Box cover art of Karas — The Complete Collection
Dark fantasy, Action, Supernatural
March 25, 2005 – August 3, 2007
Karas (Japanese: 鴉－KARAS－ Hepburn: Karasu, lit. The Crow) is a six-part original video animation. Tatsunoko Production produced it to commemorate its 40th anniversary of anime production. Each Karas episode was first televised in Japan as a pay-per-view program from March 25, 2005, to August 3, 2007, before being released onto DVDs. Manga Entertainment compiled and released these episodes as two feature length, direct-to-DVD films for the English market.
Karas tells the story of Otoha, a former yakuza, living in a fictional version of Shinjuku, Tokyo populated by humans and yōkai (Japanese spirits). He is one of the titular karas, humans appointed as super powered agents of the land. Able to transform into a car, an aircraft, and an armored crusader; the skilled swordsman is to stop his corrupt predecessor, Eko, from taking over Tokyo. Supporting characters such as Eko's former henchman, Nue; the yōkai; and Homura, the karas of another city, help Otoha in his quest. A concurrent side story focuses on humans affected by Eko's scheme.
Karas won the Best Original Video at the 2006 Tokyo Anime Award competition, and most reviewers were impressed with the images produced by fusing 2D and 3D art techniques. The story presents themes on the conflicts between cultural traditions and modern society, and the relationship between people. Reviewers, however, found its presentation was too confusing to follow; several of them felt it worsened the show by detracting from the strength of its art.
Ibira initially pictured Karas as a horror story with a vengeance theme. It had a simple plot similar to the manga, Dororo. The protagonist karas is on a quest, slaughtering mikuras to recover the body parts of his murdered lover. Until he recovers all the parts, he assembles them into a katana to kill the mikuras. The final version of Karas was more of a superhero action story, and originally intended for three leading heroes in the same vein as the Japanese period drama, Sanbiki ga Kiru!. The characters Otoha, Nue, and the human detective Kure were the leads but the final version primarily focused on Otoha. The presentation of Karas differs in several ways from typical anime. The show maintains a serious tone and never indulges in slapstick, exaggerated facial expressions, or super deformed characters. It avoids heavy expositions. Dialogue tends to be short and viewers have to infer what is going on based on very little presented information. The team had left out substantial amounts of information from the show, printing them in a booklet of the final DVD package.
Karas is set in a fictional version of Shinjuku, Tokyo. The show initially showcased larger areas of Tokyo, but the production team felt other animations have featured these areas too many times. Art designer, Hajime Satō created a modern version of the ward infused with a mixture of East Asian cultures. Fictional lettering, resembling Chinese and Hangul characters, fill the billboards and signs. Western gargoyles and Singapore's Merlion statues decorate the streets, and the buildings are modeled on Shinjuku structures of 2003 while blending influences from the Shōwa period. This Shinjuku is populated by humans and Japanese folklore spirits, yōkai. The humans have become indifferent to the yōkai's presence, and fail to see them as they go about their lives.
The production team envisioned Japanese cities as entities, who require physical agents to execute their will and regulate the activities within them. The concept behind the health of a city is based on traditional Chinese medicine in which the smooth flow of a body's fluids nourishes its internal organs. The team equates yōkai with qi, humans with water, and agents of the city (karas) with blood. They integrated Celtic mythology into their concept for further symbolisms, treating the city as the male (yang); and Yurine (ゆりね?), the manifestation of its will as female (yin). In contrast, their theory treats the humans and agents as the children of the city and its will, and classifies them as the reproduction system's five major organs. Following the team's vision, the mikuras (evil yōkai) represent the five elements in this system. This idea forms the basis of the relationship between cities and their inhabitants in the show.
The main plot centers around the confrontation between Otoha and Eko. Character interactions are mainly with yōkai and mikuras. The show employs a cold open featuring a battle between two karas before the title sequence is shown. Eko kills the unnamed karas, and the expositions at the end of the fight announces Eko's plan to remake Tokyo. The story moves ahead three years, introducing Nue as he arrives in Shinjuku to free his brother from Eko's hold, and Otoha in a hospital from heavy injuries sustained in a burglary revealed in later flashback sequences. The early parts of the show proceed in a "mikura of the week" fashion as Otoha (as a karas) and Nue separately fight against Eko's minions. When the mikuras attack hospitals across the ward to locate Otoha's body, Otoha and Nue work together to kill the weasel-like Kamaitachi. The spider-like Tsuchigumo, however, abducts Otoha's Yurine and deprives him the power to turn into a karas.
