Background: Stories about the supernatural are as common as those about advanced science, super heroes, or other fictional accounts of circumstances that essentially replace the mundane aspects of our own lives in order to make them more exciting and allow the viewer to suspend their disbelief in such a way that the themes and morals of the stories can be provided without the usual apprehension many of us feel when looking in a mirror (the use of allegories and metaphors in fiction are commonplace means to let the viewer enjoy the show while eventually realizing that stripping away the wild parts leaves the basic story intact). Such was the case with one of our favorite series of the past year, Moon Phase; a story about a young vampire girl trying to gain her freedom from a brutal master with the help of a brave young man. Today's review is on the fourth volume of the series, Moon Phase: Phase 4, where things get crazy and then make a serious turn that was unexpected, and bold considering some of the elements of the show were largely made for younger audiences. Here's a bit of background for new readers and then a brief look at the four episodes new to this volume.
Movie: Moon Phase 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.
The family endures repeated attempts by Kinkel to take Hazuki back but discovers that Kouhei is a greater threat than has ever existed to the established order of things in his dark scheme of things, making the boy a prime target that simply can't be ignored. The ebb and flow of the story's first three volumes dealt primarily with this dynamic as the boy and girl got to know one another; realizing that they have an unspoken bond but not wanting to share it with each other out of pride. This brings us to the four episodes of the fourth volume; 15) It's More Than A Responsibility, 16) I Have To Go Eat Cat-Ear Buns, 17) Big Brother, Why Is This Happening, and 18) Yahoo! I'll See You Soon. Okay, the initial episode of the bunch served to show the growing bond between Kouhei and Hazuki as they fought each other continuously but eventually came to see the light that everyone around them saw long ago. The mood then got light by focusing largely on Hazuki's attempts to catch some thieving crows that developed a taste for her treats (showing more than a little bit of her abilities that were under wraps to this point. The second half of the volume was where things got really dark as Kouhei becomes fed up with how useless he has been in most of the battles fought.
The unfortunate truth of the matter is that his lack of ability is further pressed when grandfather refuses to teach him how to harness the family skills in magic, leading to a near disaster that even Seiji finds disturbing. From there, the dark powers attack again, sending Kouhei and Hazuki on the run to an obscure shrine as the family home is the target of even more powerful beasts than Kinkel, resulting in tragedy and advancing the story a significant amount of time as the hard working Kouhei does his best to push past his limits to save his gal pal. I don't want to mess it up by spoiling it for you but if you're new to the series, it really is getting more interesting and if you're on the fence; suffice it to say that much of what took place in the finally half of this one was unexpected but well played and definitely made me want to tune in for the rest of the series (unlike many shows that drop in quality at this point, this made it even better). I admit to being a fan of the series but the quality of the writing and how the events were handled were clearly worth a rating of Highly Recommended yet again. FUNimation and Victor Entertainment did an excellent job again with this one, nothing surprising to me but worthy of praise nonetheless.
Picture: Moon Phase 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: Moon Phase 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: 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 stayed at four this time so the package wasn't as solid as the first couple of volumes but it was still a cut above the pack in many ways for a mid-series volume.
Final Thoughts: Moon Phase: Phase 4 took a rare step in getting far darker while keeping many of the lighter aspects of the show intact. Far too many series made in recent years seem too willing to lose their teeth to cater to a larger audience so bolder steps that have main characters dying off are appreciated. I have purposely stayed away from the various internet forums in anime (where jerks seem to love divulging spoilers left and right) in order to keep this one and other titles fresh in my mind but I still found it interesting that Kouhei would start to excel by willpower alone and that the series would so radically alter some of the established parameters this far into the otherwise structured series. If you've been keeping up to this point, don't miss this one as it becomes a pivotal point in the series from the looks of it.
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.