Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
In the late 19th century, Japan is undergoing a period of rapid westernization: the tenuous balance between the humans and the spirit world that once coexisted alongside them begins to crumble and slide into mutual distrust. Born into this tumultuous time, Zakuro is an orphaned half-spirit, a beautiful maiden who possesses otherworldly powers due to the nature of her parentage and who therefore has the trust of neither humans nor spirits. She and three other half-spirit girls – Susukihotaru, and twins Bonbori and Hozuki – are chosen to work in a new unit called the Ministry of Spiritual Affairs alongside three Lieutenants from the Japanese military – Agemaki Kei, Yoshinokazura Riken, and Hanakiri Ganryu. The two halves of the Ministry of Spiritual Affairs must first learn to trust one another, and then must untangle the complicated relations between humans who want to stride confidently into a new era and spirits who want to return to the glorious past.
I had never heard of Otome Youkai Zakuro before stumbling across it on Crunchyroll, though it seems to have been a well-received adaptation of a well-received manga when it debuted in 2010. Without having any sort of feedback to go on, I decided to give the show a shot for two very superficial reasons: the main male character, Agemaki (blondie up there), was attractive; and the character designs were handled in such a way that I didn’t want to run screaming away from the cute girls with cat ears.
Boy, am I glad I gave in to my superficiality!
Zakuro has got to be the single most expertly paced show I’ve ever seen: there is no single scene that doesn’t work to either progress the story or give personality or history to a character. Nothing feels extraneous; it doesn’t feel as though anything of great importance has been left out. It’s such a refreshingly simple thing to slip into Zakuro’s world without needing a history book or a list of Japanese myths to navigate the show, but the ambiance is still outlandish enough to keep things from getting stale. It helps that there is both comedy and action to break up the occasionally heavy-handed drama, with slapstick antics and life-or-death battles both vying for your attention every episode.
The real attractions, though, are the characters: Zakuro, Agemaki, and company aren’t just blank canvases going through the motions. They have established personalities from the get-go, and it’s amazing how much they progress as people through a measly thirteen episodes. Zakuro evolves from a fiercely anti-Western holdout to a young woman willing to compromise after witnessing the good that can come from change. Agemaki – outwardly charming, the son of a consummate soldier – is actually terrified of spirits and heights, and is even more afraid of these faults being discovered.
But he grows alongside Zakuro, learning to conquer his fears when what he wants to protect is more important that the weaknesses he tries to hide. The other members of the Ministry of Spiritual Affairs get less exposure, though each pair/group does get their own episode dedicated to fleshing out their personalities. Spoilers prevent me from giving specifics once again, but even the villains are presented in such a way as to earn the audience’s sympathy and understanding, if not their approval. The Japanese voice actors in every role absolutely breathe life into their characters – I can’t think of a single weak performance! Aki Toyosaki and Yui Horie, who voice twins Bonbori and Hozuki respectively, should be especially commended: they did such a fantastic job that I honestly believed both characters were voiced by a single person!
The animation varies from scene to scene and episode to episode but is never outright ugly. Some fight scenes have clearly had a large budget behind them and the scenes that get the most lackluster animation are talking-heads scenes that can’t be made to look that pretty anyhow. The music in the show doesn’t stand out except for the song that precedes an attack by Zakuro, a haunting tune that really sets the stage for the action that’s about to follow. The opening is a standard affair with hints of 80s synthesizers, but the endings change from episode to episode and are sung by the voice actors themselves. Little details like that make me enjoy this show that much more.
Still, despite all my praise of the show, there’s something about Zakuro that keeps it from really sticking out in a crowd, some inability to linger in the mind once you stop watching. Perhaps doing everything perfectly isn’t enough to make a show a classic if it’s treading on ground that has been well covered before by more popular shows. (Inuyasha comes to mind.)
There are a number of people I can think of in my life to whom I’d recommend this show (I’m talking to you, Suu!), including more casual fans. The low episode count and no-filler nature of the show make it a good introduction to someone looking for something that isn’t too shoujo or too shounen. Please give Otome Youkai Zakuro a shot!