After splitting up with Otoha, Nue attacks Eko's base. He ruptures the chambers holding Yurine and Eko's body, but falls into Eko's trap. Eko kills Yurine and reveals capturing Nue completes the final part of his plan. Otoha rescues his fellow burglar, Reiji from their former yakuza gang. Yakuza reinforcements, however, kill Reiji, and Otoha kills the gang leader, his brother-father in retaliation. Homura, another city's karas rescues Otoha from the remaining yakuzas. When Eko launches the last stage of his plan and ravages Tokyo with metal tentacles, Otoha ends up among human refugees in a shelter the chief of police had commissioned.
A side story takes place within the main plot, focusing on the humans affected by the ongoing events. The characters, Sagisaka Minoru and Narumi Kure are detectives in Shinjuku's Intervention Department. Portrayed in a similar manner to Mulder and Scully of The X-Files, they investigate serial murders for supernatural evidence. Mikuras kill and suck the blood of these victims to replenish their strength, but no one except Sagisaka seriously believes in supernatural involvement. Sagisaka is bent on vindicating his daughter, Yoshiko who has been committed to a psychiatric hospital for claiming a mikura committed the mass murder she had survived. Sagisaka's and Kure's investigation brings them to the survivor of another attack, Hinaru (ヒナル). Sato had created her to represent the best qualities of rural migrants looking for better opportunities in the big cities. When Eko starts the last part of his plan; Kure, Hinaru, and the Sagisakas arrive in the shelter Otoha is in.
The chief of police reveals himself as Ushi-oni and starts eating the humans trapped in the shelter. Yoshiko recognises him via flashbacks as her attacker. Sagisaka sacrifices himself to push his daughter away from Ushi-oni's attack. Otoha confronts Ushi-oni to defend the others, and suffers heavy injuries. A climatic sequence depicts Otoha's collapse from his wounds; but his conviction in protecting the city and its inhabitants, resurrects his Yurine. Yurine restores Otoha as a karas and he slays Ushi-oni. While karas from other cities observe the showdown between Otoha and Eko, Homura steps in to help Otoha. Eko conjures and merges with a huge white dragon. Otoha breaks off to respond to Nue's call. He carries out Nue's request to kill him and his brother, depriving Eko of his new power source and stopping his entire scheme. Confronting the depowered Eko on equal terms, Otoha's final stroke shatters Eko's blade and deals him a mortal blow. Eko claims Otoha will understand his reasons after 400 years as a karas. Despite defending his human body and Yurine from soldiers ordered by the Deputy Governor to shoot them, Otoha proclaims as Tokyo's appointed agent, he will protect all its inhabitants no matter their inclination. While Hinaru stays behind in Shinjuku as it is being rebuilt, Kure and Yoshiko have had enough and leave for the countryside.
In the post credits, Eko's boot is founded by an unknown character.
The production team intended Karas to be more than a mere henshin hero. Unlike the vengeful protagonist in Mazinger Z, the hero of Karas embodies the spirit of the city, and acts for the city's interest instead of his own. Screenwriter Shin Yoshida sets up a dualism of this idea in the form of two Karas characters; one who believes events are leading to a revolution, and the other viewing them as simply the passing of an era. Manga Entertainment also promoted the hero in Karas as "a cross between a cyberpunk version of the Crow and Batman".
Karas is the title for the city's appointed agents. Capable of transforming into automobiles and aircraft, they are suits of armor animated by human souls infused into them through Yurine's chanting of a Shinto prayer. Director Sato told his animators to enhance the Karas' dark nature by drawing their faces in shadows. Fight scenes involving Karas take place mostly in dark settings shrouded with steam or lit with spotlights. Animators touched up film frames by hand, creating an effect different from cel-shaded animation. To make the Karas more menacing, they highlighted the eyes as if light bulbs were shining through them, a technique inspired by the suitmation practice of using light bulbs for the eyes of costumes. Producer Takaya Ibira explained the presence of ravens in Tokyo and the Tower of London, inspired him and Sato to model the agents of the city after them. He stated ravens are believed to be omens of good and bad in superstitions, and they always seem to be watching over the cities. This resonated with his view of the raven in the story Noah's Ark, which cursed Noah as it scouted for land. The presence of ravens all over Tokyo led Ibira to notice the same of cats and conceive the Yurines as catgirls.
