Reviewby Theron Martin,
Sub.DVD - Complete Collection
As a child, Shinkuro Kurenai lost his parents in a terrorist attack. He was saved by Beniko Fujiwara, who placed him in the care of the Hozuki family, where he spent several years learning the traditional Hozuki style of fighting alongside the like-aged Yuno. Now 16, Shinkuro lives on his own in the rundown Samidere Apartments and works as a Problem Fixer for the industrious Beniko, whom he greatly admires. A desire for a more difficult assignment that could better earn Beniko's respect results in Shinkuro taking in and protecting Murasaki, seven-year-old daughter of the powerful and secretive Kuhoin family, who has been rescued from a veritable imprisonment within the Kuhoin family compound as part of her deceased mother's last request. Though precocious, Murasaki is entirely unfamiliar with the outside world, so Kurenai and his oddball neighbors Yami and Tamaki must give her a not-always-appropriate education on the real world. Although a connection gradually develops between Kurenai and Murasaki that benefits them both, the Kuhoin are not a family to be trifled with, and their secrets run dark and deep. Even with the help of the ever-present Yayoi (another of Beniko's underlings), Kurenai's desire for a tougher assignment may have put him in over his head.
Despite an occasional major misstep (ICE, anyone?), Sentai Filmworks has generally had a strong track record with mining the mid-to-late 2000s for overlooked gems. This 2008 series is their most recent success along that line, and it's a pretty big one. It takes the basic premise of a young man bonding with seven-year-old girl he's supposed to protect and turns it into a mature, surprisingly well-animated series which may not dazzle viewers but will impress them with its distinctive artistic touches and quality writing. It will not be one of the most popular anime series to hit the American market in 2012 – and judging by the fact that Sentai is only releasing it subtitled on DVD, they have exactly such an expectation for it – but at year's end it will almost certainly be looked at as one of the best.
Though the writing excels in just about every aspect, its greatest strength is its use of dialogue. This is a very dialogue-heavy series, yet hardly ever does it feel like characters are talking for the audience's benefit; instead they talk to themselves or each other in byplays which sound so smooth and natural that dialogue in most other anime series sounds stilted or posed by comparison. The one downside to this is that viewers who must rely on the subtitles may have to watch the series with their finger on the pause button, as several cases arise where the subtitles simply cannot stay on the screen long enough to be fully read at normal speed. For what one gets in the exchange, though, this is a forgivable flaw.
The crafting of the cast is also pleasingly colorful without being over-the-top, which happens partly because some of the characterizations stray markedly from what is seen in the original manga. Kurenai is the least exceptional of the lot as a basically nice, normally low-key young man who nonetheless is capable of some pretty intense violence in his line of work and does convincingly bond with Murasaki. His classmates Yuno and Ginko are similarly low-key but well-defined as girls who definitely have romantic interest in Kurenai but don't go into crazy antics over him. Murasaki, contrarily, shines as a girl who is old beyond her years (and talks almost like an adult) but still possesses a child's naïveté and vulnerability. Though temperamental, she's also readily willing to learn, although her efforts to apply what she's learned are often amusingly off-kilter because her background gives her no proper sense of scale; this can be seen most clearly in one scene where Kurenai chides her for not thanking a woman at the public bath who gives her a free drink (Murasaki was looking at her like a servant, whom she's not used to having to thank), so upon being convinced that she should, Murasaki gives the woman the kind of formal expression of gratitude one might associate with saving another person's life. Much of the series' gentle humor comes from situations like that or cases where she gets a skewed interpretation of romantic dynamics from listening to Tamaki or watching TV. Tamaki and Yamie are suitably lively and offbeat, respectively, as the oddball neighbors, while Beniko is impressive as (essentially) a softer version of Black Lagoon's Balalaika and Yayoi is likable and sympathetic as Beniko's other much-put-upon subordinate. Even Murasaki's father Renjo gets fleshed out nicely, as the writing clearly shows him as having been genuinely in love with Murasaki's mother and suggests that his sternness about maintaining the Kuhoin traditions which led to Murasaki's “rescue” is more an obligation than something he really wants.
