The subject of this review kind of breaks the basic idea of The Land of Obscusion in that I'm going off of a recent BD/DVD combo release of a show that originally aired last year & was brought over by the biggest name in the anime business here in North America, FUNimation. In fact, this is the first time I've ever reviewed an anime that "FUNi" released over here; the closest I ever got before was Fullmetal Alchemist Reflections, which they didn't bring over. Still, this was a show that didn't really get too much talk back when it aired, and didn't seem to have any real anticipation when the home video release was coming up. Now, since release, it's been reviewed by others, especially over at ANN (twice, even), but this anime was one that had my interest when it was announced, mainly because I had heard of the manga before & was interested in checking it out. So allow me to break away from my norm, in a sense, and let's take a look at Manglobe's 2013 anime adaptation of Touya Mikanagi's Karneval.
Gareki is a thief who robs from the rich, but during an attempt at stealing from Lady Miné's mansion he comes across an odd boy named Nai, who is handcuffed. Feeling bad for him, Gareki decides to help free Nai, but Miné herself transforms into a monster that hunts after the two, though they manage to escape with help from Gareki's bombs. Stowing away onto a train to escape, the two wind up getting involved in helping rescue an old businessman & his granddaughter from some hostage takers. On the train as well are Tsukumo & Hirato, two members of the government's Central Defense Agency, Circus. Finding an interest in Nai's super-hearing ability, Circus takes in the two boys & agrees to help Nai look for Karoku, who had lived with Nai until recently. Unknown to Gareki & Nai at the moment, though, is that they & Circus have more in common than they thought, as all of them have a connection to the mysterious organization Kafka, who claim to be following the path of evolution with their beings called Varuga.
Karneval is interesting in that it gives off a slight feel that it's going to execute itself like a shonen action title, but it's manga origins from Ichijinsha's Monthly Comic Zero-Sum, which is a josei magazine, keeps it from being exactly that. There are battles between Circus & Kafka to be found, but the focus here is definitely on the characters and it's really what the show does best. Obviously, the major focus is on Gareki & Nai throughout the entire show, but thankfully the two are a great pleasure to watch. Nai had a heavily sheltered life while with Karoku, which makes everything he's going through with Gareki & Circus a series of brand new experiences & you definitely get a great sense of growth in the boy. His partner-"in-crime", in turn, gives off a strong outward vibe of "The only one you can trust is yourself," and he always maintains that jerk-like exterior, but you quickly see that Gareki does have a caring soul, tying into his own backstory, and it's that duality to his character that makes him very likable. Following them in terms of being a "main character" is Yogi, a member of Circus' Airship Two team who Hirato puts in charge of keeping watch of Gareki & Nai. Yogi is essentially the balance between the leads, generally being very childlike & happy-go-lucky but when needed can be serious enough to prove his worth in Circus. If I have to choose a favorite character between these three, I would likely pick Yogi because of his energy & caring nature; it's really hard to not like Yogi.
The other main members of Circus don't get as much focus & appearances, but they still become memorable simply by having generally strong personalities. Coming in closest to being shown about as often as the former three is Tsukumo, who is generally the quiet & serious type but is completely willing to show caring & worry about her friends & compatriots when the chips are down. Hirato, the leader of Airship Two, showcases some indications of being conniving, not hesitating to admit to his bosses at the government's Research Tower that he doesn't hide Nai solely so that Varuga can come to his squad to meet their destruction. Still, he cares for his team & fully admits that he leads a killing squad (Circus describes their fight against Kafka as "freeing" Varuga from the torture they are in), making him relatable to some fashion. Roudning out Hirato's team is Iva, the eldest of the three warriors (Yogi calls her "Big Sis"), and though she doesn't get too much screentime her rough-yet-loving attitude, and I mean really rough, shines through nicely. At the Research Tower we get Dr. Akari, the head of the hospital who has a personal hatred for Hirato due to their seeming conflict of ideologies (saving life vs. ending it), and isn't exactly liked by individual members of Circus either, his own nurses hate him, but you do get a strong sense of a man who is willing to accept being hated if it means he can save more lives. The other members of Circus shown off are the crew of Airship One, lead by the sarcastic Tsukitachi & is made up of two members, the egotistical Kiichi & the quiet Jiki. While Tsikitachi makes the occasional appearnace alongside Hirato, Kiichi & Jiki make only a few appearances until near the end, but even then only Jiki gets some more than simply a moment of showing off. Considering that the manga is still on-going as of this review, it's likely they get more focus in the story that happens after what the anime covers.
