Background: Vampires and the supernatural are topics of great interest to a lot of people in mainstream projects. The various accounts of them doing all sorts of feats outside the range of usual human abilities and their typically darker nature all have a tendency to appeal to our lurid side; the dynamic of the vampire as a being devoted to immediate pleasures in stark contrast to what societal norms allow us to pursue without sanction. One of our favorite vampire series of the past year, Moon Phase; is 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 fifth volume of the series, Moon Phase: Phase 5, where the aftermath of some of the darker material of the show takes place with Kouhei and Hazuki on the run. Here's a bit of background for new readers and then a brief look at the four episodes new to this volume.
Series: Moon Phase 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 four 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. The fourth volume brought an all out attack on the family residence that left a few members dead or MIA, and our leading pair on the run to the mountains. This brings us to the four episodes of the fifth volume; 19) Day on the Mountain, Monkey in the Spa, the Cat's Whiskers...And Who Are You?, 20) Grandfather, Who Dressed You Like That?, 21) Big Brother, Where Is This Nursery Rhyme From?, , and 22) I Didn't Know You Were Like That!. The main focus this time is Kouhei trying his best to master some of the mystic arts in order to protect his young friend from the vampire enemies that have attacked his family. While making progress, he certainly lacks any natural inclination towards the arts so he is sent to pursue some challenges in the nearby mountain right at the time a trio of deadly foes locate the general vicinity of his larger clan homestead. The trio of enemies this time are each powerful and ruthless in their own way, barely tolerating one another as they proceed on their mission to reclaim Hazuki. Arte; a younger female with an uncanny resemblance to Hazuki is the main character with Vargas and Jeda her powerful allies. As the episodes progress, a number of new and old characters make their appearance in order to fulfill their roles; resulting in a very big surprise for Kouhei from his past. The new word for the volume is jyougan; a special ability with a tragic downside for some of the cast.
Well, this volume offering the climax of the story (though leaving the resolution until the final volume) made it appealing to me much like the previous versions where the balance between the comedy aspects and dramatic, darker side of the series provided a metaphorical duality like the leading lady of the series. In that sense, it was well crafted and interesting except when the goofy washtubs started falling on heads all the time (a trick used in come series; typically with a mallet for example). That said, it made me want to see the final episodes since that was where the final sacrifices were to be made and the end result of the entire series would be found. As the cover of the DVD case pointed out, it was still one of the top ten anime titles I've been watching and well worth a rating of Highly Recommended.
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 or in darker settings 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). This was addressed previously where Hazuki's abilities manifested themselves to protect her from the killing rays of the sun but the foes faced were still limited in that way; forcing the conflicts onto their terms. 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 5 continued to provide a lot of light and darker elements in a series that on the surface could be considered for the younger crowd but still kept up the quality making it worthwhile for us older folks too. There were some translation issues or story telling issues that left me hanging until I read the enclosed booklet where such matters were largely filled in but ultimately it was one of my favorite shows that I didn't want to end with the upcoming volume. In short, Moon Phase: Phase 5 provided plenty to talk about and ponder in this story of a young vampire, her human protector, and the family they both hold so dear as the forces of evil try to finish them off.
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.