Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jul 11th 2009
Shikabane Hime: Kuro
Episodes 1-12 Streaming
Six months have come and gone since Ouri laid his brother Keisei to rest. In the meantime he has taken on the role of Makina's contracted monk, training in the mountains with Takamasa's libido-driven master. Makina, in the meantime, is chained in a slimy pit awaiting purification. But chains cannot long hold her, especially when the Seven Stars—the undead architects of her excruciating, humiliating demise—roam free, hatching plots to send the city spiraling into a hell where the dead rule the living. Even if her life unravels and the world falls into chaos, Makina will have her revenge, sending all who stand in her way—Hokuto and the Seven Stars, Akasha the traitor monk, everyone—to a private hell of her own making.
Shikabane Hime isn't a show to sit around twiddling its thumbs. After the death of Keisei, the second season skips Ouri's six months of monk-training and gets right to the meat of the matter: the escalating atrocities of the Seven Stars (now six strong) and Makina and Ouri's attempts to thwart them while struggling with the death of partner and brother Keisei.
No thumb-twiddling means Shikabane Hime: Kuro is crammed to the gills with plot. If there was anything you were curious about in the first season, chances are you'll find the answer here: Hokuto's origins, Akasha's motives, the Seven Star's reasons for killing (and thus creating) Makina, the truth behind the Kougon Sect's treatment of the Shikabane Hime. There's even a reasonable explanation for why the Shikabane Hime are all teenage girls. It's a veritable march of unveiled truths, one bleeding right into the next. Some of the secrets seem mundane in retrospect (the Kougon Sect's big secret turns out to be a simple predictable lie), but some are every bit as awful as you'd dare hope. Ouri's past in particular is a nasty bit of work with a grotesque punch-line.
And the action? It's piled on thick enough to smother a lesser series. Makina's life after the loss of her contractor is a seemingly endless series of imprisonments and escapes as she battles Shikabane, monks and even other Shikabane Hime. The fights begin to blur together a bit as the series wears on (particularly all of the Hokuto vs. Makina fights), but they remain gory and intense throughout. The scene in which Makina goes after Hokuto armed with nothing but a lead pipe is a highlight, as is the Seven Stars' final attack, which is so apocalyptically vicious that it's more a full-scale disaster than a simple battle. Throughout it all Makina proves that scary, sexy and cool are by no means mutually exclusive.
Action sequel though it is, Kuro is as much about Makina and Ouri's relationship (and the pall cast over it by Keisei's death) as it is about the war between the Kougon sect and the Seven Stars. All the while that the Seven Stars are directing their evil plots at Makina and Ouri, the two are working through their own issues: Ouri trying to convince Makina to accept his help and grappling with the implications of having a one-sided romantic attachment to a lethal corpse, and Makina trying to treasure her feelings for Keisei even as the power born of that attachment threatens to kill Ouri and turn the Kougon Sect against her. It's an unusually complex emotional core for an action series, and an effective one. There's even a sweet and sad Takamasa/Itsuki episode on hand to nourish the inner romantic that Ouri and Makina's relationship pointedly refuses to feed.
Unfortunately effective is as far as the emotional core goes. With Keisei deceased, the burden of the series' emotional content falls on the main cast, which director Masahiko Murata unwisely front-loads with inexperienced voice talent. The relationships and conflicts are well-written to be sure, but the uneven emotional projection of Ouri, Makina, Itsuki and Hokuto, among others (all relative anime newcomers) noticeably dampens their impact. It's the series' one Achilles' heel and its effect, while not lethal, is felt in everything from the crucial Makina/Ouri/Keisei relationship to the action sequences (during which Tatsuya Hosome acts with the conviction of an embarrassed eighth-grader).
The show's look is beginning to show some cracks, but on a whole it holds up well. Heavy shadows and a red and black palette lend an atmosphere of brooding violence and the violence itself is well-staged, despite Murata's increasing dependence on dressed-up stills and blank backgrounds. Similarly, despite undoubtedly budget-related losses in detail level and fluidity of animation, the series still manages to pull off some truly stunning sequences—a Shikabane recreating a bygone scene of carnage by bodily heaping burning cars, Makina tearing her way out of squirming tower of centipedes—when the mood takes it. And Murata's attention to detail—the rag-doll limpness of defeated Makina, the demonic cast of her glower, the sadness in her rare smile—does as much for the series as any amount of showboating could.
Norihito Sumitomo's score remains on the less memorable side of darkly atmospheric. It's there to provide appropriately gothic support when needed and absent when it isn't. When it does come to the fore, it's to chew the scenery with operatic action themes and insert songs by Angela—with mixed results.
Between the stiff acting, minor technical flaws and occasionally overcrowded plot (often the series' crises aren't resolved so much as superseded by other, bigger crises) Shikabane Hime: Kuro has its share of issues, but seriously, why quibble when you can simply enjoy? Warts and all it's an unusually satisfying action experience, blessed with a handsome cast, superior production values, and a twisty climax with a bitter little coda. Ask for anything more, and Gainax'll sic their zombies on you.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Thrills and emotional growth coupled with some ugly twists and remarkable imagery, all capped by a handy tell-all conclusion.
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