On the side of Kafka we get some short-lived warriors here & there, but the major characters there are Uro, the seeming-leader Palnedo, & Karoku himself. None of this is really a spoiler, either, as all of them are showcased in the first episode, and the way two of them are handled in particular is really neat. Palnedo is originally introduced as the businessman that's taken hostage on the train, along with his granddaughter Eliska. While it isn't exactly indicated whether or not the hostage situation was a ploy or not, Palnedo does admit that he is intrigued with Hirato & his crew. Eliska, though, is a true innocent to everything & has no idea about Kafka & the Varuga, though she does quickly fall in love with Karoku. Nai's old partner, in turn, is obviously given some sense of importance with Kafka, with Uro calling him "Master Karoku", but his character is meant to be one of the big mysteries of the story. He does still maintain a sort of slight psychic connection with Nai and even tries to tell Nai in his dreams to leave Gareki before he "breaks"; upon hearing this Gareki does admit to wanting to meet Karoku, though. Uro, on the other hand, mainly exists in a second-in-command fashion, keeping his true stength a mystery. To be fair, from what I could find out (without being spoiled) Uro still remains mostly a mystery in the manga. The sense of the unknown & wonderment of what Kafka exactly is remains throughout the anime, but at least they look to fit the themes of author Franz Kafka.
I'm in no way an expert on Franz Kafka's works, in fact I'm not even a neophyte, but from what I can tell of what the man tended to write I would say that Karneval does keep his themes intact, at the very least. Kafka's works tended to focus on surreal happenings with strong themes of alienation, complex bureaucracy, family conflicts, & literal transformations, among other things. All of these things do play a role in varying extents in this story. For example, Hirato, Tsukitachi, & Akari all answer to a mysterious group of government heads who are never shown off (outside of green silhouettes), with these heads tending to wonder why Circus does things the way they do. Nai & Karoku's relationship has a sense of familial seperation, not to mention Gareki's backstory that's covered from episodes 4-6. Finally, the Varuga all go through some sort of transformation when they need to access their full powers, with even the appearance of bug-type features (a nice allusion to Kafka's well-known short story The Transformation), and the magician-like powers that the members of Circus have do help bring about a strong sense of the surreal. In fact, all of this surrealism makes Gareki feel inadequate a number of times, but what keeps him going is his conviction to stand with Nai & help him. Truly, that is the strongest theme in Karneval: Conviction. Just about everyone has some strong conviction that keeps them going & fighting against the odds. Nai will seemingly go anywhere if he can find Karoku, Gareki will always be there for Nai, Yogi simply wants to keep everyone safe from Kafka, and so on. Everyone just comes off as someone you can trust & believe in, which is cool.
In terms of production, the anime comes off really slick. The animation, directed by Eiji Suganuma (generally a key animator & animation director for shows like the Read or Die & Fatal Fury OVAs), looks really nice & free of any notable errors (naturally, I'm going off of the home video release, so I don't know if any existed on TV); the last two episodes are especially kinetic & extremely well done. The series composition & script by Touko Machida (Lucky Star, Allison & Lilia) is very story focused & has no real moments of feeling dragged along; something's always happening & it's never boring. The character designs & animation direction by Toshie Kawamura (The World God Only Knows, select episodes of Samurai Flamenco) look really nice & seem to match Touya Mikanagi's original style well, too. Finally, the music is a team effort by Shiroh Hamaguchi (he just seems to keep coming up on this blog, doesn't he?) & Kenji Inai (The Knight in the Area, Outbreak Company). Resume-wise this teaming seems like a case of an experienced master (Hamaguchi) helping out a relative newcomer (Inai), but the mix works out well. I'm going to guess that Hamaguchi leads the grand orchestral pieces, while Inai handles the more rock-style beats & the two mix well together. The opening theme is "Henai no Rondo" by GRANRODEO, which starts off very carnival-ish before going into a very memorable rock anthem; it may not be the band's best anime theme, but it's up there. The ending theme, "Reason" by KAmiYU (the seiyuu duo of Hiroshi Kamiya & Miyu Irino), is a fun & unbeat finale for each episode (minus one at the end) that might be more fun to listen to than the OP.
