NIS America has another winner on its hand with a short but entrancing series Zakuro (Otome Yokai Zakuro in Japan). Taking place in during the westernization of the country in an alternate reality where spirits are real, the show follows the newly formed Ministry of Spirit Affairs, a group of humans and half-spirits who are charged with solving the problems that modernization is causing between the two realms. More than just a monster of the week show, there's an interesting story arc involving one of the spirits, and the secrets that are being kept from her. With NIS America's typical outstanding packaging, this is a nice set that should please anime fans.
When Japan started adopting western ways there were a lot of problems. Not only was it hard for the people to get used to trains and European dress, it was hard on the spirit world too. This resulted in more conflicts between the two realms.
The solution was the establishment of the Ministry of Spirit Affairs. It was a small department, consisting of three humans who teamed up with four spirits (technically half-spirits) to defuse situations and ease the transition of turning Japan into a more modern country. On the human side are Lieutenants Kei Agemaki, a man who is deathly afraid of spirits but is afraid to admit it, Riken Yoshinokazura, a quiet and stoic by-the-book officer, and Ganryu Hanakiri, a very young and not unattractive member of the Imperial Army. The spirit side of the department includes Zakuro, a strong fighter who is impulsive and doesn't like the idea of adopting "Jesuit" ideas. She's partnered with Agemaki whom she considers a wuss and has little respect for, though she's secretly attracted to him. She's assisted by Susukihotaru, a very shy spirit who is intimidated by her partner Yoshinokazura because he is so tall and confident. Hanakiri is paired with twins, Hanakiri and Bonbori, who look exactly identical but he's somehow able to tell them apart.
They all live together in the Ministry building, a structure donated by the spirits, and when they're not practicing or playing with the young spirits that live with them, they take on missions. The Ministry has to protect a western-style hotel that is being erected from an angry spirit that's terrifying the workers, find out why women and children are being 'spirited away' from a village, and protect a group of military officers from a strange woman who has been abducting them.
It's not a monster-of-the-week show, though it might appear like that at the start. There's a larger story that's being told too, about Zakuro, the nightmares she's plagued by, and the mystery surrounding her mother who has been missing for years. There's also a lot of back story that gets filled in over the course of the series, which adds a lot. The spirits have a lot of trauma in their past, and that naturally affects them and the choices that they make.
Part monster show, part romantic drama, you won't find many new ideas or anything terribly original in Zakuro, but you will discover that while the show covered well-tread ground, it does it with style and expertise. The animation is solid and the character designs and voice acting is done very well. The creators manage to work in a surprising amount of development and depth for a 13-episode series, and that paired with some very likable characters is what makes this a series worth checking out.
Like NIS America's other Premium Edition releases, this is a quality package. The 13-episode series arrives on two discs, each in its own thinpak case. The pair is house, not on top of each other, but side by side, in a beautiful sturdy board case that's nearly 8 in X 11 in. The case is attractively illustrated with characters from the show. In a nice touch that shows a fine attention to detail, the UPC code in hidden inconspicuously on the side of the case so that the artwork isn't marred. Included with the two DVDs is a very nice hardcover art book. Scroll down to the extras section for more details on that.
This release arrives with the original Japanese soundtrack in lossless LPCM stereo. It sounded very good, with full range and some nice separation. There are optional English subtitles, but there is not a dub track, which is fine with me. I prefer watching anime in Japanese since that was the way it was created to be seen.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic image looks very good. The colors are strong and solid and they're accurately reproduced and come through clearly. The level of detail is very good and the lines are tight. Digitally it also looked very good with aliasing, which often plagues anime, being nonexistent.
The discs themselves include a clean opening and three virgin closings, something I really enjoy seeing, as well as a pair of 'original picture dramas." These are still images with clips of animation from the series that tell a couple of side stories. The two stories, Gala Preparations and Little Spirit Theater, run 19 and 15 minutes respectively so they're almost as long as a full episode. Worth checking out.
In addition there's also a very nice hardcover book included with the set. This time the book reads left-to-right, the way books are read in the US (as opposed to reading right-to-left the way it's done in Japan), this attractive full-color book includes large images along with a synopsis from each episode, interviews with the Japanese voice cast, a talk with the author of the manga, and more. It's printed on high quality glossy paper, and is really very striking.
This was a fun and enjoyable series. The characters were delightful, the animation was good, and the plot was much more developed than I expected. Add to that in NIS America's excellent packaging which includes a very nice hardcover book and you've got a can't-miss set. It gets a very strong recommendation.