Movie: While most anime is brightly lit and colorful, both conceptually and physically, there has long been a market for material that embraces a different path. The idea is that darkness begets light and any sort of balance between the two must be examined on both sides to effectively tell a story. Such was the case with the subject of today's review of Karas: The Prophecy, the latest release from Manga Entertainment (and the first volume of a two part show). The basic premise is a long established one of a supernatural being charged with the responsibility of maintaining order but there were some interesting quirks this time that gave it a refreshing edge worth exploring deeper. Here are a few thoughts on the show and the DVD itself:
Set in modern day Tokyo, the movie details a world of both humans and supernatural beings. Humanity is disassociated from the supernatural thanks in large part to the advances in technology, with the limited contact the spirits, demons, and other critters that go bump in the night rarely coming into contact with the humans except under very limited circumstances. There is a balance at work here and the appointed guardian of the status quo is a creature called Karas. Karas is a title as much as anything else, like the story of The Phantom where a new one is appointed when the old one dies in servitude to the forces of what would be called "good" in a more limited worldview. Comparisons to Batman, Wolverine, Spawn or any other superhero fall short though the character seems to be a Japanese version of The Crow in more than just name alone.
The unseen forces that empower the Karas do so indirectly through another being, in this case played by a young girl named Yurine (Yuri for short). She represents the will of the people in a ruthless fashion, forcing the Karas to take action of one sort or another when appropriate. Exactly how much power she has over him is unstated yet it seems to directly influence the level of response he gives to a situation and the current situation is grave indeed. Eko, the previous incarnation of the Karas, was swayed to the dark side and seems unstoppable, thanks to an unknown source of power. He sees his goal as returning Tokyo to a former state where it was less reliant on technology and more on him and his minions. He goes about converting some of the usually neutral demons into an army called Mikura, with the usual fate for those unwilling to join his quest. In response to this renegade's reign of destruction, Yuri empowers a brand new Karas, this one a peaceful doctor to the supernatural in the form of Otoha. Like many contemporary heroes in anime, Otoha is a reluctant servant to the powers that he serves, as he struggles to maintain his sense of self over becoming a killing machine himself. With a phrase of power, he can transform into an armored being like the Guyver, possessing a sword and various abilities that serve him as he fights those who would stand in his way to restoring the peace.
What opens, and litters, the story is the massive amount of carnage and death that form the sub-plot of a detective, Minoru Sagisaka, seeking answers to the Columbine-like tragedy that befell his daughter awhile back. She was the sold survivor of what was billed as a mass suicide yet it was clear to him that demons were involved so he pursues any leads leading him in that direction for closure, as well as understanding of what happened to his still hospitalized girl. In a series of increasingly explosive battles against powerful creatures of the Mikura, Otoha, as the new Karas, learns to yield his might as tempered by his own brand of morality, one which may be the only hope of humanity changing the prophecy of impending doom. He can't do it alone so with the assistance of the normally passive Yuri, the story finds some common ground for the restoration of the balance between all things.
I liked the show since the characters were more than the usual two dimensional clones of all that went before them but I recognize that they were still somewhat more generic than completely unique characters too. The blending of the two dimensions was a little disconcerting as well since the stylish differences employed were handled in a jarring manner, perhaps to make sure the audience realized what was going on at a given time. Unlike most anime that is full of exposition to let the viewer in on the details, a lot of this show was left open to interpretation, perhaps adding to the replay value significantly as long as you buy into it early on (or it might put you off if you aren't into obscure references towards the supernatural). The short extras help provide some background into the details but I'd strongly suggest you watch the movie at least once or twice before delving into them, no matter how much you might want to spoil the fun.
