Review of Witchblade: Volume 1
Here`s a drinking game for you. Every time you see some naked female flesh in this show, have a beer, every time you see something jiggle, take a shot. On second thoughts forget it, you`ll be having your stomach pumped by the end of the first episode. As it is, keeping my mind out of the gutter for the duration of the review will be a distinct impossibility. I had a brief flirtation with graphic novels a few years back, and I have moist, I mean fond memories of a couple of Witchblade crossovers I read, where the heroic Sara Pezzini took on the Alien menace, as well as teaming up with Lara Croft, for a double dose of pneumatic loveliness.
Witchblade is a comic book creation from Top Cow studios in the US, a slightly more mature title in the Dark Knight vein, which saw homicide detective Sara Pezzini come into possession of the Witchblade, a mystical gauntlet that bonds with its female owner, gifting her with tremendous powers and abilities. It`s selective in who it chooses, a main priority being that the wielder has to look good naked, for when its powers are called upon, clothing vanishes to be replaced by a judiciously placed set of armour, grown organically from the gauntlet. Think a scantily clad Guyver with bosoms, and you can understand why this particular title appealed to the male teenaged demographic. It didn`t hurt the demographics either that the heroine was a strong, independent female role model.
But sex and violence is a hard sell to the US TV networks, and what`s written in the comic books, usually stays in the comic books, unless there are a lot of changes. There was a short-lived television series in 2001, which subject to broadcasting rules, as well as simple common sense, took a more down to earth approach with the costuming. It`s hard to act when there are bits popping out of, and dropping off the costume with the slightest breeze. Can you imagine a Witchblade animation in the US though, especially after Janet Jackson had the nation`s proverbial eye out with her nipple? It`s still a country where the prevailing attitude is that cartoons are for kids, and you`re not going to get the Cartoon Network investing in a show that will have the Bible belt up in pitchforks.
Thankfully there is Japan, where animators have no qualms about showing the female anatomy in intimate detail, where sex and violence is practically compulsory, and where animation is simply more fun. The heroine in this version of Witchblade makes Sara Pezzini look overdressed. Top Cow and Gonzo have collaborated on this new version of the story, that has had some hardcore Pezzini fans up in arms, complaining that the story has been `Japanified`, with a new character and new setting. It is made primarily for a Japanese audience of course, and few other animators would have been able to bring that visual flair from the comic books to life.
Set in the near future, the Witchblade has passed to a new owner, Masane Amaha. Six years previously, after the great earthquake had decimated Tokyo, Masane and her daughter Rihoko were found at the epicentre of the quake. Masane had lost her memory, and all she had left was her daughter. Now they are returning to the ruins of Tokyo to rebuild their home and start afresh. But the world is a far different place now, as they have to avoid the attentions of the Department of Child Welfare, a government agency that is determined that all children have a happy and healthy upbringing. They`ll act even if it means taking them from their families, and Masane`s been deemed an unfit mother. As they arrive in the city, a series of brutal murders is being committed, which are somehow linked to Masane, various figures are paying her a great deal of interest, and what`s that odd scar on her arm?
The first four episodes of Witchblade are presented on this MVM disc.
Masane and Rihoko`s happy homecoming is short-lived, as the Department of Child Welfare catches up to them, separating mother and daughter. Masane foolishly tries to get Rihoko back, and winds up cooling her heels in a jail cell, while Rihoko gets taken to an institution. Meanwhile, freelance photographer Yuusuke Tozawa has been investigating a spree of serial killings that has the police baffled, with the National Science and Welfare Foundation the only link. It`s a clue that leads him to Child Welfare just in time to meet Rihoko as she is escaping. She decides that he can help her rescue her mum. Masane has problems of her own. Unbeknownst to the police, they already have the killer in custody, who is currently being held as a vagrant. He`s got a sniff of Masane, and it`s enough for him to undergo a demonic cyborg transformation that will leave a trail of carnage. Yet reacting to the danger, Masane is about to undergo a transformation of her own.
