Reviewby Bamboo Dong, Nov 22nd 2010
Sub.DVD - Premium Edition vol. 1
During his 15th birthday celebration, young heir Oz Vessalius is assaulted by cloaked figures and thrown into the Abyss, a mysterious place where time ceases to exist. He's rescued by a Chain named Alice, a girl from the Abyss who was once human, but has since lost her memories. Together, they escape, only to find that several years have passed in the real world. Now aided by his faithful servant Gilbert, who has secrets of his own, they all must uncover the mystery behind the girl's past, the Abyss, and the shadowy organization that controls it.
What came first? Counter-culture's obsession with Alice in Wonderland, or the directed marketing of Alice towards the counter-culture? Somewhere between 1865 and Hot Topic's 1988 flagship store, the two became joined at the hip, so that you can no longer have white rabbits and Cheshire Cats without an eager group of rebellious teenagers clinging on the sidelines. Pandora Hearts readily taps into that pre-fabricated audience, offering a dark TV show punctuated with gothic lolita dresses and brooding men with floppy hair. And of course, references to Lewis Carroll's beloved works.
Carroll fans shouldn't be too excited, though—the references are mostly nominal. One of the leading female's names is Alice, and she transforms into a rabbit when her powers are unleashed. As the series progresses, other character references are made in the form of Chains, creatures from a place called Abyss who were once human. And of course, there is a rabbit hole… if you count falling into a timeless prison where broken dolls stare at you with bloodied eyes and slack jaws.
But what the series lacks in direct literary parallels, it makes up for with atmosphere. Saturating itself in dark colors, Pandora Hearts very much embodies the spirit of the elegant goth lolita scene. All the women are dressed in frilly, full-bodied dresses or high-collared coats, while all the men are dashingly drawn in pseudo-Victorian garb. This is contrasted with the grotesqueness of the everything else around them, from the abandoned dolls cast into Abyss, to all the drab, run-down sets.
Unfortunately, this is most of what the series has to offer. The story is astonishingly simplistic, and even if you miss something the first time around, the characters will invariably repeat themselves at least four or five times throughout any given disc. Also, for a show that has a girl that transforms into a giant axe-wielding rabbit that kills monsters… not a lot happens. The characters spend a lot of time sitting around talking to each other, but the cyclical dialogue makes this a real snooze. There's not much room for suspense, either. It's as if the writers really wanted to keep mysteries and cliffhangers running throughout the entire show, but are really bad at keeping secrets, so every time something intriguing happens, it's explained within seconds.
Refreshingly, the best episodes are the ones that drop all the pretenses and allow the audiences to see the human side of the characters. In the second disc, there's a story arc in which the main protagonist meets a young boy who has lost everything in life, except his relationship with his father. Without spoiling anything, the episodes that transpire are easily some of the best on the entire first volume. For the first time, the series stops focusing so much on the seedy organizations and the overwrought goth imagery and explores the fragile bond between a boy and his father. If the entire series were like this, it would be infinitely more interesting.
As it is, Pandora Hearts is a little too obsessed with maintaining its fantasy environment to truly develop the characters. Even when the characters do get to a point in which some catharsis might be reached, one of the other characters comes through with a cheap joke to ruin the moment. The poorly timed comic relief gets downright exhausting after awhile. Viewers do eventually get to learn snippets about the characters' pasts, but it's purely expository. Unfortunately, knowing who belongs to which family isn't quite the same as understanding what drives their actions and fuels their inner turmoil.
Pandora Hearts' main selling point is clearly supposed to be its atmosphere. Even though the characters spend the vast majority of the series sitting around hearths explaining simple concepts to one another, the dialogue could be completely removed, and the series would have the same impact. With a soundtrack by anime veteran Yuki Kajiura, every scene is drowned in her trademark choral arrangements. The tracks instantly impart a sense of fantasy, letting the viewer know within minutes what they're in for. When the whole series is like that, though, it can get a little tedious.
Perhaps the best part of the visuals are the way that the Chains and dilapidated toys have been drawn. They're not just scary—they're terrifying. Every single toy in the series (and there are a lot of them) is creepy enough to haunt a child's nightmares until adulthood. Every eye is either disconcertingly blank, or filled with madness. Kudos must be given not only to Jun Mochizuki for her original drawings, but also to the animators at Xebec whose subtle attention to detail brings these monstrosities to life.
Sadly, none of these designs can really be appreciated, as these DVDs have an uncharacteristically bad video transfer. Everything is incredibly grainy, as though someone took a simple point-and-shoot camera, took a picture at nighttime, and simply tried to increase the brightness after the fact in Photoshop. The entire series looks as though the brightness were artificially turned up, although there are still a few splotches of true black. Just in case it was an issue unique to a specific DVD player or monitor, the disc was also tried on both an Xbox360 and a PS3, and on a 1080p TV, but the problems persisted.
Which only leaves the question—what happened? Was the entire series painted in such oppressively dark colors that the human handling the transfer crumbled under the bleakness? Regardless, it's very distracting. It's not just intermittent scenes, either. Every single frame of video, from the opening sequence to the end credits, has had its brightness cranked up so that all the neutrals read as pixilated clouds of gray noise.
Even though it doesn't make up for the poor transfer, NISA did pack the Pandora Hearts release with a ton of extras. The premium edition of volume one comes with the first official artbook, translated from the original, and printed right to left. It's a hardcover, too, which is nice for serious collectors. Even the box itself is printed on sturdy cardboard, which would be perfect… with one minor gripe, in that a release of these dimensions could never fit on someone's standard DVD shelves. Each disc also comes with the omake that were packaged with the Japanese DVDs.
Pandora Hearts isn't particularly noteworthy, but it's perfectly acceptable for fans who already know what they want—which is a dark fantasy dripping with gothic elements and brooding characters. It's the biggest draw of the series, and also one of its most notable accomplishments. It moves a little too slowly to be a convincing action series, but for a show that's morose for the sake of being morose, it's passable.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B-
+ Creepy and unique character designs for dolls and villains
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