Reviewby Theron Martin, Feb 6th 2008
Organic Angel Alexiel, one of the highest of the Heavenly hierarchy, rebelled against God over the faults she found in her fellow angels and sided with demons. She was eventually imprisoned and her soul and body separated, with her soul forced to be continually reincarnated in human forms that would suffer. The newest such form is Setsuna, a freshman punk who gets into lots of fights and has an unnatural fixation on his sister Sara. When various supernatural individuals start popping up and try to awaken Alexiel or kill her human form, Setsuna must fight back, even as he tries to resolve his feelings for his sister. That proves difficult, however, when Sara seems to share his feelings and Alexial's insane twin brother, the Inorganic Angel Rosiel (whom Alexiel imprisoned as part of her rebellion), arrives to execute a strange mixture of attraction and revenge.
Originally released on DVD by Central Park Media in 2001 and re-released in 2005, this three-episode 2000 OVA by Bandai Visual and Hal Film Maker (with digital production by Satelight) was picked up by Media Blasters when its original American license expired. The offering reviewed here is MB's new 2008 release under their AnimeWorks label, which sports new cover art (the picture advertised on many Web sites is not correct) and enhanced “Blasterbit video,” which results in an impressively sharp video print. It also sports a different balance of Extras than previous releases, including an angel hierarchy, textless content, gallery of screen shots, and all-yaoi trailers, but does not offer anything new in sound production or video content, nor does it replace the original English dub. The $19.99 price makes it friendly to newcomers, but those who own previous releases should have little interest in picking up this one.
Its production history aside, Angel Sanctuary is not a title for the easily offended. It prominently features incest and debates the immorality of it, treats demons in a sympathetic matter, puts a dim and pessimistic spin on angels and the Heavenly hierarchy, regards God as less than omnipotent, and generally contains a lot of content which devout Christians and Jews could easily find sacrilegious if not heretical. That, of course, should make it appeal just fine to the rebellious streak in American teens, else one could not explain the mild success of the 1995 live-action American movie The Prophecy, which also dealt with angels twisted into nasty killers. After all, dark and/or fallen angels have long been a prominent element of fantasy and supernatural mythos across the world, and associating human foibles with beings that should be the purest of the pure has long been a moviemaking gimmick, so why not take the next step and show true angels as the bad guys?
Of course, the supernatural reality shown in the series could also be treated as a purely fantastic construction only loosely derived from actual religion, as is the case with Ah! My Goddess. Many of the naming conventions and concepts have been borrowed from the Jewish Kabbalah tradition or apocryphal Christan texts, but most – most notably including Adam Kadmon, the so-called “primordial man” – have been given new interpretations. And, naturally, none of the content here about the extermination of demons or problems in Heaven even remotely resembles anything canonical.
Strip the supernatural components away and you have remarkably graphically violent shojo fare which features lots of bishonen characters and throws in both a transvestite demon and a cute kid demon for good measure. (And what would a shojo series be without pretty guys sprouting wings, anyway?) Most of the characters, both human and non-human, have troublesome and/or unresolved emotional and relationship issues, allowing the writing to practically bury the series in angst. It confronts the central incest issue head-on, handling it in a far less elegant and delicate manner than Koi Kaze but dealing with it and all its potential fallout nonetheless. It lacks real fan service, but guys not into shojo melodrama should still find enough action and bloody violence to keep their interest. The content maintains a fast, steady pace, although it sometimes also gives off the kind of compacted feel that greatly condensed storytelling can generate.
Though made in 2000, the visuals look so sharp that this could easily be mistaken for a more recent production. The higher per-episode budget accorded OVA animation shows in its pretty character designs and expert artistry, and despite a few shortcuts the animation delivers, too, especially in its action scenes. The nicely complementary soundtrack appropriately sets the moods, with its cool English opening number offering a good lead-in on the first episode and a rock closer backing all three. Overall, this is a great-looking and good-sounding series.
The English dub, however, has issues. The English script stays very tight, and performances such as those of Alexiel and Kurai do hit the mark, but others sound too loud, brash, or rough, especially to those who have watched the series subtitled first. That few in the English cast have substantial dubbing credits, and no one beyond Crispin Freeman (as Rosiel) still regularly works in anime dubbing, is a good indicator of the strength of the talent involved in this project.
This is also a surprisingly bad example of lip-synching to the animation. English dubs make such a concerted effort to do this (since American audiences expect that in their animation) that special timing software was developed for that purpose and English scripts are usually adjusted to account for it, but it looks like little serious effort was made in this case. The problem is so distractingly bad in episode 2 that characters can sometimes be heard starting to talk before their lips start moving.
Based on a 20-volume manga by Kaori Yuki, the three animated episodes loosely follow the first story arc but were intended more as an introduction to the manga than a formal adaptation of it. Given that, ending on something of a cliffhanger may have been deliberate, as suggested by its final “Game Over or Continue” screenshot. It does resolve enough of its presented storyline to achieve at least some degree of closure, but really this is really just the beginning of the story, and several important points (such as how the “Evils” referred to in the animation are actually a separate race) do not get adequately explained. To get the rest you must rely on the manga, which completed its American release last year. On its own it is a sharp, great-looking series which mixes shojo elements with sometimes intensely graphic violence, but this was not a production meant to stand on its own.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Excellent visuals and music.
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