Sunday was eaten.

*Tomorrow is going to be a busy one, and I’m trying to prepare. Argh. Still, some interesting things are floating around.

*For example, just when I think I’ve mapped out the borders of the English-language scanlation scene, something new (to me) pops up to capture my attention. Right now, there’s this - a horror-based site with a good deal of Suehiro Maruo material (including a rare multi-volume extended story, The Laughing Vampire), plus a couple volumes of Go Nagai’s Violence Jack, for those looking to catch up on their classics (Nagai remains one of those popular, influential forces in manga who has pretty much nothing readily available in English). Also available: a whole lot of completely disreputable, revolting exercises in degenerate excess. I’m not kidding - some of this stuff is kind of beyond the pale. Please assume that all the image links and the links to other sites are NOT SAFE FOR WORK, and probably prepared to do you mental harm. Note too that all downloads are via RapidShare, which makes you jump through a few hoops and limits you to one file per 75 minutes or so. (found at the Comics Journal Message Board)

*East Meets West Again Dept: The other day, I did something I don’t normally do anymore - I bought a new anime, something that was just freshly released on R1 dvd. And why did I buy a new anime? Well, it looked kind of interesting, and the mood took me. Plus, there looked to be some interesting US/Japan cooperation going on. I’d heard some people online talking about it (not all of the talk good, mind you). Oh, and it was also damn cheap - part of a ‘first week of release’ sale at Circuit City, the price came out to less than ten bucks after tax.

Karas: The Prophecy

That's what it's called. It’s a collection of the first three parts of a six-episode OVA (Original Video Animation) series, commissioned to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Tatsunoko Productions, the producers of a lot of famed series, many of them featuring costumed heroes and teams running around and fighting evil in a manner not entirely unsuperheroic. You’ve heard of Gatchaman (Battle of the Planets), right? That’s them. Karas is an all-new production, not based on any manga or prior anime, released in Japan across 2005, though according to an early (mock-up?) trailer included on the disc it's been in production since at least 2003.

A little something happened in 2004 as well: Dark Horse released a one-shot pamphlet-format special based on the property, written by Phil Amara (editor of many titles and writer of The Nevermen) with art by Núria Peris (pencils) and Sergio Sandoval (inks). It's interesting that such an English-language tie-in would be produced so early, many months before the anime would even be out in Japan. Anyway, that comic is included (in miniaturized form) in the dvd case, along with a little advertisement for various Dark Horse manga and manga-related releases. The dvd itself is from Manga Video, a company that's been somewhat infamous among anime fans for years due to its sometimes troublesome dvd releases (folks were calling them Mangle Video as early as half a decade ago) - there appear to be no major issues with this release.

Well, unless you count the show itself. I should have suspected something was wrong when the dvd case declined to mention any of the people involved with the actual making of the OVA by name, opting to instead focus on the presence of Jay Hernandez and Matthew Lillard among the English dub cast. The project appears to be the directorial debut of Keiichi Satou, an experienced character designer and director of animation (which is different from being simply 'director') on shows like The Big O. Satou also came up with the original concept, although that's really beside the point - Karas (at least as far as its first three episodes go) is going to rise or fall entirely on how much the viewer appreciates 3D video game cut-scene type eye candy. That's the long and short of it.

And some of that eye candy is decent, especially a crazed opening fight scene, packing into five or so minutes almost everything a hyperactive 13-year old boy might want from sci-fi/costumed hero action, to sometimes funny results:

"...and and then these SPACESHIP JET PLANES are flying through the night and they SHOOT each other and the credits are in BURNING LETTERS and then the jets pass through GLOWING MAGIC and turn into ARMORED SUPERHEROES and they FIGHT WITH SWORDS and then they FALL out of the air and they STOP TIME AND BREAK A LOT OF GLASS and one of them SWINGS AROUND TOWN LIKE BATMAN and then there's KUNG-FU and ARMS FLY OFF and and and IT WAS AWESOME!!1!"

