Sunday, May 5, 2013

I can(not) see the youkai.

Karas: An OVA Series Review

Number of episodes: 6 OVA's 
Genre: Action, sci-fi, fantasy
Source material: OVA original written by Shin Yoshida

It's been a while since I've seen Karas (it came out between 2005-07), but I will always remember it fondly as one of the most beautiful animes that I have ever seen. Even with its copious amounts of CGI, the animation blends well together, the backgrounds are breathtaking, and I highly encourage you to watch at least the first movie before you write it off based on the CGI incorporation factor alone. If you're a big fan of the action genre but are also still looking for a good storyline, Karas just might be the anime for you!
**May Contain Spoilers**

The Plot: Karas is set in a fictional version of Shinjuku where humans
and youkai (spirits) coexist, although the humans are unable to see the youkai. The city (and every city), is protected by an entity known as Karas (translation: crow) that is born when a human makes a contract with that particular city's spirit, an entity known as Yurine. Karas and their Yurine's are meant to watch over and protect the city--both the youkai and human aspects--but the story starts off when one Karas kills another after a long (and epic) fight. We soon learn that the killer Karas (sorry, couldn't help myself there, duhuhu~) is named Ekou and that he has been the Karas of Shinjuku for a few hundred years. 
However, in that time, Ekou believes that humans have become so corrupt that it is now time to purge the city of them to create to a more perfect world where the youkai can be seen again (the loss of innocence and pureness led to the humans not being able to see the youkai). To do his bidding, Ekou creates beings called mikura, former youkai that fell into man's hands and became mechanized, and imprisons his Yurine so that she cannot stop his actions. The city, however, has other plans. 
After the death of the newest Karas at the hands of Ekou, another Yurine is born and it makes a contract with a man named Otoha, allowing him to become the new Karas. The ensuing clash of the two Karas, both of whom were created to protect the city, is an interesting and action-packed story that deals with the cycle of man-made destruction, the return to innocence, and the moral question of who should be protected.
The Characters: There are quite a few characters in this 6 episode OVA series, but each character is memorable, even if there wasn't too much dialogue going on. We have Loud Ekou, the old Karas of Shinjuku who wants to recreate a city that is pure and good; Otoha, the newly appointed Karas of Shinjuku by the "will of the city"; Otoha's Yurine, the area's spirit and contracting partner to Otoha; Sagisaka, a detective in the Observation Department of the police force who ardently believes in the existence of youkai; Kure-kun, Sagisaka's younger partner who is at first disbelieving of his sempai's notions until circumstances force him to confront his own beliefs; Hinaru, the spunky temp girl who seems to always be caught up in something big; Nue, a mikura who wants to destroy Ekou for his own reasons; and Yoshiko, Sagisaka's daughter and survivor of a horrible mikura incident in her childhood. There is also an unnamed female Karas and her Yurine who observe and also partake in the some of the actions against Ekou. 

Overall Impressions: No matter how you look at it, Karas is a beautifully animated OVA series. The action sequences (during which time slows down in the background whenever Ekou and Otoha are fighting), the beautiful colors, the simple but effective character designs, even the bgm--all of it felt perfect for the sort of mood that each moment wanted to express.
The bright colors given off by Yurine contrast sharply with the dull background of Shinjuku, giving us a chance to look at a beautiful "soul of the city," unmarked by the putrid decline of humanity and the increasingly mechanized aspects of life in Shinjuku. The fights are swift, but because of the slowing down of time in the background, they feel oddly surreal and unhurried. If CGI is not something you normally enjoy, try giving at least the first episode a go. The story is intriguing enough, I hope, to keep you interested!
 I personally enjoyed the story of Karas a lot. It is a fairly straightforward plot and is set up as a battle between the two Karas--both of whom have been tasked with protecting the city but with one being exasperated with how it's all turned out. There's nothing really new here in terms of the conflict, but I didn't find Karas to be repetitive, overly simple, or contrived.  The character interactions really carried the show and none ever felt forced. I found the two main characters to be especially compelling, although the secondary cast was excellent in both the world building and in strengthening our understanding of the leads. Ekou is a wonderful villain and a very multi-dimensional one at that.
I really did feel his disgust and hatred for the current state of Shinjuku as he looked out of his window every day. There's a danger to his eerie calm, and although he is pretty much a full-on villain near the last episode, I still felt that I could sympathize with him. There's a twisted justice in his way of thinking (and I must admit, it got me thinking as well)--that maybe destroying the city is the only way to create a place worth protecting anymore. Otoha, on the other hand, is not a hero with a lot of fanfare. He's quiet, calm (he is a doctor in the youkai world--complete opposite of what he used to do as a human), and has seen his own share of grief and violence.
Born with the inability to feel physical pain, Otoha has been an outsider of the human world for a long time, having been called "monster" by his very own father. When he becomes Karas, it's apparent to us that he feels some inner turmoil about finally becoming a non-human entity but is not quite ready to discard his fragile humanity yet. What I like about Otoha, though, is that there's nothing naive about him. Although his ideology is the opposite of Ekou's, Otoha does not simply believe that the world is amazing and that it's always going to be rainbows and unicorns. He knows better.
But at the same time, he realizes that he can no more judge a person's actions as Karas than he was able to do so as a human. His role is only to protect the city, which includes even the human beings who do some really bad things.

It would be impossible not to mention the youkai of the world and the entire world-building that Karas does. 
I love the idea that Yurine is the city's "will" and that the youkai have a complicated relationship with humans that isn't just black or white. Most of the youkai seem ambivalent about being visible again to humans, but the sense of under-appreciation and being forgotten prevails throughout the 6 episodes. Ironically, and unfortunately, the fates of the youkai are tied to humans. If humans disappear, so will the youkai. We aren't told who came first--the youkai or the humans, but the main theme to be taken away, clearly, is that the world is meant to be shared, whether it's between humans and youkai, or any living thing with another. 

If you've got a few hours to spare and are looking for some great action sequences paired with likeable characters and just stunning visuals (Yurine's home base...I want a house like that!), look no further. Give Karas: The Prophecy a try!

Rating: 8/10

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