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This Week in Anime
Is Karakuri Circus a Hidden Classic or Just Dated?

by Andy Pfeiffer & Steve Jones,

Karakuri Circus brings its unique '90s shonen energy and a whole carload of clowns and puppets to the fall season, but is the experience nostalgic or just confounding? This week, Andy and Steve dig into this adaptation of Kazuhiro Fujita's work after Ushio & Tora.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @Liuwdere @A_Tasty_Sub @vestenet

You can read our weekly coverage of Karakuri Circus here!

Andy, before we start talking about the series proper, I just want to commend Karakuri Circus for so accurately portraying the feeling I get every time a new This Week In Anime gets published.
It's a very serious disease and I hope you can find proper treatment.
Making terrible jokes about anime every week is a more dangerous line of work than you may think. So please laugh, dear readers.
We're simple Dickensian orphans begging for just one more laugh, sir. It's rough but I'll take it over being an orphan constantly hunted by evil clown puppets.
Amen to that. Karakuri Circus throws you immediately into this conspiratorial world full of giant murder puppets from which there is no escape. It's a pretty weird concept for an action series to say the least, but so far I'm much more on board than I would have expected. It helps that this anime is being helmed by pretty much the same team that adapted another one of Kazuhiro Fujita's manga a few years back—Ushio & Tora.
If nothing else, you can probably tell by the retro-looking character designs, which the show does a great job translating to animation.
Studio VOLN really knows how to nail Fujita's style, which we associate more with the '90s than anything, so being able to see that animated in such a fluid and fun way is a treat.
Even if one of the character designs is the physical representation of a Domino's Pizza at 4:00 AM after a night of heavy drinking.
Yeah, whereas other shonen action series like to add a light sprinkling of clowns for flavor (stares daggers at Sui Ishida), Karakuri Circus throws down the clown gauntlet immediately, which I imagine most people would have guessed already given its name.
And I fear we've only begun to scratch at the veritable clown car of evil lurking just beneath the surface.
At least the clowns are so numerous and varied that they aren't present just to be a fetish. That said, fuck clowns. I hate them so much. I came in expecting one or two because of the word circus, but so far we've no ringleader, no lion tamers, and not even a single elephant. All we have is a lot of clowns fucking shit up.
Though I'm willing to upgrade Narumi to the role of Dancing Bear.
Narumi is the rare Good Clown, even if his choice of home decor is questionable at best.
I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming he inherited most of it from his grandpa, but it's still not great!
Narumi at least has a good excuse to be a clown, because if he doesn't make people laugh, he'll die. Honestly, it's just about the only excuse I'll accept.
I know he inherited his grandpa's dumb disease, but I didn't realize it came with horror decor. Now I'm struggling to tell who has the worse legacy, Narumi or poor Masaru.
Apparently Karakuri Circus is really about the legacy of horrifying fetishes.
On the other hand, if you like clowns and puppets, boy howdy is this is the classic shonen series for you!
Out of our three leads, I guess I gotta go with the pizza fetish. At least I hope it's pizza, because I don't want to know what other fetish this is supposed to be.
Honestly, more than any individual character (or fetish), what I've liked most about the series so far is how well our main three characters play off each other. Independently, they're still only basic sketches, and we've only just started to explore their arcs, but their personalities and goals have been clashing in interesting ways. That friction between all of them makes them all more likable; Masaru has a different rapport with both Shirogane and Narumi, but they both have their own ways of protecting him. And Shirogane and Narumi have a great antagonistic yet undeniably flirtatious relationship.
And Narumi is such a big burly goofball (by medical necessity) that he dominates pretty much every scene and handily conquers the Face game too.

While at first I found Narumi's laugh gag pretty dated, I have to admit that it plays a large part in building that rapport. He's a giant mess who's in way over his head, but at the end of the day he's got enough heart that he can help a depressed child and his emotionally constipated anime maid/soldier/bodyguard lean on him and open up.
And Narumi is far from the only one with strong face game in this circus.

Sometimes the people who are out to kidnap you are called the Kidnap Team, and that's totally valid. The show's humor especially does feel dated, but that comes with its good and bad points too. The writing isn't as strong or ambitious as some modern shonen series, but it's always hot-blooded and wearing its heart on its sleeve in a way that feels nostalgic.
And while I'm sure there are plenty of other points of comparison to be made here, it's easy to read Narumi as a kind of proto-All Might figure.

