In many ways this is a less compelling echo of the film.
Same lead character of Jubei, similar quest feel with stumbling blocks presented by different monsters/adversaries to defeat, and there’s even some (toned down in comparison) sketchy content, but all without the production budget and schedule of a feature film.
Ninja Scroll: The Series (Jūbē Ninpūchō Ryūhōgyoku Hen) 2003
Naturally, there are going to be differences between the two forms – and I don’t always like to compare based on budget; as I should take the time to describe and evaluate a thing upon its own terms, right?
Still, I think at least some comparisons are worthwhile for this review – one of which being the MA vs R rating.
Another is the tone, far more comedic at times.
The Ninja Scroll series has significantly slower pacing too, as its straight-forward quest storyline is stretched to fit into the monster-of-the-week format (a format that I usually love).
Despite what probably sounds like a long list of grievances here, I enjoyed individual episodes enough to overlook the at-times stark differences between series and film, such as the Shelter from the Rain and A Dragon Within eps.
It was interesting also how bold this one is, with more exaggerated character design and the use of brighter colours; the series does ensure that it’s distinct from the film. However, in terms of storyline, in a way, the anime seems only generally concerned with the main quest its characters are on, and the supporting cast has limited impact on plot or theme, leaving the heavy-lifting to Jubei.
(Well, aside from Shigure, but she’s sort of ‘tagging along’ in her own story, sadly).
Further, while the design of a lot of the creatures and enemies were usually pretty interesting, during a lot of their scenes, I found myself keen get back to the main quest.
In that respect, the last two episodes were among my favs, since the team got to the lost shrine/city at last and kicked the magical aspect up a few notches at the same time. (There were also a few fun surprises toward the end, a nice escalation of stakes also).
However, I’m not sure I’d recommend Ninja Scroll to everyone, but if you love supernatural ninja stories there’s going to be at least a few elements you’ll enjoy. In addition, I liked the OP a lot!
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.
Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part Three: Visual Comparison
I don’t have a particular plan or structure for this post – it’ll mostly just be me pointing out what I think are interesting differences in art styles and approaches between the two series.
Not every scene is an exact one-to-one comparison either, though more than a few are. There are a couple of instances where I’ve found a panel or two from the manga as well, just to illustrate a point. At times, I might broaden the rambling a little but I’ll mostly try and keep it focused on the comparison.
(And a final note – I’m obviously not an artist so I won’t always know or use the proper vocab).
Actually, here’s the real final note – this has turned into a crazy-long post!
Here’s a quick comparison of one moment in the scene where Ushio meets Tora: the first thing I noticed was the shot choice – the OVA goes with a side profile but the 2015 series introduced a slight angle, probably to give the Spear more prominence in the frame. As fans will know, ‘Tora’ is named so by Ushio due to his tiger-like appearance but I think in the OVA he’s a little more dog-like in the face? I like the blue of his eyes matching the cellar’s light. Both scenes go with darkness but the extra detail of blue blood appearing purple in the dim light is a nice touch in the new series.
As I mentioned in the reviews, Ushio and Tora plays to its demographic. That means, as with most YA/shonen fiction, the parents kinda need to be absent to let the adventure begin. In a lot of shonen featuring martial arts, there’s a pretty stern approach to discipline – and both OVA and 2015 play that aspect pretty similarly though 2015 is usually more dynamic with is composition.
The storyline difference in the way the scenes play out is how Ushio’s ability to transform and use the Beast Spear is hidden from his friends – the OVA builds up differently, whereas the 2015 has the girls barricade themselves quickly but I think what’s similar is interesting. Obviously, the designs are really close but basically ‘cleaner’. Mayuko’s eyes have become almost grey rather than kinda golden brown from the OVA. The poses are different enough but also evoke the same character shorthand – Asako looks like the hot-head and Mayuko is obviously more happy-go-lucky.
… I think this is going to be a longer post than I first thought 😀
So, I’m going to jump around between episodes now (as the above all came from episode 1) and perhaps close with some things that aren’t directly comparable but are still something I wanted to highlight anyway.
Here there’s a flashback from the creepy Nukekubi episode, which in the OVA is a fair bit more violent than the 2015 series, actually. But let’s get focused back on the visuals – I liked the costume match between the two but the low angle shot from the OVA is a little more dramatic, I think. The blood-tinted flashback in the new anime is really effective too, that and what seems to be a film grain effect.
