Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jun 27th 2011
DVD - Part 1
Vast powers sleep beneath the land of Karasumori. The land grants dangerous new abilities to any spirit or demon that lingers there. It is the job of Kekkaishi, masters of magical barriers, to destroy any evil being that tries to gain Karasumori's power. There are two competing clans of Kekkaishi. 14-year-old Yoshimori is heir to the Sumimura clan and also a student at the school that now occupies Karasumori. He patrols the grounds at night with Tokine, the slightly older and much cuter heir to the Yukimura clan. The two have a long and complicated history, one that goes some way towards explaining why Yoshi continues to battle the forces of evil instead of focusing on his true dream: becoming a pâtissier and creating castles of sweets.
Even in the shonen action genre, where slavish imitation is the rule and the tiniest of details can set a show apart, Kekkaishi doesn't really stand out. When Yellow Tanabe got the shonen playbook, he apparently took it as a set of instructions, not suggestions. Kekkaishi takes no risks, makes no mistakes and passes painlessly and forgettably as a result.
Granted, no one watches a shonen series, much less one whose synopsis reads like a portmanteau of other series' synopses, looking for revolutionary content. But it isn't too much to ask for a twist on standard tropes or at least an interesting quirk or two. Using traditional magic might have counted if it had been used less than several hundred times elsewhere. If you have a weakness for Japanese mythology it still might. Yoshi's dream of becoming a confectioner could certainly have qualified if it had been spun as something other than a meaningless character tic. As it stands it works as a recurring joke, nothing more. The rest of it is boilerplate: young heir to a family of magic users, incredibly powerful yet undisciplined, reluctant to take up the family business yet driven by his past and moral compass to fight evil. He has a spry grandpa who rides him hard and a childhood friend he clearly has a thing for who doesn't see him "that way" (and who does double duty as his primary rival). He fights monsters while his companions marvel at his potential and mutter things like: "He just might be..." What he might be we are of course expected to wonder about. But we don't.
What we do wonder about is his relationship with prickly perfectionist Tokine, and with his old-before-his-time little brother, untrustworthy elder brother, and crazy coot of a granddad. Slave to the playbook it might be, but the show has a pretty decent sense of which parts to single out for special attention. Every hero has friends, family and a past to deal with, and that's where Kekkaishi puts what little energy it has. Its very best episodes are the personal ones, where glimpses of the past are woven into monster-of-the-week throwaways and cake-buying fluff provide windows into Yoshi's family life. Of course even the best episodes are pretty shoddy, but they're more interesting than creatively bankrupt drivel perhaps should be. And better written too. There's a good reason why Tokine is a perfectionist and for why she's so hard on Yoshi. And better yet, it's kind of sort of a poignant one. Unfortunately there's zero character or relational evolution, meaning once we learn all there is to know about a person or a relationship—and generally there isn't much to learn—we quickly lose interest. Not all of the relationships or characters are created equal either. It's far too easy to root for Yuri, a tiny, goofy classmate with a big crush on Yoshi, over perfect-girl Tokine, just as Yoshi's bond with his self-sufficient little brother easily trumps that with his caricature of a grandfather.
The series' production values can't even boast the script's spotty record. They start off decent enough: director Kenji Kodama is a veteran of budget-conscious anime (he's the guiding hand behind the insanely long-running Case Closed) and initially at least he seems to be putting the experience to good use. The character designs look good, particularly where it matters, around the lips and eyes. The action is cheap, but the good kind of cheap; the kind where energy is high, shortcuts are well-deployed, and the CG barriers and explosions are arranged to hide the basic lack of funding.
And then things start going awry. Yoshi goes off-model: his head-to-limb ratio starts wavering and his hair morphs into black roadkill sitting atop his blobby, wildly variable face whenever he isn't being asked to look cool. Other characters are affected as well—particularly Yuri, who seems to shrink with every episode. Or maybe it's just that her head keeps growing. Eventually quality-control breaks down in the action scenes, and snap goes the camel's back. You start noticing how nondescript the backgrounds are, how ridiculous Yoshi's gramps is, how blah the usually reliable Taku Iwasaki's score is, how embarrassingly lame the opening lyrics are, how out of place the skillfully-utilized acoustic ending is amid all of the laziness. Tokine is pretty darned cute, especially in her civvies, and so is Yuri—fluctuating body proportions and all—but that's little consolation.
English adapters shouldn't view mediocre series as chores; they should see them as opportunities. If a show is utter crap, your dub is doomed. If it's brilliant, the most you can hope is to equal it. If it's mediocre... That's when you can get creative and make a real difference. Viz's dub for Kekkaishi doesn't. The script is loose enough that it sounds pretty decent, and even has some fun with incidental dialogue ("I'm gonna eat you like a chocolate bunny!"), but on a whole just faithfully translates the original into our native tongue. Laura Bailey and Vic Mignogna acquit themselves well in the roles of Tokine and Yoshi, upon whose shoulders the bulk of the series lies, while the supporting cast brings a healthy supply of ham to the proceedings. The goofy episodes tend to be more enjoyable than the serious ones, which is as it should be.
Viz lines up a comprehensive set of the same old, same old for the set's extras: Production art, trailers, clean opening, clean closing, and storyboards for episodes eleven and twelve. Which, by the way, comprise a two-part story about Yoshi's ghostly canine sidekick facing off against a friend-turned-demon. The two are probably the set's best episodes, combining as they do its longest and most unpredictable fight with its most successful appeal to our emotions. That both occur in a story about doggy friendship says pretty much everything you need to know about the series.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C-
Animation : C-
Art : C-
Music : C+
+ Shonen adventure that doesn't demand anything and doesn't suck.
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