I haven't seen a lot of shows released by Manga over the years so I really had no preconceived ideas of what to expect. The horror aspects were outweighed by the action and fantasy elements this time, a pleasant change for me over some of the genre's offerings. Like a number of other modern anime offerings, the blending of traditional looking anime and CGI was extensive, providing some very interesting effects and visuals. The manner in which the story sometimes bounced around so much was a nuisance at times and I could see why colleagues would suggest it was a triumph of style over substance (the show was worth the price of admission based on the visuals alone) but the second time I watched it, it was even more interesting to me in terms of the layers observed. I suspect this will be the case each time I watch it (it becomes more like The Matrix in that sense; a movie I found obscure and of limited value the first time I saw the trilogy). If you like supernatural stories mixed with roller coaster ride action, you'll really like this one to though I had my reservations based on how difficult some of the material was to get into and the parts that felt like something was missing. It was still a strong Recommended but you can read John's upcoming review for what I suspect will be a completely different (and perhaps more positive) review).
Picture: Karas: The Prophecy was presented in an anamorphic widescreen color with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 as originally shot for release in Japan. It was slightly episodic in the manner it was presented (perhaps as an OVA with potential for a full season in the future if sales warrant it?) but despite the darker nature of the material (most of the story takes place at night), it didn't show a bunch of grain, video noise, or moiré like so many other shows shot this way have in the past. The style of the visuals (go to Manga's website for a trailer) impressed me more than the story, although there was a lot of potential for that aspect of the future volume(s) too. The computer generated imagery had the kind of stark contrast to the regular material that worked well to showcase the battle sequences, a visual trick that made it easier to keep track of some of the action (and as a thematic device, I liked it too). There was one area that popped up from time to time, some minor pattern noise, but it wasn't common enough to really fuss about.
Sound: The audio was interesting in how it offered up a 6.1 Dolby Digital EX Surround version in both the original Japanese and the English language dub as well as the more traditional 2.0 versions of both tracks, complete with optional English subtitles. There was some solid use of the rear speakers that went beyond the standard way anime is handled with a lot of dynamic range to enhance this separation of channels used too. The vocal tracks each had some ups and downs for me; the dub track seemed to be missing something at times though the voice actors did a great job and I wondered if something were left out of the translation on occasion. The flip side was that as natural as the original vocals were to my ears, some of them seemed to be mixed slightly off the positions of the characters (difficult to explain without you listening beside me), though each was well done overall. The special effects sounded similar in each case, as did the wonderfully rich soundtrack, both adding even more depth to the show than I expected going into it.
Extras: One of the problems with modern anime is that most of it has limited extras to speak of. Aside from the usual trailers and television spots, I don't tend to see much more than a clean opening and closing, and perhaps some artwork. Well, this one had the trailers and TV spots but also a few other little goodies worth exploring. There was a short montage of the show's creation in Japan, with artists, voice actors, and creative teams all working diligently at the production of the show set to the music very nicely. I was thankful that there were English subtitles as needed since context plays an important role in communicating the details (to be fair, most of the montage bounced between clips of the show and the making of it). There were also a couple minutes of interviews with three of the voice actors, Otoha (Toshihiro Wada), Hinaru (Asuka Shibuya), and Yurine (Kasumi Suzuki) and an interesting conceptualization comparison where the graphics were shown to evolve from start to finish, again set to the music of the show. Lastly, I stumbled onto a short blooper reel by the dub cast during the writing of the review when my mouse was ajar (it was to the right of the main section of extras and above the trailers). As another side note, the DVD case included a 28 page miniature comic book from Dark Horse (who are presumably releasing a series based on this movie) called Karas: The Prophecy Special #1. It also provided some details about what was going on, and looked like something I'd enjoy reading in addition to watching the movie perhaps a couple more times (once you start trying to figure everything out, a show like this can be addictive).
Final Thoughts: Karas: The Prophecy was not a show without faults and it obviously paid homage to a lot of pop culture releases that went before it but the time tested elements were put in such a way that I enjoyed watching the DVD more each time I tried to put it away. It was like a mixture of The Matrix, The Guyver, a couple of the Batman movies with liberal doses of the two Crow movies to boot. If you like the supernatural genre of action flicks and appreciate multilayered, stylish attempts to tell a story, Karas will be well worth your time and money. I think Manga has a winner on its hands if marketed correctly though it wasn't designed to appeal to the LCD (lowest common denominator) crowd of fair weather anime fan. Check it out and I think you'll find it one of the better standalone releases of recent months.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, and Best of Anime 2005 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.