Above, the Nukekubi have an interesting shot that is essentially mirrored, and both versions of the series have them appear in similar ways but I prefer the OVA simply because it has the nice bonus of appearing to ‘melt’ into view.
Below, a quick comparison of a scene near the end of the episode where Tora discovers the joy of hamburgers – I was a little disappointed that in 2015 we don’t get to see him take a bite but the OVA uses a heavily stylised look, almost a ‘pencil strokes’ visible moment. In both, there’s still those ‘comedy-eyes’ visible thought 🙂
Again the OVA presents the scene in a more stylised look that’s almost Impressionistic but here I really enjoyed the inverse symmetry between the characters. In one, Ushio has his back to the audience and in the other, Hyou is facing away. I also thought it was interesting that both artists framed the shot in similar ways – OVA with shadowy plants and in 2015 with the shadows of plants.
It does make me wonder whether the MAPPA team at least watched the original before storyboarding, so as to put such little references within, or whether one studio simply went closer to the manga’s blocking? I should check, actually – because I suspect this is at least somewhat true, since other scenes are often replicas of panels from the source.
In this case I know the 2015 plays this moment (and the entire scene) far closer to the manga but I have a soft spot for the depth of field in the OVA, the blue on blue, the classic ‘half-shadow’ face so you know the character could be a bit morally ‘grey’. Also, his jacket looks better here 😀 The light in the new U&T is great too but it doesn’t have the same menacing, low-angle shot from the POV of the ‘street trash’ that Hyou is hunting.
Now, I’ve been a bit selective here in what I choose to lift from each sequence and both are great, though I tend to prefer the OVA’s work for the most part. The 2015 sequence is subtler (which can be a real plus for sure) and darker in terms of the lighting, no doubt to fit in to the overall and previously established flashback-aesthetic but the OVA really spotlights his anguish with the stark red, white and black palette.
Let’s lighten things up a touch – here the two scenes are pretty similar but in terms of character, I noticed the 2015 version had Ushio come to the realisation that he was being a fool while looking ‘off-screen’ to nothing but in the OVA he’s looking after Asako. Obviously, both scenes used romanticised colour and lighting but while the OVA features a bold gradient, the detail and lighting effects in the 2015 show are softer and offer more depth. You can also see again that while the new series keeps the hatching, it’s reduced.
So, apparently Tora gets bored and hungry enough to just bite the face off a shark in one of the ‘beach’ episodes? 😀 However, the 2015 series doesn’t have him get snacky before he encounters the monster of the week but again, the modern lighting techniques really sells the idea of a nice sunny day at the beach.
(Maybe this monster of a post should have been two? Oh well, I feel like I can’t stop now!)
The first four shots I use here are a little misleading because they suggest disunity via colour – the OVA will appear more unified at first glance but it’s not so pronounced in 2015. But the OVA does show that clash in detail common to older works, where the extra detail of something (the sea creature Ayakashi here) gives it the look of a static background piece, especially when compared to Tora and Umizatō. Later in the episode, there’s another ‘flipped’ moment and I like the way we’re told via the visuals, by the ‘muting’ of other holiday makers, that only Ushio can hear/see Umizatō.
The same episode also had some other interesting changes, this time in fight choreography. When Asako gets stuck in to some bullies it’s far more dynamic in terms of camera, cutting between close-ups, tilts and wider shots. Obviously I’m focusing a little ‘micro-level’ when I say the colour balance is great with the lifesaver. In the OVA it’s a bolder orange to contast with the paler background, whereas it becomes paler orange to contrast with the blue sky but also to pop against her swimsuit and his shirt in the recent adaptation.
Near the end of the OVA’s run is where Ushio and Tora meet the Kamaitachi Siblings. Their character design is tweaked among the most I think, especially Kagari – who in the 1990s has the ‘big hair/tiny mouth’ thing going on. A key scene near the end of the Kamaitachi arc is very similar but the hatching has actually increased in the 2015 version:
That’s about it for the actual comparison part, hope there was some interesting bits in there, despite the long post (which hasn’t ended either!).
