Witchblade
by Polly



WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW


Nothing suggestive here, folks.
I used to be into comics way back in the day. Like everybody else, Marvel-released properties ate up most of my comic reading time with The Punisher (I liked Punisher 2099 too, sue me!) ranking #1 in number of volumes in my comic library. Toward the end of my comic-reading days a friend loaned me a few issues of Cyberforce from Image comics, a publisher I'd never really heard of at the time. I was mostly drawn to the art style and how different these comics looked compared to everything else I was reading. They had a really neat airbrushed look to them that made the panels just pop off the page. I continued to follow Image for a bit, getting into Spawn for a bit and enjoying what some might call the darker side of the comic industry. Interestingly enough, the final comic I remember ever buying (other than manga), thus ending my comic-reading hobby, was an issue of Witchblade.

I was always a sucker for female protagonists. Obviously that may come from being one myself... and a lot of them are hot. Sara Pezzini of Witchblade fame was pretty hot too and fairly bad-ass. I never really got enough into Witchblade from just that one volume to form much of an opinion on it other than it looked fuckin' cool as hell, but it remained something I'd always kept an eye on here and there as it spawned a live-action TV series and ultimately this here Japanese Cartoon series.

Seeing that Top Cow, Witchblade's original US publishers, had partnered with GONZO, one of the most disputed Japanese Cartoon production houses ever, to produce an animated version of their flagship title piqued my curiosity. That's just not something I imagine being all that common in the world of Japanese Cartoon making other than fancy stuff like The Animatrix and Gotham Knight. Rather than lame'ing out and just re-telling the comic's story with the same characters fans already know, GONZO was given free reign to create their own Japanese take on the Western franchise. I can imagine that being an interesting prospect for Witchblade's original creators, seeing their creation interpreted by another culture. The Japanese Cartoon version has the added honor of being considered part of the actual Witchblade canon, though a part of me feels this decision may have been made to drum up DVD sales from fans of the comic who may not necessarily be into the medium...

This is a series I took an old-school approach with. You see, back in the day, those of us who weren't into the VHS fansubbing scene had to pretty much blind-buy everything. We couldn't rent it unless it was a top of the line title from ADV and we didn't have the interbutts to download it first. If you made a dud pick, you were fucked. Plain and simple. This is how I approached Funimation's release of Witchblade. I blindly bought the first volume on a whim (it was only $10) and each month, when a new volume would come out, I'd purchase it. Just like back in the old days, I'd invite some friends over and we'd watch to see if my investment had been rewarded. It was really kinda fun doing this again, actually.

For the uninitiated, the Witchblade is an ancient sentient weapon resembling a gauntlet that grants its bearer unimaginable power and the ability to go from fully-clothed to 95% naked in under one second. The weapon's history states that it has been worn by both fictional characters exclusive to the comic world and other prominent women in history such as Cleopatra and Joan of Arc. In GONZO's version of Witchblade, the weapon also induces its bearer with an intoxicating level of ecstacy while in battle. Yeah, the sexual kind. Though I must admit, the notion of a woman running around in little more than a crotch plate and boob armor with her naughty bits flopping about and lopping off heads while simultaneously climaxing does strike me as kinda funny...

This incarnation of Witchblade begins six years after a major catastrophe levelled much of Tokyo. In this disaster one woman was found at ground zero holding an infant, a maternity diary, and a mysterioius bracelet with a blood-red gem attached to her right wrist. This busty young woman will be the main heroine of the story, Masane Amaha, discovered along with her daughter Rihoko, and of course, the Witchblade.

Masane, in typical Japanese Cartoon or J-RPG fashion, is a bit of an amnesiac (read: The best Radiohead album). In the catastrophe six years ago she lost her memories of anything up to that point and even her name was assigned to her by the government. The only true remnant of her past is the maternity diary she apparently kept for her daughter. In the catastrophe, she was chosen to be the next bearer of the Witchblade for reasons unknown and doesn't fully awaken to its power until she makes a trip back to Tokyo with her daughter to find a place to settle down and child welfare comes a-knockin' to steal poor little Rihoko away.

