Reviewby Theron Martin, Mar 12th 2014
BD+DVD - Complete Collection
Yashiro Isana lives a relatively ordinary life at Ashinaka High School, a prominent high school located on its own island adjacent to the technologically-advanced Shizume City, where he rooms in their dorms – or at least he thinks his life is ordinary, anyway. But he is being accompanied by a cat able to turn into a sexy young woman (a fact that he is not initially aware of) and a video being distributed of someone who looks exactly like him killing a member of the HOMRA gang is about to bring him a world of trouble. Soon he finds himself mixed up in the affairs of super-powered individuals called Kings (including the Red King, who heads HOMRA, and the Blue King, who heads the security force known as Scepter 4), their empowered underlings, and the Black Dog, aka Kuroh Yatagami, who was formerly a servant of the now-deceased Colorless King and has sought out Yashiro because he believes him to be the Colorless King's successor – and that means that he must evaluate if Yashiro is an evil person or not and kill him if he is. The cat/girl Neko proves a quite capable and loyal ally to Yashiro, though, and eventually the puzzle constituting what's really going on starts showing some gaps. Someone is pulling some strings to draw everyone into conflict, and Yashiro has been caught in the middle.
K could not be much cooler if it tried. And it tries very, very hard.
That should be taken as both praise and indictment for this 13-episode 2012 series, which is an original anime production. (A trio of prequel manga and two light novels also exist.) While the series does largely succeed at being cool, some of its efforts result in veritable lampooning of coolness, an effect that was probably not intended despite the occasional stray bits of humor; this shows most clearly in the systematic way that the Scepter 4 members call out their names as they draw their swords in turn. Doubtlessly this was meant to be some fujoshi-friendly fan service, as all but the leader of that corps of smartly-uniformed underlings has a classic bishonen look, but it just comes off looking silly.
In other places the need to look and be cool distracts from character and story development, to the point that the writing seems more concerned with making an impression than actually telling a story or generating interesting characters. That the mechanics for how the powers work and where they come from are revealed in a scattershot fashion does not help, either; yes, avoiding info-dumping is a Good Thing, but K does it to the point of obtuseness. The bigger problem, though, is that the series throws out all sorts of potential for making its characters more involving and ultimately does very little with it. For instance, how Anna ends up with HOMRA, and why she is so loyal to the Red King, is never explained. That would be fine for the garden-variety street punks, but she so clearly stands out as different, with her long, pale hair and delicate Goth Loli look, that a greater degree of examination is required. Lacking that, she becomes just the gang's pretty little mascot. The mascot on Yashiro's side – the cat-turned-girl Neko – is not heavily-developed, either, but we at least get to see how she becomes attached to Yashiro. The series does a bit better with the skateboard punk Yata and Fushimi, the Scepter 4 member who was his former friend, and hints at past connections between the Red King and Blue King, but never goes into sufficiently satisfying detail in either case.
Nor does the series ever sufficiently explain the overall backstory. Some hints are dropped near the end about where the powers ultimately come from, but for most of the series the whole power structure, the business with the Swords of Damocles that serve as giant floating symbols of the Kings, and how one goes about becoming a King is left so vague that it exists just as an excuse for the characters to have super-powers. Presumably the prequel manga and complementary light novels elaborate on this more, but even if that was intentionally planned, the anime series is still the foundation and introductory element of the franchise and so should establish a firmer base. (See .hack//SIGN for an example of how to do this correctly.)
The series also seems to be trying to play equally well to both genders, which is always a dicey proposition when delivering fan service both ways. Most of the character designs have a distinct shojo flare, the interactions between the Red and Blue Kings are practically charged with homoerotic tension, and one could easily read something into the interactions between skateboarder Yata and his former pal Fushimi, too. On the other side of the gender divide Neko has a sexpot figure in human form and spends a good chunk of the series generously showing it off, in addition to distinct cat mannerisms tailored to delight otaku and being exclusively featured in the closer (also in the buff, though also partly in cat form). Seri, the Blue King's right-hand woman, also has a very prominent bust which is focused on quite a bit by the camera, although she is always shown properly-dressed. Anna, contrarily, is a moe fashion plate whose appeal could go either way.
