“Justice has never been so twisted…” is NOT a very accurate byline for Karneval, an adventure fantasy anime adopted from a manga of the same name. The very fact that it is labeled under the “josei” genre is evidence of the show’s true nature, which is not really about justice at all. While not exactly a harem anime, Karneval builds its appeal by showcasing quirky bishounen characters and their emotional growth as they struggle to deal with understanding each other more so than fighting the enemy.
Neverthless, the show is pretty good at eliciting just what fangirls like, which is inevitably a tsundere boy and his begrudging attachment to a helpless shota. Manglobe Studio and Funimation have worked together to release an English dubbed Karneval in its very pretty box DVD set edition. (No-spoilers review continued below the cut.)
A review copy was provided by FUNimation Entertainment.
Karneval’s premise begins with Nai, a mysteriously pale and clueless little boy that was somehow captured by a crazy woman. All he knows is that he wants to find Karoku, his friend and past protector, who disappeared after leaving behind a bracelet. By a chance meeting, he is saved by 15 year old Gareki, a plucky delinquent that broke in to rob the very same mansion he was held in. They find out the bracelet is a Circus ID, and only members of the said elite crime-fighting government sponsored agency would be able to provide them further answers. Gareki takes Nai along, who clearly has no survival skills, and they bump into members of Circus’s second ship such as the top-hatted lieutenant Hiroto, the cheerful Yogi and ice princess Tsukumo. Banded together under Circus’s orders, they go on small adventures and missions to piece together Nai’s mysterious existence as well as the whereabouts of Karoku.
This is also where the plot takes a backseat. Out of the 13 episodes in Season 1, we only get a few conversations ever explaining the nature of Circus, the enemy organization Kafka and the Varuga monsters they create. All of this is shown towards the end, after Gareki finally gathers enough interest to ask, and then begins to find a way to be relevant and useful enough to help. The rest of the show is paced slowly, as if there weren’t pressing “national defense agency” demands and their lives weren’t of great interest to the enemy.
I will admit this is accurate to the manga, which also downplays the worldwide issues in favor of character development, but the anime’s already compact format rushes both plot points. One of the ways this anime sells does happen to be the almost yaoi/shounen-ai type of relationships that develop between characters, humorously antagonistic or not. Without any real reason, Gareki is drawn to Nai’s simple-mindedness and vulnerability. He even has unseemly blushing and flustering scenes, a true tsundere punk if I’ve ever seen one.
Yogi, the brainlessly lighthearted Circus member, seems like a dead-ringer for Tsubasa Resevoir Chronicle’s Fai D. Flourite, both for silly antics and ridiculous attachment to the black-haired loudmouth. Girls don’t play center stage in the angsty entanglements, and certainly are not in any possible love interest role, so it seems more like a setup for Nai to choose between Gareki or reuniting with his beloved Karoku.
Although the “feel good” moments are pretty cute and fluffy, since Karneval’s large and lovable cast is its main appeal, the viewer can’t help but feel the potential worldbuliding is being shafted for events that usually occur at least a hundred or so chapters in. The first crucial few episodes eat up screen-time normally allotted for information on such details like how do their powers work (explained eventually to a rather unsatisfying degree – so you get to see them fly and shout random catch phrases while things explode beyond your ken).
The anime adaption does try to emphasize some action simply because it is more visually impressive than the reflection and banter that drives the story. In the end, the season ends right before things start to pick up a little regarding Gareki’s self-atonomy, and it doesn’t do the best job of explaining his motivations leading up to the decision. Overall, the story could do more to heighten the drama of the fantastical setting and utilize the cast.
There isn’t really anything to complain about regarding the art and animation, which adds some whimsical color to the already beautiful character designs done by Karneval’s mangaka, Mikanagi Toya. I confess, half the time as I followed along the manga I couldn’t make out much of the fighting scenes, so again, the anime does play up some action based on the pseudo-magic involved. Characters are generally drawn to blatantly look appropriate to their personalities: Nai is pure white, Gareki is black themed, Yogi and Tsukumo both have the foreign status with blonde appeal, and Captain Hiroto is also decked in formal black tie attire. The “Circus” theme of the organization allows for many fashionable costume-style clothing changes every other episode, which is a nice plus.
As for the English script and dub, I am a little caught between praise and feeling like some parts were overdone. I, for one, am a great fan of Greg Ayres and the youthful, disgruntled take he does for Gareki’s character, which suits him well. The rest of the cast is also pretty well chosen, except I have reservations on Nai’s voice. Nai’s nearly baby-like behavior seems to warrant a cuter, maybe even feminine-pitched voice, and yet most of the time he comes off as screechy and whiny. Mentally, I acknowledge that Nai is older and therefore more preteen boyish and clingy than he should be.
The appeal of the shota character, however, is someone like the iconic Ouran High School Host Club’s Hani-senpai where viewers can coo at his pouting, not find him annoying. As I understand it, the Japanese dub had also gone with a male voice actor that makes him sound whiny, so it’s no fault of the English casting, just unpleasant to hear.
In appreciating the scriptwriting, at parts I think the team does a wonderful job of avoiding the “awkward direct translation syndrome,” and many of the lines, such as Hiroto’s formal word choice and Gareki’s American slang, sound comfortable in English. Yet, at times there are phrases that seem as if they are trying too hard to fit in through the cultural barrier. There is a time and place for sayings like “a regular artful Dodger” and other less-frequently used dictionary terms, and an anime like Karneval is not necssarily the best place for it.
While some expressions and relatable metaphors make the dialogue feel familiar in English, overloading them can quickly lose a listener. Considering the fact that Karneval relies heavily on verbal exchanges and subtle character revelations to get across the anime’s plot points, making the dialogue even more difficult to comprehend is not the best direction. Despite its “josei” categorization in Japan, the fanbase in America is teenagers with blogs. That said, Karneval toes the line but doesn’t blatantly cross it over much.
As a whole, did I enjoy Karneval? Yes, mostly because I wasn’t looking for something gritty or shounen, and Karneval’s humor, visuals, and fluffy shipping has just the right amount of tragic backstory and tsundere angst to make it an entertaining show. My preference for the manga is simply because that it’s a more suitable storytelling device for the slow pacing. Some extra animation and lovely voice acting accompaniment (read: Greg Ayres’s talent) boost Karneval to a feel-good, but not must-read status. This is not a series for everyone, yet I encourage those interested to not overlook it as merely another yaoi. While I laugh that Karneval’s appeal might be reduced to shipping, it still has enough story potential to evolve further into a thought out storyline.
-Good potential for worldbuilding and plot concepts, but not fully fleshed out.
-Mostly well rendered voice dubbing and writing.
-I shamelessly enjoy the fluffy shipping (more so in the manga).
-Slow pacing and lack of focus on story.
-At times, overdone script dialogue.
-Not enough time to develop large cast of characters.
-Nai’s voice sounds rather grating.