Masane`s escape from captivity was short lived, as she was quickly spotted and subdued by an agent of Douji Group Industries. Representative Segawa takes her to meet the director, Takayama. She`s still bewildered by what happened last night, and he explains just what the Witchblade is, as well as the fact that it is Douji property, which means Masane also belongs to Douji, since the Witchblade bonded with her. Takayama wants to test his newest acquisition. Meanwhile Rihoko remembers that if she and her mother were separated, they were to meet at the ruins of the Tokyo Tower.
Takayama is happy with the test, as Witchblade lays waste to his company`s toughest weaponry. He offers Masane a deal, use the Witchblade in his company`s interests, and he`ll see to it that she and her daughter will be able to live happily without intervention by Child Welfare. Fortunately for her conscience, it appears as if Douji`s motives are altruistic, if self-serving. 6 years previously, experimental weapons known as X-Cons got loose during the quake, and recently they have been responsible for the spate of serial killings. Masane eliminated one during her escape from jail, but there are several others still at large.
Douji have prepared some fancy accommodation in a swanky hotel for mother and daughter, but the constant surveillance is stifling, and Masane and Rihoko are soon looking for a new place to live. Rihoko knows that there is a vacancy at Tozawa`s apartment building, although convincing the cantankerous landlady proves to be difficult. Meanwhile head of NSWF, Furumizu has realised that the Witchblade has found a new host, and that rivals Douji is controlling it. The NSWF has an organisation called the Sisters under its aegis, headed by Doctor Reina Sohou, a group of women with Witchblade like abilities courtesy of mysterious bracelets. Furumizu has always wanted the superior Witchblade for Reina, and their attention turns to Masane. All the while, a group of X-Cons is roaming the city, microwaving any hapless victim that strays into range.
If you are a hardcore Witchblade fan of old, you may be disappointed by this adaptation, as while the Witchblade itself is recognisable, the art and character design is very much Gonzo`s own, with just a couple of concessions made to the original property. If you`ve seen a Gonzo action show of late, like Burst Angel or Trinity Blood, you`ll be familiar with the look of the characters, the bright hazy feel to the animation, and the emphasis on eye candy and action.
With Witchblade, you would expect fan service aplenty, and you wouldn`t be disappointed. Masane has the sort of cleavage that keeps plastic surgeons in clover, and induces back problems in the real world, but in the animated world is shown off to generous advantage by the scanty nature of the Witchblade armour, as is her backside. I`ve just had a vision of a legion of Japanese animators, working in shifts, animating with one hand and stifling nosebleeds with the other in an effort not to faint, just to meet the show`s deadlines. What surprised me is how restrained it all was. This is no Battle Vixens, where the action slows down and even freeze frames to show off some enhanced female anatomy, Masane the character comes first, as does the story, and the Witchblade armour is treated as incidental to that. That isn`t to say that the show doesn`t cater to the teenage male demographic, but it`s never gratuitous, and jiggle is left to a minimum. To quote Kenny Everett, "It`s all done in the best possible taste!"
It`s a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, and the image is clear and sharp for the most part, with just the usual digital banding and minor compression artefacts common with anime to note. I also noted an animation mistake, at 1.17:39 watch out for a girl with two mouths.
As usual for many an anime disc, you have DD 2.0 Japanese and DD 5.1 English to choose from, along with translated subtitles and signs. I chose the Japanese of course, the dialogue was clear, and there was sufficient stereo separation to render the action sequences with vibrancy. The surround is the soundtrack of choice in that respect, but the dub is unspectacular, if passable. What I sampled of it failed to impress me, with a rather workmanlike set of performances, and the perennial annoyance of a ten year old child sounding like a high pitched 30-year-old.
The usual anime suspects begin with the animated menus and jacket picture, along with the textless songs, and trailers for Trinity Blood and Basilisk. There aren`t any multi-angle credits for the show, which leaves the Internet as your course of action if you want to know who the English dub cast are.
