Karas Vol. #1 (of 2) (Mania.com)

By:Brett Barkley
Review Date: Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Release Date: Tuesday, April 25, 2006



What They Say
The worlds of humans and demons have overlapped since time immemorial, and a young woman named Yuri and her servant, the Karas, have long maintained order and balance between the worlds. But humans have finally lost their fears of the denizens of darkness.

Disgusted by human arrogance, the Karas turns his back on the laws he helped uphold for so long, taking the name Ekou and leading a group of mechanized demons in an attack against the human race.

Meanwhile, a detective named Kure who works at the police division in charge of demon-related incidents opens a case involving a series of bizarre murders that look like the work of a water demon. Elsewhere, the demon Nue, who came to town to fight Ekou, spots a water demon disguised as a famous warrior... and then Yuri shows up with another Karas.

This new guardian of the city is determined to stop Ekou's evil ambitions, but he has a fierce fight ahead of him.

The Review!
Karas: The Prophecy is a beautifully-rendered and engaging opening half of a story with a great deal of promise.

Audio:

Karas: The Prophecy has a fairly wide range of audio options, including English and Japanese 6.1 Dolby Digital EX Surround, as well as English and Japanese 2.0, all of which feature optional subtitles. Overall, I was quite impressed with the audio quality, including the solid channel separation and the powerful use of the rear speakers. While watching Karas, the immersive quality of the audio (particularly the English or Japanese 6.1) adds a great deal of excitement to the feature. Considering the power and drama of the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra’s score for Karas, I was pleased to find it beautifully reproduced and detected no audio problems throughout my viewing.


Video:

Karas: The Prophecy is featured here in the original 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and showcases some beautiful colors and solid blacks throughout. Consisting of a mixture of incredibly detailed CGI work and traditional hand-drawn animation, the two styles are thematically integrated, with the CGI work used to great effect for the incredibly fast-paced action scenes. Considering how much the OAV relies on the power of the visuals, I was very pleased to find no issues with the transfer.


Packaging:

Karas: The Prophecy is literally packed with stunning and dynamic visuals, which makes me wonder why the disk packaging is so nondescript. Shipping in a standard DVD case, The Prophecy features bloody red lettering over a fairly uninspired image. Primarily black (though this is likely designed to tie in to the visuals of the OVA—which I’ll address in the content portion of this review) with some vivid areas of contrast, what little of the cover image the buyer will likely be able to distinguish does next to nothing in terms of suggesting any aspect of the plot or characters. While I recognize the high-contrast cover image is a close-up of Karas, sword drawn, someone unfamiliar with the lead character’s armor likely won’t be able to make much of the cover at a glance. Disappointingly, I feel this is one instance in which the disk cover could actually negatively affect sales.

The disk reverse carries the dark feel of the front cover, featuring red and white text again over a black background. A montage image of the primary cast is found in the upper left corner of the disk reverse, with a sizeable amount of text just beneath that. All disk features information is found just below this, with a fantastic image of Karas resides along the right side of the case. All lettering on the disk reverse is easy to read, and the design is a little more engaging than the front simply because the images are so much easier to discern from the black background.

The disk also comes bound with three inserts. While two are little more than small advertisement pieces, one for Dark Horse Comics’ manga line, and the other an advertisement for Karas: The Revelation, and anime from Manga Entertainment, the final insert is actually a mini Karas comic. Featuring twenty-two pages of art by Nuria Peris, and written by Phil Amara, this standalone piece actually serves as a sort of epilogue to the feature, fleshing out a few of the characters and their relationships. The art, while not quite capturing the greatness of the action found in the OAV (which, admittedly, would be a very difficult task for any artist), is quite good, and does manage to reproduce character likenesses.


Menu:

The menu opens with a brief and flashy clip showcasing Otoha’s transformation in to the Karas, followed by a quick Yurine voiceover in English announcing the feature’s title. The menu itself echoes the transformation portal established by Otoha’s hand-held eye, and is set on the same gold intricately-designed disk with concentric inner rings spinning against one another, as gold energy streams from the hub. The title, Karas, is scrawled in the same bloody red text from the disk cover, with Play Feature, Scene Select, Extra Features, and Audio/Subtitles options occupying the outermost ring of the disk. A brief audio clip plays throughout. Menu options are clear and the menu itself is easily navigable.


