Tatsunoko Productions has been around for a long time. 40 years in fact. In that time they’ve made a number of series that have been very influential not only in Japan, but in America as well. Classics such as Speed Racer, Gatchaman and Mospeada, have all turned up in the US under some banner or another. To celebrate their 40 years in the industry, they’ve unleashed an outstanding OVA series named Karas.
Now, when I say outstanding, I mean, Ghost in the Shell/Akira-level outstanding. All I have seen is the preview disc, which provides about the first 30 minutes worth of content, but what is depicted is on par with the top notch work coming out of studios like Production IG and Gonzo, something I didn’t even know Tatsunoko had in them. The storyboarding is excellent, the 2D animation is eerily fluid at points, the 2D effects animation uses the additional gloss capable in digitally-painted cel animation to create a feel that is simultaneously retro and fresh, the 3D (both full and cel-shaded) is excellent, and in general everything compliments everything else. The show’s sense of design is strong and visceral, whether it’s a scene set in the bowels of Tokyo or in a fantasy world populated by spirits. In fact, the show’s ability to not only beautifully blend and composite digitally-painted 2D, cel-shaded 3D and full-3D animation, but to do so with such a unique and intense design aesthetic, probably makes Karas one of the most visually stunning and technologically ambitious titles produced to date. I suppose I could complain about some clunky lip flaps in one scene, but that’d be a nitpicking.
Aurally, Karas is a delight too. The dub cast (featuring some traditional actors in the larger roles such as Matthew “Shaggy from Scooby Doo” Lillard) is quite good, with everyone (regular VA or not) punching in with really good performances, even making up for a slightly over-translated script (I would have translated kappas as kappas rather than as water demons, but again, that’s a nit pick). The soundtrack itself is wonderful as well, as The Prague Symphony Orchestra performs the score, and that brings an awe-inspiring richness to Karas as they blend a traditional big, orchestral score with elements that call to mind Akira‘s classic OST.
Of course visuals and audio aren’t everything. Plenty of anime films look really cool, but whether Karas tells a story, too, is the question. Well, with only one episode to go on, it’s a bit hard to gauge where its going and it’s definitely out of the storytelling tradition where exposition is saved for where it would naturally occur, not where it’d be convenient, so it is a bit of a mystery, but I’ve got a pretty solid idea of what must be going on, and I have to say, the concept is cool. The idea of Tokyo having both a real world side and secret demon side hidden just out of phase is interesting (and it’s handled well too), and the idea that there is a protector who keeps demons from running amok is awesome (again, largely because of the quality of execution). The fact that human race isn’t totally oblivious to this fact either, as unexplained murders result in a natural tendency to look into the supernatural, is also refreshing. It’s a little jarring in its usage of time because it freely cuts back and forth between current actions and past actions, but that ultimately plays to its advantage and helps it seem more realistic and surreal in the same stroke, if that’s possible.
At its core, I could easily say Karas is a sentai anime. You’ve got a man, Otoha (aka the Karas), who goes through an awesome transformation sequence to fight off the forces of evil that lurk in the heart of Tokyo. You could even argue that Yurine plays a roll similar to Zordon (though Yurine is a lot prettier), as she is the person who endowed Otoha with his power and responsibility, and who guides Otoha and informs him of demons to take on. It’s very sentai in that sense, and it fits from a studio who has made some of the quintessential sentai anime. But if Power Rangers is like the old Superfriends series, then Karas is like Batman: The Animated Series or V for Vendetta—it takes the essential concept of its genre and heads towards its ultimate end, all with a nearly-immaculate quality of production that really has to be seen to be believed.