A youth named Nai is rescued from the overly long arms of a morphing matron by a principled thief (?) named Gareki, and both of them fall in with a group of super-powered government agents called CIRCUS (it's their "cover" occupation, you see.) CIRCUS is fighting the usual sort of fantastically wealthy (and completely evil) organization, all while trying to figure out what Nai's all about- and what to do with Gareki...
The good is that Karneval has picked a couple of venerable themes, and does a credible job with them. One is the cynical "scoundrel" who becomes involved in an adventure with a naïve youth, and who improves as a person as a result of this. Think Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars film.
But there is a not-so-good side of this trope, and that's that there is a lot of temptation to try to make the "rogue" less rogue-like in order to make him (usually it IS a "him") more palatable to the audience, but this always comes across to me as a bit of contrivance. So we have George Lucas & Co. deciding to alter a scene to have one of Han's opponents be the one who fires the first shot. In Karneval, this takes the form of Gareki only robbing "bad" rich people; and we get plenty of his hard-luck past, in which he never ATE anything, it seems- it's the only explanation I could come up with for how he didn't turn into a monster himself- and at one point he encounters some people once close to him, and witnesses the horrors of their current misfortune, which serves to rev up the pathos AND give him a personal reason to hate the bad guys. (The bad guys' organization is called "Kafka", a reference to that author's story The Metamorphosis, apparently.)
The other venerable theme in Karneval is the idea of the orphan/misfit finding a haven of acceptance. One of the nicer things about the show is the fact that Gareki is so oblivious to the wheels turning in the CIRCUS crew's heads concerning their plans for him; both the "Airship Two" Captain Hirato and the "Airship One" Captain Tsukitachi have conversations with Gareki to explore his feelings, and he STILL doesn't quite see where they are going with this. (The "airships" are sort of a hybrid between dirigibles and airplanes; this show is very big on hybrids, you could say. The two CIRCUS airship "crews" have a kind of rivalry going on between each other, though by happenstance Gareki and Nai ended up mostly fraternizing with the Airship Two bunch.) Nai, by the way, while having kind instincts, seems to have shockingly little actual life experience even for a kid ("Nai" might as well be short for "naïve", whether that was intended or no), and when we find out exactly WHY this is, it's a revelation so outrageous that it's pretty hilarious.
These things were pretty OK. Here are the things that I thought were not:
-Most shows give you a sense of time and place; even shows with thoroughly weird settings, or set in parallel worlds with different histories than ours, usually have some sort of self-consistency. Karneval has steam locomotives (which would seem to place things not much past the early 20th Century at most), autos that seem to be 1940s (or possibly later) vintage, and apparent "brownshirt" policemen (maybe fascist 1940s?); but genetic recombination and advanced aviation technology are also around (Kafka and CIRCUS, respectively), and, maybe the most uncomfortably incongruous of all, fantastical places like the "Rainbow Forest" and Vint, full of creatures from the storywriter's imagination. Vint, by the way, is apparently the source of the "rapidly evolving cells" that give the CIRCUS crew their apparent super-powers, if you wear them in a bracelet. (You can really summon women from a top hat with the aid of these cells? Fanboys will be searching for Vint BIG time.) However, these same cells, when ingested, turn people into monsters (called Varugas), and Kafka's main activity seems to be tricking people into becoming monsters, for- well, I was never sure exactly WHY; this is just the sort of thing that evil organizations DO, I guess. Still, as I said, I could have accepted a steampunk sort of world that looked both Victorian AND high-tech, if it hadn't ALSO wanted to throw in magical idyllic storybook lands filled with fairytale creatures. ("What has four legs and flies?" Several of the larger Vint animals...)
-And the cast: Hirato and Tsukitachi, the Captains, are top-hatted, quiet, stalwart, and can both fly and summon "banshees" from their hats (those aforementioned girls), as well as do other tricks. (The Banshees of one of the two Captains wear masks over their mouths; perhaps they all have colds.) There's Tsukomo, who's a blonde, young acrobat who can apparently dodge bullets; she's one of those characters who shows almost no emotion, and I guess that doesn't make her very endearing to her fellow CIRCUS members either, because they basically abandoned her in enemy territory for two episodes.
And then there's Yogi. Maybe HE is mostly what makes the show considered "josei", in the sense of not exactly being traditionally "macho"; he can summon swords out of nowhere (and if he REALLY loses control, watch out!), but he gets weepy A LOT, and always wants to please; his judgement seems a bit poor at times as well, but the latter might be just due to having been kicked in the head once too often by his "big sister" (at least he CALLS her that), Iva. I found myself being somewhat sympathetic to him, but I guess if I had to live with him 24/7 I might eventually be tempted to kick him in the head too, I suppose. MUCH harder to take was Kiichi, a female scythe-wielder (maybe a long-lost sister of Okamikakushi's Nemuru?), who's an annoying egotist (and who of course ALSO belittles poor Yogi- that guy seems to be bullied by almost EVERYONE, really.)
Forgive me for obsessing over this, but I'm still unclear about why a show like Get Backers, which DOES have a pretty clear homoerotic relationship (between Kazuki and Juubei) gets classified as shounen, while THIS series, with just a "sensitive" male character (Yogi), and a kind of brotherly bond between Gareki and Nai, gets called josei. I know, I know, I hear Obi-wan saying "Let it GO, Allen, let it GO..." Well, Karneval's pacing didn't drag like Get Backer's did, but it's only a fraction of that one's length. Sure, Gareki and Nai were OK, but the villains were rather one-dimensional (and anime villains should be at least two-dimensional, y'know), and frankly the CIRCUS performers (AND their battles) were just so-so. And there's nothing worse than a CIRCUS that's not entertaining. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: Here there be monsters (and much suffering because of that), and blood; consumption of human flesh is implied, though not graphically depicted. No fanservice that I can remember. Right Stuf recommends for 14+, which is about right.
Version(s) Viewed: Streaming on Crunchyroll
Review Status: Full (13/13)
Karneval © 2013 Manglobe
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