Blade & Soul Complete Collection (Cert 15)
3 Discs DVD/2 Discs Blu-ray (Distributor: Animatsu Entertainment) Running time: 324 minutes approx.
It’s extremely rare to find an anime which completely confounds your expectations of it as Blade & Soul does. Involving characters inspired by a Korean MMORPG, features a cadre of busty beauties on the DVD cover with a tale of vengeance as its driving premise, it practically invites dread.
In fact this is a pleasant surprise and bucks many stale anime trends. The central character is Alka, a taciturn white haired girl with a butterfly symbol on her left shoulder. As a member of the Clan Of Swords, she comes with a lofty reputation as an assassin for hire but Alka is driven by a personal mission – to avenge the death of her master at the hands of Jin Varel, an equally dangerous swordswoman of the Param Empire.
Not being a gamer I have no idea what the original story is but I assume, much like many game to anime transitions, that the show writers pretty much had carte blanche as far as plots where concerned. It certainly reads as your standard samurai/ninja style show but simmering beneath the bloody violence and heaving bosoms is a profound exploration of a moral awakening.
Alka has been trained since a child to be an assassin by the impish Master Hon, who equips her with all the physical and mental tools to be a cold-blooded killer, except he won’t let her be completely empty. She fails to understand why but as her violent journey on the path of vengeance progresses, Alka is faced with a number of situations in which she is forced to ponder the costs of taking another person’s life.
Rarely does such an issue make itself a central point in a tale about vengeance but it becomes a key facet in making Alka one of the interesting protagonists in such a show. For the most part she is quiet, detached and slays without thinking, unable to even comprehend such things as friendships or accountability.
By the latter half of the series Alka is a quivering wreck and a former shell of her old self, haunted by the memories of her actions and her confidence completely destroyed. In one episode set during winter, Alka is taken in by a couple whose daughter Alka had slain some time before, her butterfly symbol giving her away. While the husband loads his rifle, the wife instead tends to Alka saying revenge won’t bring their daughter back in one of the more emotionally laden moments of the show.
Alka is not alone in learning and appreciating the value of a human life and forgiveness -one of her first encounters introduces us to one of the other recurring cast members in gun toting bounty hunter Hazuki Jin. A gregarious gal with a taste for booze she befriends Alka until she discovers the huge bounty Jin Varel put on her and goes for the prize. Hazuki regularly shows up to take her shot but, of course, ends up running alongside Alka.
The owner of Hazuki’s regular boozer is Miss Karen, a composed, graceful lady of exquisite beauty and decorum, who in reality can kick butt with the best of them. Along with armoured treasurer hunter Loana Dan, this disparate quartet of feisty females often cross paths until fate sees them eventually forming their own tight knit group in the name of justice.
It may not appear as such by the self contained episodic nature of the narrative found in the first few chapters is deceptive in planting the seeds for much is to follow. On more than one occasion a face from these stories will resurface later to play a much larger part in Alka’s journey. For instance, the young orphaned brother and sister who are seen stealing food in episode two return in a tragic tale which adds the girl Pia to the main roster in a symbolic supporting role.
One thing there is no shortage of is action with angry an episode going by without someone getting into a scrape, and thankfully it is all congruent to the plot. Usually resulting in pools of blood, this is shockingly violent without being overtly gory, but suits Alka’s almost robotic nature.
The story subtly builds and builds along the way leaving the audience actually unaware of the emotional voyage they have been following, ending with the almost inevitable explosive finale. This is a rare sore point in that the credibility from before is suddenly supplanted by the supernatural climax – think the Claymore ending and you have an idea. Otherwise there is some superb writing, plot and character development that belies the convention of the main storyline.
GONZO’s animation and artwork is another strength, the depth and beauty of the visuals adding so much to the experience. The setting is a curious world that recalls medieval times, possibly European with a touch of feudal Japan but is rendered in such a vibrant and detailed manner it feels like a genuine, existing world. Character designs are equally strong, with the main cast distinct in their appearance and their battle scenes are fluid and energetic.
They may be presented as strong and empowered women but with them all being top heavy it’s miraculous they are not subject to the typical objectification anime is notorious for. Yes, the outfits tease this – Hazuki’s tiny bikini top over her mammoth mammaries is ludicrous – but are designed for practicality and reflect the wearer’s personality. Unfortunately they are sexualised in the final, non-canon episode (which sadly includes young Pia), so unless such fan service is your bag, you can stop watching after episode 12.
It may not be the most original work but Blade & Soul defies all outward appearances and is more Moribito: Guardian Of the Spirit than Samurai Girls. Certainly, in lieu of the onslaught of high school based moe/teen angst/mecha new releases, this is a more than welcome respite for the older anime fan and action fans alike.
Japanese Language w/ English Subtitles
Disc 1 Only:
Clean Opening Animation
Clean Closing Animation
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black