Review: Angel Sanctuary (2001)

This OAV, based on a 20 volume manga by the gothy, inestimable Kouri Yuki (currently being published in English by Viz Communications), is as you might expect from anything based on a 20 volume story – totally epic and yet not nearly epic enough. Yuki’s original work is so rife with violence, angst, messy relationships existentialism and gender-bending on both sides (just for starters), that it kind of makes your average Aaron Spelling soapie look like an episode of Play School.

Of course, for those same reasons, it could be argued that it’s always a bad idea to try and put something that involved into a straight to video 3 part anime. Obviously someone thought long and hard about that problem, because instead of attempting (perhaps foolishly) to cover off such a convoluted plotline and leaving audiences feeling frustrated that there wasn’t more, the creators concentrate on a portion of the story. It’s a smart move. Only the essential characters feature, and the narrative focuses on Setsuna’s guilt over his feelings for his sister and the conflict generated by his awakening powers. As a consequence, there’s still a sense of conclusion at the end of the OAV despite the fact that the story has really only just begun.

In the meantime, the show certainly doesn’t lack for action or angst. Setsuna’s your slightly-more-than-typical troubled kid, Sara is a girl on the verge of womanhood (gee, aren’t they all?) and those angels and demons who gather around them are shades of grey quite unlike your average support cast line up. It’s all symbolism, on one level. As the background story unfolds, you start to see not all demons are bad and that some angels are worse. You also come to realise that Sara and her innocence can’t be anything but sacrificed, because such things are not enough to survive in a harsh world and holding on to them is only self-deceiving. Human emotions don’t always fit neatly into the boxes that have been built to contain them, and when they break out, tragedy occurs.

It’s this idea – the hypocrisy of Heaven, the restrictions of religion and society, and the conflict between desire and status quo – that not only saturates the narrative but drives the characters forward to their mixed conclusions. It all makes a little more sense when you know that Yuki’s work often features this disillusionment with the system, but rather than encourage apathy, the mangaka’s message is clear; come up with your own answers, but understand the consequences. As discomforting as it seems in concept, Setsuna’s incestuous desire is an aspect of this greater issue. This is content that’s actually somewhat subversive and challenging, touching with surprising directness on a still very taboo subject and showing it in a sympathetic light without being too ambitious or preachy.

With a cast of big names in both the Japanese and English audio, and with gothy remixes and plenty of nasty magic and violence being thrown around, Angel Sanctuary is not all theological crisis, it’s actually a pretty good romp too, and what it lacks in slick it makes up for in substance. If you can deal with the melodrama, and like a little moral debate, if Seraphim at War is your idea of fun and you don’t mind a some righteous outrage in your anime, this title might just be your saving grace.

7 Three-winged Narcissists out of 10.
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