Reviewby Clarissa Graffeo,
Supernatural the Anime Series
As children, Sam and Dean Winchester lost their mother Mary to a horrific paranormal incident. Raised by an obsessively driven father searching for revenge, they've become hunters—traveling America to save others from things that go bump in the night. Now the past has come back to haunt them: their father mysteriously vanishes, and Sam's girlfriend Jessica dies in exactly the same manner that Mary did all those years ago. Together, the Winchester brothers hit the road again to find their father, finally root out the secret behind Mary and Jessica's deaths, and kill as many spooks and monsters as they can along the way.
Recent years have seen a surge in the number of anime projects apparently aimed primarily or wholly toward the American market, from new installments of favorite US franchises like Trigun to a slew of adaptations and spin-offs of video games (Halo, Dante's Inferno) and comics (Iron Man, X-Men, Batman: Gotham Knight). Spearheaded by Warner Entertainment Japan, Supernatural is the newest property to straddle the Pacific, transforming the WB live action drama into a slick anime series designed to provide something new and different to existing fans while hopefully reaching new fans as well.
The anime series spans 22 episodes that roughly cover the first two live-action seasons in highly condensed fashion. Just over half of the episodes are remakes from the original show and comic series with a new spin, while the rest are original stories that expand the universe or fill in additional details not addressed by the original show—for instance, providing back stories for Lily and Jake, a couple of Sam's psychic contemporaries who weren't as fleshed out in the original version of “All Hell Breaks Loose” (the final episodes of the anime, and the original second season finale). Naturally, the Japanese team has also created episodes incorporating their own folklore, including encounters with a kappa and the poverty god.
Madhouse has definitely succeeded in putting its own stamp on Supernatural. It follows the framework of the original and tells largely the same story, but it's not the same. Everything is condensed to fit both the halved episode length and the faster progression through the master plot. This is probably the biggest weakness, as it means all the developments and character interactions have less room to breathe; things that developed gradually can happen very quickly, and there's a bit more reliance on conveniences or rapid exposition. It might not be as noticeable to new viewers, but sometimes it just feels rushed. Characterization is exaggerated a bit, painting the cast in slightly more broad and bright strokes, which is in keeping with common animation practice and also serves the shorter run time by communicating emotional states and development much more quickly.
The series looks different too, but in contrast to the pacing, this is where it really shines. Madhouse rarely puts out a bad looking work, and the direct to video release likely provided a bit more budget and schedule leeway for production, helping to ensure that they can be near the top of their game. Character designs are clean and attractive, and remain consistently on-model. Sam and Dean look recognizable as themselves, though all the other characters have been completely redesigned. Some of the new looks, especially psychic Missouri Moseley's transformation from normal black lady into vaguely Jamaican near-dwarf, are rather disappointing but they're offset by some interesting work like the revamped shapeshifter or the creepy rendition of the yellow-eyed demon. The decision to turn the finale's ghost town from an old-fashioned Western locale to a rotting rust belt husk felt sharp and poignant, swapping a historical iconography of American loss for one that hits closer to home.
It may take a bit to really notice it, but the anime also takes advantage of the particular affordances of animation versus live-action. Occasionally it does so in big, flashy ways, offering up spectacles like episode 17's giant monster made of wrecked cars or the pumped up demonic and psychic effects. More often, though, it's subtler: the ease animation has with rich stylized color palettes or lighting effects, certain types of motion that would require digital or wire assistance for a human actor, or the casual deployment of extreme camera angles. Initially it felt like a cop-out, leaving the series stranded somewhere between the American drama of the original and a full on Japanese production where the team can fully let loose, but the blend works out well enough; the show never feels quite like the source material, but it stands out from a lot of the other anime being produced recently as well.
The same English and Japanese tracks from the initial Japanese release are on this set—though folks with higher end sound systems should note that only the English dub is in 5.1—with a total of eight sub languages. Both audio tracks are strong, but unfortunately the English version has a noticeable disadvantage due to Jensen Ackles (the original actor for Dean) only voicing the last two episodes. His replacement isn't particularly bad, and is within a similar vocal range, but it's just not the right voice and up against Jared Padalecki dubbing for Sam it stands out. The Japanese actors for Sam and Dean are the same ones who dub the live action series, in case you're curious what the Winchesters sound like for TV viewers in Japan. In terms of music, the anime did license Kansas’ “Carry on Wayward Son,” but otherwise the typical classic rock soundtrack for the series is absent. The original rock and orchestral compositions for the series are good, but tend to disappear into the series rather than stand out; perfect for setting the scene, but it doesn't make me want to run out and buy the soundtrack.
Physically, the release is fairly bare bones. There's a small booklet that lists all the episodes with brief summaries, along with a note identifying whether each is a remake or an anime original. For those who own the live action DVDs, the packaging design and booklet match those releases, which is a nice touch. The disc extras are meatier, offering interviews with both sets of lead actors and original series creator Eric Kripke, along with a two part behind the scenes feature detailing the making of the anime. This one's worthwhile for providing a good, basic overview of animation production processes, a look inside Madhouse Studios—including their reference library, containing art and film references along with the source materials for adaptation projects like NANA and Paprika—and a lot of insights into the thought processes behind the look and feel of the show.
For anime fans unfamiliar with Supernatural, this should be an interesting watch, and some of the points that tweak previous fans likely wouldn't bother them at all. Existing fans of the US show should give this a look, but accept that it's going to be different. There's a lot to nitpick and compare, but ultimately a direct copy of the existing show would be pointless, and this version does have its own delights.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A
Story : B-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B
+ Solid visuals and a fresh take on the Supernatural story that should have strong crossover appeal
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