Reviewby Theron Martin, Sep 25th 2007
In near-future Japan, amnesiac Masane Amaha is an immature young woman trying to get by on the fringes of society with her precocious six-year-old daughter Rihoko. As she soon discovers, she is also the current generation's wielder of the Witchblade, an ages-old mystic weapon which only allows itself to be wielded by women. Though it normally appears as a fancy bracelet on her wrist, it can transform into an armored gauntlet and accompanying sexy body armor when awakened. When empowered and influenced by the Witchblade, Rihoko becomes a completely different creature, one who lusts (literally) for battle and can defeat even powerful mecha-like opponents. She quickly draws the attention of two rival organizations who both covet the Witchblade, but Masane's overriding concern is reuniting and living with Rihoko, who gets taken away from her by the Child Welfare Service. Rihoko, meanwhile, escapes from Child Welfare and hooks up with a freelance photographer investigating a series of grisly murders, ones that soon prove to be connected to the organizations pursuing Masane.
Witchblade represents a curious aberration in anime history. It takes its name, concept, and inspiration from an American comic book, but rather than just remake the same basic premise Gonzo advances the timeline 30 years and tells an entirely original story featuring a previously-unknown wielder – and to top it off, the story is considered canon by Top Cow Enterprises, the American producer of said comic book. This is possible because the Witchblade franchise has a long-established reputation for jumping forward and backward in time to show bearers of the Witchblade at various stages throughout history and the future, so fans of the original comic book are unlikely to bat an eye at the prospect of the series featuring a different wielder than long-time heroine Sara Pezzini or recent replacement Danielle Baptiste. Fans of the comic book are more likely to take issue with some of the stylistic changes done to convert the concept into a viable anime form, but at least the changes aren't as drastic as those seen in the unrelated Witchblade Takeru Manga currently being released in the States.
This new incarnation differs from previous comic book and live-action versions in two key ways: the bearer has a child who figures prominently into the story from the very beginning, and the eroticism always implicit in the franchise has been ramped up to such explicit levels that the first volume carries a TV-MA rating. Witchblade has always featured big-breasted, hot-as-hell female action heroes striking sexy poses, but Gonzo's production goes two big steps further by making an already-skimpy set of Witchblade armor into something eye-poppingly revealing and turning the use of the Witchblade into a lustful, almost orgasmic experience; this goes well beyond just reveling in the power. It also seems as if Masane is more overwhelmed by the Witchblade than its normal comic book wielders, but her characterization to date has not painted her as a woman of great mental fortitude. (Of course, the comic book Witchblade has been established to have greater corrupting influence on those more pure of heart, so a comic book fan might take that as an indication of Masane's purity. But is Gonzo capable of being that subtle?)
But the real difference-maker so far in the series is Rihoko. Cynical anime fans may initially regard her as the requisite cutesy element, but it quickly becomes apparent that she has a far greater impact on the series than that. She provides the necessary external motivation for a heroine who lacks a purely internal drive and demonstrates character appealing enough to transcend her cuteness, but even more importantly she immediately generates a level of chemistry with Masane rarely seen in mother/daughter relationships in anime titles. How many viewers could watch the uncomfortable scene midway through episode 1 where Child Welfare must separate Masane and Rihoko without having a strong reaction to it, for instance? Her presence, and the part of the plotting which involves her exploits in trying to reunite with Masane, keeps the first few episodes from fully descending into a run-of-the-mill action story about a woman discovering special powers that put her in demand and place her in situations where she must battle monsters. A colorful cast of supporting characters also helps.
