Narumi Katou is a middle-aged man who suffers from the bizarre ZONAPHA Syndrome: a rare and inexplicable disease that causes its victims to endure severe seizures at random, with the only cure being to watch someone laugh. One day, during Narumi's part time job, a young boy with a giant suitcase fleeing from three adults runs into him. The boy introduces himself as Masaru Saiga, the new owner of the famous Saiga Enterprises following his father's recent death. However, other members of his family are trying to assassinate him and claim the fortune for themselves. Determined to save the child, Narumi helps Masaru escape and ends up fighting the pursuers, only to discover that they are sentient humanoid puppets with superhuman strength. As Narumi is about to lose, a white-haired girl suddenly joins the fray and swiftly summons yet another puppet from the boy's suitcase, claiming herself to be Shirogane, Masaru's guardian. Karakuri Circus follows three people from different backgrounds whose fates intertwine and diverge as they unravel the mysteries of an ancient tale of love and betrayal, and the long, ancient battle between humans and puppets. [Written by MAL Rewrite]
People evolve. We venture beyond our comfort zones, adapting and adjusting to new environments. In the end, we become better versions of ourselves. However, for the shirogane (masters of magical puppets), this is not the case. Defined by their silver hair, slim figures, and seemingly ageless bodies, they’ve been fighting monsters for hundreds of years. Their reasoning for this lies within a traumatizing event from long ago; this event permanently affected them. While the seasons change, the shirogane stay the same. It’s apparent in their fighting style (the manipulation of puppets). With the issues they confront, the shirogane insist on an approach that’s not only unreliable but is also (more or less) outdated. To me, the shirogane are frozen in time.
The same can be said of Karakuri Circus. Like the shirogane, this show is from a bygone era. July 9, 1997 was when Karakuri Circus first emerged, as the brainchild of mangaka Kazuhiro Fujita. And although it was recently adapted into an anime (thanks to Studio VOLN), the premise is typical of the era it hails from. At the outset, we’re introduced to Masaru Saiga (a timid soul with a big heart and a photographic memory), alongside his companions Narumi and Eleonore. Loyalty is established (and romance blossoms) as they voyage through a coming-of-age tale involving daddy issues, the power of friendship, and eventually saving the world. This did not grab my attention (at least, not at first). For me, the overarching story is redeemed when it connects to its various subplots, specifically the shirogane’s struggles against the automata.
Here’s where the magic unfolds. Masaru’s journey may be this show’s backbone, but it’s in the feud between these two factions that Karakuri Circus comes alive. Their various showdowns are engaging to watch, mostly thanks to composer Yuki Hayashi (he’s the brains behind the soundtracks for Haikyuu and My Hero Academia). It’s because of him that, for each action sequence, viewers are blessed with a colorful array of accordions, drums, and guitars. And the fights themselves are quite impressive. The puppets that the shirogane weaponize and maneuver are rendered in stunning CGI. Gaudy explosions often follow the attacks these fighters unleash (at one point, a column of fire erupts as lightning bolts dance around it). And the battles end stylishly; it’s mesmerizing to watch the automata crumble piece by piece, under grey ooze and hissing steam.
Fight scenes are this show’s pride and joy. However, what’s said during these fight scenes isn’t always as inspiring. As far as dialogue is concerned, there are certain areas I enjoy; the one-liners here are very much appreciated and the soul-stirring speeches are genuine highlights, especially in the final six episodes. On the other hand, this show is held back by a hamfisted screenplay; the dialogue is both excessive and redundant, often emphasizing the most obvious ideas. Karakuri Circus provides character development but not without pointlessly detailing the process. It presents ingenious tactics but not without long-winded explanations of how they work. It features personality traits (like Eleonore’s weaknesses or a hospital patient’s hobbies), but not without an extended monologue about them soon after. For most shonens, infodumping is a recurring issue, and Karakuri Circus is no exception.
Ideally, these monologues would be reduced (if not removed entirely). Studio VOLN, though, were occupied elsewhere, with modifying the manga’s overall storyline. Looking to comply with the 36-episode format, they condensed the events of the source material, disposing of specific plot threads in the process. Among others, the Beast Tamer arc and the Kuroga Village training period were axed. Although it caused complaints (especially from fans of the manga), the differences, for the most part, aren’t too severe. To be clear, the editing process and the end result are by no means perfect, but they don’t detract from the overall experience. By holding onto the original’s ideas and themes, Karakuri Circus remains true to Fujita’s vision.
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It’s a mess. The table is cluttered with mess; it’s practically submerged in folders, calculators, pencil shavings, ink stains, and rough sketches. However, Kazuhiro Fujita and his three assistants ignore this. An idea has caught their attention instead. “Aren’t there idiots who get excited just from being on a cliff?” Fujita wonders aloud. He then rises from his chair, gesturing with his hands to emphasize the point he’s making. After doing this, a voice intones, “For Fujita-san, if he’s not talking to people, then it appears he cannot progress in his work.”
