Karakuri Circus
Episode 4

by James Beckett,

How would you rate episode 4 of
Karakuri Circus ?

Episode 4 of Karakuri Circus concludes the climax of the arc that started last week, with a newly reinvigorated Masuru making a bargain for his life with Eiryo and his Kill Team (which has now been translated as the much more intimidating “Slaughter Team”). Meanwhile, the increasingly intimate Shirogane and Narumi find themselves battling Uncle Zenji's traps and hired thugs; eventually, all three of our heroes end up in the quagmire of a jailbreak, a Karakuri fight, and a mass of bombs that are set to blow the entire castle to smithereens. It's a plot that's both entertaining and messy, with every tender moment and triumphant victory offset by a weak narrative shortcut or an underwhelming set piece. The episode ends up breaking even, mostly due to its shocking final scenes, but “Swirling Tiger” nevertheless serves as a perfect example of the facets and foibles that make Karakuri Circus such a fascinatingly flawed gem.

Masaru has quickly grown into a fiercely steadfast little hero, though this week's story has a few too many stops and starts in concluding his struggle against Zenji than I would have liked. I enjoyed Masaru recruiting the Slaughter Team to his side, even if it meant bringing back that terribly convenient Exposition Journal, but I was disappointed in the way the show handled him turning the tables on his uncle. He storms the castle in an appropriately heroic fashion with Eiryo, but then Zenji almost immediately flips the script on him by capturing Shirogane and Narumi, though it only takes another moment for Eiryo to convince Masuru that Zenji is obviously lying, which results in an overdramatic villain laugh from Zenji, and all of this sees Masaru and Eiyro just leap off to rescue their friends directly anyway. Zenji doesn't even get any direct comeuppance from one of our heroes; his exit comes simply from staying in his control room when the castle explodes later. It's an unsatisfying payoff to an arc that was already a little weak in its foundation.

But as was the case last week, things pick up on Narumi and Shirogane's side of the story, with the two once again trapped (this time in Zenji's cage) and growing closer to one another. I found it clunky the way this scene executed the double-flashback combo of Shirogane remembering both her time imprisoned as a youth and the way Shoji Saiga treated her with the same kindness as Narumi, but I'm a sucker for sap, and I made some audible daws during Shirogane and Narumi's cuddle session, not to mention when Masuru was finally reunited with his true adoptive family.

The fight scenes that followed were easily the weakest of the series so far, unfortunately. Narumi's rage-fueled use of hard qigon to bust everyone out of the cage was pretty satisfying, but his actual fight with the Kidnap Team goons was barely animated and generally uninspired. Masaru and Shirogane's joint use of Arlequin was a bit better, though I don't know how I feel about Masaru being able to so easily take over for Shirogane; the script makes it clear that he's nowhere near as skilled, yet he's still able to destroy the other Karakuri in a single blow, which feels like the show is robbing Shirogane of some of her spark. It's also yet another example of a killer Karakuri design essentially being wasted on a battle that lasts lest than thirty seconds, which is a shame.

While the action in “Swirling Tiger” may have been forgettable, that final scene certainly wasn't. With Shirogane out of commission, Masaru and Narumi end up trapped in the burning rubble of Zenji's Karakuri Castle, with the boy being sheltered from the flames by his swiftly fading mentor. The entire sequence is framed as an emotional farewell to a self-sacrificing Narumi, which initially felt odd considering we're only a tenth of the way through the story, but then Narumi wakes after the fire to find himself clutching Narumi's severed arm, the rest of him seemingly consumed by the fire. The image is surreal and incredibly goofy, yet oddly affecting too. Granted, I don't believe for a minute that Narumi's actually dead, since shonen anime tend to follow the rule of “They're only dead if you see the body, and even then they're probably just going to come back after a brief pit-stop in the afterlife or something”.

Still, both Narrator Masaru and Tragic Little Masaru seem to believe that Narumi's gone for good, and the fact that Karakuri Circus can pull off a scene like this so early in its run is a testament to how well a messy story and weak aesthetics can be buoyed by a good cast. With Masaru having experienced such personal loss, and Shirogane being injured and also likely in mourning, the show seems poised for some manner of narrative shift or time-skip. Even though the series wasn't at its best for much of the week, I have become endeared to this world and these characters, and I'm looking forward to seeing where Karakuri Circus takes us over the next thirty-two weeks.

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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