts of torture on one another if it’s convenient.
But as far as any real intrigue, lying, or commentary about individualism, High-Rise Invasion is unapologetically lacking in that regard. There’s no power struggles to be seen in the first three episodes. These kind of “death game” series commonly feature at least one storyline where like-minded individuals form factions, but whether that will come to pass has yet to be seen. I will say that the setup doesn’t lend itself to it though.
The voice cast is varied and does a good job when they’re not screaming, which is something Yuri does a lot. But studio Zero-G was able to find a well-rounded cast of talents to suit a variety of side characters like the delinquent-looking guy Ikeda who appears for a few minutes.
Yuri’s voice actress Haruka Shiraishi has become popular in recent years with mainstream roles such as Asirpa in Golden Kamuy, Kirie Motoba in Himoutou! Umaru-chan, and Fumino Furuhashi in We Never Learn: Bokuben. Also of note is her more recent role as the tomboyish Hayu Nukui in Dropout Idol Fruit Tart, a series we recommend.
Visually, the only thing High-Rise Invasion excels at is gore, and panty shots. But frankly that’s enough to carry a show for a lot of viewers. Most laudably the series lacks any gratuitous use of 3DCG. I think the rope bridges are 3D when a scene features them heavily, but the fact that I’m unsure means if there is 3D, it’s not really noticeable.
Surprisingly, the gore and fanservice appear to be largely uncensored. This is a huge surprise given Netflix’s role in producing the series but it’s a big point in its favor. The series gladly shows off upskirt angles and knives thrust into necks with equal enthusiasm.
Some deaths do have a cut-away, but it’s difficult to tell if it’s censored (and probably an incentive to buy the blu-ray) or because it’s difficult to animate a body splatting on the ground after falling from a high-rise building. Either way it’s a small thing that can be forgiven.
Ultimately High-Rise Invasion is an out and out gorefest and full of fanservice. This isn’t a bad thing mind you, and it does strike a happy medium where fans of action and fanservice will get their kicks, and fans of the “death game” trope will find it shallow but enjoyable.
Fans looking for mindless “death game” fun who don’t want to think too hard about the what or why will probably enjoy the series, those wanting more intrigue and conspiracy might be left wanting.
Author’s Note: I went ahead and binged the series after writing this review and unfortunately it completely devolves into some messed up thing like Darwin’s Game where people get superhuman powers and the whole Death Game schtick loses it’s meaning. In the interest of fairness, the review is left as-is as a review of the first three episodes.