Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Feb 14th 2007
Count Kinkel plots his comeback as Hazuki and company lick their wounds. When Kyohei's grandfather is abducted by their nemesis, Hazuki, Kyohei, and Seiji head out to reclaim him. But what can one mystic, a half-grown vampire girl and one super-dense photographer do against a cruel master vampire? Later Hazuki wakes up as Luna. Or is she?
One of the joys of watching anime is discovering minor gems underneath unpromising premises and unappealing exteriors. Case in point: MoonPhase. Firmly entrenched in the gothic lolita aesthetic, and featuring a "cute girl moves in with lunkheaded guy" premise, MoonPhase is, on the surface, lethally low on promise. But underneath is a gothic comedy/drama with a sly sense of humor, style to spare, and an emphasis on cuteness.
Up until the arrival of Count Kinkel, the series relied heavily on the skills of visual freakmeister Akiyuki Shinbo, the man who almost single-handedly transformed Soul Taker into a virtually incomprehensible mash-up of abstract gothic imagery. Luckily his worst impulses have been curbed; his visuals court abstraction to the point of impeding understanding only occasionally. Instead he focuses his considerable energies towards other ends. This volume volume features such continued inspirations as Kyohei's cutaway house (a novel way of creating spatial continuity) and the constantly shifting opening sequence, as well as a deadly serious conference in the dark in which everyone (including a tiny shikigami) lights their faces with a flashlight ghost-story style, and a frantic dash for help by Hazuki. In slo-mo. In a supremely ugly cat suit. The confrontation with Kinkel gives Shinbo an excuse to break out the magical action, whereupon his experimental impulses almost immediately get the better of him. The two-episode battle is filled to bursting with expressionistic touches. Low angle shots of faces and bodies are the norm, people and their backgrounds are lit in contrasting primary colors (reds, yellows and blues), and shadows stretch into infinity, pointedly obscuring eyes and faces. Color schemes reverse with changing camera focus; the camera shakes and loses focus. Meanwhile the characters walk, run, leap and fight through one skewed, twisted setting after another. It's a kind of quality that transcends budgets and animation studios, the kind only possible under the supervision of a driven, inventive director with an overpowering personal vision. It's a form of gothic-noir action so distinctive that it all but screams its director's name.
Kinkel also adds that one thing that every good adventure needs: a villain. And what a villain he is. A vile sadist with a taste for the mental anguish of his victims and a perpetual mocking sneer, he simply cries out to be defeated. The series takes advantage of this fact, drawing the battle with the Count into a harrowing series of reversals and counter-reversals in which it is never entirely clear just whom is one step ahead of whom.
While Kyohei is still less than prepossessing, Hazuki has grown into a weirdly effective heroine. She's a veneer of physical cuteness wrapped around a spoilt, demanding, bad-tempered, and terminally naive personality that somehow—shrill, diamond-edged line delivery and all—still emerges thoroughly sympathetic: a lost, struggling child rather than a witchy shrew or subservient jailbait. She also, contrary to all previous impressions, proves to be a thoroughly reliable pillar of strength during crises. The script isn't as kind to the supporting characters. The twin priestesses come across as a whispery non-presence and a bully, Elfreide is still something of a cipher, Seiji hasn't demonstrated much personality after his hospital outburst in volume two and Gramps is as spunky as ever but little else. Luckily, even when doing little, they look absolutely fabulous. The twins are adorably rosy-cheeked, Seiji is the epitome of the anime pretty-boy, Elfreide's flowing, shockingly yellow locks and turquoise eyes somehow complement her air of mystery, and Gramps proves to be perhaps the world's buffest old dude. Once again, only Kyohei comes up short, though even he has moments in which he approaches handsomeness.
The plot, never fear, is also progressing smoothly, with two or three important revelations about Hazuki, one of which clears up a lot of the Hazuki/Luna confusion from earlier episodes.
The score contains a relatively limited number of themes, with suitable variety: from piano solos, ominous orchestras, and (of course) organs to electric guitar. They are all used to maximum effect, though Shinbo has confidence enough in his cast to let them carry entire scenes with no musical cues whatsoever. More remarkable than the BGM are the translucent, whispery closing theme and the bizarre spoken-word opening with its surreal visual accompaniment.
This particular dubbing effort by Funimation falls squarely in the "spiced up" category. Dialogue is considerably altered, most noticeably during humorous scenes, so as to punch up the more minimalist Japanese script. It rarely alters the tone of a scene or the overall feel of a character, but it is definitely an alternate take on the material. Which version one prefers will probably be split firmly along the usual dub/sub battle lines, but both versions have their own strengths and weaknesses. The English version adds a lot of verbal sparring to juice up the dry, deadpan humor, with occasionally spotty results, but it is also performed in an overall lower register, making it easier on the ears of those with low squeal tolerances. As expected from Funimation, the acting is thoroughly professional, if not quite on par with their best work.
Extras: previews, textless opening (the "Tsukuyomi Mode" version from episode 14) and closing, and character profiles that don't tell you anything that you don't already know.
While MoonPhase does tread the fine line that separates cute from creepy, it most often comes down on the cute side. Though it has pushed things a tad too far in the past (e.g. Hazuki's fashion show in the previous volume), this volume has little time for such shenanigans, occupied as it is with supernatural showdowns and its steadily increasing dramatic potential. This is, far and away, the best installment of the series to date.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B
+ Mind-bogglingly stylish; has a sneaky, straight-faced sense of humor.
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