Appellate Judge Dan Mancini always confuses "Karas," which means "the crow" in Japanese, with "Karras," which means "the retired pro football player, and former star of Webster." It's an easy mistake to make.
Mikura is on the rise again.
The marketing materials for Karas: The Prophecy are loaded with comparisons to Batman Begins. Is there any surer sign of the artistic and financial success of Christopher Nolan's tale of the caped crusader's origin than flagging franchises—from James Bond to Star Trek (and its recently announced prequel film)—fronting comparisons toBegins in order to recapture the interest of their increasingly disheartened fans? "It's just like Batman Begins!" is the latest Hollywood code for "We've learned from our past mistakes; we promise."
In the case of Karas: The Prophecy, though, the comparison is fairly apropos. The OVA—Tatsunoko Productions' celebration of its fortieth year producing titles like Speed Racer, Gatchaman, Robotech, and Neon Genesis Evangelion—is a dark and somber story about a troubled hero who places himself between a villainous megalomaniac and the city he loves.
Facts of the Case
Tokyo of the not-too-distant future is a city cohabited by human beings and the ghosts and demons of the spirit world. The precariously thin line dividing these two worlds is protected by a mechanized flesh/spirit warrior known as the Karas (or Crow). The city has teetered on the edge of destruction since an Edo-period Karas named Lord Eko (Matthew Lillard, Scream) defected and turned to evil. He's systematically destroyed every Karas who followed him. Now he's building an army of Mikura—demons who have crossed into the material world in mechanized bodies—as the final step in his quest to destroy Tokyo.
The only thing standing between Eko and the total annihilation of the city is a new Karas: Otoha, a spirit physician whose physical body rests in a coma in one of the city's many hospitals. Otoha works with his handler—the city's spirit-priestess, Yurine (Piper Perabo, Coyote Ugly)—to master his skills so that he can stop the formidable Eko and his army. There's only one problem: An old prophecy indicates he's fighting a battle he cannot win.
Meanwhile, Inspector Kure of the Shinjuki precinct police force's Intervention Department—which handles crimes that cross the boundary between the physical and spirit worlds—is tracking a serial killer who leaves his victims without a drop of blood or water in their shriveled bodies. At the same time, a hipster vagabond named Nue (Jay Hernandez, Hostel) arrives in the city by train. A demon in disguise and one-time Mikura, he's on the hunt for other Mikura. When the demon army stages an attack on Otoha's physical body, Nue and the Karas form a shaky alliance.
Karas: The Prophecy is action-packed, that's for sure. Fight sequences make full use of the picture's stunning and tasteful mix of two-dimensional, hand-drawn animation and three-dimensional, computer-generated imagery. The movie opens with a bang as Lord Eko and a soon-to-be-defeated Karas duke it out first in the stratosphere, then in the streets of Tokyo, endangering the lives of Christmas shoppers and demolishing much property as they go. It's visually impressive, but almost too frenetic. Everything happens so quickly—missiles fired, Karas and Eko morphing from spaceships to armored warriors, punches thrown, buildings destroyed—it's almost enough to induce a seizure. Still, it's pretty damned cool.
The problem with Karas is that, despite dazzling action sequences that take up a fair portion of its 80-minute running time, it still tries to present a convoluted plot typical of anime productions. It's not enough that the Karas faces off against demons. They must be demons who manifest as outsized mechanized beings, for no apparent reason other than that Japanese audiences can't get enough of outsized mechas who beat the snot out of one another. More importantly, the relationships between Otoha, Yurine, Eko, Kure, and Nue are difficult to piece together. This is a good thing at first, as it kept me on my toes, trying to make sense of the rich, textured world I was watching. Unfortunately, details remain a bit murky by feature's end. The miniature Dark Horse comic included as an extra in this set is only tangentially related to what we see onscreen (its Tokyo is a world shared by humans and monsters that look like anthropomorphized animals), but it goes a long way in clearing up the titular prophecy. An audience shouldn't need a comic adaptation and a marketing blurb on the back of a keepcase to make sense of a movie's plot.
This is part one of a two-part release, though. Because of its slick beauty, and the fact that it gets so much right, Karas: The Prophecy deserves the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully, it's like the first volume of Kill Bill, front-loading gonzo action, while saving the majority of satisfying substance and plot payoffs for the second half of the tale. Despite the haziness of some of its plot details, Karas's tone and attitude is satisfyingly dark. Yet it offers small oases of tonally-precise, cynical humor that lighten the drama without undermining it. There's none of the silly slapstick to which anime is unfortunately prone. The stakes in the battle between Eko and the Karas feel real. Otoha and Yurine make a heroic duo, and Nue is a likable troubled anti-hero. The mystery surrounding the serial killer tracked by Kure is also intriguing. If Karas: The Revelation—scheduled to arrive on store shelves later this year—can live up to its name by delivering a satisfying resolution to the cluster of questions raised by The Prophecy, we may be looking at a new anime classic.
Manga's transfer of Karas: The Prophecy is close to perfect. The image is sharp and detailed. Patterns of light—like the Karas's illuminated eyes—sparkle, while shadow areas are deep and subtle. The animation's intense and abundant movement is rendered smoothly and without video defects. The only noticeable flaw in the transfer is a tiny bit of moiré in the reproduction of fog and mist. The presentation is anamorphically-enhanced widescreen, framed at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The Dolby Digital 6.1 EX soundtracks—in both Japanese and English—sound spectacular, even though my vanilla 5.1 surround system isn't capable of delivering them in all of their glory. More limited Dolby Stereo Surround tracks are also offered in both languages. All four options present crisp dialogue, thundering effects, and a precisely-designed ambient space. The original Japanese track offers the better performances, which is a little disappointing considering Manga enlisted name actors to create the English-language dub.
Supplements are relatively healthy. They include a brief montage that looks at the making of the feature, a concept/animation comparison that offers insight into the way 2D and 3D animation was married in the feature, an assortment of Japanese trailers and television advertisements, and some interviews with the Japanese cast and crew. As previously mentioned, a brief comic book adaptation of Karas by Dark Horse is included inside the keepcase.
When Tatsunoko Productions decides to pat itself on the back for a few decades of jobs well done, it spares no expense. Karas: The Prophecy is one wicked-cool looking piece of anime (its artwork puts Samurai 7 and its fat budget to shame), with edge-of-your seat action setpieces, and a deliciously dark tone. The jury's still out as to whether or not Karas will deliver as a story, but The Prophecy is a solid enough actioner to whet my appetite for The Revelation.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Manga Video
• Behind the Scenes Montage: The Making of Karas
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