A Tour of Top Cow Studios lasts 14 minutes, and sees owner Marc Silvestri take us on a tour of the workspace, show off some of the paraphernalia and merchandise associated with the Witchblade comics, as well as peek at some of the staff at work.
The Japanese Cast Interview lasts 9 minutes and Mamiko Noto, voice of Masane Amaha speaks about the character, the show, and the first three episodes.
There is a promotional video that lasts 2 minutes, which is a glorified advert for the show. It`s worth a look as it shows off the TV version of the show, as opposed to the DVD version. General Japanese audience sensibilities had to be protected from the sight of a woman whose modesty was preserved only by what amounts to a strategically placed merkin, hence the TV version was re-coloured to make it look as if Masane was wearing lycra from the waist down.
Well, that certainly fulfilled my expectations. Eyefuls of glistening female flesh, and action galore, all enough to make you think that the sexual revolution turned 180º and got right back to where it started. The visual aspects of Witchblade more than cater for that early teen male demographic. What I wasn`t at all expecting was that behind the eye candy, there beats the heart of a decent little story. It`s certainly not an original story, with an amnesiac heroine with special powers, mysterious factions all professing an interest, and dark demonic cyborg foes to be defeated, in a neo-Tokyo rising from the ashes of a devastated city landscape. If you have already seen Burst Angel, then you would be justified in thinking twice before trying out Witchblade.
It`s as if that series served as a trial run for this one, so marked are the similarities. But there is much that is different about this show, and it stands out enough to make it worthy of evaluation. Most noticeable is the difference in the central characters. Masane is a far remove from the taciturn Jo, she`s ditzy, clumsy and cheerfully outgoing at the best of times, while the Witchblade unleashes her dark side, raging and revelling in the violence, even taking a sexual pleasure in it. What also makes it different is that the central dynamic is a nurturing one, that of mother and daughter. It`s one of those curious role reversals in that Masane is the more childlike and naïve of the two, while it is daughter Rihoko who takes on the more motherly role, behaving responsibly and making the more adult decisions in the relationship. She`s the cook in the family, and it is she who winds up sorting out the accommodation.
The supporting cast adds much to the individuality and humour of the show. Mother and daughter wind up at Marry`s Gallery, a hostel run by landlady Mariko who has gone to seed somewhat and has a temperament to match. Photographer Tozawa lives there and takes Rihoko there after she first escapes from Child Welfare, and separated from her mother, we get to see her childish side when threatened with return. There is a timid fortune teller there called Naomi, who looks like straightforward comic relief, as does aging breast fiend Chou, whose Christmases all come at once when the well endowed Masane moves in.
The overall story as it develops in the first few episodes looks interesting, with multiple factions all interested in the Witchblade, and Masane still coming to terms with what these strange abilities mean to her. On one side the NSWF led by Furumizu is after the Witchblade, and what makes things more ominous is that the NSWF is behind Child Welfare, with obvious ulterior motives behind their pursuit of Rihoko. It also makes you wonder what role all the other children play. On the other side there is Douji industries, which get to Masane first, and wish to use her abilities to clean up their mess, keeping the streets of Tokyo safe. But the kicker is that the NSWF and Douji industries were in some way connected to the earthquake 6 years previously, which also had something to do with the Witchblade and Masane and Rihoko being found at the epicentre of the disaster. Meanwhile photographer Tozawa investigates with his lens.
Annoyingly this volume ends on a cliffhanger, with Masane coming face to face with the Sisters, the NSWF group that have similar abilities (and fashion sense), to the Witchblade. Things look poised for a catfight of earthshaking proportions.
One of the first new anime of the year from MVM and it looks as if Witchblade has found a spiritual home in the East. Ok, the story is as creaky and well worn as an antique rocking chair, but Gonzo have got the eye-candy and action down to a fine art. The story is still entertaining and interesting regardless, and if Gonzo shows are few in your collection, then I would have no qualms in recommending this. If Gonzo animation is nothing new to you however, then I`d say try before you buy. Incidentally, Hollywood has a movie version of Witchblade in pre-production for a 2009 release; make of that what you will.