What a stupendous-looking show this is, and also what a boring and incoherent mess. Karas: The Prophecy is a wonder of production design and visual flair, animation and color, movement and sound — but not of story or character, coherence or logic. It’s bursting at the seams with ideas, many of which tie compellingly into Japanese legend and fantasy, but they have been jammed together cheek-by-jowl with a total disregard for how they are employed other than for flash and filigree. This has nothing to do with knowing that, say, a kappa is a dangerous water-goblin that looks vaguely like a turtle, or that a karasu is a crow-like spirit, or any other bit of mythological trivia. It has to do with the fact that if nobody understands the nature of the simplest plot developments in your story, nobody’s going to give a damn about it. The fact that this is the first half of a projected two-part series only makes things worse.
Karas is, I think — with a movie like this it’s difficult to be certain of anything — about a race of supernatural beings who live in parallel with the human world, or in conjunction with it, or something along those lines. The human world is vaguely aware of them, but never more than that. Sometimes these being-things fight each other in scenes that look like out-takes from Power Rangers: first they pull out a sword this big, and then they pull out swords this big, and then they pull out swords THIS big, and you ask yourself, how come they didn’t just pull out the biggest swords the first time and get it over with? The first fight or two is decently creative, but after the fifth or sixth Bullet-Time style fight it becomes an instant cliché. Quit mucking around with time and space and get on with the damn story.
While supernatural creatures with incoherent motives battle right under the noses of the
human race, a ragtag two-man police team does its best to keep a bored audience involved.
Eventually they get on with the damn story, although it’s scarcely worth the trouble. The police have a small (very small) division to deal with supernatural events, which consists of one guy and his new and somewhat bewildered younger partner, who bop from one supernatural crime scene to the next and don’t tell us anything that would make us care much. After twenty minutes of this, I was bewildered; after forty minutes, I was hopelessly lost. Eventually there are enough explanations that we can follow the plot in a kind of dogged, okay-fine-whatever sort of way, but by that time any native interested in the story has been completely smothered.
Of course, the film looks fantastic. Like many recent feature-length animated productions, it’s a fusion of cel / hand-drawn animation and CGI, and it succeeds spectacularly at making the movie’s world come to life. Some of the individual set-pieces are glorious enough that they work as stand-alones, like a car chase in a tunnel. But the movie as a whole is so busy trying to be an exercise in utterly wretched excess, even in the smallest moments, that it eventually becomes unwatchable. Here’s the irony: If they had abandoned ANY pretense of a story and just made it into a visual thrill ride along the lines of Versus (and even Versus had a story that was halfway coherent), it might have worked better, because then I wouldn’t have gotten my hopes up in vain.
Karas has so much visual style to burn, they should have used it
to heat swimming pools instead of dumping it into theaters.
Karas was the 40th anniversary production of Tatsunoko, an animation studio with a long and illustrious career. Nostalgia buffs may remember they were the ones responsible for Speed Racer, the Gatchaman / G-Force / Battle of the Planets series, the original Casshan (from which the live-action Casshern was derived after a great many changes), Tekkaman Blade, and of course the Macross sagas. After 40 years in the business, they should have picked something a little more enjoyable for their birthday party: Karas has none of their charm or cheer, and doesn’t even make much sense on a basic narrative level. Characters depart, arrive or show up as dictated by the whims of the plot; explanations of events are delivered like grocery lists, and are about as compelling; motives are never explained or have no connection to anything coherent. What is the sense in spending what must have been ungodly amounts of money on the animation production, when the script was probably scribbled on the back of a soggy bar napkin?
I will repeat something I have said many times before, because the more movies I watch the more true it becomes. A movie where virtually anything happens is just as uninteresting as a movie where nothing much at all happens. There are no ground rules, no expectations of what will and won’t happen or why, so we’re just looking at noise and movement, which after a while becoming uniformly unengaging. If you were playing poker in a casino where the rules changed every fifteen minutes and you weren’t even allowed to find out what they were, wouldn’t you want your money back? To that end, Karas is the kind of movie you put on a big-screen TV over a bar, with the sound down — or maybe turned off completely. It’s not as if you’ll miss much.