No discussion of the visuals can proceed without first addressing the outlandish Witchblade costume, which makes the heroine look like a cross between a Las Vegas showgirl and a punk rocker. The original Japanese TV broadcast edited the costume to make it less revealing, but the version provided for American home video is the same unedited version released to Japanese home video – i.e. only by the barest of margins does it cover enough to be semi-decent. One could get picky about the minor discrepancies compared to its comics book form, such as the addition of the tongue stud, dramatically altered hair and eyes, or how the get-up seems to replace Masane's clothes rather than overlap or rip them up, but the more significant differences are its functionality and overall look. The size-adjustable sword blade which projects from the Witchblade gauntlet is more reminiscent of the simplified blade used for the live-action TV series broadcast on TNT a few years ago than anything in the comic book, and the whiplike tentacles which shoot out from the Witchblade have a generic anime visual quality to them. These are, of course, adaptations to make the anime cost and time-effective, since the organic, spiky appearance of the original would require too much detail to be practical to animate, and the Witchblade does have a reputation for adjusting its appearance somewhat based on its wielder. Those wishing to see the Witchblade in full artistic splendor are encouraged to check out the American comic book version, however.
Otherwise the artistry represents a solid but not spectacular effort by Gonzo standards. It provides some nicely-detailed background shots as well as a wide array of interesting character designs that avoid being entirely stereotypical. Rihoko has an undeniable visual appeal for as serious as her demeanor normally is, and some of the supporting characters actually have decidedly unglamorous but still well-designed looks. The only place where the designs fail is in the cheesy depiction of the two women first seen in “dress armor” at the end of episode 4. The foreground/background integration is not flawless and the renderings sometimes have the not-completely-refined look typical of second-tier Gonzo productions, but on the whole the series looks good. The animation has yet to do anything complex or dramatic but offers surprisingly few shortcuts in what it does do. Gonzo also provides a healthy dose of graphic violence and blood to go with the inherently fan service-y battle costumes. Curiously, both the opening and closing visuals show a higher caliber of effort than the episode content.
Each episode opens with the solid, aptly-named rock theme “XTC” by Psychic Lover and closes with the much softer and more gracefully-flowing “Ashita no Te” by prolific seiyuu Mamiko Noto, the Japanese voice of Masane. The soundtrack mixes ominous string and piano riffs with rock-oriented action themes to give these episodes a modernized thriller-movie feel, though it also adds in a few lighter and more sentimental orchestrated numbers.
FUNimation has done an exceptional job casting the series so far. Though the vocal talent may not always be a great match for the original Japanese casting, even the most minor roles sound exactly right in English. The performances themselves also consistently hit the right notes, although ardent sub fans may be bothered by a speech mannerism sometimes evident in Jamie Marchi's opening narration and rendition of Masane that has no parallel in the Japanese performance. She also takes a more sexualized approach to the Witchblade-influenced voice, whereas Ms. Noto aims for a more bestial effect with the heavy breathing in those scenes. Neither approach is exactly wrong, but the former seems more congruous with the overall tone. The biggest scripting differences can be found in the opening narration, but otherwise the English script stays remarkably tight by FUNi standards.
On-disc Extras include typical stuff like clean opener and closer, a promotional video, and a less-inane-than-normal Japanese cast interview with Ms. Noto. The special feature is a 14-minute tour of Top Cow's production studio hosted by CEO Mark Silvestri, who may be just as well-known to American comic book fans for his work on Marvel Comics titles like Uncanny X-Men and Wolverine The accompanying eight-page liner booklet offers an insightful interview with director Yoshimitsu Ohashi, character and mecha profiles, and a brief glossary. The hinged (and easily smudged!) shiny foil slipcover features a sharp cover illustration of battle-ready Masane by former Witchblade comic artist Mark Choi.
As per the original comic, Witchblade is a title aimed squarely at more mature audiences. By turning internal conflicts and motivations into external ones, and focusing more on Masane's maternal drives than Sara Pezzini's ruminations about justice, it adds enough of a fresh twist to the franchise to distinguish itself from previous incarnations without straying so far that it offends established fans. As a stand-alone work its Masane/Rihoko dynamic differentiates it enough from other similar series to make it stand out amongst its anime peers. It may not be a top-quality work, but this Gonzo spin on Top Cow's dark, violent, sexy comic about a mystic weapon wieldable only by women has gotten off to a good start.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Excellent English casting, Rihoko character saves the series from descending into generic content.
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