He's only a teenager, but Kurenai Shinkurou is already both a master of an arcane martial art and an experienced professional mediator, with a long track record of resolving disputes. And yet everyone has their limits...Shinkurou may have met his when his boss and role model, Juuzawa Benika, responds to his request for a more challenging assignment by giving him the task of protecting young Murasaki Kuhoin. Although she's only seven, the fact that the people Shinkurou is supposed to protect her from are her own rich, extremely powerful, and mysterious family is guaranteed to make his life especially dangerous. Adding to this is the stress of an impoverished and still-insecure adolescent caring for a girl whose prickly demeanor reflects a lifelong isolation from society...
....although the two soon find that their relationship and the growth it brings may ultimately make all of the danger worthwhile.
(Adapted from Sentai Filmworks' Synopsis)
When a show as good as Kure-Nai comes along, I am happy. I am happy because a series such as this that engrosses one so effectively with hardly a trace of pathos, makes the dangerous choice of bridging two dramatic sequences with a comic arc and emerges having made the characters' struggles all the more poignant, and fully develops and takes advantage of a fascinating, flawed, and complex cast is much, much rarer than it should be: my positive praise sounds generic simply because it is the combination I often look for but of which I usually find one or more parts missing. There's something refreshingly honest about Kure-Nai, borne in its attention to behavioral detail and refusal to rest on extremes to tell a story, and in spite of the flair brought about by its quirky premise, touches of film noir, and occasional supernatural occurrences, it is a humble story, one about two very different people growing up in different ways through an encounter of mutual culture-shock, and one whose progress and ultimate result is very touching. Though I could say a great deal about this series if I allowed myself to ramble, I'll touch upon the framework and give you the chance to immerse yourself: it's a show very well worth exploring firsthand.
The art of Kure-Nai is fabulously detailed, especially for a television series, with a careful contrast drawn between the modern griminess of Shinkurou's tatami apartment and the antiquated splendor of Murasaki's home, the result serving to enforce the difference in background and compound the effect that sudden immersion into either brings. In both settings, the artists pay careful attention to such touches as the stripes on Murasaki's leggings, the carefully replicated shape of shattered glass on a damaged car, and the distinct shades of artificial light present in each place, while the characters are drawn to a beautiful degree of accuracy, touches such as each person's eye design seeming to amplify his or her personality (the large irises in Shinkurou's eyes giving him a sorrowful appearance, for example). It's worth noting that the color scheme largely consists of earthy tones with most traces of brightness sucked out of them, and this may not appeal to everybody; I personally found the character design to be endearing without exactly being traditional "eye-candy", touches such as one persons's slimly-tailord black gothic wear and Murasaki's heavy bangs mixing nicely with more typical-looking characters. The animation is smooth throughout, and the fight scenes are well-choreographed and rather enjoyable to watch in spite of my general lack of interest in fighting anime. The music, meanwhile, is pleasant and appropriate if not especially memorable, while the voice acting is superb, Aoi Yuuki delivering a powerful performance as Murasaki.
Even when the art and outward appearance are disregarded, however, the characters are a beautiful bunch indeed, with Shinkurou and Murasaki lying at the heart of the story's emotional strength and the others, in all of their quirkiness and complexity, allowing the series to maintain the welcome level of ambiguity it does. Shinkurou, who splits his time precariously between high school student and working as a mediator, could potentially fit the profile of an archetypical shonen hero, and yet he is deprived of any pride or childish arrogance, his sad, polite, and vaguely naive demeanor initially making him sympathetic but his growth from his time with Murasaki being what truly makes him flower. Though equipped with bodily alterations to improve his fighting ability, he self-admittedly remains tentative and over-reliant on his mentor Benika's guidance, and yet the audience sees him learn subtly from his shock at Murasaki's behavior and others' berating of him, his relationship with her allowing him, as a developing adult, to realize his responsibility and his own importance to other people (a fact that most teenagers are unaware of and of which many remain in ignorance even as they come of age). Murasaki, meanwhile, is the prodigal toddler finally and spectacularly done right in anime, a too-wise-for-her-age type whose youth nonetheless emerges adorably when she is given a chance to integrate into normal society, and whose anachronistically aristocratic behavior both forces Shinkurou to grow by playing the fair disciplinarian and opens her closeted eyes to what is, ultimately, a world whose laughter makes up for poverty, bad food, and everything else that comes with life in tenement apartments. In the meantime, the other characters keep every moment interesting, with Shinkurous' bizarre neighbors Yamie and Tamaki, for example, significantly lightening up the show with dark humor and yet also allowing for character growth as the two tease his boyishness and encourage Murasaki in her exploration. Each character is complex to a point where hardly a single person occupies a single role, as barely any of the cast is "villainous" in any sense, and carefully-handled development allows the various characters to connect and reconnect in different aspects and continually appear wonderfully multifaceted.
The structure of the show is such that the drama at the beginning of the series is then given space to breathe with a series of episodes that adapt a slice-of-life approach, in which several episodes that outwardly seem like light-hearted anecdotes help strengthen the audience's bond with the characters and give the climactic events all the more weight when they do come around. Kure-Nai's plot thus loses some of its gloom in such moments as one where Shinkurou himself tells a friend that he'd rather talk about light-hearted things while having lunch with her and where, in what must be one of anime's only examples of a "musical" episode, the cast end up bonding over an arranged attempt to put on a traditional play turned into what's best desired as improv Broadway. Needless to say, the show's (I'd say fairly progressive) exploration of free will, gender politics, and coming of age receives a double sided treatment, with horrific events that underscore the audience's sympathy for the main characters balanced out by delicately-composed anecdotes of more mundane life. It's a show in which, having gotten to know the characters through all of their small failures, we are fully behind them by the end, when their actions matter most and when they will perform at full capability having been called to do so, and it's satisfying to watch because its careful avoidance of moralism allows the audience to engage in the story with surprisingly little bias, as even the "villainous" side is given a logical reason for their behavior. Tellingly, the end result proves to be something of a compromise that nonetheless leaves behind a fundamental change: it's the sort of series whose slightly bittersweet ending may leave some in frustration, but whose realism is gratifying for those tired of too-good-to-be-true endings in anime.
I invite the reader to explore everything that Kure-Nai has to offer: barring only a bare few flaws (an OP whose animation and music are ill-suited to the series, and the slightest desire to know more about Shinkurou's past than what was briefly shown onscreen) I found it to be highly enjoyable and the impact it left after only twelve episodes to be very welcome. Happily, this series has just recently been licensed in North America, and it's about time. The anime industry needs the stimulus of shows such as this.
I really can't recommend it highly enough. Those who dislike the art style may remove one star, I suppose. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: Teenagers and up. As violent (if not particularly graphic) as it sometimes is, the series becomes emotionally and dramatically dark near the very end and presents cases of incest and a "tradition" that amounts to slavery with a remarkable lack of sugar-coating.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital Source
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Kure-Nai © 2008 Brains Base / Kentaro Katayama
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