Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Aug 21st 2014
BD+DVD 1-4 - The Complete Series [Limited Edition]
In this world, the circus isn't just an entertainment troupe – it's Circus, the special branch of law enforcement, dispatched to handle threats that the ordinary police cannot. Generally those dangers involve strange human/creature hybrids known as varugas, created by the evil masterminds at Kafka. Nai and Gareki are two boys who fall in with Circus unexpectedly – the two team up when Gareki rescues Nai from the clutches of a varuga who wants to eat his flesh. Nai is looking for his vanished friend Karoku, who gave him a bracelet that leads back to Circus. The two find themselves under the care of Airship 2, one of Circus' divisions, and the whole group is soon embroiled in not just the fight against the varugas, but also in unlocking the secrets of their own pasts.
Fret not, clown phobic viewers – despite the circus theme and all the circus roles for its characters, Karneval is completely clown-free. (This apparently was a concern of the lead adaptive writer J. Michael Tatum, as revealed in the episode one commentary.) Rather than using the actual circus as we think of it, Karneval instead draws its inspiration from the idea of carnival theory, a literary mode that encourages us to look at what's hidden behind the glitz and glamor or to crown the fool King. While it doesn't play with the theory as much as one might suppose, Karneval still uses a lot of spectacular imagery to both show and mask what's going on, and the idea that something may be lurking beneath the surface is a theme that is played out throughout the show's thirteen episodes.
Based on the manga of the same name by Touya Miyanagi, Karneval's thirteen episodes feel like the prologue to a longer story. While there is a conclusion offered, it isn't precisely “conclusive,” which is too bad, because the world presented in the show is a fascinating one. It focuses on two boys, teenage thief Gareki, who has deliberately distanced himself from his adoptive family, and slightly younger Nai, who has come from his remote home to find his friend/caregiver Kuroku. Before he disappeared, Kuroku left Nai with a mysterious bracelet, which Gareki recognizes as belonging to Circus. Circus, while certainly performing circus acts after completing a mission in a town, is in fact a branch of law enforcement, apparently specializing in supernatural crimes. Most of those crimes appear to involve actions against a group called “Kafka,” which is either contaminating or enhancing (depending on which side you ask) humans with special animal-based powers...which make them want to consume human flesh and blood. Kafka sees it as evolution; Circus (and the government) see it as human experimentation. The name of the organization is clearly deliberate, as at least one varuga (the name for the infected) has a roach-like protrusion or two. The varugas have vicious supernatural powers, which is why only Circus can combat them – because they also have special skills of a decidedly inhuman nature. This is where one of the series' stumbling blocks comes in: none of Circus' operatives' powers are ever really explained. Yogi (who is as close as we get to a clown, although he's more a fool) uses plant vines for no obvious reason, everyone can fly – and carry up to two other people while they do it – and super speed is not uncommon. At one point Gareki asks point-blank how they can do the things they do, but he is never answered.
Luckily for Karneval, the three main characters we focus on – Yogi, Gareki, and Nai – are all developed and interesting in their own rights. Yogi may be the stand out, in part because of his excellent vocals in both Japanese and English, but also because of his determination not only to do his best as an operative, but also as the man inside Nyanperona, the giant cat mascot he plays when the group performs. Both of these traits cause he and Gareki to butt heads on occasion, possibly simply because Gareki is much less willing to express emotion, while Yogi practically oozes it out of every pore. Despite his cold demeanor, however, Gareki is an interesting, somehow endearing character, whose lack of overt emotional expression is not because he doesn't want to, but rather because he seems afraid to. This makes him a good foil for Nai, who simply radiates innocence. Gareki continually pictures Nai as a small animal, which is one of the better visual gags.
There is a bit of an imbalance between humor and action in the show, with episode seven being more silly than not before things suddenly switch to serious mode in episode eight. (Hats off to Miyanagi for making the weird bandage on Yogi's face important and not just part of the character design.) Deadly serious episodes will flash on random moments of humor, which isn't a bad technique, but isn't always pulled off as well as it might have been. Likewise symbolism is very scattered and uneven, with episode ten's picture-perfect visual reference to Alfred, Lord Tennyson's “The Lady of Shalot” standing out as much more in line with the Metamorphosis reference than some of the standard anime butterflies and their ilk. All of it looks beautiful, however, with bright, saturated colors, fanciful designs, and some very interesting fashions, all animated very attractively.
That latter is the subject of one of the extras included on the set, an analysis of the characters and their outfits with J. Michael Tatum. While not deeply fascinating, it is still pretty interesting, and it certainly is representative of an effort to include new extras. (Plus you can see the face behind the voice, should you be curious.) Other extras are the standard episode commentaries, clean opening and ending, original commercial spots, and trailers.
Karneval is a story with interest and potential that ends too soon. With another season, it would have been possible to take the story to a new place, and possibly to answer some niggling questions about powers, Kuroku, and Nai's genetic make up and empathy skills. But what is present, while it has its issues, is still an interesting trip through a carnivalesque world with good voices in both Japanese and English tracks – sometimes very different voices, but strong nonetheless. It isn't entirely fulfilling, but it's also a bit more than a popcorn show, and definitely worth checking out.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B-
+ Interesting story, strong voices, especially Christopher Bevins' Yogi. Beautiful art, some nice literary references.
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