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Sunday, December 24, 2017

Corpse Princess: Some Shikabane are Always Trying to Ice-Skate Uphill...

Three years ago, I volunteered to be a part of the Reverse Thieves' yearly Anime Secret Santa, where volunteers are given a fellow participant (or, as I put it, "victim") to recommend three different anime to watch, with the "victim" having to choose at least one to watch & review in time for Christmas Eve; obviously, this is all done under utmost secrecy until Christmas Day, when everyone is revealed. The end result was me watching & reviewing The Legend of Black Heaven, which I absolutely loved. I held off on returning to the project for two years, as I always hate having to actually recommend stuff to people, especially when it's for people I likely don't know. This year, however, I decided to give it another go, & so I received three anime to choose from. There was Angel Links, the spin-off of Outlaw Star, & Descendants of Darkness, which saw a re-release by Discotek back in 2015, but after consideration I decided to go with what was actually the first one in the list, and what better time than the Holiday Season to watch an anime about zombies, am I right?

Kuro's title splash here, but the only difference is the kanji in the lower right.

Shikabane Hime/Corpse Princess debuted in the pages of Monthly Shonen GanGan in 2005 & was the first serialized work from a new mangaka named Yoshiichi Akahito; there were also two one-shot stories that predated the serialization. The manga did very well during its run, lasting 23 volumes until it ended in 2014; Akahito has since only done one other series, Saisei no Phantasma, that actually ended this year. In late 2008, Corpse Princess was adapted into a TV anime that was co-animated by the relatively new studio Feel (Jinki: Extend, Da Capo) & the legendary Gainax, which had been riding off of the success of Gurren Lagann just a year prior. Though it ran straight into early 2009 for 26 episodes, it was technically split up into two seasons, Aka/Red & Kuro/Black. For simplicity's sake, and also since there was no hiatus between seasons, I'll be covering this anime here in its entirety. So was this a good recommendation by [*Secret Santa to be added later*], or did this miss the mark with me in some way?

Ouri Kagami has been raised in the Dai-Rin House, a small child welfare home/Buddhist temple, since he was three, when he was picked up a monk of the Kougon Sect named Keisei Tagami, who Ouri now considers his surrogate brother. Now coming up on 16 & in high school, Ouri decides to move to a small apartment to live on his own, but while transporting his stuff to his new place a girl roughly his age falls from the ground. He's surprised to see that it's the same girl he secretly came across once a couple of years ago one night in the temple, and she's just as cold & dead as she was back then. Remembering that Keisei seemingly revived her back then with a hug, Ouri tries as well, & she awakens. In reality, the girl, named Makina Hoshimura, was chasing after a Shikabane, one who died with regrets & now is effectively the undead. Makina works with Keisei as a Shikabane Hime, as she too is a Shikabane herself, but one who kills other Shikabane to let them rest in peace. Slowly, Ouri will get further drawn into the battle the Kougon Sect has with Shikabane, especially when Akasha Shishido, a former Kougon monk who went rogue & killed his own Shikabane Hime, returns with plans to destroy the Kougon Sect along with the Seven Stars, the group of Shikabane that killed Makina & her family.

Though I'm covering the anime as a whole, it would only be fair to bring up how the two seasons operate on their own. Corpse Princess Aka introduces the plot & characters, showing Makina & the occasional other Hime in the area taking on Shikabane that are spawned from various obsessions. There's a bit of a monster-of-the-week formula, but that only stays for the first half, with the second half being about giving the world of the Kougon Sect more development, and showing how intertwined Ouri really is with it. The last four episodes introduce the Seven Stars & their first attack on Makina, followed by an epilogue. Corpse Princess Kuro, in turn, follows up six months after Makina's first encounter with the Seven Stars. She's been holed up in containment after becoming cursed in order to defeat her foe, while Ouri has been training to be a monk on Mt. Goryo by Umehara, a contracted monk so powerful that he has two different Hime; sadly, we only see one (Flesh) throughout this anime, minus a quick flashback scene. I'd argue that Ouri's fate isn't a spoiler, as Aka's ending credits show him in monk garb after Episode 5. Compared to the slight monster-of-the-week formula of Aka, Kuro is much more focused on serialized storytelling, dealing directly with Makina's conflict with the Seven Stars.