- Otoha Yosuke (乙羽 陽介 Otoha Yosuke) Voiced by: Sohkoh Wada (Japanese), Steve Staley (English)
- The main protagonist of Karas. Yoshida wrote out Otoha Yosuke as a character dark in history and actions, breaking the traditional mold of a Japanese hero. He based his idea on his observation of Shinjuku, questioning what sort of a hero a ward exuding an aura of terror and happiness would produce. He portrayed Otoha as the product of incest between his mother and his brother who is the local yakuza boss. Otoha's back-story states him as suffering from congenital insensitivity to pain which lends the character a merciless reputation as his brother's enforcer. The initial concept of Otoha was much darker, casting him as a serial killer who hunts down mikuras to retrieve his lover's body parts. This was the first project that Sohkoh Wada (和田 聰宏 Wada Sōkō) worked on. Otoha worked as a Yakuza enforcer until he was killed in action and was turned into a Karas by Yurine. When he awakes from his coma he goes and saves Reiji who is badly beaten in the back of a bar. After leaving the bar for just a few minutes cops are called to the scene and his brother-father shoots Reiji in the head, killing him. Otoha is shot in the knee from his brother-father but Otoha is still able to run up to him and slice his gun. His brother-father calls him a freak and wishes that he had killed Otoha the day he was born. Otoha then proceeds to kill his brother-father and the yakuza open fire. Right before Otoha is killed, he is saved by Homura . She claims that she only saved him because her Yurine told her to (Although it is revealed in Prophecy that Homura likes Otoha to some extent even though in Revelation, Otoha's Yurine and Otoha, himself almost kiss each other). Later on, Otoha rushes to save a little girl from the tentacles Eko had conjured up and also tries to kill Ushi-oni, nearly dying while doing so. These details are important because his will to continue to help the city is what gives him his Karas powers back and revives his Yurine. When his powers are revived, he kills Ushi-oni and proceeds to kill Eko. Before Eko dies, he tells Otoha that he will see things like he does after 400 years of being a Karas. At the very end of the movie, Otoha is seen in Karas form standing on a statue with Yurine perching on his arm.
- Yurine Voiced by: Kasumi Sazuki (Japanese), Piper Perabo (English) (Volume One), Cree Summer (Volume Two) Yurine is a Yōkai priestess.
- She was assigned to find new Karas after Eko went rogue. One Yurine had selected Otoha to become the new Karas. There are different Yurines for every Karas.
- Homura (炎) Voiced by: Hitomi Nabatame (Japanese), Kate Higgins (English)
- Homura is a Karas from an unidentified Japanese city.
- Norumi Kure (呉 鳴海 Kure Narumi) Voiced by: Dave Wittenberg
- A police detective for Shinjuku's Intervention Department.
- Minoru Sagisaka (鷺坂 Sagisaka Minoru) Voiced by: Doug Stone
- A police detective for Shinjuki's Intervention Department. He is later killed by Ushi-oni.
- Yoshiko Sagisaka (よし子 実) Voiced by: Dorothy Elias-Fahn
- The daughter of Minoru Sagisaka who has been committed to a psychiatric hospital for claiming a Mikura committed the mass murder she had survived.
- Eko Hoshunin (鳳春院 廻向 Hōshun'in Ekō) Voiced by: Takahiro Sakurai (Japanese), Matthew Lillard (English)
- The main antagonist to Otoha. His back-story states he was the Karas of Tokyo since the Edo period. In events before the start of the show, Eko turned his back on his duties and started a plan to revitalize the city and its Yōkai. He attracted several yōkai to be his cybernetic followers and intended to subjugate the humans. An Oedipus complex forms the basis for his motive. He views Tokyo as a father figure, and his Yurine as a mother figure; and aims to supplant the city's role in this relationship. Eko was a nameless character in the initial draft and known as "Another Karas" with a different appearance, although his prosthetic left leg is retained for the final version.
