Karneval (Blu-ray) Review

Don'tcha just love the circus?

Karneval seems to be the lovechild of a mangaka who wanted to fold Final Fantasy, Soul Eater and Spirited Away together and see what came out of such an unholy union. That's not to say the idea couldn't produce something original, but at the same time there's a distinct sense of familiarity. It goes beyond mere homage or utilisation of the tropes of the anime medium and into "I could've sworn I've seen this before" territory. Whether you're one for going over well-trod ground or prefer the undiscovered country will largely determine how much you end up taking to Karneval's thirteen episodes of colourful adventure making.

The story follows Nai, a young platinum-haired protagonist (with strange purple hair-horns) who's snatched away from a fate worse than death at the hands of a shape shifting Eldritch nightmare who'd fit right at home in Yubaba's bathhouse. Nai's saviour, Gareki, brings him to the attention of Circus, apparently the most powerful military defence force on the planet whose members all look like stage magicians. Circus exists to handle the crazy supernatural stuff the normal world can't handle, while they themselves are under scrutiny by Kafka, a mysterious organisation who may or may not have something to do with the aforementioned Eldritch creatures and illegal genetic experimentation. Our heroes must aid Circus in their endeavours while also trying to get to the bottom of why everyone seems to want to get their hands on Nai.

The major drawcard Karneval possesses is colour; as befits an anime whose title and naming devices elicit ideas of big, bombastic circus life, the palette and thematic schemes on display are gorgeous. The earliest and most striking visual elements are characters' eyes - drawn in a strange manner with gradient irises instead of single-colour eyeballs - and it only escalates from there. The fore- and backgrounds are rich with visual detail, but at the same time the colour doesn't overwhelm the story. Visual gorgeousness also extends to the kinda strange aesthetic the show utilises. There are old-school castles and seaside villages that go with machine guns and business suits to create an interesting style; it's somewhat like how Attack on Titan combines agrarian garb and horses with ninja-flipout-swordfighting and wall-mounted cannons. So if nothing else you can take away that Karneval is really, really pretty.

But beyond the stellar art style, Karneval has a couple of problems. I can't tell if it was made specifically for those who've read the manga or not, but it feels like a story with half the exposition missing. I spent most of the first episode scratching my head, only just registering much of what was happening thanks to the perfunctory explanation the box blurb gave me. I get that a lot of anime choose to begin in medias res but there's a bit of grounding needed to keep your audience engaged from the off. Things become clearer as the story progresses, but it's definitely the kind of shaky start I'd recommend against implementing.

As I said, the overlapping character arcs and mish-mash of visual elements bring a lot of familiarity from within other IPs to the fore, most pointedly borrowing battle scenes, aesthetics, character archetypes and even that thrown-in-the-deep-end opening from the Final Fantasy games. The secret ruling council of Circus evokes Seele from Neon Genesis Evangelion, the airship our protagonists use looks snagged from Cowboy Bebop, and some of the town scenes look to borrow a bit of the aesthetic style from Tales of Xillia. It might be a little unfair to point out similarities between Karneval and other contemporaries, but considering how hard it is to get invested in the story from the get-go it's hard not to notice the little things early on.

The English voice cast acquit themselves adequately, but there's a problem with the sound engineering in that dialogue intended to sound like thought bubbles isn't altered as such; whenever Gareki's thinking about why Nai is apparently so valuable to everyone it sounds like he's directly asking Nai rather than having that echoey quality as he introspects. It's a little disconcerting to see Gareki seemingly ponder this stuff out loud while his lips don't move, prompting questions as to whether the man has somehow cultivated unsubtle telepathy.

Also, on a minor note, Nai's English-dubbed voice is a little annoying. I get Nai's not exactly the kind of deep-voiced badass J. Michael Tatum might lend his vocal chords to (much less a character who might not be entirely human), but voice actor Sean Teague can't seem to decide whether Nai should sound like a pre-teen boy or an androgynous runaway and wavers between the two. With everything else going on the inconsistency is a little jarring.

I sound like I'm bitching a little too much, and I don't mean to, but Karneval doesn't have the kind of wham-in-your-face story it needs to backup the truly gorgeous visual design. At the end of the day I guess I'd call it "ok". Might not make for as much of an engrossing epic as it does a series of quite pretty scenes and characters, but I guess they all can't be winners. If nothing else, at least it didn't think to lecture me on correct potato harvesting techniques the way Maoyu did.

- Chris
 Karneval is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Madman now!


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