The content of the series falls in the midst of several common genres without squarely being identifiable with any of them. It has definite martial arts and action elements, but they only predominate in the last couple of episodes and pop up irregularly prior to that. It has some distinct harem elements, as Kurenai is surrounded by females of varying ages, several of whom have varying degrees of romantic and/or lustful interest in him, but the rivalries and “win the male lead over” elements inherent in such formats only occasionally get center stage and never for long. Some situations could be considered slice-of-life but others go well beyond that. Drama elements are strong throughout but occasionally do give away to comedy – but it cannot accurately be called a comedy or “dramedy,” either, because only one episode (which involves the denizens of Samidere apartments having to practice singing for a performance at an upcoming festival, and some of them aren't good at all) primarily focuses on being light-hearted. That the series manages to find a pleasing balance amongst these elements is a credit to the composition and direction of Kuo Matsuo, whose other major lead directorial efforts include Red Garden and the various Rozen Maiden titles; the influence of the former is particularly evident here.
The series also stands apart from the norm with its visuals, and not just because of its distinctive character design aesthetic. Murasaki's adorable cuteness does not proscribe to common moe design standards, and each of the other characters has his or her own distinct charms and appeals, but it is what the series does with its characters that catch the most attention. Except for occasional slips, the rendering quality in this Brains Base production is extraordinarily high, and the sharp, efficient animation effort shows in details both big and small; this series makes better use of animated facial expression than most, for instance, and puts loving detail into carefully animating the moves in the martial arts action scenes. As a result, the fights carry a visceral quality not commonly found elsewhere, whether something as simple as a gut punch or as elaborate as a spinning kick is involved. Even when the animation is used sparingly, such as in one scene where Murasaki is shown walking down the hall of Samidere Apartments while all around are Kuhoin goons restraining the building's denizens, it still makes an impact. Background detail is also excellent, whether it be the seedy, love hotel-strewn street that Samidere Apartments is located on or the elaborately-decorated rooms of the Kuhoin estate. The violence is more intense than graphic and the series has virtually no traditional fan service, but subject matter (incest is involved) and overall tone warrant the TV-MA rating it carries.
The series' musical score is more a well-suited complement to the production than a leading force. Never does it take prominence in a scene, instead using a variety of low-key themes to subtly enhance the production, even in key action scenes. Its most stand-out musical element is its opener “Love Jump,” which impresses less for its song than for the throwback animation style reminiscent of animated lead-ins for American series and movies made in the '60s and early '70s. Neither of the two closing songs, which both use the same visuals, stand out. What does stand out is the performance of Aoi Yūki as Murasaki; this was her breakthrough role, and it's easy to see how it probably contributed heavily to her landing lead roles in many other prominent series since then (Dance in the Vampire Bund, Samurai Girls, Gosick, Pokémon: Black and White, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, just to name a few).
Sentai Filmworks' decision not to dub this one or make it available on Blu-Ray probably surprised no one, as this is definitely more of a fringe title. Its DVD printing looks great, though, and it does have a third disk just for Extras, though that disk is both a big hit and a big miss. The “miss” is the absence of a pair of 2010 OVA episodes that were originally bundled with two of the manga volumes, which supposedly provide further fill-in short stories about everyday life. The “hit” is the inclusion of six “Animatics” featurettes, each of which consists of storyboard versions of several scenes that were either trimmed or cut completely after being dubbed and include written (and subtitled) comments from the director about how and why those scenes were handled the way they were. Typical Extras like clean opener and closer and TV spots are also included, while company trailers can be found on the first disk.
The overall course of the plot in Kurenai is a bit predictable, though how it carries out those major points is less so and the way the series ends may be more surprising. The series works well because it pairs a strong roster of characters with great dialogue and production values, keeps itself from succumbing to clichés (though it certainly flirts with some!), and delivers a lot of neat enhancements, such as its subtle humor and detailed martial arts scenes. Most importantly, it is effective at getting viewers to care about Murasaki and Kurenai and root for them; this is one case where a viewer won't walk away wondering why a young girl wants to grow up to be the kind of woman that a particular guy will fall in love with. In an era of trite interpretations of common plots, this one is a breath of fresh air.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Well-written dialogue and characters, fully-animated martial arts scenes, distinctive design aesthetic.
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