Reviewby Tim Henderson,
Corpse Princess: Shikabane Hime Complete Collection
Undead and Hell-bent on Revenge!
Makina Hoshino is already dead, but she can't let go of this twisted world. She burned to death along with her entire family in a fire started by freaks that wouldn't stay buried. Makina knows she doesn't belong among the living, but that won't stop her from unleashing the full fury of her twin MAC-11 machine guns on the rotting remains of those who refuse to die.
She's hell-bent on filling every empty grave she can find with the monsters that should be six feet under. Makina is a Shikabane Hime - a Corpse Princess - and it's her job to finish off the undead leftovers haunting the dark corners of a city that used to be safe.
The first episode of Corpse Princess kicks things off with what could be, in hindsight, considered a bang. In and of itself, this episode won't go down as one of the anime greats, nor even will it be remembered as an exceptional example of setting up a premise or of foreshadowing. What it is however, is sufficiently entertaining, and somewhat coherent.
The first moments are ones of discovery and horror, wrapped up in some dense, atmospheric lighting that will characterise many of the night scenes throughout the series at large. There's a sense that everybody but the lead character, a young adolescent boy by name of Ouri, knows what the hell is happening – a cliche set up, but one that promises that the show is confident in its goals, and has prepared an easy means for funnelling information to the viewer.
There's also a successful introduction of a more comic element (through the revealing of the more jovial side of Buddhist monk and Ouri's surrogate brother, Keisei) and then the show flips back towards the more serious as the core concept that the premise rides on is properly introduced: Shikabane. That is to say, corpses that have lingering regrets who refuse to leave this world. Or maybe they just want to hang around because after all, this is an anime, and such a fate pretty much guarantees anyone in this position some kind of crazy super-power.
With this comes the concept of the Shikabane Hime – or Corpse Princess', to use English where possible – and the introduction of Makina, the Corpse Princess after which the show is likely titled. In this role, she is basically a Shikabane that hunts other Shikabane, and does so while dressed in a high school uniform. As you do.
The Shikabane in question for this episode is at the core of a murder mystery surrounding the town, and has become convinced that he is a Vampire. This isolated piece of plotting is structurally sound, and does a fair job of not only establishing Corpse Princess' secret world of the supernatural, but also how it bleeds into the reality that the citizens who live on the outside of this accept. It also climaxes in a gun-toting action sequence that sees a wild fire set in Makina's eyes, and an animation style of exaggerated movements and expressions that wouldn't be too out of place in FLCL.
This sequence is a joy to watch, and is something to be savoured. Sadly, this isn't because it sets new benchmarks for adrenaline and quality, but because what quality is there will seldom be re-visited. Same again the way in which a considerably convoluted set of ideas gets tied together with a degree of coherence.
Past this, a lot of responsibility comes to rest on young Ouri's shoulders. As a lead character, he is clueless, and perhaps intentionally so. It's also possible that his possessing about as much personality of a slab of wet cardboard might be by design; his role seems less to be an actual character than it is to act as a siphon through which to try and funnel this world and its story to the audience. That he's somewhat plainly designed and lacking in quirks or depth isn't a huge problem; that as a conduit, he seems slippery when adhesiveness is desperately needed, is.
To its credit, Corpse Princess does its best to avoid falling into the trap of monster of the week plotting, and the ideas – perhaps even the core story – that it conveys have merit. The linking of these dead girls with contracted monks, the tradition behind it, and the unrest that bubbles away below the eyes and ears of common society are all concepts rife with potential; but Corpse Princess just stutters it all out, failing to realise that had it put more effort into arranging its hand, it could have played a royal flush instead of talking gibberish.
This isn't the controlled, cathartic confusion that might be associated with the works of Satoshi Kon, so much is it simple directionlessness and unfocused storytelling. The cast of characters grows and billows out greatly, but very few of them are striking enough to be memorable. And the way in which they are all related to the story is just as easily forgotten, if it's ever made clear in the first place.
For the most part, the plot treads water, reaching out for new characters and ideas to half-explore so that it can procrastinate on the commitment of moving forward. Such indecision is painful to sit through, as the writers seem keen on creating something grander and more complex than a bullet-point, monster of the week structure, but appear wholly lacking in the skill to meet their ambition, or even the balls to try and follow it through; in the end, such a formulaic cop-out might have been preferable. By the time the mid-series twist rolls up, it comes off more as a desperate shock and awe grab for attention than it does the result of a carefully thought-out narrative.
The twist only brings with it even more underdeveloped characters and an excessive extra helping of fanservice. This may be a subjective matter for some, but the examples of where it does work (episodes where Keisei piles unwanted girlie magazines and goods on Ouri succeed, at least on some level, of also enabling lighter moments and of establishing a brotherly connection through this teasing behaviour, for example) also serve as a contrast for when boobs and panties are put front-and-centre with no real context, and with such childishness that it'd be difficult to find it titillating even if it were desired.
The overall result is a jumbled mess of actually-pretty-good ideas wrapped up in animation that is pleasing enough to look at, but struggles to stand out in any real way – much like the serviceable musical score that only announces itself when desperately pulling out piano renditions of the main theme in order to service an equally desperate attempt on the writing's part to sell a sense of significance to the moment.
At the very least, this is an age where a full series of this length can fit onto four discs and get plonked into the one DVD case. That this has limited bonus content to a couple of episode commentaries and textless songs seems an inconsequential consideration.
©Yoshiichi Akahito/SQUARE ENIX,“Shikabanehime” PARTNERSHIP. Licensed by FUNimation® Productions, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Overall : C
Story : C
Animation : B
+ Respectable animation quality and a few interesting ideas
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