There’s a fine line between the real world and the spirit world, or at least there is in Japan, apparently. Karas, by classics production studio Tatsunoko, seems to have borrowed from the same source as Takashi Miike’s recent kid’s flick, The Great Youkai War, populating its realms somewhere on the edge of general consensus reality with figures and creatures more familiar in mythology than anime’s mecha Halls of Fame. And as in Youkai War, someone with a major grudge against us poor, unsuspecting humans is messing with the natural demon order, making machines out of monsters for some dread purpose. Naturally, the good guys are represented by a boy hero (albeit a little more grown up than Miike’s protagonist), conscripted without his say-so into the youkai ranks, destined to be the force that stands against the coming demon darkness.
But that’s about where the similarities end. Karas is a great deal more adult than Miike’s bedtime story film (and doesn’t that sound weird to say), opening with a fairly spectacular aerial fight scene where the combatants shift mechanical form with fluid, organic ease, at least until one of them loses his arms. After that, the gruesome deaths come fairly regularly – kappas in the bathroom and speed demons (literally) on the freeway. Nasty urban myths stalking the streets; now there’s a good reason to stop wearing your iPod headphones while out alone at night.
The baddies are a typical freak show of level bosses, which is pretty standard fare for a fight-orientated anime but isn’t so inappropriate when the fight scenes in question look more like something out of a Capcom game’s finishing combo move than usual. R1+triange+square+forward, and the new Karas, rebel youkai executioner, is blurring into action in a painfully cool and stylish way. In fact, he moves so fast, he even has time to stop and pose.
And there’s the main reason to watch this show. As a three part series, its strengths in the first episode, at least to the naked eye, lie in its flash. The story is perhaps a little opaque up front; it’s an establishing shot. Here’s the pretty, angsty bad guy with seemingly unstoppable powers; here’s the wholesome good guy with his secret vulnerability and his unquestioning servitude to mysterious cat-girl; here’s the rogue variable with the name of a demon on a definite personal vendetta. And now here’s the end of the episode, right when things are starting to ramp up. Dang.
There are certainly worse Volume 1 investments to make as anime goes though. The cons with Karas are that it starts on a slightly confused note and in the space of three episodes, will it really manage to focus its narrative enough to live up to the expectation it generates? The obvious clash between youkai terrorist leader and the Karas is inevitable, but what about the sub-plots? The mysterious Yurine and her twin (twins?), the kamikaze Nue, the detective and his insensate daughter, the seemingly omnipotent chief inspector and the hapless newbie in the bad jacket; will three episodes tie off all these threads satisfactorily or will Karas succumb, as so many longer series often do, to a narrative ambition that exceeds its ability to deliver. Spectacle is all well and good, and plot is king, but try to cram too much into too little and you can find reality warping in a less than fulfilling way.
The pros however are that Karas is a series gorgeous through and through. The production is slick and the visual treatment mature. Its sense of colour is dominated by washed out tones shot with neon reds and the dialogue and soundtrack give it the feel of a serious cinematic thriller, rather than the cyber-suited action show it appears to be. The slightly surreal ambience of the scenes, nice, subtle little touches and repeated motifs like the music video clip-like freeze framing of the world around surrounding the demon interloper Nue, describes more than words ever could how the story exists in a dimension just a little bit left of the reality, and the lack of explicit explanation serves rather than patronises the viewer’s intelligence. It might not be as creepy as its Miike-directed cousin, and it certainly makes no bones about being an action anime, but for all that, its pros definitely outweigh its cons.
And best of all perhaps? The whole series is only three episodes. Considering the investment risk in other series anywhere from twelve to two hundred episodes in length, it almost doesn’t matter whether Karas pays off in the end or not; its sexiness now makes it practically a must-have without even having to think about it. Which might, in the end, be for the best.