One dark, stormy night when Cassie was somewhat tipsy, the evil Patchworth decided to take advantage of the poor inebriated maiden. After whispering sweet nothings of pacing, characterisation and voice actors in her ear, they joined forces. The result of this illicit tryst? Well, you’re reading it.
Set in an idyllic, westernizing Japan, Otome Youkai Zakuro chronicles the activities of the newly-minted Ministry of Spirit Affairs. The government agency ostensibly exists both to help spirits adjust to the changes occurring within the country and ease tension between humans and youkai. As they all get to know each other, they pursue the ministry’s overt goal by intervening directly to solve problems that occur between the two races. However, as the series wears on, Zakuro’s mysterious power becomes the target of a shady organization with whom the group increasingly finds itself at odds.
On the surface the basic concept seems more like the thinnest excuse to get a gaggle of archetypal bishies to work hand-in-hand with a collection of adorable half-youkai heroines. But, with the frequently-shunned girls gradually opening themselves up to the dashing soldiers - who each have their own hangups ranging from Agemaki’s abject fear of youkai to Ganryuu’s physical weakness - all the pieces for a good story seem to be in place. There’s plenty of romance, lots of action (mostly performed by cute girls!), a sprinkling of legend, and a touch of mystery. Sadly, the series doesn’t dwell long enough on anything to make these elements work. Had the show drawn out the real conflict more, adding doubt, a false conclusion, or a little complacency to affect its cast, the inevitable climactic showdown might have resonated stronger. (Patches: I’m reminded of Sakura Wars TV, which while a narrative underachiever still had a strong ending that flowed from twenty-six episodes of collected character interactions.)
That being said, the mystery behind Zakuro’s past and her true identity, draws you into the story. Though some of the twists and turns are glaringly obvious - I’m looking at you big, bad antagonist in the mask - in general the show doesn’t do a bad job of entertaining its audience. Sure, it may not have you counting down the days, hours, or minutes until the next episode, but the anime proves suitably engaging and won’t have you constantly checking the clock to see how long you have left to endure. (Cassie: I ended up stalling it for several weeks while it was airing as despite being a rampant youkai fangirl - seriously, chuck a kappa in an anime and I’m happy - even I never quite got into this anime.)
Otome Youkai Zakuro can’t quite seem to decide whether it’s an ensemble piece or not, and instead settles for haphazard development as a poor excuse for a compromise. For all intents and purposes the series isn’t a group narrative. Zakuro and the delicious, blonde studmuffin, Agemaki, stand clearly at the centre, with everyone else taking a sideline. However, the advancement of their relationship ends up rushed; in fact, timid Susukihotaru and strong, silent Riken’s romance shows a much more natural progression. After thirteen episodes of Agemaki going from “you scare me, please don’t eat me!” to “I love you” *sparkly eyes* quicker than a road runner in heat, the affair between Susukihotaru and the stoic soldier proves far more compelling than the couple we’re supposed to be focusing on.
One word: eyegasm. As the knockout aspect of Otome Youkai Zakuro, J.C. Staff have gone to town and the show’s animation feels like the equivalent of being bundled up in a fluffy blanket of quilted moe. Instead of harsh cut shadows, graduated shading and pastel hues add a delicate effect to proceedings, which accentuates the plot’s romantic themes. These softer tones also work to enhance more than just the narrative. Despite Agemaki and the others waving the flag for bishies everywhere, the colour scheme upgrades their appearance from merely drool-worthy to delectably lick-able, as if they’d taste of candyfloss if you just had a nibble of their earlobe. (Cassie: I bet Riken is like a rich, dark chocolate - bitter but oh so good!)
J.C. Staff’s experience animating the charming, turn-of-the-century baseball moefest, Taishou Yaykuu Musume, shows clearly in the artistic approach to the setting in Otome Youkai Zakuro. The naturalistic palette gives the streets the proper period feel and helps situate the soft-colored character designs as part of a unified aesthetic. Everything from the gaslights to the sakura blossoms scream Meiji in the best possible way and really helps the anime exude a sense of place. (Patches: I want to go on record to say that I can’t believe that this aired at the same time as Tantei Opera Milky Holmes. CLEARLY, JC Staff has an ‘A’ team and a ‘B’ team. Can you guess which one this show got?)
With a voice cast this strong, the acting brings plenty of earjoy. Moe fans should love watching Yui Horie and Aki Toyosaki play “who’s the most face-meltingly cute” as twins Hozuki and Bonbori, when they’re not d’awwing at Kana Hanazawa’s Susukihotaru. Make no mistake, however, this is Mai Nakahara’s show. The stilted tsundere doesn’t fall far from the archetypal mold, but her volatile reading gives the girl far more personality than the script does on its own. Not to be outdone by the ladies, the male seiyuu perform just as admirably. Takahiro Sakurai delivers a standout performance as Agemaki, flawlessly switching between dulcet, panty-dampening tones for when the blonde bombshell turns on the charm (cue spinning roses), and frenzied panic at the sight of a rogue youkai. Meanwhile, Satoshi Hino gives a solid interpretation of Riken. Though a character of few words, Hino manages to create the perfect balance for the unflappable soldier utilising the stern lilt of a military officer with a softer edge that proves he’s nowhere near as scary as he looks.
