The Soultaker

Yushiro (Former Staff) — November 16th, 2002
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After viewing the first volume of this rather low-key title, I was unsure if I should continue on with the series. The first episodes had so much going for them, and did a lot of things very well, but there were certain aspects that had the potential to go very, very wrong. Thankfully, I risked a second volume, then the rest of the series, and found myself with a title that has recieved far less attention than it ought to. The show never got worse, but only improved upon itself whenever possible, and whatever negatives that were left became overshadowed by the things done well.

The story opens with Kyosuke, an essentially normal kid (of course, destined for something more), being stabbed and killed by his mother, who was dying at the time. Intrigued yet? You should be.

Kyosuke is exhumed by Maya Misaki, a beautiful young woman who is fragment, 'flicker' if you will, of the soul of Runa, Kyosuke's twin sister that he didn't even know existed. After recovering at Misaki's place, Kyosuke returns to his mother's church (she was a nun, of all things) only to be confronted by one of the organizations he will come to grapple with in the show, the Hospital, a group of mutants affected by an as-yet unknown affliction. 'Battle' ensues and our protaginst is thrown about like a rag doll, though taking remarkably little damage. He ends up being saved from the attacking mutant by Shiro, an enigmatic figure driven by unknown motivations, carrying a scathing disposition and wonderfully stoic humor. Shiro enlightens Kyosuke to the existence of his twin, Runa, and that there are 'Flickers' of her soul, Maya being one of them, who are hunted down by Hospital and Kyosuke's other antagonist, the Kirihara Corporation, with whom Shiro appears to have some connection. Kirihara, as it so happens, has kidnapped Maya while Kyosuke was getting thrown around. In almost hasty resoluteness, Kyosuke decides that he will save Maya and learn the truth of what is happening (which will eventually lead him to resolve to protect Runa and the other Flickers as his family). Kyosuke and Shiro invade the Kirihara sea base where Misaki was taken, whereupon Kyosuke is mortally wounded yet again. This time, however, Kyosuke does not die, but 'awakens' to his true form - the Soultaker, a mutant of immense power. The first of many rather outlandish fights ensues with a Hopsital 'doctor' who also decided to invade Kirihara's base, looking for the Flicker. Of course, Kyosuke annihilates the not-so good doctor, with little trouble.

Kyosuke and Komugi - Brooding hero and... bunny rabbit thing. Maya and Shiro - Delicate 'Flicker' and... dirty old man reading a diary.

And thus begins Kyosuke's journey to discover the truth - of himself, of his sister, of his mother, of the Flickers, of Hospital, and of Kirihara. Mind you, this is a very cursory synopsis of the first episode (of thirteen, across four DVDs). The story is fairly complex, a minor epic delving into the depths of what essentially becomes the story of a very, very twisted family, as is slowly revealed to the audience. Along the way Kyosuke will confront various adversaries from both Hospital and Kirihara, meet and protect Flickers (each a side story of their own), and see the defection of Komugi Nakahara, a Hospital nurse (and the best comic relief I've witnessed recently, second only to Ed and Ein of Cowboy Bebop), to Kyosuke and Shiro's crusade. Suffice to say, the Soultaker has the makings of a story that could go either way, but ends up delivering in spades, largely in the character category. The main characters are all well-developed and quite endearing.

The episodes themselves are usually self-enclosed stories of a specific flicker or other person, as the stories are very character-centric, revolving around the people involved in Kyosuke's tale. While in some long anime shows, this can lead to a feeling of filler episodes, by picking up and dropping a new character every episode, not a single episode in Soultaker falls into this pit trap, and makes each story interesting in itself, yet still continuing on with the main story as it goes. The show has rather good pacing overall, though things get not necessarily rushed, but grander in scale towards the end (which is understandable, considering the content, though the pacing with the last three or so episodes within themselves is excellent). The episode-stories are extremely well done, producing some truly memorable characters and situations, such as episode six's dying Hospital mutant Zabo living with Megumi, a rather dynamic Flicker, in a malevolent castle above the Earth.

One gripe I feel compelled to mention is that this self-enclosure leads to the show barely touching upon the 'real world' during the show, and focusing solely on the small circle of people and organizations involved in the affair, even to the point that food vendors the characters buy from aren't even shown. This leaves the show feeling very detached from reality, but thankfully the story and characters it focuses on are good enough, and told well enough, that this detail doesn't affect the show as much as it might have another anime.

