*WARNING* This anime contains exessive amounts of violence and blood, if you cannot stand those kinds of things, this anime is defintely not for you. Also this anime is very heavy on manliness. As such sits near the top of a short list of anime that I would consider Manime or manly anime. This usually means things such as manly admiration, manly tears and ofcourse minimal to nonexistent female presence. Okay now to the review.
Story- Souten Kouro or "Beyond the Heavens" has quite a unique setting in being set in China during the Han Dynasty and being looesely based on the events of "Romance of the Three Kingdoms". I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on the subject, but I have played my fair share of Dynasty Warriors games and see quite a few memorable names pop up again. So the story follows a young man named Cao Cao (pronounced Sou Sou) who is of noble origin, but his thinking deviates quite a bit from the average noble. Basically the story follows the the life and legacy of Cao Cao and his many military battles, political schemes and the various other side characters he interacts with spanning 30+ years. Doesn't sound all that exciting, but there are many touching and dramatic moments spread out throughout the series and the battles are really quite a marvel to look at. There is quite a bit of politics in the show and you may find yourself lost with all of the characters and their respective allegiances, however you should feel fairly familiar with them about 1/3 of the way in. Also if your really into military strategy, tactics, formations and what not you'll find more than enough in this anime.
Animation- The animation is crisp and clean even during intense battles, but still frames are still used occasionally. Characters are exceptionally detailed, considering the time it was made. Settings and backrounds are quite beautiful, especially during the dancing scenes in this anime (it's the most manly dancing you can imagine). Another thing is that I liked how they captured the grandess of the fortresses and the armies. When you look at an army in this anime you can really belive there is 3000+ troops in there and when you look at a frotress it really does feel like something giant and impenetrable. There is cg in this anime, but it is used sparingly. Sometimes for flooding waters or rocks thrown onto the enemies, but usually to show the symbolism of great generals representing dragons. Lastly the violence in this anime is animated wonderfully. People are sliced in half, beheaded and just plain evicerated in this brutal series and it is lovingly animated to the smallest bloody detail.
Sound- The opening theme will melt the faces of lesser men. If you really do not like screamo/metalcore though, I advise you to skip the opening, even though I think quite awesome and fitting for a show as brutal as this. The ed theme... is forgettable at best a cheery shonen-y song. The characters voices are all booming and commanding of your attention as the main characters often give inspirational speeches to their men. Some of these voices are even comically so, especially in the case of Lu Bu. The saving grace to this OST is the music that actually plays during the actual anime. Some of the most epic, moving and inspirational orchestreal pieces I have heard in an anime. Although there is not a ton of variety within the songs, the ones that are there are truly amazing and really help heighten the viewing experience.
Characters- Like I mentioned before the main character of the show is Cao Cao. He is an idealistic and charasmatic leader who is tired of all the corruption from the nobility in China and wishes to take matters into his own hands. Like all good characters though, as the years pass by he changes, but I won't say in what ways. There are a few episodes dedicated to side characters, the most important of those being Lui Bei (not to be confused with Lu Bu). He is another young idealistc man, who wishes to make a grab for power in the ever turbulent China with the help of his sworn brothers Guan Yu and Zang Fei. Several antogonists for Cao Cao pop up throughout the series. The most fearsome of this bunch would have to be Lu Bu. Lu Bu is a man that is characterized simply by his strength, rage and violent tendencies. I say he is strong, but I don't think you understand how strong this man is. Lu bu makes soldier shish kebabs using his spears. Lu bu spins his spears around and charge into the front of an army evicerating everything in his path. Lu Bu jumps 50 feet into the air while mounted, decapiates his own horse and then throws the decapitaed horse head at you and the now dead horse head will eat you. Yeah, you don't want to mess with this guy. Most of the characters that are able to survive the brutal battles in this anime, have fairly good development throughout the series and often powerful and inspirational figures with hopes, dreams and ambitions.
Overall- There are only 3 things that are keeping me from giving Souten Kouro a higher score
1. The use of cg. Perhaps a nitpick on my part, but I generally do not like CG in my anime.
2. Objectifying women. Women are treated as objects in this anime, which is understandable given the time period that the show takes place in. Watching women being sold off, traded and just seen as sex objects is never good though.
3. "Read the manga" ending. The ending is not the true ending of the series. Instead you must read the manga to get the true ending.
Overall I found this to be an extremely enjoyable experince and one of the few throwbacks to the popular 80's Manime. However I feel like it is resurfing with titles like, Kaiji, Rainbow and the new Jojo's Bizzare Adventure 2012. If you enjoy Manime, politics, military, period pieces or just violence this is the anime for you.