- Mikura (御座) Suiko Voiced by: Kiyoyuki Yanada (Japanese), Keith Burgess (English)
- Wanyūdō Voiced by: Tohru Ohkawa (Japanese), Paul St. Peter (English)
- Tsuchigumo Voiced by: Misa Watanabe (Japanese), Mary Elizabeth McGlynn (English)
- Kamaitachi Voiced by: Tomohiro Nishimura (Japanese), Dave Mallow (English)
- Ushi-oni Voiced by: Rokuro Naya (Japanese), Michael McConnohie (English)
- Nue Voiced by: Keiji Fujiwara (Japanese), Jay Hernandez (English)
- The Mikura are Yōkai who became Eko's minions and replaced their bodies with machinery. Its members consist of Suiko (水虎), Wanyūdō, Tsuchigumo, Kamaitachi, and Ushi-oni. Ibira and Sato chose them to be villains, linking the act of the Karas as agents of the city killing these folklore creatures to traditional Japanese exorcism. The chimera-like Nue, however, is a tragic anti-hero who learned of Eko's plans and turned against him. Sato thought up the cybernetic angle to surprise the Japanese who perceive immaterial yōkai to lack physical threat. Creature designer Kenji Andō adapted the yōkai designs from artist Toriyama Sekien's illustrated folklore books, Gazu Hyakki Yakō. The few yōkai with prominent roles in the show underwent greater changes. Andō pictured mikuras as direct cybernetic versions of Toriyama's portrayals, and made Suiko and Nue look like robotic versions of their illustrated forms. Sato, however, was dissatisfied with two of Andō's designs, and redesigned them based on the concept behind the yōkai instead of on their appearance. Wanyūdō (the ghostly head in a flaming wheel) became a heavily armed skull-on-wheels that masqueraded as a car, Tsuchigumo (the spider demon) became a mechanical spider who masqueraded as a human, Suiko the Kappa became a mechanical kappa who posed as a wrestler, Kamaitachi (the sickle weasel) became a humanoid with spinning razors, and Ushi-oni (the bull-headed spider) became a big-mouth, bug-eye, hungry-for-humans predator who masqueraded as the chief of police.
- Amefurikozō (雨降り小僧) Voiced by: Etsuko Kozakura (Japanese), Sandy Fox (English)
- Andō drew Amefurikozō the rain Yōkai as an anthropomorphic snail boy wearing a raincoat and is amused viewers assume him to be a girl due to women voicing the character.
- Reiji (礼治) Voiced by: Johnny Yong Bosch
- Reiji is a burglar who is a friend of Otoha when they worked in the Yakuza that was led by Otoha's brother-father. After Otoha woke from his coma, he saved Reiji from being beaten up by Yakuza operatives at a bar. Afterwards, they are attacked by the Yakuza where Reiji is killed by Otoha's brother-father.
The show explores the relationship between technology and cultural traditions by personifying traditions as yōkai and mikuras. Ibira thought this up from observing a dramatic drop in the number of yōkai folk tales as Japan undergoes modernization. Electrical and gas lighting made light of these tales born from fear of darkness. The production team explained yōkai represent the city's culture and functions, and their strengths are inversely proportional to the level of technology of society. As society grows more advanced, the yōkai and the functions of the city they represent weaken. The mikuras symbolize the five elements of Taoism. They turned to technology and become cyborgs to regain the strength to support the city. When a mikura dies, the city suffers a heavy loss of function associated with the element it represents; the water level of Tokyo fell after the death of Suiko the kappa (water based mikura). This theme implies a vibrant city requires a healthy mix of technology and culture.
"Humans do not see yōkai just because they believe in them. Rather it is when yōkai trust humans and show themselves that their existence is believed in. This relationship is not just between humans and yōkai, but should be between humans as well."
-Karas committee, Tatsunoko Production
Another main theme is regarding the "yōkai's choice". As agents of the city, the two karas represent different paths for the good of the city. The yōkai have to make a choice to support one of them. By following Eko, the humans are enslaved, and the presence of the yōkai will be imposed on them. By standing behind Otoha, the yōkai accept their lot and continue trying to live with the humans. Using the yōkai-human relationship as an analogy for human-human interaction, the team suggested people should be open and make the move, instead of passively staying in the background hoping for results. Ibira applied this to decision making, saying when faced with difficult choices, one should make a decision instead of hoping for others to make it for them.
Founded in 1962, Tatsunoko Production celebrated their 40th year of animated film production by releasing Karas in 2005, their first production being Space Ace in 1965. Keiichi Sato joined the company as the project director after he pitched its concept of a life-sized dark hero to the management. He researched production and direction techniques from kabuki, a form of traditional Japanese theater; and Japanese staged swordfights as materials for the project. Choreographed swordfights rendered with 3D animation were rare at that time, and Sato felt this would help distinguish the show. The use of theatrical elements and movie shooting techniques in its presentation sets Karas apart from its contemporaries. Producer Kenji Nakamura felt the team's lack of experience in this area pushed them to ignore their previous animation work experience and break free of restrictions influenced by traditional animation production.
