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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Supernatural: The Anime Series (Blu-ray)
Supernatural: The Anime Series (Blu-ray)
Warner Bros. // Unrated // July 26, 2011 // Region Free
List Price: $54.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 24, 2011 | E-mail the Author
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Veteran anime studio Madhouse has turned their attention to Supernatural: the first time a Western TV series has been adapted into anime. When that news broke last summer at Comic Con, I had two kneejerk reactions as a rabid fan of the live-action series: "wait, what?" and "well, I guess I have to import that". Although the initial word was that the anime was going to be a Japanese-only release,
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Warner decided to ship it over to these shores after all...and, even better, with the stars of the live-action show fielding some of the voicework.

The overall mytharc for this anime series is the same as it was throughout the live-action Supernatural's first two seasons: Sam and Dean Winchester hunting and killing the yellow-eyed demon that had murdered their mother...slaughtering all those other things that go bump in the night that the two brothers stumble across along the way and dealing with the other superpowered children tainted by the demon. It's a mix of completely new stories and adaptations: five episodes from season 1, seven episodes from season 2, one comic book adaptation (!), and nine originals. Seasoned Supernatural fans won't feel as if they're watching more of the same with these adaptations, though; many of them have been heavily reworked. For instance, "The Alter Ego" is anchored around the hunt for a shapeshifter, the same as in "Skin", yet there's no connection this time to Sam's years in college, and the final form the shifter takes is completely different. Fans who know all the beats in the live-action "Roadkill" will be caught off-guard with a twist in this version of the story. Tessa eerily resembles Dean's mother in "In My Time of Dying" rather than just being the spirit of a random pretty girl in a hospital. You never actually see the blood-sucking djinn in "What Is and What Should Never Be". With only half the runtime to play with, these episodes are impressively sleek and efficient. Exposition is minimal. There isn't a "pilot"; the boys are already on the hunt together in the Impala from the very first frame of the series. The emphasis is placed more heavily on action and horror without characterization being
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shoved too far to the background. (I think there's really only one standing-around-the-Impala-and-talking-about-their-feelings tag.) This definitely still feels like the Sam and Dean I've spent so many years getting to know.

Don't be thrown off by the first original episode in this anime series. "Ghost on the Highway" is probably the single worst installment in the entire twenty-two episode collection, and they really do get better from there. (There's a My Cousin Vinny-style mixup about a couple of murderers who happen to be driving a black Impala, a jaw-droppingly bad gay stereotype who calls the Winchesters "yummy" and drinks from a dainty little teacup with his pinky outstretched...ugh, it's kind of unwatchable.) Many of the other original episodes are new stories that draw deeply from the live-action series. Bloody Mary makes an animated appearance in "Till Death Do Us Part", sure, but what makes it really remarkable is that it's set back when Dean was still partners with his father and Sam was studying law at Stanford. They're both investigating the same case, but, true to live-action continuity, never quite cross paths. Supernatural never had a chance to explore anything like that, and it's fantastic to see it here in this animated form. The cursed Japanese coin in "The Spirit of Vegas" and its string of bad luck brings to mind "Bad Day at Black Rock", and the vamps of "Savage Blood" that feast off cattle but are still chased by an overzealous hunter makes me wonder why it's not tagged as an adaptation of the live-action "Bloodlust". "Undead" melds together elements of season three's "Time Is on My Side" as well as "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things".

While the live-action Supernatural spent more time with two of the other children tainted by the yellow-eyed demon's blood, the anime pals around more with Lily and Jake instead. "Darkness Calling" is a John Winchester solo adventure where he encounters a girl whose very touch can kill, and it turns out that Azazel is on the hunt for her too. The anime also catches up with Jake in Afghanistan while Sam and Dean deal with some of the soldier's family problems on the
By the way, this is what Bobby Singer looks like now.

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homefront. Both episodes tie into things that are very briefly mentioned in the live-action series, and I really enjoyed seeing those explored more. Of course, this being a Japanese production and all, Supernatural: The Anime Series also weaves Japanese mythology into a couple of these original episodes. There's a Kappa in "What Lives in the Lake", for one. The Japanese poverty god Bimbogami torments a gambling-crazed Dean in "The Spirit of Vegas", the one out-and-out comedy episode of an otherwise dark series. ...and even though "Rising Son" is an adaptation of a comic I've never read rather than a completely original episode, there's still a giant robot in it, and, really, what's anime without a giant robot? If you ever wondered what John Winchester meant when he told the yellow-eyed demon that he's known the truth about Sam for a while now, you get to see that story unfold here. The anime also builds on its own continuity at times, such as "Reunion" -- an adaptation of season 1's "Dead Man's Blood" -- featuring the return of a vampire family introduced in the anime original "Savage Blood" rather than just a random, roving band of vamps.

