The Fall 2018 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Karakuri Circus ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
Just reading the synopsis of Karakuri Circus had me intrigued right from the get-go, but after watching this premiere I am 100% sold. I haven't read author Kazuhiro Fujita's other major work, Ushio and Tora, nor have I seen much of the anime adaptation, which was also helmed by director Satoshi Nishimura and Twin Engine, but Karakuri Circus is good enough that I might have to dive in, if only to sate my appetite in between new Karakuri Circus episodes.
More than anything, this premiere is proof that a creative story and sturdy characters can work wonders when executed well. Fujita's style is immediately compelling, bolstered by some incredibly confident direction and storyboarding. I've already bought into the show's world and story; killer puppets are always a good thing to add to any story, and I like the almost fairytale-like atmosphere of Masaru's first meetings with Narumi and Shirogane. The former is the typical Loud n' Proud Hero Man who punches first and asks questions later, but he also has a sickness that gives him seizures that can only be cured by other peoples' laughter, and we first meet him when he's dressed in a bear suit and rescuing the young Masaru from an army of killer dolls. Shirogane is the more level-headed one, a maternal figure who's more than capable of using her acrobatic skills to wreak some real havoc with her Arlequin puppet.
Shirogane's puppet work is honestly one of the coolest action conceits I've seen in a long time, but I appreciate even more how our three protagonists naturally play off one another in this episode, establishing clear chemistry while also moving the plot forward and keeping things interesting. We aren't just told that Narumi is secretly a selfless and heroic man, we watch him battle evil puppets and toss himself out of a moving train just to protect a boy he barely knows. Shirogane is both a cool-headed fighter and a sympathetic familial anchor for Masaru to grasp now this his biological family is gone. I found myself caring about these characters after only spending twenty minutes with them, and I'm already desperate to see how the story continues next week. The fact that we get badass sequences of a beautiful silver-haired woman using marionette strings to control an imaginative mayhem puppet is just icing on the cake.
It may have arrived late in the game, but consider Karakuri Circus' first episode my favorite premiere of the season so far. It's a delightful and entertaining trip into a fascinating world, and I can't wait to see where the story takes us next.
Given that this came from the pen of the creator of The Black Museum, one of my all-time favorite manga (and yeah, okay, he also wrote Ushio & Tora), I was looking forward to Karakuri Circus. Happily I was not disappointed – although it gets off to a slightly slow start with a bit of clumsy exposition, Karakuri Circus has the same mix of supernatural action and light horror that makes The Black Museum such a good story. That the story also revolves around evil clockwork puppets and a sinister circus is also a plus, because both nicely tap into people's fears without having to go full-bore into cliché land.
Not that this episode escapes that entirely, but the image of Masaru's father's wrecked car with creepy puppet arms reaching up from the wheel well is an effective one. That the proportions of the puppets are just off enough also helps – the arms are just slightly too long, the eyes a little too wide, and the necks a bit too flexible for a regular person. Granted, no one looks strictly normal as these things go, but everyone else's proportions work better, allowing us to instantly tell that the puppets in black are truly bad news. Of course, the fact that they're kidnapping an eleven-year-old child is another good sign.
More interestingly, Karakuri Circus seems set to take the plain old orphan fantasy and do something a touch differently. In most cases, the recent orphan is plucky and ready to take on the world; in contrast, Masaru is scared and knows enough to ask an adult for help. Sure he picks a guy in a bear suit, but in his mind, Narumi in his costume looks strong, and strength is what he needs. Masaru's smart enough to know that he can't do this on his own, and he's also practical enough not to trust Grandpa when he says that all he has to do is drag along the suitcase and the mysterious Shirogane will show up to help him. As it turns out, Grandpa was right, and a French puppeteer/ninja shows up in his hour of need (although not until he calls her, which is a bit suspicious), but that he didn't just trust in that potential grandfatherly fabrication shows Masaru to be at heart a practical child who just wants to make it through this. That's a kid I want to watch survive, and this episode is slickly animated and interesting enough that, it definitely encourages me to do so.
All I really knew about Karakuri Circus going in was “based on a manga by the author of Ushio and Tora,” which is a fine pedigree, but obviously couldn't single-handedly ensure a strong show. Plenty of shows by great mangaka suffer from the limits of their adaptations, but in this case, I am happy to say that the move to animation has absolutely elevated this material. Karakuri Circus' concept and writing are solid, art design excellent, and animation highlights absolutely spectacular. It seems somewhat unbelievable that the show could maintain this polish of execution for its whole run, but either way, this is easily the strongest action premiere of the season.
Karakuri Circus opens on its weakest moment, as we're introduced to protagonist Masaru Saiga through a clumsy dash of exposition. His awkward “I always loved the circus, but little did I know that there's also an EVIL circus” had me rolling my eyes, but the moment that unfortunate cold open ended, the shows' manifold strengths start to emerge. A vaguely salacious sequence of a woman dressing for the stage is elevated through absurdly fluid animation and Karakuri Circus' generally striking art design, leading into our introduction of Karakuri Circus' next and so far best character: the long-suffering circus hand, Narumi Kato.
Narumi is a proud member of the Kamina school of hot-blooded anime heroes, and proves himself a terrific example of the form all through this premiere. As Narumi and Masaru are chased by mysterious and convincingly grotesque human-sized puppets, near-escapes and brutal clashes are given consistent impact through Karakuri's consistently fluid animation, bombastic overall compositions, and Narumi's alternately passionate and exhausted declarations. Lines like “if all else fails, all you can do is smile” possess an inherent thrill that's consistently bolstered by Karakuri's eye-catching designs and strong control of tension, leading into the absolutely stunning introduction of puppet master Shirogane and her puppet Arlequin. The effortless way this episode captured the grace of Shirogane and Arlequin's movements while holding true to its fundamental designs frankly dazzled me; more than an animation-first project designed from the ground up for natural movement, Karakuri genuinely felt like a thick-lined manga brought to life.
So far, Karakuri Circus' narrative is all punchily written but largely archetypal set up for a classic shonen action vehicle, but that's not really a failing. Karakuri's characters are engaging, its puppet-focused premise has already demonstrated itself to be a fine template for a franchise like this, and its visual strengths are truly stunning. I imagine the show will adopt a more conservative adaptation style at some point in the future, but the impracticality of maintaining this quality is a problem for future episodes to solve. As of now, Karakuri Circus is an immediate, emphatic recommendation for anyone looking for a great new action show.
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