I mean, it really tries hard. Hard enough that nothing else in the show quite lives up to that. The big action scenes are in pretty much full 3D, while the rest of it is higher-end 2D/3D augmentation - it's worth watching the production footage in the extras, as it's clever how the creative team uses light effects and visual trickery to cover up some of the rougher edges of the 3D work. It looks nice on the whole. But again, that's about all there is.

It wouldn't be accurate to say that there's no story in Karas; it's just that what little story there is proves to be so uninspiring that you manage to forget it's even there. Karas is some sort of crow-derived spirit guardian of Tokyo. There appear to be multiple 'hosts' for his power, all of them apparently dead or comatose humans stuck between the mortal and spirit planes. One of them is Otoha, our personality-free hero - he spends his spare time running a hospital for ill spirits in some sunny meadow-like limbo. He's nice, and a hero. That's it. There's also a cute teen girl Karas, who does nothing whatsoever for these three episodes. And then there's Eko, an evil Karas who's somehow making the spirit world ill by turning ambitious spirits into giant 3D machine monsters called Mikura, who run on human blood. It's all part of an exceedingly vague scheme to accomplish something evil, I suppose - the Dark Horse comic identifies it as wiping the Earth clean of technology. I guess later episodes of the anime will explain it more. Also, each Karas is guided around by an entity called a Landlord. The back of the dvd case tells me that Otoha's Landlord, Yurine, represents the will of the people. The Dark Horse comic tells me that Otoha's Landlord, Yuri (yes, the spelling is different), and all the other Landlords are aspects of the same being. Anime-Kraze tells me that Yurine is the spirit priestess for Tokyo. I guess later episodes of the anime will explain it more. Catching a pattern?

Also running around: a hardened cop who believes in the spirit world, though everyone thinks he's nuts, and the young, doubtful partner he's just been assigned. Plus, there's an antihero Mikura who wants to do good, but struggles with his evil inner nature. You can tell he's a dangerous bad boy, because his character design is a veritable encyclopedia of 'hip' visual clichés, ranging from the stubbly chin to the tinted glasses to the twin pistols to the big hair to the cocksure grin - basically he looks like he was rejected for the lead role in Cowboy Bebop and wound up here. There's another cute girl in there somewhere. And some evil minions to fight in every episode.

And that's about it for the plot in this 80 minutes of anime. More than anything, it reminded me of a prior Manga Video release, Blood: The Last Vampire, another project that emphasized action and prettiness, leaving the story to soak in a broth of familiar tropes. Blood was only 48 minutes long, though, and intended to augment a larger multimedia project. Karas, in contrast, blows through three whole episodes, half its total project runtime, while barely even getting getting the concept out on screen. I'd be a more forgiving if it was more unique in execution, but yeah - video game cut-scenes. Some good video game cut-scenes, sure. I wasn't really bored with it, despite the blandness (enough flashing lights and loud noises to assure that), but I felt my teeth starting to rot as soon as the credits rolled. I imagine I'd be pretty steamed if I'd paid more than ten bucks for the whole thing.

Oh, about that Dark Horse comic? It's a tie-in project, but it's worth contrasting with the anime for the very different approaches taken. I don't know how Dark Horse got the info on the project that they needed from Tatsunoko, but it appears they're working from a larger outline of the project than what can be glimpsed by the viewer in these three episodes. Thus, there's a ton of concept-related information doled out, including an encounter that's not in the anime episodes included here, though it appears to be kind of important. The characters are much more prone to spelling out their feelings and motivations, and the project's overall plot drive is filled in much more completely, enough so that you have to wonder if some of the anime's easygoing revelations are being spoiled a bit early. More than anything, it's extremely direct, while often it feels that the anime is puttering around with pretty visuals in order to avoid telling you much. Probably we can chalk it up to the anime having a lot more space to fill. But maybe there's also something to the old saying that American comics are about getting places, while Japanese comics are about how you get there. Might the latter portion of that extend to anime?

Well, there's three episodes left. The journey isn't even over. I just wish the journey so far wasn't as bland, though. Maybe I'll check in for the next stretch, but probably only if that's less than ten bucks too.