It's melodramatic as hell, but the simple earnestness works. I totally see Narumi as a solid middle ground in our ideas of what a mentor/hero should be. The future shades of All-Might are impossible to ignore, but he shares just as much with his numerous predecessors.
He's got the hot blooded passion for justice of Kabuto Koji, but also the guiding slap of Noah Bright.
And speaking of what you expect from classic shonen, we should bring up the action scenes, especially the ones involving this straight-from-Persona puppet.
Give me more one-eyed, one-horned, one-armed death jesters that wield their severed arm as a weapon PLEASE.
The puppet battles are one thing I wish they'd capitalize on more, tbh. In theory, it's a cool gimmick—kinda like JoJo's if Stands were big wooden mechanical dudes—but so far all the fights have been over too quickly to do any really cool stuff. I imagine Fujita's just getting warmed up, but it's also possible that my standards for puppet-based violence have been raised unfairly high by Thunderbolt Fantasy.
I'm certainly holding out hope for more. I didn't know what to expect at first, when the only puppets we saw were just human impostors whose ultimate move was to throw themselves into the wheels of moving objects.

I am DEFINITELY here for broken puppet sakuga.
As far as I know, puppets exist either to be cursed or broken, so I am very much in favor of the latter. The show's pacing is sped up, and one of the consequences of this is skipping over what would've been more prolonged encounters, especially considering how brutal these puppets are. The show is good at editing around the violence they inflict, but we still get glimpses of poor mooks being ground to pulp and heads being lopped clean off.
I'm also pleased to see the puppet gimmick getting thematically tied into the show. This is most obvious with Shirogane, who explicitly says that she was not only raised to wield puppets but to be a puppet herself. But it's also a big part of Masaru's predicament, where his dad is using him as bait to fuel a war to wipe out a rival clan of puppeteers.
Seeing them rebel against the strings of fate that have been forced upon them should end up being a major thread, right?
It's a metaphor delivered so literally that Pinocchio's "I've got no strings" seems subtle in comparison.
I don't think Karakuri Circus knows what "subtle" means.

Thank you for such a specific warning, Grandpa.
I'm sorry, but even if Grandpa is a wise old man with a caring heart in both Masaru and Shirogane's backstories, I cannot trust anyone who owns that room and wears a bolo tie. One of those is a stretch, but two is a warning.
There's a time and a place for subtlety, of course, but Karakuri Circus ain't it. This is a show where our hero jumps out of a five-story tower, crash-lands on a dude, and without missing a beat, hires the guy who tried to kill him an episode ago. It rules.
Masaru straight up intimidates the leader of SLAUGHTER TEAM into flipping sides, then has him take the kid back to where he just escaped so that he can beat the shit out of an evil old man.

Little man grows up FAST, which is good considering what happens to Narumi...
A lot has happened in just four episodes of Karakuri Circus, so I sure didn't expect a shot like this...
...to mean that those puppets would be annihilated so quickly. You would think this would be a tip-off that this story is playing with my expectations, but I attributed it more to adaptation pacing at the time. So I just sat in silence for a minute after everything in this introduction arc finished up.
Yeah, I was expecting a lot of things, but one of our three main characters freaking DYING just four episodes into a 36-episode series was not one of them.
And that's such a weird yet unforgettable image to leave us on. It's a powerful moment, and I'm a lot more interested in where Karakuri Circus is going to go now. This being a shonen series, death is a highly elastic concept, so I'm not ruling anything out. But this is one hell of a stunner.
The camera going from zoomed in on Narumi's arm protecting Masaru to that image left me shook. I'm also not sure I'll count Narumi out as dead since this is shonen, but there better be a damn good explanation if he isn't. That's such a powerful moment that I really don't want it betrayed.
I do think it makes sense for him to actually be dead, since he already fulfilled his role as Masaru's mentor and the first step for Shirogane toward becoming her own person. What's left for them now is to heed his advice and grow together as people, which would be a sad but emotionally resonant way for the show to continue without him. But also, it's an anime about magical murder robot puppets, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
At least I'll always remember Narumi's recreation of my favorite scene featuring The Rock from Furious 7, only instead of a flexing a cast off, he's flexing deadly scissor puppets into pieces.

Big same for his big arms.
We really gotta stop talking about anime and learn martial arts in China. I mean if he could start from this, then what excuse do I have?
Truly, we all have some Narumi inside of us.

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