I'm sure longtime fans of Supernatural have long since resigned themselves to the limitations of a 9 PM-on-The-CW budget...a show where instead of a gigantic, winged beast, a dragon is more likely to look like just another dude in a button-up shirt. The anime isn't shackled that way, and it takes advantage of that freedom whenever it can. There are underwater brawls, dazzlingly elaborate transformations, a demon versus helicopter fight, and, yeah, that enormous robot. The live-action version of "All Hell Breaks Loose" was set in an centuries-old village; the anime shifts the setting to a sprawling, abandoned metropolis, complete with crumbling skyscrapers, something Supernatural on these shores could never pull off. It's also not afraid to get really bloody, and even the way demons are expelled from their host bodies -- exploding from the eyes as well as the mouth -- is a lot more haunting. The character designs are all over the place. Anime Sam and Dean are stylized versions of themselves, but I guess Madhouse didn't nail down the likeness rights to anyone else in the cast. That means Bobby is a clean-shaven, dumpy guy in a fedora, John Winchester is a hulking, bald dude with a goatee, Sam's dead girlfriend Jess is a redhead now, and the yellow-eyed demon Azazel is recognizably human but has more of a snake-like appearance. Jared Padalecki
...and Papa Winchester.

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voices Sam for the English dub in all twenty-two episodes, and Jensen Ackles hops in front of the mic to voice Dean for the two-part season (series?) finalé. Because the series was animated with Japanese dialogue in mind, Supernatural is dragged down by trying to match the rapid-fire lip movements, meaning a lot of the writing and delivery wind up feeling rushed and stilted in English. Some of it's so odd that I wonder if someone who speaks English as a first language wrote it, such as "thanks, proceed to the cash" buzzing out of a drive-thru speaker. Andrew Farrar voices Dean for the first twenty episodes, and he's probably 80% of the way there...close enough that, honestly, when Jensen Ackles took the reins at the end, it didn't feel like all that much of a difference. The other voice actors are all over the map. No one sounds convincing when they cry, for one, and the vampire hunter in "Savage Blood" has this wildly over-the-top British accent that sounds like Mr. Shetfield from The Nanny. Dark visuals and cartoonish voices don't mesh that well, and that's kind of an issue throughout the series.

Sometimes trimming things down to fit into a twenty minute runtime works against the anime. Just about every episode of the live-action Supernatural kicks off with someone being slaughtered, but that hardly ever happens in the anime, instead starting with Sam and Dean investigating something that took place off-camera. I guess the idea is to keep the Winchesters at the forefront, but the stakes don't feel nearly as high. You see the grisly aftermath of a werewolf attack with a couple minutes in the live-action "Heart"; the adaptation "Moonlight" here doesn't bother with a dead body or a werewolf at all until more than a third of the way through the episode. "Crossroads" chucks out the '30s backwater blues teaser from the live-action version, which is kind of criminal. In the original ep, the brothers pieced together throughout the course of their investigation that a Crossroads demon is to blame for all of these gruesome deaths; here, some random guy they're interviewing tells them about it in great, inexplicable detail. Sometimes plowing through the story at a breakneck pace works brilliantly, particularly the unrelenting adrenaline rush of "The Alter Ego" that kept me guessing more than the original episode ever did. Other times it really doesn't. "What Is and What Should Never Be" packed such a huge emotional
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wallop in live-action, but the anime version doesn't make anywhere close to that same impact.

There are a few other random things that might be worth pointing out. Every episode has a brief epilogue that plays after the end credits...and after an unusually long black, silent screen too. Just about all of them on the first disc are awful throwaways, but they get really important the deeper into the season Supernatural goes, and they're essential viewing in the second half. The '70s FM rock soundtrack from the live-action series doesn't really worm its way in here, but every episode does close with "Carry On My Wayward Son"...the recording you know and love too, not a bouncy J-Pop cover or anything. Some of the expected Japanese weirdness works brilliantly, and others -- like the turn-on-a-dime singalong to "The Saints Go Marching In" in "Moonlight" -- kinda had me staring at my TV in disbelief, having no idea what was going on. I'm not sure how the production of the anime was divvied up, but the eleven episodes on the first disc strike me as significantly stronger than the second half.

