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Yoshimori Sumimura is not your average 14-year-old schoolboy: he's a kekkaishi, a spiritualist with the ability to hunt and exorcise supernatural creatures. In the region of Karasumori, where spiritual energy runs high, these skills come in particularly handy. However, Yoshimori's adventures often cross paths with another kekkaishi: 16-year-old Tokine Yukimura, who usually finds herself bailing Yoshimori out of tough spots. Despite being childhood friends, things aren't always cordial between the two of them, as the Sumimura and Yukimura families have been feuding for years. Disposing of demons, ghosts and mythological beasts is no problem, but an ancient grudge could be fatal—especially when an outside party gets involved.
Is Kekkaishi really the great supernatural action series that has snuck under everyone's radar? Based on the first five episodes alone, it doesn't seem that way—the plot is so typical and the characters so ordinary that it is neither overrated nor underrated, but simply "rated." That's not for lack of trying, though—the action scenes show occasional flashes of brilliance, and the two-part saga in Episodes 3-4 shows hints of a deeper, more expansive world. But for those who would insist that it does get better later on, well, how long will we have to wait until then? Why doesn't it get good now? All it is at this stage is some bratty kid running around chanting incantations and fighting the monster of the week. Just like everyone else.
Even the pilot episode, which should be the easiest thing in the world as far as formulaic shounen action-adventure, suffers from poor execution. Episode 1 uses the familiar device of a childhood flashback to show how a key incident has shaped Yoshimori's motivations in the present day. The problem is that the incident and the motivation aren't convincing enough: basically, a careless nine-year-old Yoshimori allows Tokine to get badly injured, so he spends the rest of his life having a chip on his shoulder about protecting her, even sneaking glances at her scar like some kind of unhealthy obsession. Come on buddy, you were nine years old, get over it! As a result, the entire content of Episode 2 is about Yoshimori and Tokine's now-awkward adolescent relationship (a staple of school-life anime if there ever was one), and how he'll do any crazy thing to protect Tokine at all costs. All the while still hunting the monster of the week.
Episodes 3 and 4 are where the series first shows signs of potential greatness; the tale of Yomi the demon tamer and her troubled past with the Yukimura family is the first attempt at really digging into the world of Kekkaishi. Episode 3, despite its lack of action, manages to be compelling in an entirely different way: by building upon the characters' back stories and filling in some of the details of the Sumimura-Yukimura rivalry. While it doesn't explain the situation fully—that's probably something for later episodes to cover—these flashbacks are enough to suggest that there are better things to come. By the time Episode 4 hits, it's back to good old monster-slaying action, but the background story involving Yomi, her demon, and the Yukimura clan adds an extra level of emotional investment (if somewhat on the cheesy side). Unfortunately, Episode 5 immediately regresses back to lightweight spirit-hunting formula, this time involving a ghost with unfinished business on the mortal plane. This episode also makes a big deal out of Yoshimori's love of baking, which seems like a pointless gimmick ... unless of course it turns out to come in handy in a far-off future episode or something.
Just like the story content, the visual quality of the show varies considerably from episode to episode—almost as if there were two distinctly different teams of animators working on the project. The All-Star squad gets to show off their skills in the action sequences, with Yoshimori and friends appearing in fight scenes that easily match the polish of any other big-budget, major-studio production. But once it gets to domestic and school life scenes, it's as if the scrubs and bench-warmers suddenly stepped with their pens and sketchpads—character designs fail to stay consistent, animation fluidity drops to the minimum tolerable level, and visual creativity ceases to exist. It's only during combat that we get to see true art and design in action: fanciful beasts, surprising transformations, and enchanted special effects. The "kekkai" spellcasting techniques may seem a bit on the complicated side (and gimmicky enough to be video game material), but there's no denying the visual appeal of seeing Yoshimori or Tokine go head-to-head with a troublesome spirit.
If there is one constant throughout these early episodes, though, it's the music—which remanins surprisingly well-orchestrated regardless of the story content. Scenes of home life and childhood flashbacks get a heartfelt ballad treatment, especially when it comes to memories like Tokine's departed father, while battle scenes achieve a rousing full-orchestra (or rather, full-synthesizer) crescendo that will leave fists clenched and heartbeats racing. In fact, the only time the music drops to mediocre quality is at the beginning and end of each episode; the forgettable pop-rock theme songs are exactly why the skip-forward function comes in so handy on video players.
Because of its nature as a long-running shounen series, Kekkaishi really doesn't deserve to be judged on the basis of the first five episodes alone. But consider this: if you've been following the series for over two hours of playing time, and still don't feel the urge to stick around for "the good part," then why keep going? Yoshimori Sumimura's early forays into the world of spirit-hunting may be passable entertainment, but too often they fall short in the story department—relying heavily on familiar clichés and hoping that the young target audience will let those things go. More discriminating viewers, meanwhile, may find themselves rolling their eyes at the tired old concept of protecting loved ones, defending one's family honor, and fighting to become stronger. (Oh, and baking a legendary cake.) Sure, this action series dishes out some thrilling fight scenes, and there's at least a hint that the story builds up as it goes along. But not everyone can be so patient in waiting for that buildup to come.
Overall : C
Story : C-
Animation : C
Art : B
Music : B
+ Dynamic fight scenes and a couple of well-plotted episodes show some promise for this supernatural adventure.
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