Karakuri Circus
Episode 3

by James Beckett,

How would you rate episode 3 of
Karakuri Circus ?

Karakuri Circus's third episode is a bit of a mess, narratively speaking. The episode's most egregious flaws come from Masaru's story, which is structured like an A-plot but feels like a B-story. Masaru being kidnapped by a creepy relative after his inheritance should be an easy story beat to capitalize on; the admittedly creepy way in which Zenji Saiga is depicted does a good job of twisting Karakuri Circus's goofy aesthetic into something weirdly horrific, but the character himself seems to be your run of the mill Evil Uncle. Campy villainy is certainly well within the show's tonal wheelhouse, but aside from a couple scenes of Masaru getting beaten and chased around, nothing much comes of Masaru's misadventure until the final moments of the episode. I can't help but feel that this introduction to Saiga smacks of wasted potential.

It doesn't help that Masaru spends a long time trapped in a cupboard, where he finds a very convenient book that just so happens to provide an info dump that lays out the entire scheme behind his current misfortune. As the book explains (with a little help from Eiro), the Kidnap and Kill Squad are both factions of the Kuroga clan, an ancient family that once used Saiga puppets in their religious ceremonies, before Saiga eventually recruited them to test out their more destructive modern variants. Masaru's father apparently left his fortune to the young boy as a ploy to ignite a civil war within the Kuroga clan for reasons that remain unclear. Granted, this whole thing could be a plant meant to throw Masaru and Saiga off the real trail to the truth, but in either case the sequence comes off as clumsy exposition that completely kills the tension of Masaru's plot.

Despite these issues, there's a lot to love in this episode too. With Narumi and Shirogane's half of the story, where they arrive with the Kill Squad to bust into Uncle Saiga's Karakuri mansion, I was reminded of why the show's action scenes are so much fun, even when they're more inconsistently animated. The storyboard are generally strong, which helps the emotion of the action come through even when there are too many still-frames. I almost feel like a certain amount of visual janky-ness is part of Karakuri Circus's appeal – it's a bit like watching an old grindhouse flick from the '70s, where the pure energy of the production makes up for the lack of polish. I do wish the puppet battles were more involved, though; as much as I love watching Shirogane mess fools up with Arlequin, I was disappointed that the battle with Takami and her Theo Gautier was over so quickly. I appreciate the philosophy behind short-but-sweet showdowns, but these Karakuri designs are just so dang cool, and I wouldn't turn down the opportunity to see them really duke it out.

The real heart of the episode comes after the break-in, when Narumi saves Shirogane from a potentially deadly fall but winds up wrecked both from the impact and a sudden ZONAPHA attack. Shirogane gets an intriguing flashback that explains how years of rigid training and abuse from the women who raised her left her emotionally stunted, so while she might not be the literal automaton I suspect her to be, she's at least struggling to make the human connections that Karakuri Circus so clearly values. Still, Shirogane values the sacrifice that Narumi made to protect her, so she wants to try and laugh away his pain. Narumi is convinced that it's a futile effort and even throws a “joke” at her to prove his point, telling Shirogane that he's going to make her his girl. I was already giddy when the romantic music swelled and Shirogane sweetly confirmed that the joke wasn't a joke to her at all, but the cherry on top of the cheesy romance comes from Narumi's response: “Talking of smiles, Masaru's is the best. But Shirogane, your smile is pretty fine too, you know.”

I'm a simple man with simple needs, and sometimes all I want is for a Clown Dad and a Puppet Mom to rescue their Sad Son and beat up bad guys with their fists/weaponized marionettes. Karakuri Circus definitely has the potential to tell that story well, which is good enough for me. Masaru also gets an overdue moment in the spotlight at the end of the episode, where he casts off his “crybaby self” and escapes his uncle by diving out of a cliff-side castle window and landing headfirst on one of the Kidnap Squad members. Bleeding, broken, and filled with ferocity, he looks right into Eiro's eyes and says, “You're the guy who tried to kill me, right? I have a proposition. I want to hire you.” Now, if that's not a perfectly badass way to setup the next leg of this story, then I don't know what is.

Rating: B

Karakuri Circus is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

James is an English teacher who has loved anime his entire life, and he spends way too much time on Twitter and his blog.

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