The Japanese voice cast is well done overall & filled with a number of seiyuu who are known for their "pretty boy" typecasting. Gareki & Nai are voiced by Hiroshi Kamiya (Trafalgar Law in One Piece, Takeshi Kawai in Ring ni Kakero 1) & Hiro Shimono (Keima Katsuragi in The World God Only Knows, Ayato in RahXephon), respectively. Kamiya actually tones down the bishonen sound for Gareki & works more with his rough & jerk-ish side, while Shimono plays up the natural amusement & emotion that Nai is prone to, and the duo do work very well together. Yogi is voiced by Mamoru Miyano (Taichi in Chihayafuru, Chrollo Lucifer in Hunter X Hunter ), who really works seemingly twice as hard as anyone by giving the character so much passion & love for everyone in his team, while also delivering serious moments excellently. Tsukumo doesn't show tons of emotion by virtue of her character, but Aya Endo (Sheryl Nome in Macross Frontier, Miyuki in Lucky Star) does a fine job keeping her likable. Daisuke Ono (Casshern in Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, Sebastian in Black Butler), likewise, does a fittingly deep voice for Captain Hirato. The rest of the noteworthy Japanese cast includes the likes of Junichi Suwabe (Uro), Koji Yusa (Tsukitachi), Souichiro Hoshi (Karoku), & Masashi Hirose (Palnedo), among others.
FUNimation's English dub, directed by Christopher Bevins (Princess Jellyfish, Sengoku Basara series), is no slouch by any means, either. Gareki & Nai are voiced by Greg Ayers (Youhei in Clannad, Negi in Negima!) & Sean Michael Teague (Koenma in Yu Yu Hakusho, Ren in Big Windup!), who follow a similar lead with their Japanese counterparts but still give their characters a somewhat different feel. Director Bevins also voices Yogi, who may actually beat Miyano's performance when it comes to the emotion delivered. Another really cool performance is by Brandon Potter (Shanks in One Piece, Harima in School Rumble), who gives Uro a neat British-esque accent that fits the calm demeanor of the villain well. Rounding out the major dub cast is Aaron Dismuke (Jiki), J. Michael Tatum (Tsukitachi; also purple-prose-loving co-writer for the dub), Vic Mignogna (Karoku), Jad Saxton (Tsukumo), & Jessica Cavanaugh (Iva), plus many others. FUNi's home video release also includes dub commentary for the first & last episodes, which include a lot of info on voice acting (including Bevins admitting to wearing a Vegeta head when voicing Yogi's public Nyanperowna outfit), the show itself, plus a shout-out to "all twelve" people who bought Big Windup!. There is also a Tatum-lead look at Karneval & how each character's clothing matches their personalities, and it does showcase, much like the commentaries, how much the cast really enjoyed working on this show. It's definitely an excellent dub that's well worth watching the show a second time just to listen to.
When Karneval debuted on Japanese television last year, it seemed to mostly get ignored by anime fans, seemingly on both sides of the Pacific. While I have no idea how the anime did for the manga's sales, the Japanese home video release apparently didn't quite sell, making the chances of a second season kind of slim (the dub cast really wants a second season, though); to the show's credit, though, it doesn't end on any big cliffhanger. Over here, the show just seemed to get lost in the shuffle & wasn't quite given the attention it really deserved. Sure, it's more or less a big advertisement for a still-running manga which leaves numerous questions unanswered, but it's an extremely well done one that's a lot of fun to watch & filled with relatable characters, a cool concept of humanity vs. "evolution", and even the Kafka-esque elements are done well, giving Karneval a style that others may lack. I will say this, at least: It really makes me want to read the manga, which won't require going to non-legal means soon because Yen Press announced a couple of weeks ago they'll start releasing the manga next March. In the meanwhile, here's hoping a second season gets made one day. Hey, if Chihayafuru can bomb on DVD & BD yet still get a second season due to manga sales, then there's always hope for Karneval.