Every so often, you stumble upon an anime that tries very hard to ruin itself: School Days, for example, almost runs for too many episodes; Code Geass takes a turn for the overly-complicated in the end of its first season; and Shakugan no Shana allows Kazumi to open her mouth. In all these cases, the foundations of the show prevent its failings from overwhelming the experience. 2009's Pandora Hearts falls into this category, with its setting and cast overriding its animation and plot shortcomings. This one takes about four episodes or so to sink its hooks into you, but it soon proves worth the short wait.
Set in an European alternate world, Pandora Hearts weaves a tale spanning one hundred years and centered around an event called the "Tragedy of Sabrie". As the narrative unfolds both in the present and copious flashbacks, viewers follow the cast as they uncover more and more about the terrible event. This backward-looking bent strengthens the plot as continual discoveries prove more interesting than the mediocre action sprinkled through the series. In addition, the pervasive Alice in Wonderland references both provide a point a reference for English-speaking viewers and a wealth of striking imagery that the show puts good use.
Significant pacing missteps almost bring the beautiful thing down around its ears, however. The series opens with an introductory arc that poses too many questions while providing neither suspense a la Higurashi no Naku Koro ni nor as much action as the opening salvo of a show like Canaan. While these initial events further the plot and establish important setting details, they also leave the viewers alone with the least interesting character for long stretches. Sadly, even after Pandora Hearts enters its main story, these silly plot hiccups continue. The show tends to bundle its major reveals and seminal events into single installments which it brackets in boring plot fluff that serves either as the build-up or denouement for each minor story. Consequently, the week-to-week experience leaves much to be desired, since throwaway episodes of lesser quality bookend each gripping offering.
Pandora Hearts boasts some of the most interesting character designs I've seen. The European setting brings with it sartorial bliss in the form of ruffles, long coats, ties, and dresses that resemble tea cakes. In addition, the angular faces and large eyes of the characters allow their expressions to modulate from attractive innocence or heroic resolve into creepiness or melancholy at the drop of a hat, which helps to add extra dimension to the cast. The well-suited backgrounds help maintain the continental flavor of the visuals, but their limited number sometimes creates confusion (when town #1 looks exactly like town #2, I get disoriented).
Unfortunately, substandard execution ruins much of the lovely atmosphere and interesting subject matter. In an attempt to mimic the ethereal feel of the manga, the series uses a softening filter on the animation that deadens the otherwise vibrant colors and blurs the edges of the action in the foreground. Through this lens, the deep blacks of the Mad Hatter's cape and the recesses of the Abyss appear mottled, like a dusty computer monitor and the faint shading washes out so that many surfaces appear flat (especially a crime when it happens to Sharon's lovely dresses). In addition, the action sequences, though filled with interesting adversaries, are also rife with abbreviated motion and awkward angles.
Within the first episode, Pandora Hearts makes the importance of music to the series plain as day. From the haunting music-box melody that comes from Oz's watch to the stellar opening theme, the soundtrack matches the epic sweep of the narrative. Leading things off, "Parallel Hearts" stands almost head-and-shoulders over many of its contemporaries' opening tracks, eclipsed in Spring 2009 by only K-On!'s "Cagayake! Girls", and the second Saki OP, "Bloooomin'". Closing out the first half of the season, Savage Genuis' "Maze" also lays strong female vocals over synth-rock, and its plaintive strains capture the series' spirit. The same artist also provides the second ending theme, and its sweeter, more relaxed tone echoes the gentle relationship between Oz and Alice which features more prominently as the show progresses. Picking up where the excellent theme songs leave off, the in-episode music features thick orchestral arrangements which help immerse the viewer in the 19th century setting; the score does contain a lone anachronistic electronic track, but it complements the high-tension action sequences it accompanies so well that the viewer can easily forgive this one transgression.
Nor does the high-quality of the audio end with the music. The nuanced characters of Pandora Hearts require sensitive readings and the voice actors prove more than equal to the challenge. Whether it be Break's subtle wrongness or Oscar's over-the-top affection, each emotion comes through lound-and-clear, picking up much of the slack left by the sometimes stiff character animations. As the leading lady, Ayako Kawasumi's memorable performance in the role of Alice anchors the production. While Rie Kugimiya's loli readings of diminutive tsundere characters have begun to inspire imitations of late, Kawasumi's full-throated interpretation fits her charge's personality and history far better than a bratty reading would have.
