Reviewby Theron Martin,
Witch Hunter Robin
In the early 2000s, when this anime-original 26-episode series was first hitting the North American market legally, Witch Hunter Robin was one of the hottest properties around. That was due in no small part to a pair of successful runs on Adult Swim and a young heroine with one of the most distinctive hairdos in anime, but it was also powered by a goth-style “rule of cool” that extended beyond most conventional anime aesthetics. However, the show's popularity didn't last, and its last DVD release came in late 2006. Funimation finally licensed-rescued it for streaming in 2013, but this new DVD set is its first physical release in more than a decade.
However, if only by sheer volume of content available, anime has moved on since then. That's not to say that the show's concept doesn't work today; witches are still a thing and supernatural police procedurals still pop up every other season or so. However, Witch Hunter Robin was more a reflection of storytelling styles that were popular in the early '00s than a trend-setter. Its basic elements are similar to a number of other series that debuted around the same time featuring super-powered heroines. These shows would piddle around for several episodes on episodic fare, finally start to reveal bigger conspiracies around halfway through, and then build up a grander scheme in the second half, often revealing a leader in the hero's organization as being involved in something nefarious. Essentially, these basic story beats will be familiar to anyone who has seen the slough of titles influenced by Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex.
This series stakes out its own territory through its stylistic choices. Rather than going for the typical anime cute factor, Witch Hunter Robin has a mostly adult cast and a decidedly gothic flair, especially in the way that Robin and Amon dress. Michael is the handsome and hip hacker, while Robin sports a leather trench when she takes a separate job in later episodes. It also employs some distinctive interior designs; the café HARRY's is about as chic as they come, STN-J HQ sports some peculiar design choices, and Robin's apartment in the series' latter half looks like nothing I've seen in anime before or since. The series also delves into more serious use of religious iconography by making Robin a pious Christian, although a considerable degree of witchcraft imagery appears as well.
The result is a series with a uniformly somber tone and – for better and worse – very slow and measured pacing outside of action scenes. The action set pieces aren't the flashiest or most intense, as conflicts are resolved relatively fast in the series, but the cast still pull out some respectable displays of power. This approach also shows in the plot progression, as the series takes longer than most to reveal its hand and barely gives any concrete hints about its mysteries up front. This lack of urgency to the plot is one of the show's three major weaknesses. The second is that the series spends too long on episodic witch-capturing missions, which can be more crime procedural than supernatural in nature, before finally getting around to the main plot thrust.
The last big weakness is one of the show's main characters. Amon is clearly supposed to be appealing as Mr. Tall, Dark, and Brooding, but he ends up having no personality beyond that aesthetic. Though emotional expression throughout the series is more restrained, Robin is nonetheless more demonstrably emotional and compelling as a young woman trying to deal with uncomfortable truths, from smaller matters like needing glasses to focus her powers properly or a more serious issue like wondering whether using her powers to combat witches truly separates her from being a witch herself. Other major cast members are also well-defined, from the serious-minded Karasuma to the delightfully free-spirited Dojima, which makes Amon stick out even more as a wet blanket.
The highlight of the show's artistry is Robin's iconic design, from the odd hairdo and Gothic apparel to her signature dark red trench coat. Most other character designs are a distinctive step away from anime norms as well; there's a definite sense that the producers were going for a more realistic tone than most other anime. Aside from the standout architecture, Witch Hunter Robin's backgrounds tend to favor rundown locales, dark alleys, or streets at night. The animation effort isn't especially robust and only makes the most minimal use of CG (vehicles are still clearly animated by hand, for instance), but the series hides its shortcomings better than most.
The soundtrack, however, holds up just fine. Opener “Shell” is a soulful rock number whose combination of vocals and tone-setting visuals stands among the best openers of the 2000s, while closer “Half Pain” suffers from outdated CG elements but notably features the Malleus Maleficarum, an infamous treatise on witches that practically defined the European witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries. The musical score of Taku Iwasaki (Bungo Stray Dogs, Noragami) finds a nice balance of lightly jazzy softer sounds and heavier numbers with effectively tense or ominous composition.
Bang Zoom! Entertainment provided the English dub retained for this release. The vocal cast is pretty much a who's who of prominent voice actors from the time (Crispin Freeman, Wendee Lee, Johnny Yong Bosch). Although casting choices are generally sound, it's not the strongest of English dubs for its time period due to some stilted dialogue that's forced to match lip flap timing to a mechanical degree. It's also pretty obvious that voice actors are being recycled for minor roles in each episode. Still, Kari Wahlgren's soft-spoken interpretation of Robin fits the character's attitude perfectly, as does Freeman's more imperious delivery as Amon.
Funimation's release of the title is only available on DVD, so don't expect any significant visual improvement from earlier releases. Although access to a digital copy is included, other extras from previous singles and boxsets are not, including several interviews and on-disc liner notes. In other words, there's no reason to double-dip on this set if you still have the earlier releases in good shape, unless you want to condense shelf space.
Overall, Witch Hunter Robin takes such a long time to set up its story that its resolution ends up feeling rushed and vague; the final fates of some characters are left up in the air, and the truth about Robin isn't as fully-defined as I would like. The exact theme intended by the story is also vague; the implication is that persecuting people for being different is wrong, but it also often justifies that persecution because the person is using their differences to carry out criminal activity. So the story is fairly flawed, but the series does enough to carve out its own distinctive niche that if you're looking for a more mature take on a super-powered procedural than what anime normally offers, this show should still leave a mark.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : A-
+ Distinctive lead, mature visual and storytelling approach, strong musical effort featuring an outstanding opening theme
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