Extras:

Karas: The Prophecy features a fairly wide range of extras as follows: Behind the Scenes Montage, Concept/Animation Comparison, Original Japanese Trailers and TV Spots, and Japanese Voice Actor Interviews. I also must make note of an extra bloopers short, found to the right of the Behind the Scenes Montage. Not officially listed in the Extras menu, this short montage features bloopers from the English audio production. While interesting, I did not find it added any great value to the included Extras. Of the other official extras, I found the Behind the Scenes Montage to be the most informative, as it offered insight in to the production process for Karas. I enjoyed seeing the artists at work, watching brief clips of the conceptualization process, and how the series progress from the initial concept to the finished work. The Concept/Animation Comparison does a nice job of showing the phases of bringing the CGI sequences to life, typically starting with the basic bone layouts, moving to wire frames, through the rendering without effects, then on to Final rendering. While a short feature, it was great seeing the process and the work that went in to creating the ambience so integral to Karas. It is amazing to see how much the process gains in the Final Rendering phase. The Original Japanese Trailers and TV Spots give an interesting look in to several different advertisements for Karas and, as a result, show just how far the series has come both in terms of concept and execution, featuring a pre-2003 early commercial. Finally, the Japanese Voice Actor Interviews, while again short, are nice in that they offer creative insight in to the characters and what the actors brought and took from each.


Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)

Karas: The Prophecy is the first of two feature-length OAV’s exploring a world in which men and demons have lived side-by-side since the beginning of time. Occasionally, though the modern, enlightened man could not fathom it, these separate realities overlap, and often with horrific results. A being in the form of a young woman named Yurine serves as the guardian of the tenuous balance between these realities. Throughout time, she has enlisted the aid of a number of different individuals to battle on her behalf. These individuals have been known as the Karas. However, after one of these chosen, a man named Eko, decided to turn his back on Yurine and all she represents, the balance of power that separates these realities becomes threatened. As Eko rises in power, seemingly incapable of being defeated, he enlists the aid of mechanized demons to destroy Yurine and her Karas champions, all the while intent on destroying humankind.

Opening with an eye-blistering six minute aerial action sequence that seamlessly blends CGI and traditional animation, Karas quite literally begins with a bang. While I was initially intrigued by the mélange of pop culture heroes that comprise the lead in Karas: The Prophecy, what I found well-exceeded my expectations. From the gorgeous visuals and action sequences, to the interesting characters and fantastical Japanese sub-reality the creators expertly render, Karas is indeed something special.

Written by Masaya Honda and Shin Yoshida, and directed by Keiichi Satou, Karas: The Prophecy melds a number of different elements in to one haunting, action-filled feature. Elements of traditional Japanese folklore and seamlessly blended with the rich and bustling culture of a Japan of a not-too-distant tomorrow. Men and women crowd through the same streets as the demons and spirits they no longer choose to recognize or recall, largely unaware of the supernatural catalysts for the strange and sometimes horrific events occurring around them. In this future Japan, the streets are always filled with blank-faced crowds, the city pulsing with a society oblivious to the spirits sharing the same space. When the spirits are recognized, as in the case of one example early in the piece, it is often as a joke, and likely with disastrous results. Mankind may have forgotten the spirits, but the spirits have not forgotten mankind.

Moving throughout this spirit-filled Japan of the future, the story focuses on a fairly wide range and cast of characters. Eko is the fallen Karas, having turned Yurine and the balance she represents between the world of man and the world of the spirit. It is the war Eko rages against Yurine and mankind that prompts the introduction of both Nue and Otoha. Nue, a gun-wielding-spirit-in-the-form-of-man called a Mikura, recognizes the threat Eko and those with him present to all of reality, and has come to Japan to kill him. Otoha, an ordinary man, who through some everyday accident has become caught between the world of the living and the spirit world, is selected by Yurine to become the new defender of both; he is the Karas. It is his story we follow, and it is largely through his eyes that the viewer experiences the world of the spirit and the spectacular supernatural battles that occur in the world of mankind.

There are a number of other characters as well, though not directly tied to the spirit world, they unknowingly become part of the battle all the same. It seems, starting three years ago, in the Shijuku precinct of Japan horrific and largely unexplainable murders (unexplainable through any non-supernatural means) occur with alarming frequency, so much so the precinct has a special division just for these cases. Seemingly where officers are placed to be out of sight, Detective Kure is transferred, against his will, to the “intervention department.” Managing to stumble in to one such instance himself, Kure struggles with his disbelief and his partner’s certainty in the existence and murderous involvement of demons in our world. His partner, Detective Sagisaka is certain demons exist because his daughter Yoshiko is the lone survivor of one of the all-too-common unexplainable crime scenes three years ago. Now institutionalized, Yoshiko regularly sees the spirits around her. Hinaru, like Yoshiko, is also a survivor of these attacks from the spirit world. However, she has fared far better than Yoshiko, and looks to play a major role in the storyline.

