How’s this for a shock? Witchblade may well be one of the better anime I’ve seen this year. It’s not just a cash-in on a name property, but a story that works entirely on its own terms, and works very well indeed. No prior experience with theWitchblade franchise in any form is needed: you can walk in and enjoy the whole thing pretty much cold, and I did.
The folks at Gonzo have taken the Top Cow comic (with their blessing, of course), re-cast it in Japan, and gave it a cast of characters and a storyline that solidly complement the changes. It’s an interesting project in the abstract, to be sure — the last time I saw something this, well, “mid-Pacific” (my term to describe something created overseas but calculated to appeal to American audiences) was Red Garden. To my surprise,Red Garden turned out to be quite well-done and nicely off-beat. In fact, in the long run, Witchblademay even turn out to be the slightly better of the two.
Witchblade opens in Tokyo some years after a massive earthquake devastated part of the city and left the Tokyo Tower (the sight of which is always easy visual shorthand for disaster in Japan) barely standing in a field of devastation. Found at ground zero was a young woman, Masane Amaha, and her infant daughter, both left apparently untouched. In the years since then she and her little girl, Rihoko, have knocked around the country — always barely scraping by, never at home anywhere, trying their best to stay one step ahead of the government that wants to split them up. The authorities mean well — they want to take Rihoko and install her in a more responsible family — but one of the worst places in the world to step into is the space between a mother and her children.
That’s exactly what they do, unfortunately, and when Masane is separated from Rihoko and thrown in jail she feels something huge and horrible and evil well up inside her. It’s a feeling she’s fought to keep a lid on for a long time, but the strain of losing her daughter proves too much. In an eyeblink she transforms into the Witchblade, a walking merchant of death with burning yellow eyes and body armor that reveals about as much as it conceals. There’s more to her transformation than just emotional anguish, though: it seems she is most sensitive to the presence of as-yet-unexplained other beings who are vaguely like her as well. In their presence, she reacts, and experiences unimaginable ecstasy when she kills.
This is not how she wants to live her life, but the alternatives are few and grim. Her only valid option, from the look of it, is to accept the help of a shady but staggeringly wealthy outfit named the Doji Group. They know what she is, and will hire her for her “services”: She uses her power to destroy these other beings, named “X-Cons,” and they will provide handsomely for both her and her daughter. It’s a devil’s bargain, but she’s in no position to counter-bargain; it’s this or lose everything all over again. And so she settles in with her daughter with a generous stipend provided to her for each kill and divides her existence between cheery days with her little girl and nights spent stalking and slaughtering monsters beyond human comprehension.
I’ve typically been wary of direct anime/manga reworkings of Western source material because the results are usually middling-to-awful: they don’t hold up well on their own terms, because you’re forever comparing them to the originals. Nothing of the kind happened here. The show’s character designer, Makoto Uno, hasn’t tried to replicate the look of the Top Cow comic one-for-one — he’s based his designs on them, clearly enough, but they also work well on their own terms.
What’s best about the show, as I hinted earlier, is how it’s been put together with a fair eye for its characters first and foremost. They’re fully developed, not just stock types. Masane and Rihoko are the two best examples of this: they make up the emotional center of the whole show, not just because they love each other deeply but because that love has come at a cost to both of them. Masane will do almost anything to guarantee her little girl a future, but unfortunately most of the choices she’s made so far in that regard have been bad ones. And Rihoko, too, loves her mother but at the price of having to take on far more responsibility for the both of them than she needs to. She should be out playing with other kids her age or in school somewhere, not stuck trying to keep her own mom in line whenever she screws up. It’s a more adult and thoughtful approach than I expected for a show like this.
What I thought was going to be a total throwaway has turned out to be, right in the first volume, a surprisingly nuanced and engaging story that I look forward to following through to the end. A lot of that revolves around some smart decisions about the nature of the main character: Instead of the usual self-absorbed teenaged pseudo-heroes that so many anime seem to use as a default protagonist figure, we get a woman who has made bad decisions left and right with her life, if only out of love. And she’s prepared to continue doing that to the bitter end — but it’s a little hard to do anything out of love, good or bad, when you’re dead.