Our titular heroine is a survivor of five years of war by machines against humanity, a war in which her own little sister was slaughtered. Mysteriously given remarkable powers, Karen eventually joins a band of others with such powers, called the Eleven, to destroy the robots' hold on the remnants of human society.
I looked at the comments on this show on Crunchyroll's site, and found what statisticians would describe as a bimodal distribution of views, which in plain English means everyone either seems to have loved it or hated it; the straight mean of their ratings thus fell very close to an average score, even though few individuals actually gave it one. In short, whatever I say about this show, I'm walking into a possible inferno of flaming, so I'll put some extra care here in noting what I saw, how I felt about it, and why I gave it the final assessment I did.
I'll start with Karen's most distinctive quality, its graphic design. We've all seen some of the advances in 3D CG (some of us are even old enough to remember all of them), from the days when it looked so out-of-place within conventionally animated shows (think those ugly spacesuit/spaceship combos in Divergence Eve), through full CG shows like Reboot, to the Pixar/Disney and DreamWorks shows (and anime like Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror and Vexille) which are standard fare today, to shows like The Polar Express and Beowulf that try to push the art of animation even closer to appearing real- and have experienced some pushing back; some people think it looks "creepy" when it's made TOO lifelike. Karen Senki avoids the creepiness, and for the most part even the "plastic" look of mainstream 3D CG, in its principal cast through use of an interesting hybrid style; they look hand-drawn, but are animated in full 3D CG. I actually like this approach, crossing the familiarity of 2D anime character design with the "realism" of 3D. Several of Crunchyroll's commenters unfavorably compared Karen to RWBY, so I looked at a little of RWBY. It's kind of an apples-and-oranges comparison; they're both action shows with CG animation, but they represent rather different genres. Still, I found RWBY (on the basis of a very limited watch) to have rather indistinctive-looking characters (especially the females) and muted, almost muddy coloration compared to Karen's vibrancy; I've gotta give the nod to Karen on that. Karen's background characters (crowds & etc.) are a very different matter, though. They seem to have been done with classic rotoscoping- with live actors who are then "painted over" digitally- and I have to say I've had a prejudice against poorly-done rotoscoping since Ralph Bakshi's take on The Lord of the Rings; Bakshi did it badly, and for the "extras" here it's done pretty badly too. And it looks like the show didn't have the budget to make the motion look fluid. The crowds thus end up as pale, poorly-defined creatures shuffling jerkily through the landscape- in short, they look like zombies. Sometimes even Karen herself exhibits this gait- mainly in her flashback scenes- though in her action scenes all her awkwardness disappears; in fact, they're as well-choreographed as those in any Hong Kong martial-arts film. Maybe this is not surprising, since the production company here, Next Media, IS a Hong Kong firm. Still, on balance, I really like the look Karen Senki was shooting for, with the caveat that I wish the whole thing looked like that.
Of course, Karen's own design LOOKS great, if clichéd. Short summary: blonde hair, eyepatch, Chinese mini-dress. She's got rocket boots (a la Astro Boy and Iron Man); a very large, souped-up motorcycle (a la Heat Guy J and Batman); and a "wizard gun" that discharges bullets, energy beams, "genies," and occasionally her dead little sister. (The show occasionally seems to forget that Karen has two guns.)
The thing about the dead little sister might sound more than a little weird, but weirdness is another of the show's more noteworthy traits, for good or ill (or perhaps both.) Karen Senki pulls things out of thin air, out of left field, out of a hat, and sometimes out of much darker, more private places. I often got the feeling here (as I sometimes also got with Reboot) that the creative team was given a little too much free rein, on the theory that, hey, the audience is being given all this neat CG, it shouldn't complain if we just want to have fun and go with whatever comes into our heads, logic be damned. So we have recurring bits involving a lady who mows robots down with a Gatling gun deployed from a flying skull-shaped thing that apparently materializes out of nowhere. And the whole thing with lil' sis. You see, Karen's little sister Touka was obsessed with a magical-girl anime (a certain fast-food corporation should sue; you'll see why), and died pretending to be that character. Now she's somehow- through the gun, through Karen's body energy, or through yet again reaching into that forbidden source of arbitrary inspiration, we don't know- somehow brought back as an energy-entity that delights in destroying robots. She enjoys it SO much that I had to wonder if perhaps THIS Touka was maybe just created from Karen's memories of her (a la Solaris), and is mainly a manifestation of Karen's own Id. Who knows? Karen does have one line of dialogue with her that was surprisingly good, though.
