I was peacefully reading Ga-Rei manga and just finished Yomi Arc. But the story of Kagura-Yomi past was barely explained in very weak, not engaging way. So since I remembered hearing something about prequel to manga I thought - "Ah what the hell... let's stall manga for a while, and watch the prequel, I mean come one it can't get worse than this average manga right"?
With that attitude I played first episode, and was dissapointed immediately. The air of being a prequel smelled from every scene, and instead of manga characters there were some worthless random people. But I decided to finish it anyway, since I was still curious about Yomi past. And to my suprise after first ep it only got better and better. Crappy prequel turned into a real darkhorse, a show that delivers a good, dark story and does it in a top notch way. If I haven't read manga before I'd never guess this anime is a prequel to typical shounen battle manga..
Story - 8/10
Prequel tend to have it hard. You know who will survive, since you you know what characters appear in the main story. So you have to plan how to keep viewer interested in story that finale is already spoiled. This show stood up to the challenge and actually used it for it's advantage thx to the little trick called "In medias res" (starting the storytelling from the middle of the plot). And so at the beginning we are shown the evil Yomi slaugthering her colleagues. She acts like a bitch, she kills good guys - you should hate her, right? And in exactly that moment we are thrown into past - past in which Yomi is a great character, surrounded by friends. Creators of this story perfectly know how to use a "tragic fate scenario" (unlike George Lucas who didn't exploit the potential of Anakin turning into Vader nearly as much as it was possible).
So we have a pretty classic world setting (evil spirits and exorcists fighting them from the shadows). There is some mysterious power exceeding all normal powers (Kyubi fragments), some internal disputes and family traditions being passed from one generation to another. And in the midst of that we have a touching story of Yomi and Kagura friendship (love?). It sometimes gets near the borders of Shoujo-ai, but most likely it's just a bit exaggerated form of love between siblings (yeah, that's Japan for you :P).
Animation - 7/10
The animation wasn't something really hot, but it was acceptable. I'm not too fond of the characters drawing style (especially the eyes), but I guess if they wanted to achieve dark feeling the animation had to be a bit more mature. The powers or the swordfights also didn't make me gasp in an awe - it's acceptable, nothing beyond that.
Sound - 8/10
I really like both opening and ending. It's rare for me, since I usually hate endings and skip them. But this was was good enough for me to listen to it every episode. They also had some good seiyus. Background music had some nice tracks, and the main theme wasn't bad, but they still didn't manage to leave permanent impression (like some of the X TV tracks did for example)
Characters - 8/10
Yomi is probably the key to this production success. They made her into one of the most likeable characters of the whole show, and then showered her with unfair hardships. It's one thing when character turns evil because of his own will (like for example Harry from Gungrave). But when he is a really good person, that is suddenly and unjustly stripped of everything valuable in his life - that's when the viewers will really sympathize. It's the best kind of villain - someone that is evil because of the a tragic fate. Frankly, once the show gets back to the present the first impression Yomi being a bitch is long gone. This time it's hard to decide which one you should cheer on - the tragic villain, or hero that is forced to fight against her best friend. One thing is certain - by the end of the story you might develop a killing intent to some white haired brat.
Kagura is a bit more annoying as a character, but her personality is also essential to this show. The pure and naive soul forced to do the dirty job can gain almost the same sympathy as tragic villain. Well except the fact that her attitude is often annoying to the extreme.
There are some other character like Noriyuki, Mei, Kagura father, etc., but they are less important and less developed. This is mainly a two person show and everything around is just a decoration to make it more realistic. Well Noriyuki might be the most developed from those three, and even though his action aren't as important as Kagura, he also is partially responsible for Yomi betrayal.
The rest is either a comic relief, or a character "to be killed".
This is really well written and well executed story. If you like a slightly dramatic, dark action story, with some possibly tearjerking moments you should watch it. It's defienietly not the same weak joke as manga.