Background: The supernatural is one area that Japan seems to be better versed in than just about any other country given it's lengthy traditions and superstitions. Most of our culture seems caught up in the scream-fest titles that are consciously designed for the lowest common denominator as date movies rather than truly explore the quality darker material that exists on the market. That being the case, it makes sense for fans of vampires and assorted evil spirits to look into the varied pop culture works of fiction from Japan, with anime having a wealth to check into. One title I came upon last year that struck me as funny as well as dark was Moon Phase, the series now into the third volume with Moon Phase: Phase 3; the ongoing saga of a young vampire and her friend who may hold the key to her salvation.
Series: Moon Phase V3 The story starts off with the lead male of the show, Kouhei Morioka on assignment in Germany. He works freelance shooting pictures for an occult magazine since he has a knack for catching ghosts and other paranormal entities in his photographs, even though he doesn't see them when he's initially taking the pictures. The rest of his family is extremely gifted in terms of supernatural powers but he's considered "spiritually retarded" by them since he completely lacks any abilities in this area. Thankfully, that actually comes in handy as he approaches the castle; allowing him to walk right through some serious spiritual shields placed there by powerful creatures that want the castle unmolested. His reasoning for going to the castle is to see if he can find the beautiful little girl he saw from a distance there, a gal he comes to know as Hazuki. Hazuki, is the gal that kisses him and bites his neck, trying to bend him to her will with her vampire powers but it's her first kiss and doesn't seem to have any effect on him. At this point, the guardian of the castle, a monster with great powers known as Vigo, tries to capture him and ultimately fights Kouhei's traveling partner, his cousin Seiji Mido. Seiji is older and has a reputation for being the strongest psychic in Japan, also gifted with incredible spiritual powers. Seiji fights Vigo to a standstill but the monster keeps coming back for more, wearing out the man as Kouhei attempts to free himself. Also along for the ride is Hiromi, a gal known as Kouhei's best pal and his editor but she really doesn't play a large role in the series just yet, running away when Seiji tells her to.
Kouhei breaks free with the help of Seiji but Hazuki tells him that the only way he can escape is if he helps her break free of the mystical shackles that bind her to the castle, he eventually does so but in the midst of so much going on, they are separated and he leaves with his friends to go back to Japan. Hazuki follows them there and sets up residence in the house of Kouhei's grandfather, Ryuuhei Mido. He's wizened beyond even his years and sees Hazuki as something of an interesting mystery to solve so he invites her in while warning the pair that they need to be careful. The rest of the story has a cute black cat (Haiji) joining Hazuki and a pretty vampire named Elfride sent to bring Hazuki back to Germany by her master. Initially seeming like a straightforward retrieval for her, she soon learns that Kouhei is more than meets the eye; trying to use physical force as well as old fashioned reasoning with the family. Kouhei starts to fall for her Ryuuhei finds her to be delightful, although bratty Hazuki is the only one that remembers how the lady vampire almost killed Kouhei to gain control of the young girl. Hazuki changes during a full moon into a powerful being called Luna, Kouhei seems to be protected by his spiritual ineptitude but also a source of power beyond the enchantments his grandfather placed on him, Elfride seems to notice his potential and wants it for herself, and the others seem quite willing to accept everything going on at face value. Now up to the third volume in the series, the show deals with the aftermath of the events that transpired in Moon Phase V2.
The episodes this time were 11) Big Brother, Get Some Rest, 12) I'll Never Forgive Him!, 13) Let's Defeat The Count, and 14) Big Brother, Will You Walk With Me?. If you've been following the series thus far, you'll know that the huge battle that took place last time nearly wiped out our heroes. Like most anime, they weren't given much chance to walk away from the fight without giving in on their principles so they effectively were pushed into a corner by the Count. As one of the most powerful denizens of the dark arts, his control of the situation was nearly complete but of course our team scraped by and took a limited victory but the cost was to nearly kill Kouhei and it is then found out that Grandfather was more seriously wounded as well. This starts off our volume as the cousins come in and a worried Hazuki lashes out at them. The dynamic of the show causes her to evolve a little to deal with her feelings of guilt even though it is clear that she is a secondary target now that Kouhei's nature is revealed as an imminent threat to the vampire race. In a surprise move, the Count strikes again, this time using Ryuuhei as a hostage, as well as mesmerizing other secondary players to do his bidding in an effort to finish off the threat Kouhei poses. Still, there are bits of humor interspersed throughout the volume and it never got too dark, even if the thematic approach used certainly leaned that way. Interestingly though, the episodes dealing with the down time the cast enjoys after the fight served to provide more of an introspective or foreshadowing of things to come, making the series worthy of it's placement on our recent Best of Anime 2006 list.
So, what do you rate another volume of a series that you really like yet has some inherent flaws (like the dropping back of the episode count)? Well, I still think that fans will see it as worthy of being Highly Recommended. It goes beyond a child's show in so many ways yet remains firmly placed in the realm of anime lore regarding how the characters operate. The mixture of horrific elements and comedy provide more balance than is usually the case since most shows go too far in one direction or another. I understand the economic reasoning for the episode count and while some more extras to compensate for it would have been nice, they weren't expected so I guess your mileage may vary here (as in all things). The dub even managed to convince me that the voice actors were getting into their roles more than average so that added value too. Watch the previous volumes first but definitely put this one on your list of titles to seek out.
Picture: Moon Phase V3 was presented in an anamorphic widescreen color with an aspect ratio of about 1.77:1 as shot by director Akiyuki Shinbou for airing on Japanese television not long ago. The show was an interesting mix of the kind of colorful show that kids seem to like during the comedic moments as well as the darker, almost film like look of the times when the supernatural elements appear (typically for battle but not always). Most of the stories take place at night since Hazuki is a vampire cursed with the whole "light kills" problem but from my point of view, the show looked very nice all around (with the use of special visual effects handled to enhance the atmosphere of the plot elements). If you prefer the bright pastel colors of anime made for younger audiences, you may not like this one as much but I did notice that there were times when the show took on an almost surreal look to it; something a friend pointed out when I originally fussed about the slight haze that appeared in some of the scenes (she indicated that it was supposed to look like that, kind of bridging the natural and supernatural worlds).
Sound: was presented with several choices for the audio tracks. The original 2.0 Japanese Dolby Digital track was present, as was a corresponding English track and a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track for those who appreciate the fine work that FUNimation does. I'm not a subtitle snob so I listened to all three tracks and found the vocals tended to flow slightly better on the Japanese track but the added musical and sound effect coverage of the 5.1 track was plainly superior. The bass added in enhanced the mood and the high end frequencies seemed brighter. There was some separation between the tracks but most of it was similar in terms of vocal placement with the surround track enhancing the other elements nicely.
Extras: Moon Phase V3 should satisfy most people. It had some trailers, short character profiles of the cast, textless songs (the opening and closing themes), post cards, optional subtitles in English, a very appealing twelve page booklet with interviews, pictures, and some series leads for the future. The episode count dropped to four this time so the package wasn't as solid as previous volumes but it was still a cut above the pack in many ways for a mid-series volume.
Final Thoughts: Moon Phase V3 will not be without it's detractors since some of the characterizations left me slightly cold. While Kouhei is a spiritual retard, his family are all well versed in the field and should have known that the Count and other vampires would be continually making a play to remove him as a menace to their kind. The hierarchy of the dark work is touched upon as well and it struck me that at some point, things were left unsaid that really needed to be clarified too. Otherwise, it was an engaging, enjoyable show that should provide a lot of discussions among anime lovers and vampire aficionados alike so check it out and let me know what you think.
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, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.