Monday, January 24, 2011

Witch Hunter Robin

So witches are causing chaos in Tokyo's streets. Murderering people every which way and doing all sorts of crazy magic sending normal people fleeing in terror. Who you gonna call? Certainly not the Ghost Busters. Instead, there's the STN-J. A government organization that hunts witches and captures them. And there's a new hunter on the beat. Freshly brought in from Italy, theres a young new craft user named Robin, who, if she'd just learn to use her powers effectively, could send her opponents up in flames. It's gonna be a hot time in Tokyo tonight. So get out your gothic attire and secure your glasses, today we're looking at Witch Hunter Robin.

Robin as she's about to light up an
entire subway line full of candles.
She's scary once she gets those glasses.
What's with the hairdo though?
I saw the first few episodes of the show back when Adult Swim was still running them at regular intervals, though I was constantly frustrated with this show because I never got very far. I knew there had to be something interesting if they would just air the later episodes, but for some reason they'd always go back to the beginning, leaving me hanging. As I had other things going on at the time,  it is only due to this review that I have actually managed to finish it. I am wondering now, why in the hell did I did not do it sooner? Another of Sunrise's incredible productions, this show was an anime original series that ran on Animax and TV Tokyo from July to December in 2002. United States otakus can find it licensed by Bandai. While the show starts pretty slow, and seems like its going to have a "witch of the week" kind of feel as the members of the STN-J stalk witches with powers that remind one of the X-men to a degree, half way through the plot takes a turn that makes the final half of the series an incredibly awesome experience. You'll be on the edge of your seat as Robin goes from being hunter to hunted, comes to terms with who she is, and becomes more than even she can imagine. It is quite the journey indeed.

If you're gonna be a craft user
you gotta know how to make a big entrance.
The story starts off as the hunters at the STN-J are hunting a witch who's started causing trouble around town. They are encountering problems with morale though because of the death of a fellow hunter recently as well as the related issue of being short handed. Because of these problems, Solomon, the STN-J's parent organization has sent them a replacement, a craft user named Robin. Apparently the only real difference between craft users and witches is who they work for, but we're getting off the subject. You may not notice it right away, but things are starting to move underneath the day-to-day affairs, as Zaizen, the head of STN-J seems to think Robin might be a spy for the Solomon organization, though for what reason it isn't initially said. During the first episode a lot of concepts are introduced, such as the Orbo, which is a substance produced at this place called the Factory, and is used to negate the effects of the target witch's powers during a hunt. Apparently there are some key differences in technique between the Japanese STN and the parent organization, such as the fact that STN-J doesn't kill witches but instead sends them to be held at the factory. The first half of the series primarily covers the daily missions the STN-J members go on in order to hunt witches, however, over time questions begin to arise in the mind of the viewers even if they aren't directly confronted by the characters. Questions such as what happens when witches are sent to the factory as well as who the characters can and cannot trust start coming up more and more often as the story progresses until Robin is attacked and forced to go into hiding, even from her former compatriots. The latter half of the series entails the unraveling of several mysteries, including Robin's true identity, why she has become a target, and what is truly going on at the Factory. Danger and politics run rampant in this part which can get a little convoluted, but that just serves to make the plot even more awesome.

STN-J Headquarters. You'd think that most genre savvy folks
wouldn't be willing to take a job with super-elite teams anymore.
They always seem to get back-stabbed
by the organizations that formed them.
The world that Robin seems to inhabit appears at first glance to be a contemporary one, though with some alternate changes. Apparently the period of the Enlightenment in Europe must have had some extra hiccups in this continuity since most people seem to have a very medieval attitude towards people who have special abilities. Either that or someone's been cooking the history books so that the witch hunters have a reason to have an international presence that doesn't violate international law or Japanese law for that matter. I don't know, maybe its just me, but I tend to think most countries would take issue with a foreign organization hunting their citizens without an excess of communication with their government. Further, there is probably a lot of corruption that has allowed the witch hunts to proceed as they have. This renders the world a dystopia in just about any sense. A person can disappear with just the slightest hint of being a witch, and normal people seem to be terrified of these characters, to points beyond reason. Granted, the witches STN-J actually catches don't seem to be particularly innocent of atrocity either, as many of them are if not frigging crazy, at the very least, violent. I will point out that there are exceptions to this, such as Single Eye, the witch who could make a person afraid. He seemed like an otherwise normal guy who just wanted to be left alone. He seemed like he'd have some interesting stories to tell too, if anyone had ever ventured to talk to him. In the latter part of the series, you also get the opposite side of the coin, when Robin learn's that Amon's brother actually helps witches hide if they aren't doing any harm to anyone. From that perspective, it could be that we only got to see the bad witches because STN-J was making them a priority and probably wanted to minimize exposing the hunters to the innocent ones which were hauled off quietly by the Factory for fear that they might rebel. That's my theory anyway. As I noted above, the witches seem to have a lot of attributes similar to the X-men. Their powers are empowered by genetics, and they seem to be a next generation of mutant humans that the population fears, though apparently they have been around for a long, long time.