When I first heard that a Supernatural anime was in the works, I was kind of puzzled and kind of fascinated, having no idea what to expect. As mixed as my reaction to a lot of these episodes wound up being, I'd say overall that I really enjoyed it. The anime plays off the live-action series remarkably well, generally faithful to the existing continuity but attacking it in very different ways...especially the way it'll explore things mentioned only in passing in the version of Supernatural that aired on our shores. Considering that each episode is half as long too, I'm impressed by how much the anime is able to cram in and how cleverly the material's been reworked. With so many new stories and even most of the familiar ones dramatically reworked, I can't imagine Supernatural fans shrugging this off as more of the same. I do wish the voice acting in the English dub had more nuance and emotion to it, trying to match the Japanese lip movements forces the writing to be compromised somewhat, and some episodes feel rushed and incomplete. Still, the good to my mind outweighs the bad, and part of me thinks I'd have a more positive reaction if I'd watched the series in its original Japanese instead. At the very least, I'd bet most Supernatural fans would find this anime series to be an intriguing companion piece. I'd go a step further and say that this is a hell of a lot better than anything the sixth season of Supernatural managed to deliver. I have some additional reservations I'll get into shortly, but overall...? Recommended.

Supernatural: The Anime Series has an extremely soft and heavily diffused look to it. It's so soft that, honestly, I wouldn't be even a little bit surprised to hear that it was originally produced in standard definition. Out of more than eight hours of animation, only the title and overlaid credits in each episode are recognizably HD.

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It's frustrating because the visual style in this animated spin on Supernatural is outstanding, and yet I can't imagine there's a meaningful difference in quality between the DVD set and this pricier Blu-ray box. I'm a borderline-completist when it comes to animation on Blu-ray, and Supernatural ranks near the bottom of everything I've come across on the format, simply because it doesn't bear so much as a passing resemblance to anything high definition.

Even worse, Supernatural suffers from some of the same headaches that creep into seemingly all of Warner's animated titles in high-def. There's heavy banding, for instance:

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Warner has also crammed somewhere around five and a half hours of high definition video onto each of these two discs, and even then, they left around a quarter of their capacity untapped. Even with the clean visual style of a series like this, the AVC encode still sputters and stutters. It seems as if there's hardly a pan in the entire series without the image breaking up. Another example, if you're curious:

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It also caught me off-guard to hear it mentioned so frequently in the extras that Supernatural was meant to have deep, inky blacks. Black levels instead generally come off as more of a bright, sickly gray. Outside of fades and the borders on the intertitles, I don't know if there's a true black anywhere in the entire season. That leaves contrast looking flat and dated throughout.

While it's nice that this set fits on the shelf next to all the live-action Supernatural season collections on BD, this anime series does next-to-nothing to justify being released on Blu-ray, especially at an undeservedly high price point.

I'm usually a purist with anime and opt for the original Japanese audio whenever possible. Supernatural is a stickier case, though. After all, Jared Padalecki is voicing Sam Winchester, the role he originated, in the English dub, and Jensen
So, yeah, the anime can get a little more gruesome than anything you've seen on network TV.

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Ackles drops in to voice Dean in the two-part finalé. It's kind of hard to consider an English dub to be wrong when the stars of the live-action series that's being adapted here are the ones standing in front of the mic.

While the snippets of the Japanese audio I sampled did feel a little more comfortable paired with these visuals, I primarily watched Supernatural: The Anime Series dubbed into English, and I'm sure anyone reading this is planning on doing the same. Strictly on the technical end of things, the English track has its own advantages, presented in 16-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio while the Japanese track is saddled with lowly Dolby Digital stereo (192kbps). The voice acting and sound effects are consistently rendered cleanly and clearly, and even with as chaotic as these episodes can get, dialogue never struggles in the mix. Bass response is reasonably robust, especially the thunderous stings that punctuate each act break. The score is a head-on collision of orchestral strings and hard rock, and that comes through perfectly as well.

Despite the English audio being presented in full 5.1 surround sound, it does feel as if Supernatural was mixed primarily with stereo in mind. The surrounds are used mostly for light atmosphere: rainfall, crickets in the dead of night, chirping birds, echoing voices...that sort of thing. Sometimes the rear channels do reinforce the action -- in particular gunplay, skidding cars, and a poltergeist rattling everything in the room -- but that's kind of sparse. It's still a solid effort overall, if not quite as ambitious as the live-action series generally is.

The English subtitles that play alongside the Japanese audio do appear to be properly translated, not just a transcription of the English dub, and that's always nice to see. Subtitles are also offered in English (SDH), French, German, Japanese, Spanish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.

All of the extras in this Blu-ray set are presented in 1080i.
  • Episode Introductions (HD): Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles introduce each of the twenty-two episodes in this collection, pointing out which
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    ones are adaptations and which eps are originals, and they'll occasionally mention something that longtime fans should keep an eye out for. These intros generally clock in around fifteen seconds, so don't expect anything all that in-depth. Sometimes Padalecki and Ackles will introduce an episode together and other times one of them will attack it solo. The first and last episodes are the only intros that break the thirty second mark.