The namesake of the show, the Soultaker, Kyosuke's mutant form, seemed at first to be one of the most ridiculous things to build an entire show around. Upon viewing ending and hearing the thoughtful motivations behind naming the demon as such, I can understand why they did so, but up to that point I felt like the entire concept was poorly done, like it was some bad parody of the evil-looking superhero who, or course, isn't really evil. And the character design itself like a poor cross between a generic mech and organic armor. Again, I can see where the creators were coming from in retrospect, but in the meantime it, and all of the other "Soul-" incarnations seen throughout the series, seemed more than a little ridiculous.

The Soultaker only appears during the fight sequences, of which there are are a fair amount. Towards the beginning, much like my thoughts of the Soultaker design, I kept thinking that they couldn't possibly any more banal. The mutant battles and the first fight with the Soulcrusher seemed quiet absurd, but once you move into the later, more story-critical character fights, the battles are done far more gracefully and are even somewhat intriguing and entertaining to watch. And at least Kyosuke eventually stops screaming "Lighting Breaker!!!" every time he does his one move, which gets rather annoying. (Well, he does kind of have two moves, but they are pretty much the same, which has bothered some people.) The fights take a backseat to most other aspects of the show, and are often more like plot devices than as if they are meant to be entertainment, so it is not like they are entirely without merit. And thankfully, as I said, they do improve greatly towards the latter half of the series.

While a good story is essential to making a good anime, the Soultaker's strongest facet is without a doubt its art direction, by Junichi Higashi, and overall animation style. My poor words will never be able to properly convey the beautiful style used in Soultaker, and screens can never do the moving animation justice. Simply put it, it uses solid blocks of colors in each screen, which can vary to contrast much like a stain glass window, or in a single color scheme, or used to accentuate a single point of interest in the scene; and it does all of these extremely well. Shadows are used heavily as well, contributing greatly to the dark mood of the show, but not as shading - it again uses solid blocks of black cast over other solid colors. And though the blocks are comparatively less detailed than some series, it is far from simplistic. It doesn't attempt to be life-like realistic, which allows the colors enough space to be able to contrast, compliment, or accentuate aspects of the scene. Chief animation director Akio Watanabe's character designs are, again, comparatively simple, but far from generic or stereotypical. The characters are beautifully brought to life in the animation, as the characters' faces and bodies move fluidly, with grace, and are capable of great intensity when required. The animation is most certainly top tier, and among the most sytlistic you could hope to find.

There are often great montages of color and scenes of rapid cutting between one point of view and the next, which does lead to a slight short-coming - it makes catching everything rather difficult (though it increases the value in re-watching it). More specifically for the English audience, it also makes watching it subtitled even harder, as you are bound to miss much as you are reading, however quick you may be. I do think that something is lost in watching it subtitled, as you miss the greater impact the very specific emphasis each scene tries to covey, due to the eyes focusing on the words more than the images. Still, I'd take that small sub issue over the English dub any day.

Now before I go off bashing the dub... let me exalt the Japanese voice actors excessively. Biased as I may be by my general distaste for most English dubs, I consider the Japanese VAs to be practically perfect - each was expressive, emotional, playful when needed, and perfectly fit to the characters. Kyosuke's voice is strong-willed, but capable of conveying the negative sentiments the character feels as times, whereas the English VA merely sounds meek and lacking any conviction in his words. Shiro's English voice is completely void of the quality that made his character so appealing to begin with - his deadpan wit and playful way of messing with the other characters. And even though the translation took minor liberties with the script, the dub is very improvised, even going so far as to change plot points, or at least how the character communicate those points, altering the story and dialogue unacceptably from the original intent (which is the greatest sin in dubbing, to me).

As mentioned, Pioneer's translation took relatively few liberties, and is overall fairly good. There are little things that bother me, such as the lack of use or translation of suffixes (-kun, -san, etc.) that are so often used and clearly heard in the Japanese track, or that "oniichan" is almost always replaced with "Kyosuke" rather than translated to "big brother". It isn't enough to make me question the accuracy or competency of the translation, but it is a bit more liberal than I prefer in a sub track, but my gripes here are minor really.