The main cast, from the left, Doujima, Karasuma,
Michael, Amon, Sakaki, and Robin,
hot on the heels of a new mark.
At first glance, many of the main characters may not seem all that filled out. Especially in the first part of the story, where we don't know as much, however, as we learn more about the team, it becomes harder not to care about them, especially Robin, who is essentially coming of age as she suffers the pain of growing into the person she was born to be. Her growth through the series is truly inspiring. The other protagonists in the series are also interesting. Many of them, like Karasuma, Doujima, and Sakaki are there because they've been given the choice to be a hunter or to be hunted. Rather than suffer at the hands of Solomon and its subsidiaries, they've chosen the path for survival regardless of whether they like the job or not. Michael, the resident technical guy is in a similar situation, as he was a hacker who was captured by STN-J but was given the alternative to work for them instead of being killed outright. He can't leave the facility, but at least he's alive. Amon, Robin's partner is probably the most mysterious early on though we learn that his motivations revolve largely around his loathing of witches and the possibility, maybe even fear, that he could become one. In a sense, everyone in the STN-J with the exception of the management are prisoners within their jobs whether they see it that way or not. Later, when things start falling apart however, we start seeing them act as normal human beings would. When Robin is hunted by Solomon, they are all conflicted about it and unconditionally stand by her, right to the end. Most of the differences in the STN-J's staff tend to be subtle, maybe even a little bit cliche, but that does not mean bad, and sometimes they aren't necessarily what I thought they were. Like there are several points where Amon's protagonist status is called into question. First he helps Robin improve her powers by giving her a pair of glasses to help her aim better, than he attacks her on someone else's orders, then he saves Robin from the hunters, then he disappears and comes back seemingly as one of the hunters after her, then he's investigating something else. By that point I was about ready to strangle him if he'd been real. I'd say more, but...  well... you know...   spoilers.

The bar-master at Harry's, the only place to go for the STN-J member
who needs a good coffee, or perhaps something stronger as the case may be.
The supporting cast is minimal in terms of the amount of screen time they get and that screen time is mostly dominated by two or three key figures. These being the bar-master at a local coffee shop called Harry's who provided something of a father figure to the STN-J members, and Nagira, Amon's half brother and a local attorney who hides Robin at his office. I really liked these two characters for some reason. I'm not sure why, but it was like they created a feeling of...   I don't know...  community, if you will? The bar-master seems like this wise fellow who's seen a few things and therefore would have an interesting story or two to tell. He's also got a personal stake in what the STN-J does because he himself has some witch-related genealogy which has resulted in his son ending up on the hunt list. Nagira is also a pretty neat character. Though he's an attorney, he spends most of his part in the series looking around for hints as to why Robin has become a target and is pretty much her information expert aside from Michael for the remainder of the series. He's unique among many of the more prominent characters because of his attitude towards the witches. He sees them as humans and actively helps them hide. Many of the other transient supporting characters serve mainly to illustrate to us and to Robin the other side of the issue when it comes to the witches. The effect the disappearances have on families and the way that many are torn by the pain of loss is indeed a sad thing and they serve to strengthen her resolve to go forward. It is a job they accomplish well, I think. 

Would you want these guys chasing after you?
Didn't think so.
As I said before, the antagonists are at first just the witch of the week, and while there is some detective work to take them down, mostly their not that important aside from being McGuffins with powers.  Further, once the hunt is on for Robin, Solomon starts sending some real nasty hunters after her and though they don't typically last more than an episode, I'd say the build up to them was more frightening than the actual fight. I guess that's true about most of the enemies. The scariest thing about them is the buildup, and that's okay, because the show isn't so much an action series as it is a supernatural mystery series. The enemies get a much scarier later, especially once we realize that Zaizen's up to something nasty at the Factory and his goons are one the prowl. What is not terrifying about guys advancing on you with radiation suits as though planning to take you off to be a lab rat somewhere, right?

After living on her own for a while,
Robin has learned to make her witch hunters extra crispy.
Unless you count the first few witch hunts, the show has no filler at all. (Personally, I think the hunts serve an important purpose but that's just me.) The plot really starts rolling after a hunt puts Robin in contact with a kind of witch called a Methuselah who grants her knowledge of the suffering witches have endured over the last few centuries. After that point, her powers start becoming even more incredible as instead of just lighting things on fire, she can now aim at virtually anything and reduce it to ashes at will! \^-^/ Then after she goes into hiding, she slowly reestablishes contact with the STN-J as they uncover what their boss, Zaizen is up to. I have to admit that after seeing Code Geass, I was kind of afraid that this would end in another downer, but that couldn't be further from the truth. If you make it past the first half, the answers you seek will come to you. It's as simple as that. While the ending doesn't tie up every single loose end, most of them are taken care of in a way that left me more than satisfied. Things can still stand some fixing up, but there's a lot that's been accomplished, which gives the story a sense of realism, which I really liked.

 In terms of presentation, the show does a wonderful job with the dark gothic atmosphere and though the background music tends to get reused a lot at key points, that doesn't mean the acoustic choices don't totally kick ass. Both the opening theme, "Shell" and the outro "Half Pain" (both performed by Bana) are very well done and fit the series perfectly. The voice acting is very well done, both in the Japanese and the English dubs.  While you won't see many seiyuu that most Americans would recognize, aside from perhaps Jun Fukuyama who is Sakaki's voice actor as well as the seiyuu for Lelouche in Code Geass, everyone else does an excellent job, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. However, the English only folks won't be disappointed either, as we have some American favorites for them as well, including Crispin Freeman as Amon, and Johnny Yong Bosch as Sakaki, along with Wendy Lee as Karasuma (Faye Valentine in Cowboy Bebop), and even Stephen Blum (Spike Spiegel in Cowboy Bebop), who voices a witch who is a doctor with the power to transfer life energy from one person to another in one of the witch hunt episodes. To sum it all up, this anime is an excellent piece of work that I would gladly recommend to any anime fan. In fact, I'd say it's something you should see. And that's the tiger's two cents.

Images taken from Witch Hunter Robin.

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