Masane is in many ways your typical, a little too generously endowed (what is up with all the huge-boobed main characters in shows I review lately?) bimbo-type character. She can't ever seem to get motivated and do much herself. She's not out and out stupid by any means, she's just very absent-minded when it comes to a lot of daily things and fairly care-free, which in turn makes her a bit of a fun character. To balance her somewhat ditzy nature, Masane is fiercely committed to providing for her daughter and will do anything to make sure that she's safe. This includes stealing a police car and engaging in a high-speed chase to keep her away from child welfare agencies and, of course, enduring the responsibility of being the bearer of the Witchblade as a sort of warrior-for-hire. Her catty attitude and warm motherly nature make her an easily entertaining character definitely capable of carrying the show.

Rihoko is Masane's six year-old daughter and though she's absolutely cute as a button, I take a lot of issue with how she's characterized and the various inconsistencies that crop up from time to time. I feel they really goofed up on age here, because Rihoko in no way resembles any six year-old I've ever known. She even feels like a stretch of the imagination for an anime character, and that's saying a lot given the medium's emphasis on children being "the important ones." She does all the cooking (the lolis always do), goes shopping all by herself in a huge ass town like Tokyo, and takes care of her mom when she has a hangover. She constantly speaks and acts as someone far more mature than her age, so when she suddenly can't seem to grasp the concepts of death and heaven, her believability comes dangeriously close to tanking.

What makes these two main characters work even with the rather glaring flaws? The honest to Bob believable bond they share as a mother and daughter. There are more than a few heart warming moments between these two characters and the chemistry between them is undeniable. The tender moments that are shared between the two and their struggle to stay together through their overwhelming odds never feels forced and that's helped a lot by the fact that both sides of the dub, Japanese and English, are emotionally as spot on as they should be. A crucial scene in episode 22 ends up being one of the most heart-breaking scenes in the show as Masane has to both face her mortality and convey to her young daughter, in words, exactly what that means. It's a damn good thing this chemistry is present, because contrary to what all the trailers and imagery may tell you, this show is much more about family and sacrifice than the over-sexed gore-fest that previews may lead you to believe. And no, I don't mean that in a bad way.

There's a somewhat decent amount of action in Witchblade, but it's hardly the focal point. In fact, most of it is over before you can even blink. The show's primary focus leans more toward Masane's relationship with Rihoko, and political positioning for possession of the Witchblade. The government's NSWF (National Scientific Welfare Association) and the Douji Group, who specialize in weapons production and research, constantly bicker, argue, lie, and manipulate one another as well as members of their own factions in power struggles to obtain the Witchblade. Masane eventually aligns herself with the Douji Group in order to fund a better life for her and her daughter by helping the group exterminate some of their own weapons that have gone berserk in the city and are killing innocent civilians.

On the other side of the field, the NSWF has been hard at work in both genetically engineering the "perfect genes" (yeesh, this is getting a little common too...) under the supervision of a man with a huge mommy complex, and perfecting their own piece of destructive hardware mimicing the Witchblade's capabilities, known as the Cloneblade. Bearers of the Cloneblade tend to be the more interesting and exciting adversaries that Masane will face, because they're not boring and faceless machines. They all get to stick around long enough to give the viewer a good idea of their personality traits and ambitions and also feature some really wacky, yet attractive designs. All of them are psychologically fucked up (Just wait until Maria comes out to play...) in some manner or other due to all the genetic inbreeding of the same genes over and over and are usually the most ruthless and focused when it comes down to accomplishing their mission.

On the visual side of things, from the all the previews and the like that get shown, one may expect Witchblade to be absolutely WOWZERS to the eyeballs. I understand that trailers and junk like that are meant to just draw you in, but I take issue with the fact that pretty much all of Witchblade's top-notch animation (and I can barely call it that) is featured in the previews you'll see around the net or on DVD trailers for it and the first set of opening and ending themes.

Character designs are decent with special attention obviously placed on the Witchblade and Cloneblade armors, but they're rarely ever given much of a chance to shine due to the very static nature of the show's animation. When it's sitting still and being a good little puppy, for the most part Witchblade looks fine. A little on the average side, but passable. What little action there is in the series though, is largely unsatisfying and pretty hammy.