Beyond this already sizeable primary cast are a number of demon Mikuras in service to Eko, and an even larger cast of spirits dwelling our world and theirs. As one would expect with a cast of this size, none of the characters (even those most central to the plot) are fully explored. While I recognize this is likely designed to better fill the two feature-length OAV’s and guarantee sales, it could also work against the series as its chief weakness. Personally, I’m a bit disappointed with the trend in contemporary features to focus on the franchise, to rely on the sequels to tell the story that couldn’t be, or simply wasn’t, told in the first. I don’t believe I am the only person to recognize this trend is geared almost completely at sales, a point which could dissuade some from sticking around for the sequels. Unfortunately, this could become the case for many regarding the Karas trilogy. However, while I would have liked to have gotten to know more about the characters and the setting around them, and while Karas: The Prophecy really just establishes a strong bit of groundwork for the rest of the series, I found what we did get to be strong enough to pique my interest.

Likely the first thing the viewer will recognize when watching this OVA is the visuals. Karas: The Prophecy just looks very good. In fact, it is among the best-looking anime I have ever seen, and showcases, in the spectacular and exciting action and effects it accomplishes with seeming ease, why good anime can so easily best live-action films. I continually found myself transfixed by the visuals, daring not to blink through the action sequences, fearing I’d miss something. But the action sequences, while truly powerful, are certainly not the only aspect of the OVA not-to-be-missed, as each scene is filled with a distinct ambience and persona unique to itself. From the pulsing streets, to crowded arenas, to the clouds high above the city, and the highway tunnels throughout, the visuals strive to create a living, breathing atmosphere that genuinely adds to the viewing experience.

The character designs, much like the rest of the feature’s visuals, are interesting and creative, and the designs for the mech-oriented mikura, while not really explained, are definitely visually engaging. I did note, however, at times the character designs felt a bit trendier than necessary. I don’t know if this was done in conjunction with the fully-revved visuals that drive the story, or as a means of making characters which have been largely unexplored in terms of personality feel more visually distinguishable, but it stood out slightly nonetheless. When one recognizes Yurine has been serving in her capacity for a very long time, it somehow doesn’t feel right to see her decked-out in the latest Japanese street wear.

On another note, the costumes of the Karas, both Eko and Otoha are simply beautiful. Totally unique in their design, these costumes are a brilliant combination of the samurai from Japanese history, and a number of different Western heroic icons. Additionally, I found the concept of a superhero who actually is his bat-mobile and bat-plane to be a refreshing change. But the visual concepts, powerful though they may be, could not be fully realized without the use and seamless integration of CGI and 2D animation, which simply must be seen to be believed.

Beyond the spectacular visuals, another thing you’ll likely notice from the start is the powerful musical score by Yoshihiro Ike and as performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Truly just as integral to the piece as the visuals, the score lends a power and drama to the piece that perfectly conveys the core of the feature’s heroic essence. At times the score felt evocative of Elfman and Revell, exhibiting similar qualities of an acute awareness of the undeniably heroic. I can think of no other anime feature with such a powerful, driving, and ultimately as integral as that of Karas: The Prophecy.


In Summary:

While the strong reliance on the franchise factor may discourage some, there really is plenty to be excited about with Karas: The Prophecy. Equally powerful visuals and sound drive an intriguing plot filled with interesting, though largely as-of-yet unexplored, characters. This OAV is almost guaranteed to demand repeat viewing. From the stunning visuals and beautifully choreographed fight scenes, to the beautiful musical score, there’s enough in the sound and visuals alone to keep the viewer coming back. But it was the story itself that most surprised me. Upon first glance, appearing deceptively simply, repeated viewings opened a large and interesting scope of the substantial groundwork established in this volume. I am very much looking forward to the final Karas volume.

Features
Japanese 6.1 DD EX Language,Japanese 2.0 Language,English 6.1 DD EX Language,English 2.0 Language,English Subtitles,Cast Interviews, Making of Karas, Storyboard Sequences

Review Equipment
34” Sony FD Trinitron Wega HDTV KD-34XBR910 and Sony Dav-FR9 progressive scan Home Theatre System with 114 watts per channel to each speaker and 115 watts to each of the subwoofer's two woofers.



Mania Grade: A
Audio Rating: A+
Video Rating: A+
Packaging Rating: B+
Menus Rating: B
Extras Rating: B+
Age Rating: 16 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Manga Entertainment
MSRP: 19.98
Running time: 90
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Karas