  • The Making of Supernatural: The Anime Series (69 min.; HD): This just-about-feature-length making-of doc is spread across both of the discs in this Blu-ray set. Part one focuses primarily on the core concept, pre-production, and the key talent involved. Writing, character design, and direction (from, unconventionally for Madhouse, two directors...one male, one female) get the bulk of the attention. The second half shifts its attention towards the actual nuts and bolts of production: storyboarding, background design, layouts, key animation, in-betweening, coloring, visual effects work, screening dailies, retake meetings, editing, voice acting, the score...all the way down to the blessing ritual on the first day of production. There's a lot of behind-the-scenes footage here, including quite a bit of discussion from production meetings that further flesh out the collaborative spirit that's spoken about. It's extremely comprehensive and well-worth taking the time to watch.

    By the way, the overwhelming majority of "The Making of Supernatural: The Anime Series" is in Japanese and subtitled.

  • Interviews (98 min.; HD): There are seven sets of interviews on this Blu-ray disc, and they focus on talent on both sides of the Pacific.

    In his nineteen minute interview, Supernatural creator Eric Kripke raves about the endless possibilities that animation offers and how the live-action series could never come close to replicating some of this fantastic imagery. Kripke fields a lot of questions about anime in general, although he's not that well-versed. He also speaks a bit about the live-action series and where he'd want the anime to go if it's picked up for another round.

    Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles are interviewed together and separately. The two of them are asked if they've ever had any supernatural experiences (when cameras weren't rolling, I mean) and what they think about their animated counterparts, among other things. Padalecki and Ackles also work their way through a questionnaire in separate interviews, such as their familiarity with anime and Japanese deities, more questions about the animated character designs, the differences between playing these characters in live-action versus anime, and whether or not they think fans introduced to Supernatural
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    through this series will want to tune into the American show. The tandem interview clocks in at thirteen minutes, and the individual interviews run around ten minutes each.

    Directors Shigeyuki Miya and Atsuko Ishizuka are also interviewed (13 min.). They speak about each others' strengths as directors, wanting this series to be more than just a direct translation of Supernatural, the expressiveness and emphasis on characterization they sought to bring to this project, working within the constraints of a twenty minute runtime for each installment, and delving inside the minds of both Sam and Dean.

    The final two interviews are with Hiroki Touchi and Yuuya Uchida, who had previously voiced Dean and Sam, respectively, for the Japanese broadcasts of Supernatural and are now lending their vocal talents to this anime. They generally field the same set of questions in their interviews, including their kneejerk reaction to hearing that a Supernatural anime was in the works, their response to first seeing fully animated footage from the series, how the anime sets itself apart from the live-action show, the differences in performing a familiar character in this medium, and their favorite scenes from the anime. Uchida's interview is eighteen minutes long, while Touchi's clocks in at a slightly leaner fourteen minutes.

  • TV Spots (1 min.; HD): Last up are three Japanese TV spots.

The foldout booklet follows the same template as the live action Supernatural season sets, and it also helpfully points out which episodes are unique to this anime series and which ones have been adapted from an earlier episode (or comic book, even). The two-disc set comes packaged in a cardboard slipcase. Supernatural: The Anime Series is a BD Live-enabled title, although there's no indication that there's anything all that Supernatural-ly waiting in the wings online.

The Final Word
I didn't know what to expect out of Supernatural: The Anime Series as I tore open the shrinkwrap, but by and large, I wound up really liking it. The episodes can be hit-or-miss, sure, but the scale of the visuals is a lot more ambitious than anything live-action network TV could ever hope to match, and I especially like the way the anime fills in gaps that went unexplored in the series proper. Supernatural: The Anime Series is an intriguing companion piece for the long-running live-action show, feeling as if it's a part of the same world without slavishly marching in lockstep with the American series. Even with as many of its episodes have been adapted from the first two seasons of Supernatural, there are still all sorts of new twists and turns that'll catch even the most rabid fans off-guard. The anime wouldn't be my recommended starting point for the uninitiated, but I'd bet seasoned Supernatural fans would find it well-worth at least checking out as a rental. Unless you're an audiophile and salivate at the thought of lossless audio, this Blu-ray set is a bit of a tough sell over the DVD. Not only is there the usual premium, but since Supernatural: The Anime Series doesn't look as if it was actually produced in high definition, it's not easy to recommend this over the slightly cheaper DVD set. Still Recommended but with some serious reservations.

A Few More Screenshots...
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