Karneval Complete Series Collection
2 Discs (Distributor: Manga Entertainment) Running time: 308 minutes approx.
If you should never judge a book by its cover then this age old maxim should also apply to anime DVDs too. In fact it can be extended to include the first episode of this series since the disparity between what you think you’re getting and what you actually do get is rather wide.
Instead of glittering fun infused street parades the story revolves around a young boy named Nai who has no memories except for the name Karoku, who he believes gave him the rather extravagant bracelet on his wrist. Gareki is an orphaned teen who makes his way through life as a pickpocket and thief. He breaks into a palatial abode where he discovers a bound Nai being held captive by the glamorous Miné, who reveals herself to be more than the cougar she appears to be – she transforms into a hideous bloodthirsty beast called a Varuga before their very eyes.
The youngsters manage to escape Miné’s clutches finding safety on a passenger train passing through the town, but this turns out to be a case of “out of the frying pan and into the fire”. Onboard a hostage situation is in progress but arriving in time to handle are the dapper Hirato and his Gothic Lolita fashioned assistant Tsukomo, of the secret national defence organisation known as Circus. They deal with the kidnappers with ease but a greater problem arises when a member of the villainous group Kafka tracks down Nai on the train. Circus intervene again and take the pair under their protection.
What you have just read all takes place in the first episode and as openers go, it is quite the energy rush and sets the scene for an exciting ride for the remainder of the series. However what we get doesn’t quite live up to this initial promise. Similarly, as I mentioned earlier the lurid neon coloured cover for this release suggests a rather festive, bubblegum comedy show when in fact this is an occasionally darker and introspective tale of belonging.
The mood of the series may not be all light and fluffy – it certainly isn’t without its more playful moments – but the content often calls for some violence and themes with a horror twist to them. In contrast to the grotesque Varuga, the creation of primary antagonists Kafka, Nai is revealed early on to not be a human boy but a mutated version of a Niji, a small fluffy creature indigenous to forest dwellings – as if his big red eyes and bizarre hair style weren’t already a give away – to appeal to the female fanbase or bishonen fans.
How Nai came to be this way is never explained and little is known about Karoku either, but the good folk at Circus offer to help track him down anyway. Unfortunately for the viewer this key plot line is abandoned in favour of side stories of Circus at work, as Nai and Gareki earn their keep by helping out on missions, or in Nai’s case, getting in the way and having to be saved.
Of the two leads Gareki is the one who gets the lion’s share of attention and whose history we explore in the first and arguably strongest mini-arc. An orphaned lad, he was taken in by a kind woman named Tsubaki and her younger twin siblings Tsubame and Yotaka. Naturally the story doesn’t have a happy ending in both flashback and the present day when Gareki returns home, but it does allow us to also learn more about Kafka and their experiments with the Varuga as much as it does Gareki’s insular behaviour.
The folk that make up Circus are, as you might expect, a rather eclectic lot – from the serious but polite Hirato to the immature 21 year-old Yogi, the shady doctor Akari to the shapely butt kicking dancer Eva. Circus is split up into units each with their own airship and Hirato’s mob are Airship 2, with a whole host of other agents on who crop up…well, just because. Don’t expect to remember any names as they are rarely given much time to establish themselves.
One of the biggest flaws of this series is the lack of information regarding the central storyline – to wit, we never learn much about Nai, Karoku, their relationship or how a Circus bracelet came to be in Nai’s possession. Aside from being named after the famous Czech author Kafka also remain a bit of a mystery to us. Presumably the “in joke” is that they create people who “metamorphosize” into ugly creatures, a reference to the writer’s most famous work Metamorphosis, about a man who turns into against insect. Once you get past that, what do they stand for and why are they so interested in Nai?
Presentation wise the animation is solid and the artwork is full of the vivid colours and imagery the cover promises but little of the actual frothiness. The action scenes are very well done, bristling with energy and the odd violent bent where necessary. The character designs flit between the unique (Nai) to the standard (Tsukomo) but are strong enough to make at least the main players instantly recognisable.
As suggested earlier, there is some very subtle same gender affection being teased between some of the cast, which explains the bishonen aesthetic of Yogi but nothing to interfere with the main happenings.
It would be apparent that Karneval’s biggest weakness was its foolhardy attempt to squeeze as much of the original manga’s material into 13 episodes as humanly possible. The end result is a show that moves along at a firm pace with plenty of action and a multitude of ideas but they are all thrown together in the most haphazard fashion.
If you can overlook the lack of cohesion, story and character depth this might be a serviceable rainy afternoon series to while away the hours, otherwise its evident flaws will prove too much for fans expecting a more nourishing return for their investment.
Dolby True HD: English Language 5.1
Dolby True HD: Japanese Language 2.0
Episode 1 Commentary
Karneval Fashion with J. Michael Tatum
Episode 13 commentary
Textless Opening “Henai No Rondo (Rondo Of Fixation)”
Textless Closing “Reason”
Rating – ***
Man In Black