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January 29, 2013

Anime Review – Blood-C (2011)

by Master Pillow

Blood-C is a maddening anime series to review precisely because it is a perfect example of a project that seems to have been constructed backwards from a simple plot twist meant for a short episode span into a bloated full season order. Instead of being cohesive and well-paced the show is rife with dead-weight filler that chews up far too much precious screentime focused on tangential elements that have no bearing on the overall plot.

At first glance Kisaragi Saya is your normal high school girl who merrily waltzes to school, her only worry in the world being to arrive on time. Yet even then Saya is a bit of a ditz who is easily sidetracked from such a simple task, often times spying a dog and wasting precious time deciding if she should hug it or not. Her classmates certainly goad her to no end at her apparent vacuousness yet this is a tease as they seem to be a close knit group of friends whose only concern is to pass their days merrily at school content to argue the relative merits of the local restaurants. However, this idyllic life belies a much darker secret that at night Saya is instead tasked to save the townspeople by becoming a skilled swordswoman who wields a mystical blade in order to kill a mysterious race of demons called Elder Bairns who feed on human beings.

Everyone save her father is clueless as to her real skill yet poor Saya also finds she is suffering from an extreme case of memory loss as well as bouts of splitting headaches that cause her to faint whenever she attempts to recall past events. Obviously, there is something afoot in this small town and Saya is at the center of it.

Blood-C is the newest incarnation of the long running Blood franchise first seen more than a decade ago with the feature film Blood: The Last Vampire and then followed by a few anime shows and even a lamentable live action installment. However, Blood-C only very loosely connects to previous shows deciding to essentially reboot the franchise with a totally different art style and narrative. Indeed, both elements are crafted by crack all-woman manga/anime team CLAMP whose style is obviously on display front and center with character designs that feature their signature elements of elongated limbs and relatively shrunken heads. Anyone who has seen Chobits, Magic Knight Rayearth, Tsubasa or xxxHolic will immediately recognize their art.

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Nevertheless, being designed by a famous team certainly has its strengths and weaknesses yet in this case it is the narrative as penned by them that has some serious shortcomings. This is because the CLAMP style of presenting the plot initially feels very much opposite to previous Blood series with an altogether different focus on slice of life vignettes that populate the first half of the show. Each episode is essentially broken into two halves, the first always concentrating on Saya and her high school hijinks with the second part showing her gruesome violent fights with the Elder Bairn demons. The juxtaposition could not be further apart as the cute light-hearted sequences in the morning clash mightily with the gore-infested bloody maimings of the night.

Make no mistake, the amount of blood and guts is simply staggering almost to the point of absurdity as so much arterial spray flows that it could create a new ocean. Limbs and other bodily parts are frequently sliced and diced or unceremoniously ripped in a sinewy display of torn skin and flesh that would cause the more squeamish to seriously get an upset stomach. The level of violence is so harsh that many countries have placed a censor on them with an artsy bright haze of light blooming on screen at precisely the right moment to hide the more gruesome kills. This tonal juxtaposition between day and night cycles makes the series feel as if it is two separate shows, one focused towards a younger audience more concerned with high school life and the more traditional Blood viewers who demand copious amounts of fighting and gore. Still, the previous Blood installments don’t hold a candle to the wanton display of violence here and it truly clashes with CLAMP’s cutesier artwork. Those viewers who have trouble accepting pretty girls dressed in essentially a short frilly skirt showing ample leg while slicing a demon in two will have a major immersion problem here.

Excessive violence aside, Blood-C has exemplary production values with mostly fluid animation and very little evidence of warping which can be discerned by pausing the picture allowing viewers to see individual frames where characters look slightly “distorted” from their usual selves. The quality on display should come as no surprise as the studio behind the series is none other than Production I.G. whose work on the previous Blood shows as well as Kill Bill and Ghost in the Shell is near legendary. Coupled with the visuals the series boasts an appropriate horror-inspired soundtrack as well as decent voice acting. If one were to grade the show based solely on technical aspects it would pass with flying colours. Unfortunately, production values are only one piece of the puzzle.