Honestly, one of the most interesting aspects of this anime is in how it twists the general concept of death & what comes from it. Generally, when someone dies then there is nothing more left of them, aside from the memory of that person that remains in those who knew them. That being said, what if there was the potential of life beyond death, and not simply as a ghost or a mindless zombie? Corpse Princess handles this via both the regular Shikabane & the Hime that fight them. Shikabane exist because of an obsession that drove them so much that they couldn't accept dying, usually resulting in them becoming twisted & monstrous, even if it's something as conceptually noble as an idol wanting to continue singing or an ostracized young man wanting to deliver "justice" upon those who do "evil". The Seven Stars claim to differ from the usual by being driven by their own natures that took over their original lives, which make them stronger. Though the bug-controlling Hazama is the de facto leader, they all actually admit that the strongest is Hokuto, a young girl who died without knowing anything like regret or "nature"; her entire existence as a Shikabane is that of death, nothing more or less.

On the other hand, those who are Hime become so due to tragedy more than unfulfilled wishes. Makina was simply an innocent girl who was killed because she was part of the Hoshimura family, which had a relation to the Kougon Sect; she's fighting primarily for vengeance. Another interesting Hime is Minai, who is revealed to be a woman who tried committing suicide with her lover, only to "fail" (though still dying); in turn, she thinks of her afterlife as a Hime as punishment for killing herself. Unlike your standard undead, though, Hime look & operate as if they were living, which allows them to mix with society if need be; the only giveaway is that they have no heartbeat & are cold to the touch. Overall, the anime brings about the idea of if there is a chance at redeeming your existence, even after death. Halfway into Aka, it's revealed that Hime are allowed entrance into Heaven upon killing 108 Shikabane, but what does that mean to someone like Makina, who doesn't believe that much in Heaven? Quite honestly, it reminds me a bit of B't X, which I approve. Similar to how that series asked how "human" robots can become via the B'ts, Corpse Princess questions whether those who have already died, but can't move on, should still be considered as human. They still eat, sleep, bathe, take showers, cry, & even love... But, as some in the Kougon Sect would argue, should they be allowed those traits in life beyond death? Similarly, should the living treat them as still human, or are they not worthy of that status anymore?

Granted, the living are also multifaceted, with many being more than their initial looks give off. Keisei is your standard monk, though he loves pushing his love for female figurines on to his brother, but his dedication to his job & to Makina keeps him intensely likable. In comparison, in Aka we have Isaki, a low-ranking monk who only wants to rise up the ranks. Because of that drive, he treats his Hime Minai like nothing more than a tool that follows his commands, yet deep down feels attraction towards her, which sickens him. Then there's Rika, a higher-ranking Kougon Sect monk who's usually shown with her giant chest only being hidden behind a large bra, but since the show is honestly rather low on fanservice, and she's honestly very smart & caring, Rika's lack of a shirt (minus moments where she has to dress more accordingly) comes off more as a personal choice of comfort than being nothing more than boobs for the viewer to ogle at, though that doesn't stop Saki, her childish Hime, from making her feel awkward in front of Keisei, who she likes. Hell, even Akasha feels somewhat relatable, as his decision to kill his own Hime & become a "Traitor Monk" is more of a feeling that he found out a truth that collapsed everything he had believed in, yet deep down he still has a loving respect for Keisei, who he trained with years ago. Not just that, but he's easily in well over his head with the Seven Stars, who treat Akasha as nothing more than a tool for their own ends... And you get the feeling that Akasha knows this, too.