The next two sections are mostly just an appreciation of the character design and visual style of the villain, after a quick detour to check in with Hyou from the manga. I nearly screen-capped this fight as the final panel appears in 2015 but not 1992.
Here’s a few images, all but one from the 2015 Ushio and Tora, of the many disturbing faces of villain Hakumen – the effect of utter, utter unhinged weariness is achieved so well by the cross hatching and disproportionate eye and teeth, or the mass concentration of lines elsewhere. Enjoy – if you can!
(If you got through this post, congratulations – I am impressed you were able to put up with me for so long, but also thanks, since these last few posts took me three days :D)
Let’s jump forward 23 years (to what is now nearly 5 years ago actually) and land in 2015 for the proper adaptation of Ushio and Tora.
And I say ‘proper’ not due to any perceived importance placed on the notion of fidelity to source material, but because this adaptation is a complete story. There’s a beginning with increasingly mysterious set ups offered to the audience, a middle with a few dire moments where the hero seems defeated and also an ending, where plot threads are brought to a conclusion.
Ushio and Tora in 2015 is also far prettier and the action sequences more satisfying, benefiting greatly from modern animation techniques and palettes (though I do have a soft spot for the more muted colours often found in the 1990s). The 2015 version also dials up the ante when it comes to pacing, humour and vastly expands the scope of the saga that’s being told.
What it does maintain from the past is what I guess you’d call an ‘old school’ feel to not only the story beats and characters but also the visual style – you’ll doubtless notice that the hatching is often retained, which I thought was really interesting.
While at first the story focuses on getting to know characters within the framework of the ‘monster of the week’ it quickly expands the scope and the episodes begin to reveal arcs. As with the 1992 OVA, the strengths are the classic things that won’t convince folks who aren’t fans of shonen – action and humour.
But again, the interplay between Tora and Ushio as they gradually become friends is why you keep watching, I reckon. A lot of the humour is also derived from their relationship, which is very ‘buddy-cop’ in many ways, with Tora being the grumpy one.
Ushio one the other hand is a quintessential shonen hero, determined and kind, and like with most YA fiction, there’s a lot of ‘absent parent’ stuff going on at the start to give him a chance to land in hot water, though his father and mother both have significant roles to play. (Speaking of fathers, the screen time and tone of Asako’s father is pared back this one).
Due to the 39 episode count (compared to only 10 in the OVA) there’s a lot more time to get to know the secondary characters and sub-plots too, and while I really enjoyed 90% of them I think the best thing was probably being given time with the main villain – without which, an action text/heroic journey can too often fall flat.
And Hakumen no Mono is a memorable and menacing villain indeed – not in the least due to the voice acting of Megumi Hayashibara (no doubt recognisable as the voice of, among many others, Rei Ayanami, Faye Valentine and Atsuko/Paprika). Here, she delivers a rasping, unhinged performance that is miles away from the smooth tone of characters like Faye. It was a real highlight – though in terms of voice acting I occasionally heard Ushio as ‘older’ than his character, which pulled me out of the universe momentarily.
To wade a little further into the aspects that didn’t work for me I have to mention Nagare Akiba – I suspect compared to the manga, his storyline was compressed too much. This meant that his motivation for some actions seemed a little underdeveloped and then, his defining moment maybe didn’t play out so well.
Similarly, I found myself growing impatient with a ‘no-one’ remembers sub-plot because it broke momentum and bugged me a little, not in the least since it erased a whole lot of important character development but also because it felt like an unneeded way to extend the series.
However, when the show took time to step away and reveal back stories of other characters I was usually on board 100% – especially with Hyou, his was one of my favourite aspects about the series. It’s probably only topped by Tora’s history too, his flashback episodes really land at a great time and provide extra emotional impact.
So, what’s left to say?
Well, I guess I’ll try a recommendation – Ushio and Tora should be a hit with fans of shonen and/or seemingly ‘oddly paired’ heroes, along with people who dig shows that go for (and achieve) a retro-feel.
The supernatural themes are a really big part too, but at least for the first two-thirds the comedic parts are also important. I guess if you like light harem aspects then you’ll enjoy Ushio and Tora for that focus also. (And to sneak back the OVA – maybe, give it a shot if really want to compare the two).
Oh, I couldn’t leave the review without sharing this – Tora has to operate as Mayuko’s doppelganger at one point and it’s a highlight 😀