Despite its problems, the series does have its good points. While character development and execution may be unsatisfying, the plot is still solid. The mystery aspect of it, concerning whether or not Yashiro is actually guilty of the murder he was filmed committing, does keep viewers guessing, as does the way Yashiro's fellow students reacting to him changes over time. The twists involved here, when they finally get revealed, are fairly clever and hard to anticipate. Some of the action scenes, especially early on, also zing with an impressive amount of dynamism and fluid movement of both characters and camera; sadly, the GoHands animation team had neither the time nor the budget to keep that up, as later action scenes sometimes take big shortcuts, even to the point of using still shots. The technology of the setting is also well-imagined, and the architecture and background art never disappoints; one highlight is the moving wallpaper in Yashiro's dorm room. Character designs are also usually eye-pleasing, although a couple (especially Seri) have some odd body proportions, and use of color is at times very sharp.
The writing also has a very odd, typically low-key sense of humor. While the series normally takes itself seriously, an occasional joke does filter in, such as Seri being obsessed with natto to such a degree that it repulses those around her, the scenes where Neko repeatedly tricks one character into running into walls, and the bizarre phrases that the cleaning robots pop off; in fact, the cleaning robots are a common impetus for humor. On the more crass side, the content has just enough graphic violence and undefined nudity to warrant a TV-14 rating, though the foul language used in both dubs would probably single-handedly qualify it for that rating or higher, too.
The musical highlight of the series is undoubtedly the regular closer “Tsumeti Hiya, Hitori,” a melodious but also melancholy song done from Neko's point of view. Neither of the one-shots used on episodes 6 and 13 are shabby, though, and all are distinct improvements over opener “KINGS.” A plethora of insert songs are scattered through a soundtrack that is otherwise predominately a mix of light piano, orchestral, and synthesizer-based numbers typically done in a mildly jazzy style. The approach works well in more sedate scenes but is not particularly effective at juicing up fight scenes beyond the first couple of episodes.
The English dub for this Viz Media release comes courtesy of STUDIOPOLIS, Inc., the studio behind dubbing Bleach, Naruto, and Tiger & Bunny, and many of the voices are familiar from those series. Most of the casting choices range from good to excellent, with Ben Diskin (Izo in Lagrange, Sai in Naruto Shippūden) being a particularly nice fit as skateboard punk Yata and Matthew Mercer and Keith Silverstein doing great jobs as Black Dog and Red King, respectively; one could easily argue a case for all three of these roles sounding better in English, and a few lines spoken in German in various places certainly sound better (if still not entirely smooth) in the English dub. Johnny Bosch as Fushimi is an interesting choice, as his performance makes the character sound more slyly smarmy but not in an inappropriate way. The only actual misfire is Kirk Thornton as the Gold King, but that is a minor role. The English script does not vary too much and includes only slightly more profanity than what is indicated by the subtitles.
Viz offers both DVD-only and a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack options for their release of the series. The latter version comes on four disks in a case with striking cover art and bonus interior art of Neko in sexy poses. Beyond clean opener and clean versions of the closers (which all can be watched with English or romaji subtitles), most the Extras are snippets from series-related pieces recorded at Anime Expo 2013 in the wake of the dub's world premiere, including an interview with several principal English cast members, a shorter interview with a professional cosplayer who was portraying Fushimi, and a Q&A panel featuring both English and Japanese staff that was held after the world premiere. Also present are alternate version of the Next Episode previews. The Limited Edition version comes in a chipboard artbox which also includes an 80 page booklet which contains episode summaries, character profiles, poster art, song lyrics, background art shots, a gallery of the aforementioned cosplayer, and extensive translated credits lists.
Ultimately K is a pretty good show which feels like it missed on opportunities to be a better show. A little more concern about its characters, and a little less obsession with looking and acting cool, and it might have made a better impression.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Some very good animation and perspective-shifting work in places, good mystery elements, solid English dub.
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