Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jun 25th 2009
Shikabane Hime: Aka
Episodes 1-13 Streaming
Led on by a ghostly cat companion, Ouri Kagami stumbles one night on a corpse. The dead girl is lying, stone cold and covered in wounds, on the floor of his adopted brother Keisei's temple. Before Ouri can figure out what to make of this rather disturbing fact, a wounded Keisei bursts in accompanied by several other monks. Ouri hides and watches as his brother, against the advice of the other monks, holds the corpse close. To Ouri's shock and Keisei's obvious relief the corpse revives. Ouri doesn't know it just yet, but he has just stumbled into the middle of a nocturnal war between the undead. Not shuffling zombie undead or suave vampire undead, but corpses (Shikabane) that have retained life due to their worldly regrets and become giant, human-gobbling monsters imbued with supernatural powers. Against them are arrayed a force of undead girls called Shikabane Hime (“Corpse Princesses”) controlled by a secret religious sect that contracts them to monks and sends them out to do battle with their undead brethren. The girl in the temple, Makina Hoshimura, is one of them—the Shikabane Hime contracted to his brother—and before long Ouri will find his fate inextricably intertwined with hers.
It's sort of accepted knowledge in the anime community that there's more to Gainax series than meets the eye. They earned the distinction after years of turning genres on their ears with thoughtful treatments of disreputable kinds of series, from the melancholy-curdled harem fluff of Mahoromatic to the tragedy-fueled wackiness of Abenobashi and the galactically ambitious super-robot action of Gurren Lagann. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that, despite its monster-of-the-week horror premise, Shikabane Hime is no brainless gorefest but a hard-hitting horror action with an inward bent that keeps its gut-crunching violence anchored in human realities.
The first episode sets the tone. It opens dripping with eerie menace, segues into quiet introspection, and then explodes in a blizzard of athletic zombie action. And the rest of the season follows suit, though not necessarily in that order. Director Masahiko Murata uses Gainax's signature angular black shadows to drench everything, from action to introspection, in lurking atmosphere, and the violent and the personal are made inseparable by the series' focus on the bonds between the Shikabane Hime and their contracted monks. With a wide variety of Shikabane Hime/monk relationships to explore and a surprisingly sincere focus on death and grieving in addition to the action payoffs that wait to burst forth at every turn, the series isn't just creepy and exciting, but also intelligent and even sweet (in a somewhat disturbing manner).
It is also, in the grand Gainax tradition, quite unpredictable. There's nothing the guys at Gainax love more than pulling a fast one on their audiences, and Shikabane Hime definitely has its share of neck-kinking twists. The fate of one Shikabane Hime is sealed—directly after she regains her bearing in life (afterlife?)—by a casual act of cruelty, and the season ends with a life-altering tragedy that practically screams “Gainax.” The plot is also blessed with an unexpectedly complex political dimension that opens up endless opportunities for double-crosses and nasty little secrets. And they aren't confined only to this season: the hints at revelations to come (in season two) fly fast, thick, and cryptic.
The plot isn't the only thing to bear the studio's indelible stamp. Unlike, say This Ugly Yet Beautiful World, Shikabane is animated very much in Gainax's inimitable style. The animation is fluid, with an emphasis on expressiveness and energy (over realism) that never waxes cartoony or frivolous. The settings are darkly atmospheric, all cross-shaped shadows and dusky light, while the character art favors the female cast, with that slightly insane look around the eyes that says “Gainax was here.” Makina blends beauty and lethal poise to memorable effect, and when the Shikabane Hime expose the monsters beneath their pretty exteriors, the result is chilling.
However, where the studio's touch really comes to the fore is during the action sequences. Despite the episode-long exercises in mood and lengthy discussions of death and dying, the series never forgets that it is, at its core, an undead action vehicle. It dives regularly into vicious violence, building constantly to some new bout of casual dismemberment, blazing gunfire or action acrobatics. It is at these times that the gloves come off and the animators at Gainax are allowed to pummel the audience at will. It is with obvious love that they animate explosions, muzzle-flashes and gymnastically distorted female bodies, and with equal glee that they cram the gunfights (and fistfights and giant hammer fights) with crazed, off-kilter camera angles. It's a style of action they pioneered in series like FLCL, a style that's situated in some delirious limbo between out-and-out bizarre and fantastically cool. Oh yes...and the Shikabane? Hideously mobile. And yet gorgeously detailed and inventively designed.
Norihito Sumitomo's score is kept firmly in a supporting role. It meshes well with the visuals, and the few occasions when it breaks loose—usually during its forays into operatic excess—are well-timed. Otherwise it is most memorable for bringing in Angela's big-voiced opening theme to beef up the action. Memorable, however, isn't what it's striving for, rather a seamless blend of modern-gothic sound and stylized visuals.
Not that everything is a stylishly gory bed of roses. With all of the things the series does right, it has puzzlingly poor taste in (male) leads. Ouri isn't just plainly designed, he's plain all over. While he is more complicated and intelligent than your average lobotomy-victim-turned-shonen-lead, he isn't exactly prepossessing. His perverted otaku-monk brother makes a far more compelling lead, so much so that it's hard not to wish he actually was the hero. That Ouri is voiced by anime neophyte Tatsuya Hosome, who brings little in the way of fire or conviction to the role, doesn't help his case any. Makina is also voiced by a relative newcomer (Nana Akiyama), but she has striking good looks and a truly ferocious personality to keep her afloat. Ouri, on the other hand, just kind of sinks.
Ultimately, though, he hasn't much of an effect on the show. The series simply bulldozes him under. Overflowing as it is with beautiful girls, bone-breaking violence, and that extra layer of Gainax depth, he'd have to be a lot more than just bland to make much of a difference.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Stylish, action packed horror that won't insult your intelligence.
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