All of this, yet I haven't gotten to the main character, Ouri. While he does come off a little standard in some regards (dedicated to his cause, gets involved when he shouldn't, etc.), he's at least executed well by feeling very relatable, compassionate, & likable, and his mysterious backstory (because of course he has such a thing) isn't exactly as easily guessable here, due to the various directions it could have gone. His relationship with Makina is nicely developed as the story moves on, and Keisei's importance in Makina's life helps make it feel more complicated than it could have been if it was more cut & dry. Makina, in turn, is rather tough as nails & makes no attempts to hide her rough side, though deep down she truly cares for the likes of Keisei & (over time) Ouri, and luckily she never goes into a tsundere attitude when it comes to this; if she has to be honest with herself she makes it known. Interestingly enough, while the anime is technically about what are effectively zombies, it replaces lots of blood & gore (it's actually rather tame in regards to showing either) with a strong focus on character relationships & the bonds between them, especially in how literal & figurative bonds between people truly are & how that affects their strength.

The anime's head writer was the infamous Sho/Noboru Aikawa, known for both serious fare like Fullmetal Alchemist [2003] & more playful stories like Oh! Edo Rocket. In that regard, Aikawa definitely aims for the serious here and, from what I can tell after researching online, it looks like only Aka is actually manga-accurate, adapting up through Volume 3 or so. Honestly, it's easy to tell that Kuro goes into its own story, because alongside being more serialized in nature is the barrage of major plot points & character revelations in the entire second half of Kuro. I wouldn't exactly call the execution in the last 5-7 episodes "sloppy", per se, but they definitely throw a lot of stuff at you one after another, as if Aikawa realized that he took too long setting things up & tried his best to fit everything else he wanted to tell in. To be fair, it still works in the end, and the way the show ends is one of the most interesting executions of the old "the story continues on" I've ever seen; I honestly never considered having a story end quite like it does here. There's also a home video exclusive OVA that acts as Episode 26, which shows how Isaki & Minai came to become a pair, and it's honestly my favorite episode of the entire series; I absolutely loved Minai's character, so seeing her origin story was a real treat.

Keisei is a MAN (*punch sound effect*)!!!

As for the rest of the staff, both seasons were directed by Masahiko Murata (Baby Steps, Mazinkaiser OVA & movie), who kept everything flowing well between each episode, & the fact that Gainax helped out with the animation resulted in the show looking very nice at all times. Surprisingly enough, though, the infamous "Gainax Bounce" only really became obvious in one episode in Aka, and even with the rather fanservice-friendly Hime Flesh there wasn't too much more added into Kuro. In fact, since this predated the exodus that would result in the formation of Studio Trigger, Corpse Princess features some animation done by the likes of Hiroyuki Imaishi, Akira Amemiya, Atsushi Nishigori, Katsuzo Hirata, & Yosuke Yoshigaki, who all worked on Gurren Lagann & later Kill la Kill; Imaishi's work on the opening animation is blatantly obvious. The character designs handled by the tag team of Chikashi Kubota (One Punch Man, the upcoming FLCL 2) & Kikuko Sadakata (Princess Resurrection OVA, Devils & Realist) look to be pretty accurate to Akahito's original manga, though I'd argue that Makina's eyes here aren't quite as wide as they seem to be in the manga, likely to emphasize her serious demeanor.

The music by Norihito Sumitomo (AsuraDragon Ball Super), who's more known for his work with J-Dramas & theatrical films, focuses very heavily on mood & emphasizing how the viewer should feel, with a lot of fittingly dreary & somber compositions, perfect for a story about the dead who just won't stay dead. As for the opening & ending themes, it's all by one of my personal favorite Japanese groups, angela. Opener "Beautiful Fighter", which is used for both seasons, utilizes the usual dramatic flair that angela is primarily known for, but mixes in an excellent sense of dread in the use of instruments here; I literally never skipped this OP, because it's that outstanding of a song. Aka's primary ending theme is "My Story", which is more along the lines of your usual angela song, mixing together a sense of introspection with a fast beat that keeps you from focusing too long on what's happened, instead emphasizing where to go next in your own story of life. Kuro's primary ending theme is "Hikari, Sagasenaku Tomo", which is more of a forceful ballad, with its slower yet very strong beat, a nice reflection on what has since happened. Acting as the ending theme for both the last episode of Aka & the first episode of Kuro is "Beginning", which is the slowest of all the songs, acting as a perfect transition from one season to another. There's also Episode 4's ending, "Nemureru Hoshi no Aoi Suna" by Mayumi Iizuka, which is a J-Pop ballad that ties in with the theme of the episode, where an idol becomes a Shikabane, but is otherwise nothing really special. Truly, Corpse Princess is one of angela's finest showcases, alongside the Fafner franchise.

