by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 6 of
Karakuri Circus ?
Narumi Kato is having a rough time of things. Not only has he lost an arm and been spirited away from Japan to be kept in a secretive American medical facility, but he's also got that most inconvenient of anime afflictions: amnesia. With no memories of his time fighting to protect Shirogane or Masaru, Narumi is adrift. Sure, he's got an entire hospital wing full of ZONOPHA-afflicted orphans to entertain and impress, but there's something clearly wrong with his situation. Sure enough, it doesn't take long for things to go completely topsy-turvy, by which I mean Narumi gets attacked by an army of well-dressed automatons and their puppet-wielding leader, all while trying to protect a hospital staffed by junkies and literally stuffed to the gills with dying children. So in other words, it's business as usual for Karakuri Circus.
I've continued to see readers familiar with the Karakuri Circus manga express frustration with this adaptation's clipped pace; apparently, in the race to get to episode 6, we've managed to skip over entire subplots and character introductions as the story barrels through its plot points one after the other. Not having any attachment to the manga myself, I've actually enjoyed Karakuri Circus' narrative expediency – I think it fits with the show's goofy brand of shonen dramatics. With “Hell” though, I'm starting to feel some of the whiplash that comes from covering so much ground in such a bizarre story without getting the opportunity to pause for more than a single episode to take stock of just what the heck is going on in Kazuhiro Fujita's crazy world of murder-puppets and roving gangs of evil disease-clowns.
The show has handled its mix of campy fantasy and emotionally heightened storytelling well up until now, but this sixth chapter sees Karakuri Circus finally starting to creak under the strain of its many ideas and tones. The first half of the episode is straightforward enough. We pick back up with the very much alive Narumi as he's introduced to Dr. Banhart, who helps run the facility that Narumi has found himself in, and Guy Rech, a silver-haired Frenchman who bears a striking resemblance to a certain acrobat we know. Guy is the man who rescued Narumi from the fire, though he doesn't have a chance to explain why he did so, as Narumi quickly finds himself back in his old routine of entertaining the saddest children he can find while he regains his strength and works on remembering who he was.
It's a fairly standard follow-up to Narumi's disappearance from Masaru's story, though the episode makes some ungainly shifts when it begins to reveal the facility's darker side. It begins when Narumi discovers that the medical staff working with the ZONOPHA orphans are relying on drugs to keep up their smiles and support the children, but it's depicted in such an over-the-top manner that it's difficult to take seriously. One of the nurses drops to the floor and shoves pills into her mouth by the handful, and for a moment I was unsure whether Narumi was just experiencing an incredibly bizarre hallucination.
The doctors' fractured mental state makes a bit more sense when Narumi uncovers an even worse truth about ZONOPHA: Many of the orphans are dying, though the ones that don't are even less fortunate, as Guy and Dr. Barnhart reveal a seemingly endless expanse of children whose minds and bodies have become permanently locked in a catatonic state due to the illness. It's such a dark and nasty image, seeing all of those children who are supposedly worse than dead, which is too much for “Hell” to pull off smoothly in just one episode. The juxtaposition of silliness and seriousness feels even jankier when Guy goes on to reveal the evil band of sickness-spreading ne'er-do-wells known as the Midnight Circus. Don't get me wrong, I'm always down for having more demonic circuses spit out the bad guys in my anime, but I feel as if this story could have used a bit more priming in order to fully stick the landing.
Thankfully, Karakuri Circus' narrative and characters are strong enough as a whole to keep me on board, even when the show is obviously struggling to cram nine years' worth of manga into a 36-episode run. Narumi remains a noble and likable hero, and I'm genuinely eager to see him and Guy work together to take on the Midnight Circus. This is an ugly duckling of an series if ever I saw one, both in regards to the poor animation and the inconsistent plotting, but if Karakuri Circus continues to give me more of our likable protagonists beating the snot out of demon-puppet armies, I'll be more than happy to stick around and see where this rollercoaster goes next.
Karakuri Circus is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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