Carnivals evoke thoughts of cotton candy, vaguely maintained rides and probably rigged games. Karneval is none of those things. It’s an action-adventureish series that is really more of a character study in disguise. The character being studied is Gareki, a loner and professional thief for various angst-filled reasons who spends his days looking for easy marks in the countryside of the unnamed European-esque country the show is set in. It’s his unfortunate luck to break into (and by “break into” I mean “blow out a wall out of”) a house owned by a woman who happens to be a Varuga, the resident Big Bads of Karneval that are shapeshifting cannibals equipped with various supernatural abilities.
In a twist of luck, Gareki also finds a young amnesiac boy with pink eyes and purple hair named Nai chained to a bed in the Varuga’s house. Despite being an angst-filled long wolf, Gareki finds enough pity in his heart to rescue Nai before they both get eaten. Further complicating Gareki’s life, both he and Nai end up falling directly into the hands of Circus, the magical NSA charged with figuring out what the Varugas are and what they have to do with Kafka, a secret organization bent on world…something. It might be domination, or just profit. Gareki and Nai end up finding themselves press-ganged into service on one of Circus’s airships, both to protect them from Kafka and to figure out what the story is behind Nai, who also can apparently hear voices, specifically from Karoku.
Who’s Karoku? Another very good question that the folks at Circus would like to know, especially Hirato, the head of the airship Gareki and Nai ended up on. Gareki and Nai end up serving under Yogi, one of the many damaged souls Circus has picked up over the years. It should also be noted Circus isn’t an acronym: the organization puts on a circus show in every town they have an operation in to placate the locals and maybe pick up a little more information. Hey, it’s a good enough excuse for the oddball costumes and the techo-magic-whatever-it-is they use to fight. It’s explained somewhat, but it amounts to technomagibabble, so it’s really not important beyond “Looks cool.”
That’s all a lot of background for a show that’s really a character study, and the more it unfolds the less all of that really matters. There are some good fights and a few other background characters that affect things, most notable the taciturn Tsukumo, but that all takes a back seat to Gareki and Nai’s personal stories. Gareki in particular has a lot more going on that most loner characters. Does he have an dark, angst-filled back story? Yeah, but it at least works well in the context of the show and doesn’t feel too forced. It also has some actual negative effects on Gareki that aren’t so expected. He’s also the only character without superpowers, so it gives the more fantastical plot bits something to center on.
Surprisingly, the best compliment I can pay Karneval is that it’s not just a collection of predictable archetypes and plot mechanisms. Sure, there are some, but they don’t take up much run time, and given that there’s only 13 episodes that’s a good thing. The plot doesn’t really end so much as it just stops with some major threads left unresolved. I mean that quite literally: the series just stops, full on. Thankfully the biggest points do get some resolution, but the unanswered threads are rather annoying.
I realize that “Hey, some of the characters are really interesting” seems like damning with faint praise. Given that the plot dead ends and the animation is competent though not spectacular, “damning with faint praise” is truly intended as a complement. As an aside, can anyone explain the need for seemingly every show to jam in some kind of hideously annoying/arrogant young female character? Is there an overwhelming demand for characters that you want to punch in the face? This show has one and every time she appears you can almost hear the needle scratch in the show’s tone. Aside from her, the minor supporting characters mostly achieve their goal of advancing the plot threads without taking up too much time, and the main characters are interesting enough, especially once the big reveal about Nai happens.
Visually the show is pretty good and the character designs aren’t too over the top. They are a little over the top, but outside of one female character nothing is too ridiculous. The vocals, both Japanese and English, are pretty good as well. Extras are a couple of commentary tracks for the vocal crew an a breakdown of some of the show’s costumes with J. Michael Tatum. While I’m signing some of the show’s praises I should give a slap on the wrist to whoever came up with the marketing materials. The “Justice has never been so twisted” tagline is utter rot, if for no other reason than the characters aren’t cops and really have nothing to do with justice whatsoever. The cover art has absolutely nothing to do with the contents of the show either. So don’t judge this one by the cover, judge it by what’s inside, and what’s inside is a pretty interesting ride.