I think Karakuri Circus oscillates between kind of a wild mess on one hand and more compelling flashbacks on the other.
And maybe a third thing: action with fun puppet designs.
Okay – a fourth thing too, which is fan-service, but the main point I’m trying to make is that this series was all over the place for me.
And yet, I finished it and I know that’s because early in the anime, the narrative flings the main cast apart and so I spent the following episodes basically waiting for them to reunite. Before I get to why, here’s a quick synopsis of the manga via Wikipedia:
[Karakuri Circus follows] Masaru Saiga, who inherits a massive fortune and aspires to become a puppeteer; Narumi Katō, a kung-fu expert who suffers from Zonapha syndrome (a strange illness that stops his breathing unless he makes people laugh*); and Shirogane, a silver-haired woman and Masaru’s caretaker who controls the puppet Harlequin. They must fight against the battling automatons (auto-mannequins) and save the world from the Zonapha syndrome.
As you can probably tell, it hits a lot of notes you’d expect from a shonen series but for me, the puppet aspect made it stand out. And the first four episodes felt like they were building to a big, cohesive revenge story with high stakes… but it didn’t quite work out that way.
When I realised that Kazuhiro Fujita was behind Karakuri Circus** I was pretty excited, since I’d enjoyed Ushio and Tora a lot. Studio VOLN produced both anime (and is currently looking after Back Arrow) and so I was expecting a bright, clear-looking adaptation and visually it’s exactly that. Fujita’s character designs are bold and plenty of the bad guy-designs are inventive but most of my criticisms landed on the story and structure.
Obviously, the art of adaptation is not a simple one. At all. Condensing a 9-year manga down to 30-odd episodes? Suffice to say that I’d find that extremely difficult.
Still, the amount of times a character slid into the story and then had their backstory dropped in right after seemed jarring. Each time it broke rhythm and the building of tension, and with such a large cast, this didn’t really allow many folks to get fleshed out as much as I’d have liked.
Connected to this, for each flashback arc there were a few episodes of cohesive narrative that sometimes took over from the ‘main’ storyline. Karakuri Circus is a complex story connected across hundreds of years and using reincarnation links everyone nicely, but what I found was that I became more invested in those flashback episodes.
That became a problem for me because it made it hard to return to whatever Masaru, Narumi and Shirogane were up to in the present.
And worse (again, in my opinion) was the fact that each of the three leads spent so little time together, a problem especially after those opening few episodes suggested a vital connection between them. Instead, over time, it seemed that their importance to each other almost became hypothetical.
Well, that might be an exaggeration but let me try to explain.
In the beginning, Masaru, Narumi and Shirogane operated almost as a cautious, small familial unit and the interpersonal stuff, their struggles and triumphs, were just beginning. I was interested.
However, due to the characters’ inability to benefit from much screentime together, they were each robbed of much chance to develop and resolve their relationships and issues. Instead, it felt like the narrative drove them apart and then worked fairly hard to keep them separated (at least in part) to delay an eventual reunion. [spoilers below]
But when they finally did come together melodrama kinda interceded on behalf of Narumi and Shirogane and forced them into this odd stand off. (On the other hand, Masaru makes some memorable sacrifices for those two toward the end of the series there).
Sadly, having spent a fair few episodes telling myself ‘things will pick up again once the leads are back together’ was perhaps naive in hindsight, since there are no guarantees in life nor in fiction 🙂
Still, I certainly did like some things:
- the puppets and their designs
- the flashbacks featuring Masaru’s grandfather
- the Francine storyline
- and Masaru’s growth as a character.
So, after all the grumbling about Karakuri Circus I’ve just done, I will say that the hints of a pretty compelling saga are clear in the anime.
Maybe it’s just not possible to compress something so large down to two seasons?
* In the anime, the Zonapha syndrome is explained a little more but it still always strikes me as unintentionally comical.
**Interesting to compare this to the Puppet Princess OVA which is almost like a warm up in some ways.