You'll get a lot of pans of stills, action lines, zoom-ins, and close-ups with some fancy digital wizardy here and there and those are basically what make up all the encounters. Combat usually lasts all of 30 seconds or less. Once Masane goes into super-fuck-your-ass-up Witchblade Mode near the end of the show, it's even faster. It's a huge buzzkill when you finally get to see two characters go at it that you've wanted to see throw down for a while and then the fight's over before it even started. It's rare that you'll ever even see Masane or any of her opponents go into Witchblade/Cloneblade mode. They just happen to do it while the camera's pointed at something else for a moment. There are shortcuts all around and this is not the kind of visual presentation a show based on a visually-rich comic book should have.

Witchblade's music is largely forgettable, but it still packs some decent tuneage, limited to only a few select tunes that stick out in the action scenes and some of the softer pieces for the show's emotional moments.

The show features two sets of opening and closing themes, with the second set being some of the worst shitty shit I've heard in a shitty while. The first opener, "XTC" and closer "Ashita no Te" are both fairly decent songs that, along with their slick visuals, give you a great idea of the show's overall mood. The second set, with "Shitty Shit Song" as the opener and "Burp Fart Piss" as the closer, tell you nothing about the show at all, and to be perfectly honest, they just don't fit. In fact, the second opener goes from featuring all original animation that the previous one had, to being a shitty clip show containing clips from various episodes with a film grain and bloom effect on them. On top of that, the song wasn't even edited down so that it'd end properly, it just fades out in less than a second right in the middle of singing. It's right up there with the sloppiest openers I've ever seen. I don't even know WHY they switched since the first set was just fine.

The show's dub is also worth mentioning. As mentioned earlier, Masane and Rihoko's roles are brilliantly cast, but the same could be said of almost all the speaking roles. I don't really think it reaches Black Lagoon quality in terms of a solid dub, and the translation used for the dub script is a bit more relaxed (some really crazy line differences between the subs and what's being said in the dub), but it in no way wrecks the mood of the show or interferes with story elements. In fact, I think a lot of these changes make the dialog feel much more natural. Everyone sounds great, they're very lively, and believable in their roles. The really fun moments are usually when it's just the inhabitants of the Natsuki building bouncing back and forth with one another. Even though our dubs aren't recorded with all the actors in the studio at the same time, this cast still feels like it has that chemistry and it really goes a long way toward making Witchblade's world more enjoyable and believable.

On the story side of things, Witchblade's pacing may drive some folks mad. On one hand it has a lot of interesting plot twists and character changes, but it seems all too eager to spill the beans much sooner than it should, almost dampening the impact. And obviously those who are expecting to jump into the high-energy gore-fest stuck in overdrive that all the Funimation materials present it as will be very disappointed as well. Truthfully, this series is much like Gunslinger Girl in that the titles and imagery often associated with them make you think of something entirely different.

Witchblade's story unravels itself sloooooooowly and maintains one steady pace throughout the entire series. The one thing going for it is that most episodes tend to end on a really good plot-twist cliffhanger that'll make you wanna try just one more episode, but the climax at the beginning of the next episode is often over so fast that all the build up doesn't feel worth it.

Too much time gets wasted on fairly boring and "monster of the week'ish" encounters with X-Cons and i-Weapons, which are former human beings turned into dangerous weaponry. You'll see the damn things kill people and terrorize the city, sometimes for two episodes or more, and then Masane just wipes them out in ten seconds or less...if she's even the one that gets to deal with them. The bottom line is that Masane kinda fucking sucks as a Witchblade bearer and really isn't all that exciting in combat. I understand this is likely due to a story revelation that she's only a temporary bearer, but a little too often her adversaries will be taken out by someone with the Douji Group and on one occasion two Cloneblade bearers just pop in and do it for her. Sorry guys, but your little storyline hax to keep from having to animate much action doesn't make for much of an exciting show on the combat side of things.

If you're into stories like Gunslinger Girl where the emotional bonds between characters and political maneuvering take center stage, you likely won't take too much offense at the show's lackluster action. That's probably why I really did enjoy my run through Witchblade and don't really feel I got burnt for my money at all. It falters and fails to deliver on any decent action, and the ending is simply far too rushed, but the strength of the main cast is seriously what drives this show. It's not something I'll re-watch immediately, or even a year from now, but I can see throwing it in at some point in the future and enjoying the ride once more. Witchblade makes decent use of its 24 episode run, but I feel it probably could have done better with a couple elements nixed and had been confined to a 13 episode half-season run that could have made better use of the budget.






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