However, there is one problem I have with the Soultaker that I cannot reconcile no matter how hard I try - the music, for the most part, ranges from the mediocre to the absolutely horrid. I rather liked the ending theme, Memory, but the opening and score I consider very low fare. The opening song, by a group called Jam Project and simply titled Soultaker (and I would point out, a contributor to the trite feeling exuded from the Soultaker concept) is a disgrace. It consists of a dreadful chorus, corny instrumentation, and lyrics that are... less than inspired - the whole thing was just a bad execution on a bad concept. The rest of the score, by the rather accomplished Kou Otani, is average symphony that is less than stirring. The battle/upcoming-battle theme isn't too bad, but considering it is played nearly every single time a fight is coming, that it gets extremely repetitive. The score isn't nearly as bad as the opening, but it certainly could have used more heart and been used better in the show. (And that's about all of the music review to expect from me, by the way - I have NO intention whatsoever of getting the soundtrack and would not recommend anyone do so. Perhaps I'll get the ending single, but that is as far as I'm willing to risk with this one.)

I should mention that the show is rather heavy on... what some would consider rather loose morals. For one, there is fan service a-plenty from Komugi and pretty much all of the Flickers. It is quite tactfully done, though, in that it doesn't really "show anything" or is even that crude about it, but you'll find some skin and panty shots. (And as I find leaving something to the imagination far more attractive than overt nudity, I feel it was all done rather well, insofar as drawings can be sensual beings.) While on the subject of sexual implications, one thing many will likely be put off by is the incestuous connotations coursing throughout the series, that eventually do come to realization, in Kyosuke's relationship with the Flickers (whom most already view as essentially Runa anyway) and Runa herself. I find that it does create an added dimension to the series (though, bear in mind, this is coming from someone who liked Angel Sanctuary (the manga...) a lot), but as I said, some may have a problem with it. Last, there is a bit of religious symbolism in the series - Christian, of course. There's nothing too grandiose or even controversial, and the show is less socially-conscious and far more personal in its use of the images. The most blantant thing is the excessive use of crosses, mostly as graves, but there is a also scene of crucifixion (and some most interesting discussion of the ensuing 'resurrection'). And that's still aside from the violence, death, blood, rather disturbing imagery, and language (which is only really bad in the sub). Regardless, just bear in mind that the Soultaker probably passes the PG-13 level into R.

Just as an aside, I've found that this title has an abnormally high replay value, at least for me. I really do enjoy re-watching the individual stories on a per-episode basis, and watching the larger story unfold, catching all the references I may have missed or not properly associated with anything as I saw it. A large part of coming back to the show is watching the stunning visuals as well, but I think the characters are what keep me enthralled the most - they aren't the most dynamic or realistic, but they most certainly are good company. And of course, trying to catch the nuances and what I've missed of the visuals, due to the often quick nature of a great number of sequences, certainly warrants more viewings.

As for the DVD release itself, I'm happy with Pioneer's release, but it isn't anything that noteworthy. As I said the translation is more than competent (despite my gripes with certain details), and the subtitle timing is generally good (though there were a few spots that were a bit too quick), but I detested the dub (but then again, I detest most dubs, so I'm not the best person to judge it). The transfer is excellent, of course, maintaining the crisp visuals admirably. The audio tracks are rather good; there's no 5.1 track in either language, but I think I'll survive. The menus are simple and easy to use, and feature some of the best character art shots you could ever hope to find. The DVD extras were actually pretty varied, including non-credit and karaoke opening and endings, line art galleries, images of the McFarlane action figures, images of a Soultaker Halloween mask, Japanese commericals for the series, Pioneer previews (though, they are pretty much the same across all four discs, which is a bit disappointing), and so on. Not bad at all, but I would have liked to have seen an art gallery with colored development art or choice screens from the show.

The packaging insert uses the silvery-sheen foil over the images, which I'm usually less than fond of, but it works out fairly well with Soultaker, especially on the fourth volume, with its stain-glass background. Each volume includes a packaging extra, as well. The first volume comes with a booklet outlining the characters and their position in the story, across the entire story (and is rather spoiler-laden, though thankfully marked as such on a per-volume basis). The other three DVDs include a glow-in-the-dark static cling of either the Soultaker, Soulcrusher, or Soul Anubis. Not exactly top of the line extras, but better than nothing, I suppose.

Overall, I found myself enjoying the Soultaker a great deal. I have some small (and one rather large...) issues, but any shortcomings were more than made up for in the superb animation, endearing characters, and intriguing story. The misgivings I initially felt going into the series were sufficiently addressed, and I would heartily recommend it if you know how to work your mute or skip button and can accept what the show presents on its own terms.

Distributor: Pioneer
Creator: Tatsunoko Productions
Released: 2001

Plot: A-
Character Design: B
Animation Quality: A+
Music: D
Overall: A-