Reviewby Mike Crandol,
DVD 1: The Monster Within
17-year-old Kyosuke Date is stabbed to death by his mother only to find himself resurrected and exhumed by the sister he never knew he had. Only it turns out she's not really his sister, she's a Flicker: artificial beings somehow created by Kyosuke's true sister Runa. When Kyosuke learns that the mysterious Flickers are being hunted by the mysterious corporate Kirihara Group as well as the mysterious Hospital Organization he teams with the mysterious Shiro Mibu to protect the Flickers and get to the bottom of his own mysterious mystery. Along the way he discovers that he possesses a rare gift, the ability to transform into an invincible winged monster, the Soul Taker.
You know you're in trouble when your anime comes with a 12-page manual to help you understand the plot. "The Soul Taker" is a bizarre series that mixes Devilman with the more confusing aspects of Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain, but with little of the charm that made those series watchable despite their incomprehensibilities. "Soul Taker" wastes no time in piling on the mysteries. Instead of gradually pulling the audience into it's web of weirdness, things begin right smack in the middle of the insanity; Kyosuke is murdered, buried, dug up, alive and well and living with his sister-who-really-isn't within the first 5 minutes. By the time the first episode is over things have gotten even more muddled. Over the course of Volume 1's three episodes things become a little clearer, but it only makes true sense if you've read your manual...
"The Soul Taker" is less concerned with explaining itself than in coming up with the most unusual characters and action setpieces possible. When not engaged in faux-Evangelion psycho-babble the characters are invariably taking part in some sort of outlandish battle. Some of it is so out-there it proves pretty amusing, such as Kyosuke's as-yet unexplained transformation into the gargoyle-like Soul Taker, or the mutant doctors and nurses of the Hospital who fight with giant scalpels and hypodermic needles. But the show never takes the time to imbue any of it's players with much of a personality, and the visually interesting cast never succeeds in engaging it's audience. Though the Flickers' unique backstory make them involving characters none of them stick around long enough to truly liven things up, and they leave us with a show that is all style and little substance.
But what style. Boasting some of the boldest anime art design since Serial Experiments Lain, "Soul Taker" is an opulent but unfortunately failed experiment in the use of extreme lighting, color schemes and layout in narrative storytelling. From a purely visual standpoint much of the series is beautiful to behold. Characters are often spotlighted with unnatural hues that would be never be used in a more conventional production: Shiro is almost always seen colored completely in shades of neon green while perky Hospital nurse Komugi is lit with hot pinks, and moody Flicker Asuka in a purplish hue. The backgrounds and staging are equally daring. Like the characters the scenery is frequently painted in shades of a singular hue, and the camera is often partially obscured by shadows and silhouettes of tombstones, broken glass, or other ominous symbols. It all blends to create moody modern art, but while it's very pretty to look at "Soul Taker's" art design only serves to cloud the already hard-to-follow story. The show boasts some very finely animated action scenes, but the unorthodox layouts make it difficult to tell what's happening. One glorious exception is a graveyard gunfight in episode 3 between Asuka and the Kirihara agents that is expertly staged within the limiting design of the show. But more often than not the audience never gets a good clear look at what is actually going on, and when they do it is often static and abstract. The overall effect is that one is watching a radio play illustrated by pieces from a modern art gallery. In the end it only makes things doubly confusing. As gorgeous as it may be, if the artwork does not service the story then it has failed in it's purpose.
Both the Japanese and the English cast must be commended for being able to convincingly bring their characters to life despite the one-note personalities and the incomprehensible story. All the actors in both versions are very good, which is to be expected from a Pioneer release. However the American voice of main character Kyosuke, while believable, comes across as insufferably whiny. Unlike his Japanese version, you just wanna smack him. Komugi and the Flickers are likewise performed in English by accomplished actresses, but their extremely J-girl designs make them seem more appropriately voiced by their typical high-pitched Japanese seiyuu.
"Soul Taker's" incidental music is suitably moody in most places. The one exception is the laughable theme song, in which "Soul Taker!" is shouted in English several times. This theme has the unfortunate habit of popping up within the episodes during Kyosuke's transformations and subsequent battles as the Soul Taker. What was once a brooding, serious anime suddenly becomes as hokey as Ultraman (or dare I say, even Inframan), as a truly dark and evil-looking mutant savagely attacks his enemies while a Japanese chorus shouts "Soul Taker!" accompanied by synthesized electric guitars. If you've seen Jackie Chan's live-action "City Hunter" you know what I'm talking about....but that film was trying to be funny.
Before it's over with "The Soul Taker" may actually have something to say, but by the end of the three episodes presented in the first volume the series shows no signs of making much sense, or more importantly, populating itself with any interesting characterizations. Even it's one true strength, the innovative art design, is a doubled-edged sword, as it ultimately defeats it's own purpose in presenting action the audience can follow. "Soul Taker" may shine on the surface, but when you get down to it there's really not much to look at.
+ striking art design features beautiful use of colors, lighting, and layout
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