I alternated between the original Japanese cast & FUNimation's English dub as I watched the anime, & both are equally good ways of watching the story play out. Makina is voiced in Japanese by Eri/Nana Akiyama, a guest performance as she's known primarily for live-action, & Luci Christian (Nami in One Piece) in English, and both do a great job in making Makina sound appropriately pissed & dour on her afterlife, though giving moments of the young girl she once was to shine; in fact, Akiyama didn't seem to have that cadence that most live-action actors have when they do voice work. Ouri is performed by Tatsyua Hasome (Jo Yokosuka in Rainbow) & Aaron Dismuke (Van in FUNi's Escalfowne dub), and were either just out of their teens (Hasome) or on the verge (Dismuke), which in turn resulted in performances that actually fit the lead well in terms of sounding like an actual teenager. Keisei is done by Keiji Fujiwara (Lon in B't X) & J. Michael Tatum (Dr. Gel in Space Dandy), both of which deliver a perfect mix of constant silliness & straightforward seriousness; this is essentially second nature for someone like Fujiwara. Really, that's kind of the way the dub works, with most of the cast matching the general mood & feel as that of the original Japanese, whether it's Mitsuru Miyamoto or Josh Grelle's Akasha, Chika Fujimura or Brina Palencia's Hokuto, or even Yui Horie or Greg Ayers' Black Cat (a ghost cat that follows Ouri around). The Japanese cast does have at least one interesting change of pace, though, which is Tomokazu Sugita's Isaki, as Sugita (at least to me) tends to voice very likable or at least respectable characters, while Isaki was such a detestable monk without actually becoming a villain, and Sugita nailed him excellently. Regardless of which language you go with, though, you're going to get a great cast.

If Kuro gets the title splash, then Aka gets the cover art.

Similar to my prior Anime Secret Santa experience, I knew very little about Corpse Princess going into this. In fact, I would keep getting it confused with Princess Resurrection, which also focused on "zombies" & aired just a year prior. That's honestly the big appeal for what the Reverse Thieves do every year, because I'm always willing to check out series I know next to nothing about; it's getting "ready" that I'm lazy on, so essentially being forced to do so is a motivator. That being said, I kind of hate actually recommending things to people specifically, which makes me hesitant in constantly being a part of this program every holiday. Anyway, I think it's easy to see that I had a great time with Corpse Princess, and this really is a show worth checking out if you want something that's both familiar yet also just different enough to make it stand out by way of its subject matter & Sho Aikawa's original spin as it moves into the second season. Corpse Princess also makes for a really neat time machine into the last real time Studio Gainax still had its status as a truly legendary studio, as Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt would air a year after this anime's end, which would then be followed by the exodus of animators that lead to the creation of Studio Trigger; since then, with maybe the exception of Medaka Box in 2012, the studio has really fallen in notoriety. Feel, in comparison, has had highs & lows since this anime, with shows like So, I Can't Play H!, Bikini Warriors, Season 1 of Dagashi Kashi, & Please Tell Me! Galko-chan.

If you're interested in this adaptation of Yoshiichi Akahito's manga, it's been a part of FUNimation's S.A.V.E. line since 2013, so you can get the entire series on DVD for less than $20. Personally, I hate that line's puke green spines, & the reverse covers aren't what I want in a cover, so I managed to get the original complete series set for a good price for this review. As for the original manga, Yen Press has been releasing it as a digital exclusive since 2015, & Volume 13 came out this past October, so while it's not streaming on CrunchyRoll or the like at the moment, it's not hard to get your severed hands on this series.

Merry Christmas, ya filthy zombies!

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