“Moon Signal” is not the upbeat ear-worm of a song like “Shinryaku no Susume”, but is instead the right kind of J-Pop torch song to open a series like Otome Youkai Zakuro. Its combination of plaintive strains and poppy underbeat give it the kind of vulnerable energy that defines the show’s protagonist, making it a pitch-perfect anthem for the anime. That the strongest of the three ED themes comes from Aki Toyosaki and Yui Horie should surprise no one, as they have well-established singing chops demonstrated in Toyosaki’s tenure on K-On! for and in Horie’s work on the themes from Toradora!, School Rumble, and Kanamemo. The anime’s in-episode centerpiece--the prayer song the women use to empower Zakuro’s blade--provides another distinctive aural treat, capturing the dangerous determination of the half-spirits and its haunting melody sends a chill down your spine whenever it features.
Otome Youkai Zakuro’s characterisation is like opening your presents on Christmas morning; the anticipation is unbearable, and while some gifts are just as awesome as you’d hoped, there’s always one dodgy pair of socks, or a set of padded hangers that for some bizarre reason your grandparents thought you’d love. With a cast comprising of handsome military bishies and half-youkai cuties there’s plenty of room for full character exploration and luckily some individuals do actually deliver. As the focus of a large portion of the series, Zakuro naturally receives the most attention, with details of her past and powers gradually surfacing throughout. Conversely Ganryuu, Hozuki and Bonbori play fifth, sixth and seventh fiddle to Agemaki and the rest, serving as little more than fluff. Unlike the others, their love affair seems less like a believable romance and more akin to childish adoration. (Cassie: Ganryuu’s entire purpose seems to be that of the resident Lothario indulging in his sordid little threesome. At least Hozuki and Bonbori sing and clap their hands a bit.)
Though of little consequence to the actual plot, Kiri and Sakura deserve mention as the most huggably adorable characters to appear in an anime since the pint-sized cast of Hanamaru Youchien. With their childlike behaviour proving surprisingly realistic for such a bishie-filled fluff fest, the rosy-cheeked youkai solicit more than their fair share of “awwww” moments throughout the course of the series.
The cast could have been turned to the show’s advantage. Riken and Susukihotaru display stellar development for side characters which doesn’t feel as uniformly distracting as the Ryu-Chizu arc from Kimi ni Todoke. Again the claustrophobic episode count prevents their relationship’s success from forcing Agemaki and Zakuro into a more believable dance. Instead, the rapid forward movement on the two mains’ romantic plot sort of wills itself into conclusion during the final three episodes in order to provide the proper emotional resonance. This development short-changes Zakuro who doesn’t get enough time to really express the tsun to dere evolution in an adequate manner. (Patches: I WANTED to sink my teeth into “true tsundere falls in love with Tamaki Suoh”, but it just didn’t click. Maybe he really deserved a Haruhi Fujioka-like half-youkai?)
Patches: Otome Youkai Zakuro falls firmly into the same category as Pandora Hearts. I was reluctant to turn on the episodes, enjoyed them while I watched them, but was left wanting more. The show’s exceptional visuals and delightful characters should have drummed up undying affection and had me on my feet during its most tense moments, but everything here feels like a tease. Given the convergence of bits that normally make a hit--romance, bishies, action, an incredible voice cast--the fact that this anime is merely enjoyable seems a let down in some way. Not that it’s bad, just it could have been great.
Cassie: Without a doubt, this show is all about the pretty. The gorgeous guys, the beautiful babes, and the sumptuous settings all combine to deliver a visual treat that J.C. Staff does best. Meanwhile the voice cast acts like a high class host club for the aural senses, satisfying every fibre of your sensory being. Sadly, the narrative doesn’t quite manage to keep up, so while your eyes and ears are having the time of their lives, your brain may not necessarily share the same enthusiasm.
In order to bridge the gap between humans and youkai, The Ministry of Spirit Affairs was formed. Military man Kei Agemaki is assigned to the new unit and seems to be the ideal candidate. He’s charming, polite, and a complete gentleman, but there’s just one problem: he’s absolutely terrified of spirits! When he arrives at the new headquarters, Agemaki is partnered up with a cute, yet brash, youkai named Zakuro. Now the unlikely pair must work together to solve the region’s spirit-related problems to help improve relations between humans and youkai, and maybe help Agemaki overcome his crippling fear while they’re at it.
While I like a variety of different genres, if you give me comedy or slice of life, I'm bound to be happy – and if it's dark humour, all the better! I'll review whatever takes my fancy at the time, and whether you agree or disagree with my opinions, feel free to drop me a line.