Reviewby Carlo Santos, Feb 23rd 2008
Life hasn't been the same for Masane Amaha ever since she discovered that she has the power of the Witchblade, an ancient weapon that brings its user great power—as well as great conflict. Masane's troubles continue when she finds out that her daughter Riko isn't actually related to her, and her biological mother comes to take her away. But family relationships are rarely built on DNA alone, and Riko's "real" and "fake" mothers are put to the test when a Neo-gene (a genetically engineered specimen designed to imitate the capabilities of the Witchblade) goes on the rampage. Meanwhile, some startling truths are revealed about the Neo-gene project and the nature of the Witchblade, and Masane realizes that she must protect Riko more carefully than ever.
Describing the premise of Witchblade is easy. It's about hot women, with ridiculous boobs, fighting each other with wacky out-of-this-world weapons. Right? But then along comes Volume 4 of the series, which pretty much throws that superficial misconception in the trash. These episodes do have the usual well-endowed beauties and frenzied fights if that's what you're looking for, but there's also drama and emotional weight to be found here. The link between mother and daughter is questioned and tested; a long-hidden past is revealed; a disturbing discovery puts the concept of genetic engineering in a whole new light. In fact, the most striking thing about this volume might be how little of it actually involves any physical battle.
Instead, this disc opens with a battle of the moral variety in Episode 13: Masane's fight to keep her child. Of course, that relationship has always been a central theme of the series, but to see it threatened to the point of separation is something new—and it's what makes the plot gears turn for the next few episodes. The conflict in Riko's heart is evident throughout this set of episodes, although the contrast between the coldness of Riko's new mom and the joyful warmth of Masane is overplayed (it's pretty obvious who the right choice is). The most dramatic twist, however, comes in Episode 15 when Masane's computer-sneaking buddies discover where the Neo-gene "sisters" really come from—a twist that connects the series' sci-fi aspect into the more drama-oriented Riko subplot.
Because of that convergence of storylines, most would agree that Episode 15 is the highlight of this disc: shocking plot points, running for one's life, an intense one-on-one battle, and a deeply emotional finish that gets the pacing and tone just right. It's in this episode that the theme of "mothers and daughters" is brought to its apex: not just for the drama between Masane and Riko, but also for the other mother and daughter characters who meet a less favorable end. By comparison, the last episode on the disc is pretty much a time-waster—in an anime with so many busty women, you just have to squeeze in a beach episode somewhere. It's a refreshing break from the seriousness of the previous story arc, but let's not kid ourselves here: it's basically an excuse to see Masane in a bikini about two sizes too small, and nothing more.
Animation and visuals are reasonably polished in this set of episodes, although the quality varies depending on the complexity of the scene. Critical moments—like the Cloneblade battle in Episode 15 or the split-second where Masane takes off her shirt at the beach—are handled with high framerates and plenty of detail, while lesser scenes like a casual conversation at the café are dialed down to merely adequate levels. Character designs are similarly hit-or-miss: Masane in full battle gear is rendered right down to the last curlicue on her Witchblade outfit, and Riko is drawn to maximum levels of cuteness, while secondary characters like Segawa or Chou get a more simplified, caricatured treatment. The backgrounds, which cover a variety of post-apocalyptic Tokyo locales, generally have a shiny futuristic look—although maybe too shiny, as they often end up flat and lacking in detail. Organic backgrounds turn out a little better, though—the beach in Episode 16 is fairly convincing, and the forest that provides the setting for the climax of Episode 15 is richly rendered, especially with the sunset in the emotional final scene.
Music runs a wide range throughout these episodes, from lighthearted pop tracks to more serious instrumental pieces during the show's most dramatic moments. Solo piano ballads set the right mood for Masane's grief over losing Riko, and a string ensemble provides the bittersweet background when she learns about her forgotten past. The pleasant chords of the ending song also help to reset emotional equilibrium after each episode, but there's just no forgiving the new opening theme that plays from Episode 14 onwards—this aural monstrosity features ridiculous English lyrics and a sound that doesn't fit the series' action/sci-fi feel at all.
The English dub is competently done on this round of episodes, especially with the high number of emotionally charged scenes. During certain quiet moments, the characters deliver their lines almost too slowly and deliberately—perhaps to match the mouthflaps?—but the emotion and feeling is always there. More fast-paced dialogue turns out fine, though, especially with Maria's rampage in Episode 15—if any aspiring voice actor wants to hear how an epic meltdown is done, just check out that episode. The dub script tends to wander loosely from the subtitle translations, but essential lines of dialogue never lose their meaning, even though the Japanese and English words may differ.
If four episodes of Witchblade just isn't enough, there's a healthy dose of extras on this disc, with a 17-minute featurette on the background of the original Witchblade comic and an interview with voice actress Mie Sonozaki (who plays Reina in the series). However, the interview does contain spoilers, so it's best watched after the main content. Other goodies include textless opening and ending sequences, and an insert booklet containing production art and an interview with conceptual designer Shinya Ogura.
There may have been a time when the Witchblade anime was only about torpedo-chested women battling it out, but that time is now gone, as this set of episodes takes a deeper, more introspective turn. The relationship between Masane and Riko is tested to its limit here, and indeed, the whole idea of mothers and daughters is explored in the climactic episode—with bittersweet results. After such dramatic heights, the filler-ish beach episode is a bit of a letdown, and it would be nice if we could just wish away the horrid second opening theme. Despite those weaknesses, however, these episodes still leave a strong impression—especially since few things are as strong as the power of parental love.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : B
+ A powerful story arc about mothers and daughters pushes the series to new dramatic heights.
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