Based on the Top Cow Studios comic book of the same name originally created by Image Comics co-founder (and former X-Men artist extraordinaire) Mark Silvestri, Witchblade was produced by Gonzo Studios in Japan and originally aired in the United States on IFC during the first half of 2008.
The prologue for the show pretty much sets it up in seventy-two words:
"Sought by the greed of man since the dawn of human kind, but only bestowed upon the women whose fate it forever scars. The Witchblade. Is it the righteous sword of God or hand of the Devil himself? Now a new bearer has been chosen and she must discover the answers for herself. As she stands on the brink of destiny, she is forced to seek the balance between ecstasy and ruin."
Unlike the comic (and the live action television series which it inspired, starring Yancy Butler in the lead role) which was set in modern day New York City and followed around a foxy female detective, this anime reimagining is set in the Japan of the future. After a major catastrophe lays waste to Tokyo, a woman named Masane Amaha loses her memory. She was found holding an infant to her chest in the middle of the explosion that devastated the city, completely unharmed, but has no idea how or why this happened. A few years after all of this, Masane is trying to lead a normal life with the baby she was found with. She names her Rihoko and treats her as her own flesh and blood. Like a lot of folks, she struggles with the everyday problems of being a single parent, though aside from her strange past there's one other thing that sets Masane apart from everyone else - a large jewel that rests inside a bracelet that she cannot remove off of her right wrist.
As we go on to find out, this jewel is the titular Witchblade, a mystical device that gives Masane superhuman abilities - not the least of which is the ability to shot spiky blades out of her body - during times of trouble. This would make her a pretty great superhero were it not for the fact that when the Witchblade takes control and Masane beings to change, her personality goes along for the ride and she takes near-orgasmic pleasure out of decimating her opponents.
As the series progresses, Masane not only has to learn to control her powers but also has to deal with the child welfare department, who are unsure of her mothering skills and who don't seem too certain that she is in fact Rihoko's birth mother. Masane's got her work cut out for her and the more she learns about the Witchblade, the less sure she is that she wants it, especially when she finds out who it will inhabit after she passes. Thankfully Rihoko is a help to her, in that she looks after their home and takes care of the typically adult responsibilities for her wayward mother. Things get yet more complicated when an investigative photojournalist named Yuusuke Tozawa begins snooping around trying to figure out why so many people who turned up cut up and dead around the city lately. He starts to put two and two together though the more he gets to know Masane the more he grows attached to her. And then there's this odd connection to a massive corporation that seems to know more about Masane's plight than they should have any right to know...
Comic fans may or may not remember the 'bad girl' craze of the mid to late nineties. Among countless others, Chaos had Lady Death (another character which made the transition from printed page to anime), London Night had Razor, Crusade had Shi, Avatar hand Pandora, and Image/Top Cow had Witchblade, which turned out to be the most popular and enduring of the batch. The basic formula for 'bad girl' success at the time was put a hot woman in a skimpy outfit and put her in control - have her fight crime, ruthlessly and violently and with plenty of curvaceous attitude. If you did this and provided competent artwork and reasonably engaging storylines, you'd sell a lot of comics during this period. Chaos branched out a bit by giving Lady Death a mythological backdrop to play off of while Silvestri's creation stayed a little more grounded, finding a nice mix between science fiction, fantasy, and fairly inspired action. A lot of that carries over to this anime version, though the sex factor has been ratcheted up quite a bit to the point where the series borders on softcore. Masane's proportions are exaggerated to ridiculous extents and she's frequently just barely clothed. Throw in the whole 'getting off on killing' angle (which wasn't in the comic) and you can see how there's a bit of a kink factor at work here, providing no small amount of titillating exploitation for those who want it.
The storylines never get that complicated, they basically give Masane a reason to hulk out and kill things, though there is enough continuity here that it all builds up to a reasonably satisfying conclusion, one which will probably surprise you more than the series alludes to. The style of animation employed here from the folks at Gonzo Studios fits the content will, it's all very over the top and not particularly concerned with realism, but it's definitely dramatic and stylish and fun to look at, much like the series protagonist. Occasional bursts of character development, almost always between Masane and Rihoko, help to piece the series together and put a bit of meat on its bones. As bumbling as Masane may be, she's likeable enough and genuinely wants the best for Rihoko so it's hard not to at least appreciate her good intent and good nature. Her day to day struggles give her some sympathy which contrasts with the very different personality that emerges once the Witchblade takes over, making her a bit of a dichotomy.
Witchblade debuts on Blu-ray in a nice 1.78.1 1080p AVC encoded widescreen presentation. Detail is about as good as can be expected, but the source material doesn't have as much to dig into as other animated series have so you have to keep your expectations in check. That said, color reproduction looks excellent and the well authored transfers are nice and sharp. Black levels stay strong and don't break up at all and there are no problems with any obvious edge enhancement to report back on. Unlike, say, a Pixar release this won't be one of those discs you use to show off your Blu-ray set up but it does look quite good.
The primary audio mix is an English language Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, though a Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is also found. Subtitles are provided in English only. It would have been nice to see the Japanese track presented in TrueHD as well, but that didn't happen, which is unfortunate as the TrueHD track obviously has a lot more going for it - strong sound effects, more succinct placement, stronger bass response, perfect levels and crisper dialogue. The 2.0 Japanese track sounds pretty good for what it is, and it's nice to see it included but giving it the surround treatment would have been ideal.
The bulkiest supplement is a three part documentary called The Witchblade Forged which takes a look at the anime series and how it was all put together. A Tour of Top Cow Studios with Marc Silvestri is, as it sounds, a look at Top Cow's studio space guided by the creator of Witchblade. There are some outtakes from this tour also included in the set that are marginally amusing. How to Create a Comic Book the Top Cow Way is a look at how the studio has its own approach to creating comic books and how this approach differs from other studios. This is complimented by a brief piece called Coloring a Comic Book Page that is, again, just what it sounds like. Following the comic-centric slant that the extras take, there's a documentary called The Early Days of Image Comics that explains how and why some of the top creators that worked for Marvel and DC back in the day split to form their own company, while The Top Cow Staff Talks About Comicsis a chat with the creative team from the studio about what they like about the industry they work in. There are also brief spots covering the Top Cow team's Experiences in Japan and a look at Other Top Cow Franchises and about Crossing Into Other Media. The Japanese cast gets their time to shine in a collection of Japanese Cast interviews where the voice actors discuss their work on the series. Rounding out the extras are some promotional videos, a few television spots, and some textless versions of some of the songs used in the series. All said and done, there's a few hours of supplemental goodies in here and while a large majority of it is related more to the comic book rather than the animated version, a fair bit of it will be interesting to fans of both versions of the character as they offer some welcome insight into the creative process behind this material and it gives us a glimpse into how it's all put together.
Witchblade - The Complete Series may not be particularly deep but it is a good bit of sexy, trashy, gory fun. The series is stylish and cool enough that on a visual level it's pretty nifty and even if a lot of the time it all seems as if its geared to pubescent teenage boys once you start getting into the storyline, there's a good time to be had here. Funimation has done a very nice job on the presentation, offering up the entire run of shows in good quality and throwing in a lot of interesting (though very comic book heavy) supplements on top, making this easily recommended for established fans of the series and a good rental for anyone who just enjoys watching a slinky femme fatale slicing and dicing bad guys into bits.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.