Kazuhiro Fujita is a featured guest on “Urasawa Naoki no Manben,” a 2015 documentary series that captures a mangaka’s journey in creating their material; it’s intended to provide a glimpse into the process’ inner workings. In the documentary, Fujita and his assistants are filmed at work for four days. When this is finished, Naoki Urasawa (Manben’s host) and Fujita convene to examine the footage.
While doing so, they discuss a variety of manga-related topics. Naturally, the conversation shifts to detailing the early stages of Fujita’s career. At the age of 25, he was hired by Shonen Sunday and soon after he reviewed what they had to offer. Fujita scrutinized the magazine’s catalog, a lineup of sports stories and romantic comedies, and he wanted to invigorate the ranks with something new. In order to succeed, he derived inspiration from his childhood influences.
Ever since his days growing up in Asahikawa, Fujita loved reading manga, especially shonens. At the time, he was entranced by series like Shotaro Ishinomori’s “Kamen Rider,” Go Nagai’s “Devilman,” and Ken Ishikawa’s “Getter Robo.” However, out of all his childhood influences, there was one that towered above the rest: Rumiko Takahashi’s “Yami wo Kakeru Manazashi.”
“It was a short story with regular humans that fought the weird and won. I thought ‘Oh, I am really glad she drew something like this.’ Like, ‘This is just the kind of thing I want to read!’ It was the kind of thing that made me think ‘Manga’s amazing!’ And I think it was the thing that turned me on to doing manga”, – Kazuhiro Fujita
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This idea would define him. Throughout his career of thirty years and counting, Fujita waged war against the unknown. In his stories, he would maneuver his everyman leads into confronting opponents of unnatural origin, like evil spirits (in Ushio to Tora), fairy-tale denizens (in Moonlight Act), and sentient haunted houses (in Souboutei Kowasubeshi). With Karakuri Circus, it’s the automata that adopt this role. However, there’s a crucial difference between this show and the rest of Fujita’s works. Beneath the speeches, the references to Chinese culture and the slapstick comedy lies Karakuri Circus’s true intent: to find common ground between the shirogane and automata through their goals. For the shirogane, that goal is learning from the past. After centuries of failure, they finally abandon their age-old stubbornness, which causes them to evolve both in combat (with a wider range of styles and tactics) and outside of it (with more openness in their personal relations). As for the automata, their purpose isn’t as detailed. There’s a backstory here but it’s a strange one, almost impossible to make sense of. Regardless, this show succeeds in providing both sides a cause worth fighting for. It’s not much but having this makes it easier to understand the automata.
However, this show fails to humanize them. Excluding the Les Quatre Pioneers (the four oldest automata) and a few others, there’s no reason for anyone to care about them. These guys are cartoonishly evil. They kill for sport, getting off on the worst of bloodbaths. In battle, their signature move is to take the children and slap them around before using them as bargaining chips. If children aren’t nearby, they’ll resort to removing women’s clothing and gloating about it afterward. The automata are caricatures, plain and simple; they’re card-carrying villains, cruel for cruelty’s sake, cackling at the chaos they’ve created. And they’re not the only ones like this. In Karakuri Circus, almost every antagonist is written the same way. From Zenji Saiga (Masaru’s uncle) to episode 16’s suicidal samurai and even the main villain himself, they’re all reduced to stereotype, burdened with bloated egos and creepy facial expressions.
This black-and-white worldview cripples the show’s storytelling. It’s also an issue that’s appeared in Fujita’s writing from the start.
People evolve. We venture beyond our comfort zones, adapting and adjusting to new environments. In the end, we become better versions of ourselves. However, for Kazuhiro Fujita, this is not the case. Defined by his haunting imagery, two-dimensional villains, and references to Chinese culture, he’s been drawing manga for thirty years. His reasoning for this lies within a short story from long ago; this story permanently affected him. While the seasons change, Fujita stays the same. It’s apparent in his writing style. With the stories he creates, Fujita insists on an approach that’s not only flawed but is also (more or less) outdated. To me, Kazuhiro Fujita is frozen in time.
The same can be said of Karakuri Circus. Like Fujita, this anime is from a bygone era. And it shows, what with its archaic sense of humor and its bright-red line between good and evil. There’s little room for nuance here, the shades of grey few and far between. However, what Karakuri Circus lacks in subtlety, it compensates with heart. The stories here truly inspire. They are love letters to the human spirit, songs of triumph over our past failings and grievances. And although they’re constrained by cliches, I’ll always remember these tales of personal growth, especially the ones I least expected.