Genre: Fascinating Anime Blend of Traditional and Futuristic Monsters
review in one breath
To the human eye, contemporary Shinjuku seems merely a bustling city brimming with normal human affairs. But as this tale demonstrates, the ancient yokai, supernatural beings of traditional lore, continue to live among and within humanity even in this day and age. Diligently guarding the interaction between these two realms is Karas, a formidable ghost warrior of exceptional skills. This is the first of a beautifully rendered two volume set providing the latest in cutting edge Japanese animation.
[SaruDama note: This review first appeared in March 2006. I've updated some of the content and bumped it up in light of the recent release of the sequel: Karas - The Revelation.]
This is part one of a two-part anime:
Here's a fascinatingly complex animation drawn in both traditional (2D) cell animation and highly polished 3D CG techniques. Visually, this is comparable to the impressive Ghost in the Shell 2 : Innocence and envisions a similarly shadowed urban world in which technology is the medium of uncontrollable monsters.
But Karas quickly distinguishes itself wholly from even the most remarkable contemporary CG anime worlds of Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed through its integration of traditional elements of horror folk lore. Here, technological monstrosities depict a malevolent force of (traditional) yokai intentionally encroaching upon the preoccupied modern Shinjuku Tokyo.
The title Karas refers to the name of the main character of the narrative, a spirit warrior/guardian commissioned to destroy malevolent yokai who violently manifest themselves in physical form. The name "Karas" derives from the Japanese word for "crow" (karasu) and is based on the rather widespread and ancient notion that a black crow can contain and animate a departed spirit. Of course, this immediately brings to mind the 1994 Brandon Lee film The Crow (which ROCKED!) and for this reason you can already find alot of Western comparison of these two. But the crow has clearly played a similarly spooky role in several earlier Japanese films such as Goyokin and Cursed. One element of this superstition is that the crow itself is responsible for the spiritual manifestation. Thus killing the actual crow likewise kills the apparition. This aspect represents the relationship between the mysterious yokai Yurine, who manifests herself as a young girl, and the departed souls she summons, in this case that of Otoha, to become the warrior Karas.
Just as in traditional Japanese folk lore, the spiritual world of yokai is populated with both good and bad spirits. Recall for a moment the depiction of these traditional notions in the memorable Spirited Away anime. Here too, yokai have lived for millennia, side by side with humans. A crisis, however, emerges when a segment of the yokai population, known as the Mikura, follow Eko, himself once a Karas, toward violent intervention into the human realm, in order to bring the world of purely materialistically minded Tokyo-ites once again under the control of the yokai. The price paid by the Mikura for their desire to live manifested within the human realm is a hidden (and fearsome !!) mechanized body and the need to consume human blood.
Investigating the increasing number of unexplainable deaths (usually consisting of immediate blood loss and petrification), is a small "special" division of the (Tokyo) Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) which amounts to an X-Files unit on Shinto steroids. The dependency (upon X-Files) here is explicit and newbie detective Kure even gives a winking homage with the line "The truth is out there". The difference here, however, is that UFO aliens are not the culprit. Rather, the traditional horrors of Japan have finally seeped into modernized Tokyo.
Maybe this is a good place to inject the following definitions.
Throughout this film's subtitles (and in many other examples) the term "yokai" is translated as demon. The term "demon" in English parlance, of course, has wholly (if not exclusive) Judaeo-Christian implications which actually have no resembalnce whatsoever to the intended meaning of Japanese use. In fact, I'd venture to say that Western conceptual categories cannot quite house what is going on here.
The term "yokai" is perhaps best translated "monster", but with the following important caveats.
In Japanese folk lore there are "monsters" which are aberrational blends of the human/animal and the monstrous. This type of "monster" is called an "o-bake-mono", literally, "transformational thing". However, there are also "pure" monsters whose essence belongs solely to the supernatural realm, to which the general designation of yokai is applied. Thus yokai are purely supernatural beings but are in no way restricted in terms of the manner and faces through which they manifest themselves. Yokai can be friendly or malicious, and many familiar terms (to j-horror fans) such as "yuurei" and "oni" are actually sub-categories of yokai
The point here being that this entire film depicts a war between yokai. Some are good, some are bad, some are harmless and some are shockingly formidable. But to be honest, what truly counts for me is that these are traditional yokai. Though highly mechanized, they remain Nature-based, depicting to some degree very recognizeable forms such as the Kappa and the Spider Woman. Thus while this is undoubtedly intriguing content for wide-eyed Western audiences, it actually plumbs rather core Japanese superstitions and then bundles them in amazing eye candy with the latest technological imaginations.
And hell yes, I like that!!
First off, logistics. This is the first half of the tale, which of course means this drama ends at a climactic midpoint. This first volume is due for release in late April 2006. The second volume, entitled Karas: The Revelation is scheduled for release sometime later in 2006.
That said, this is well worth the viewing. There is indeed enough stand-alone narrative intrigue and BY FAR enough eye candy here to easily pull you (and me) into fandom of the story irregardless of volume two. Visually, this is highly entertaining and beautifully imaginative. Conceptually, I found the many layers of superstitions, some traditional some not, impressive and meaningful.
Distributor Manga Video seems to have spent quite a bit of money on the Western release, employing some highly recognizable talent to do the dubbed version's voice-overs. Though I generally opt to watch films in the original Japanese (which Manga Video thankfully provides as well, with optional subtitles), I'll admit that the dubbed English dialogue is done very well and certainly won't impede your experience should you choose that linguistic path. And finally a word about the soundtrack... "EXCELLENT". Technically, it is presented in 6.1 channel sound. Aesthetically, it is performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra and has a very polished, epic feel to it. The end theme also rocks. (!!)
Be sure to check this one out. Its coming your way very soon.
Version reviewed: Region 1 Subtitled DVD (Includes optional English dubbed version)
|Modern mechanized vision of traditional yokai.||Plenty of limb and torso hacking while humans merely get in the way (and then get pulverized).||One shapely sexy nurse in a tight mini-uniform and fishnet stockings (who then turns into a gigantic flesh-eating spider)||Here's a very cool anime filled with traditional and contemporary nightmare wrapped in an explosion of eye-candy.|