Let me recount one of the things I learned in film school vis a vis basic screenplay writing and that is the concept that the predominant feature of a script is white blank space. Anyone who has picked up an actual screenplay will realize that there really isn’t much “black” text as aspiring screenwriters learn that verbosity is the bane of their existence. Descriptions have to be pared down to their bare minimum and certainly camera angles or other instructions should almost always be removed as it is not the scriptwriter’s job but rather the director who chooses how to film what is on the page. At the same time, you learn that every single word or line of dialogue needs to be justified as either working towards pushing the plot forward or accorded to character development.

The reason for the previous paragraph on basic screenplay writing is simple in relation to Blood-C precisely because it seems just about everyone involved in this series has plainly forgotten this fundamental tenet and instead of carefully ensuring that everything said or shown relates to plot or characterization has allowed a copious amount of bloat and inconsequential elements into the story which truly is to its detriment. The end result of such filler material is that it makes for some truly insipid episodes where the plot is parked firmly in neutral or barely registering any sort of pulse. This is in part because the series is predicated on a simple plot twist that the filmmakers have erroneously calculated requires a full 12 episode run to properly pull off yet still decide to waste 50% of the series on an opening first half that will probably lull audiences to sleep instead of titillate.

As a short digression, let us look at a famous movie with a twist, M. Night Shymalan’s The Sixth Sense, for a minute. Here is an example of a story twist done right so much so that the majority of viewers felt totally blindsided by it yet when given the explanation it made perfect sense as the clues were interwoven so well into the lead up to the reveal. However, ignoring the twist, the movie still works well in a kind of murder mystery sense in both building up the two main characters, their budding relationship and by providing red herrings that allow viewers to feel incredibly invested at how the film will unfold. By comparison Blood-C crafts a twist but totally forgets to present sympathetic characters or enough clues in which to hook viewers. The first half of the show does provide hints and foreshadowing signs yet they are doled out in an immensely slow-drip manner of essentially one per episode yet this is hardly enough to entice viewers to await the next installment with a high level of anticipation. Worst still, any anime fan will figure out the “grand” twist easily because the clues are almost always overt instead of being subtly woven into the fabric of the narrative.

As the primary protagonist, Kisaragi Saya is a real Frankenstein creation who vacillates from cloddish ditz in the daytime to demon hunter extraordinaire during the night. It makes for a totally discordant sight to see her consistently fall face first into the floor due to her clumsiness when the sun is out to totally kicking ass and taking names pulling off sword strikes with razor-like precision. This contrast rarely makes any narrative sense a fact that is further enhanced by her truly spaced out erratic nature especially when it comes to romance. Time and time again her friends will speak about someone liking her or even holding her hands in a loving embrace and Saya’s response is one of pure bewilderment totally clueless that the feelings of affection are for her. The series even has the gall to have the characters openly challenge Saya as to her cluelessness in some emotional matters yet instead of being insulted or amused she reacts with even more blank stares.

I am reminded of Joss Whedon’s Buffy where at first glance the main protagonist seems like a normal teenager who speaks in the vernacular of the time only concerned with typical high school life yet Whedon was smart enough to make Buffy a fully rounded character who had an underlying sense of justice and morality that was always present no matter the circumstance. At the same time, though she was in no way as smart as Einstein she certainly was not a cloddish airhead being able to outsmart and outwit others when required. Here in Blood-C Saya is a real bore as a character as she spends an inordinate amount of time essentially out to lunch content to live in her own dream world.