In a season packed with tsundere leads like Senjogaraha Hitagi (Bakemonogatari) and Sazenin Nagi (Hayate no Gotoku!!), Alice stands out as one of the most interesting characters of her archetype. Instead of showing overwhelming bravado and other obnoxious tsun-tsun tendencies to overcompensate for her emotional weakness, Alice exudes strength because, as a living weapon, might is her lingua franca. Her simplistic worldview imbues her with a sense of genuine honesty because, for Alice, life IS simple. With no memories, a straightforward goal, and power to spare, her childlike outlook and forthright nature make her both likable and true to her background. Sadly, the entertaining rabbit comes part-and-parcel with a typical sidekick in Oz. For most of the series, he whines, frets, wanders into trouble, harbors suicidal thoughts, declares his intention to change, and round and round again without end. While the plot gives ample reason for his feelings of inadequacy, the litany of pathetic moaning grows stale and his real change takes too long to arrive. Oz does demonstrate some interesting traits behind his crybaby exterior, however. When he displays his considerable cunning or great sensitivity to the feelings and motivations of others, even he can play a convincing hero and charm the audience. Should Pandora Hearts get a second season, he has the potential to grow past his more irksome traits and into a compelling lead.
Luckily the series also provides a rich, but under-characterized secondary cast to distract the viewer from Oz's lamentations. While some of these guys receive significant back story treatment, others--most notably the villains--behave more like walk-ons while Oz, Alice, and Gil wrestle with their personal demons. With so much narrative ground to cover, it comes as no surprise that intriguing people like Charlotte Baskerville, Eliot Nightray, and Rufus Barma spend only the slightest time in leads' orbit before the eye of the plot turns its gaze to other matters. Even so, each of these characters demonstrates depth and complex motivations in their short span on screen, making these auxiliaries one of the more memorable aspects of the show as a whole.
All told, Pandora Hearts exceeds its narrative shortcomings and almost achieves greatness. Sure, it could look a lot better and the plotting is a little spotty at times, but more often than not, I reach the end of an episode satisfied and even a little excited for what comes next. With the fascinating setting and epic storyline, this anime is a must-watch for fantasy fans. Add a charismatic tsundere lead and some laugh-out-loud humor to the mix, and you have the recipe for a sleeper hit. If you thought Spring 2009 was only about K-On! and Higashi no Eden, then you you owe it to yourself to check this one out.
On the eve of nobleman Oz Bezarius's fifteenth birthday, he and his loved ones gather to celebrate in a coming-of-age ceremony. But after Oz steps under a long-stopped clock and the hands finally move once more - thus fulfilling a mysterious prophecy - he is violently thrown into the legendary prison known as the Abyss by three cloaked intruders. Existing in another dimension, the Abyss is home to lifeforms born within its walls known as Chains; these beings can only live in the real world if they make contracts with humans, binding their power to the person's body. However, there's a catch - in time, the human will be overcome by the Chain's power and then thrown into the deepest level of the Abyss. When Oz wakes up in the Abyss he is quickly attacked by hungry Chains, only to be saved by one named Alice - a Chain who appeared just before he was thrown into the prison. Together, the two make a contract and return to the real world, where they are enlisted into the Pandora organization - a group researching both the Abyss and the trio that threw Oz into it. Along with members of Pandora, the duo searches to find Alice's lost memory fragments that are scattered throughout the world, to discover the secrets of the Abyss, and to determine if there's a way their contract can be broken without killing either Oz or Alice.
These days I load up on comedy, slice-of-life, and horror shows, but I'll watch almost anything that sports a good voice cast, an interesting story, or looks particularly pretty. I tend to relate anime I review to other shows I've seen, because that's just how my mind works. Whether my warped view on a particular show totally misses the mark or you believe I've hit the nail on the head, I'd love to hear from you and welcome feedback and intelligent discussion of just how wrong I might be.