The Japanese animation industry traditionally drew every film cel by hand. This is labor-intensive and inefficient; the cels are generally non-reusable, and errors are difficult to correct. This method is called the 2D approach due to the conception of the source images in only two dimensions. The use of computers and graphics software introduced computer graphics (CG) into the industry. This reduced waste; animators can reuse digital cels to correct errors and make changes. Increasing computer power spread the use of three-dimensional graphics software to create 3D models and environments, and render them as 2D images. This 3D approach requires more resources to create the 3D models, but production teams can correct errors or remake film sequences much faster than the traditional 2D approach. The 2D-3D hybrid approach in Karas was due to budget and aesthetic concerns. The 2D approach allowed greater artistic details and creativity, and the 3D approach could save resources. Sato, however, disapproved the common notion of using the 3D approach for economic concern. He pushed the team to enhance image quality with detailed CG. He was also dissatisfied with computer lighting effects, and ordered the animators to draw them by hand. Due to the bright colors of the original cels, they darkened the images and concentrated on areas where shadows should be, leaving untouched the areas where light falls on.
In the typical CG approach, the duties of 2D and 3D artists are distinct. The 2D artists think up and sketch out the characters' appearances; the 3D artists create the models based on these concept sketches. For Karas, these artists worked together in these areas to create the imagery seen in the show. To encourage this and establish consistency between images based on 2D and 3D processes, the 2D drawings incorporate styles typically found in 3D models. Animators also touched up or enhanced by hand, sequences involving the models. Eko's karas form was mainly a 3D model but his skirt was hand drawn. During later stages of editing, the team spaced hand drawn frames among 3D-rendered frames to enhance the fusion of styles. The production did not use motion capture techniques. Animators drew out action scenes based on their feelings, inspirations, and observations. 3D and 2D animation and special effects director, Takashi Hashimoto explained companies typically reduce their animators' workload by using CG for long shots and drawing only close-ups by hand. The team working on Karas, however, drew silhouettes for long shots and created complicated CG for close-ups. The 3D animators used 3D texture software, BodyPaint 3D, to refine textures for the mikura and karas models, creating seamless details on them.
CG director, Takayuki Chiba studied keren, a kabuki stagecraft technique using various props to surprise audiences and immerse them in the show. Chiba attempted to apply this technique with CG to reproduce a vividness associated with live actor productions. He aimed to produce a smooth 2D-3D product full of Japanese flavor, rather than something like a "Disney production". The team scanned real objects and used them in the show. Rice seasoning powder and bird feed became the dust and rubble in scenes of collapsing structures. They also scanned Korean dried seaweed, gim for other scenes. The animation team drew frames interpolating the motion between key frames by hand, and digitally interpolated those frames to create slow motion sequences. Editing teams in the industry normally timestretch the sequence with repeated still frames to produce these shots. Ibira reflected that typical 30-minute anime episodes consist of approximately 300 key frames. The first episode of Karas, however, consisted of approximately 700 key frames.
Composer Yoshihiro Ike infused the music with the sorrow borne by the karas, and the atmosphere conveyed by the background. Ike obliged the team's request for Japanese flavored music, and studied kabuki tunes accompanying actors as they strike their mie (見得?), a picturesque pose to establish their character. He planned to use taikos (Japanese drums) to further enhance the music, but felt the show had taken on an international outlook and discarded the notion. He wanted his music to match the quality of the show, and refrained from composing them until he had watched the pre-dubbed version of the first episode. He composed most of his music as he watched the pre-dubbed episodes to synchronize their tempo and dynamics with the action in the show. He chose Prague Symphony Orchestra to perform the main theme because he felt the background of their city and its people suited the character of Karas. Other departments also took extraordinary measures in producing the show. The sound crew procured a Nissan Skyline GT-R and recorded its engine noise for several runs. These were used for the tunnel chase scenes which involved a hand-drawn 1972-77 Skyline. The editing team took the additional step of editing cels post-voice recording to ensure lip movements were in synch with the voices. These extra work and the hybrid 2D-3D approach inflated the budget of the production to three times the usual amount spent on an original video animation.