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The supporting cast is equally as dull, made up entirely of anime stereotypes from the geeky class rep with glasses who openly wishes to start a relation with Saya to the twin hyper-saccharine girls who speak almost in unison replete with annoyingly childish voices. Throw in a sexed up home room teacher which would cause most male teens to drool buckets and the silent dark-haired handsome cool guy whom Saya has a crush on and one gets the impression that CLAMP is trolling their own back catalogue of hits and merely pulling out character types that had worked before. Still, these generic characters might have panned out if not for the fact that they are hardly on screen and even when they make an appearance it could hardly be labeled as providing backstory as their conversation usually revolves around thoughts of current television shows or the great cakes at the local bakery.

Another major stumbling block is that the series falls prey to that hoary old cliché where characters purposely do not seek out answers to pertinent questions and, even if they do, are rudely interrupted by happenstance before one is given. Using this creaky old structural device might be tolerable once or twice but it is liberally interspersed in virtual every episode to the point of utter frustration.

Additionally, the filmmakers make the decision to waste far too much time regurgitating the same redundant points over and over again. As an example, it is established early on that Saya likes to sing to herself by crafting banal lyrics based on what she accomplished that day even if it was nothing more than doing her laundry. You only really need to do this a few times to get the point across that this is part of her personality yet the filmmakers do this virtually every other episode and all it accomplishes is to chew up valuable screentime that should have gone into building up the plot or establishing sympathetic supporting characters. The only reasonable avenue in which to maintain this level of regurgitation is if it can somehow be linked to a massive plot point about either her character or the narrative to ensure audiences are forever mindful of it yet in this case there is no such connection.

Blood-C does admittedly pick up the pace in the latter half of the show yet here too it is not without massive structural potholes including the bane of all scriptwriters where an entire episode is devoted to a character who essentially explains the whole plot in a massive twenty minute information dump. In other words, the filmmakers have purposely been obtuse the entire time in an effort to hide the twist yet just in case some have not figured it out by then they fall back on this ridiculously contrived format. Making matters worse, the explanation falls upon a supporting character to dole out meaning our heroine Saya becomes nothing but a passive participant who has to be schooled in the true nature of the plot instead of actively figuring it out herself.

In the final analysis Blood-C is a major disappointment for fans of CLAMP, Production IG or those enamored with the earlier Blood installments. What might have started as a semi-intelligent idea to marry a gore-infested action series with a typical CLAMP narrative ends up failing on every level but production quality. Certain elements are of high caliber such as the numerous action sequences including one where Saya has to go mano-a-mano against another swordsman of her skill level that is filmed in a continuous long shot that really shines in its fluidity. Yet other elements feel inherently weak such as the incredibly generic designs of the Elder Bairn demons which all bare a remarkable resemblance to former monstrosities seen in other shows from the tree like mutant with numerous tentacles to the glaringly obvious large samurai none are vaguely interesting.

In a kind of troll move the final Elder Bairn is hilariously overwrought and totally non-threatening resembling a giant maniacal bunny rabbit that actually hops around and catches humans before churning them into bloody paste in a kind of mystical sack. Think mutant Easter Bunny if you will yet the sight of such a demon evokes howls of laughter instead of abject horror.

Although I have no problems with vague and unexplained phenomenon Blood-C even has the gall to end mid-stride without sufficiently explaining more than half of its mysteries instead showing an announcement that the movie is coming soon hopefully to explain everything that the series forgot to touch. I have a feeling virtually no one is going to care and merely erase this series from their memory before moving on to something infinitely more satisfying.

* out of ****

2011, Japan, 240 Minutes, Production IG
Directed by Tsutomu Mizushima
Written by Nanase Ohkawa & Junichi Fujisaku
Story by CLAMP
Music by Naoki Sato

Saya Kisaragi: Nana Mizuki
Fumito Nanahara: Kenji Nojima
Tadayoshi Kisaragi: Keiji Fujiwara
Nono & Nene Motoe: Misato Fukuen
Itsuki Tomofusa: Tatsuhisa Suzuki
Kanako Tsutsutori: Miho Miyagawa

© 2013 The Galactic Pillow

Blood-C Screencap Gallery

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