Some of the other weirdness is explained a bit better, including two characters who have interesting ways of keeping from actually dying when they are killed. I have to say this show has one of the most interesting supporting casts I've ever seen. It's a shame that Karen herself is a bit stereotyped: she's got that droll, jaded, cynical attitude that pretty much defines the modern action hero; she might as well be Bruce Willis (though she's much easier on the eyes.)
There are other things that are a mite overly familiar as well. Karen can dodge bullets, which we see going by in slo-mo in an utter steal from a famous film featuring a character named Neo. Another scene was lifted straight from Wall-E. We even have a reference to Psycho (it took me two viewings to catch that, though.)
Like everything else in this show, the robots are a study in contradictions. The soldier robots are one-eyed hulking brutes with machine-gun arms, but their ostensible leader is driven by SERIOUSLY misguided idealism, and doesn't always control his troops that effectively either. And often the robots just come across as bumblers; they're rather easily swindled, and have TERRIBLE fashion sense. (Accessorizing your overcoat with grenades is just WRONG.) The scene where two robots part ways is such hysterically over-the-top melodrama that it's obvious the show's creators are once again winking at the audience. But if the show's creators don't always take the robots seriously as a menace, then how can we?
The biggest single flaw of the show, though, is what was left out, at least in the 11 episodes available on Crunchyroll. Late in the show there's some attempt to provide the history of our human heroes (Karen in particular), but by the end of the series we're still left with HUGE chunks of backstory missing, particularly on the robots' side, and in most particular how their leader's thinking evolved. Episode 11 ends with an over-the-cliff-hanger ending, and by my count we're several short of meeting all the Eleven , so presumably more of this either exists or is planned. If there's more of this, I can hope we'll get some of the questions answered.
So in sum, I (mostly) liked the art a lot, loved the memorable strangeness of the supporting cast, and was fairly impressed with the combat scenes (with the caveat that it does get hard to follow everything when you've multiple opponents attacking with a barrage, a complaint I had about Vandread too.) I DIDN'T like the creators' tendency to throw away plot logic in favor of being "arch," Karen's over-used action-hero persona, and at least some of the vast number of things left unexplained (or poorly explained.) I feel a bit both ways about Karen's little sis, and the frequent homages to (or steals from) other shows. This is one of the most contradictory shows I've ever seen, and I suspect the disparate ratings on Crunchyroll reflect a Blind-Men-And-The-Elephant thing; your feeling about it depends on which parts you latch on to.
As for my final ranking of the show, again, I was pretty fascinated with the show's look and that outrageous supporting cast; I don't think I was ever bored. I considered that I'd recently given another Action/SF show, Terraformars three stars, and I really enjoyed the characters in this series, overall, a lot more than the ones in that show. There are parts here we've seen before; there are other parts I'm sure NOBODY has seen before. In my opinion, Karen Senki would have fit perfectly into Heavy Metal- the graphic magazine OR the movie it spawned- and I think would have been one of the better segments there, too.
So yes, I liked it (but didn't love it.) Your starrage may be lower, and that's OK, so PLEASE, no flames! — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: Profanity and fairly harsh violence. Karen and a lady named Eleanor supply us with in-their-underwear 3D fanservice. There is also robot fanservice. (Is this a first?) Older teens and up.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital stream on Crunchyroll, Japanese with English subs.
Review Status: Full (11/11)
Karen Senki © 2014 Ohji Hiroi/ Next Media Ltd.
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