Sunday, February 13, 2011

Kaze no Stigma (anime TV series), via Hulu



(I'm trying something a little new, and including an official trailer for the series, since I don't use images with my Hulu posts. Although the trailer features the English dub, I watched the entire show in Japanese with English subtitles.)

This is a 24 episode series.

Aside from a spoiler in my commentary in which I say how things turn out between Ayano (who I kept wanting to call Asuna - I think I caught all of them, but if I mention someone named Asuna, assume I meant Ayano) and Kazuma, this post is spoiler-free.

Synopsis:

Four years ago, Kazuma failed a test of his fire magic powers and was kicked out of the Kannagi family. Hot-headed Ayano took his place as the next head of the Kannagi family.

Now, Kazuma is back. Instead of being a failed fire magic user, he's a powerful wind magic user - in fact, he's a Contractor, someone who has made a contract with the spirit of the wind. Although this makes him more powerful than any member of the Kannagi family, his use of wind magic rather than fire magic means he still can't be accepted back into the family. Fortunately, Kazuma doesn't want to be part of the family again. What he wants is to prove to himself and his former family that he's stronger than any of them. First, though, Kazuma and the Kannagi family have to deal with a mysterious wind magic user who's trying to frame Kazuma for the killings of several Kannagi family members.

Kazuma refuses to help the Kannagi family for free, but he sticks around after the head of the family, Ayano's father, agrees to pay him for his services. Kazuma bonds with Ren, his little brother, deals with his unresolved issues with his father by battling him, and acts as Ayano's bodyguard. Hoping that Kazuma and Ayano will fall in love with each other, or at least have an "accident," Ayano's father arranges for the two of them to be together as often as possible. Ayano and Kazuma battle demons and spirits and occasionally cross paths with other element magic user families (there's a fairly substantial story arc dealing with a prominent earth magic user family, and Catherine McDonald, from the most powerful American fire magic user family, becomes a fixture in the second half of the series).

Kazuma's past eventually catches up to him, and he finds himself having to deal with an evil magic user who enjoys taunting him with a girl who's the spitting image of the girl Kazuma fell in love with during his four years away from the Kannagi family. Somehow, Kazuma has to move beyond the past, and Kazuma, Ayano, and Ren have to defeat the evil magic user before he destroys all of Tokyo.

Commentary:

After Dance in the Vampire Bund, I needed something that I figured probably wouldn't cause me to recoil in horror. I had wanted to see this series for quite a long time, and there were a few times I even almost broke down and bought it. The somewhat high price tag, even when it was on sale at Right Stuf, caused me to put off buying it.

Now that I've finally watched the show, I've taken it off my "to buy" list. It's not that it's a bad show - compared to a crappy show like Devil May Cry, or even a mediocre show like Dance in the Vampire Bund, it's not that bad. I'd say I enjoyed it about as much as I enjoyed Xxxholic. Kaze no Stigma has pretty visuals, decent animation (with some shortcuts taken here and there), consistent character designs, a nice premise, and a few really good moments. The problem is, it could have been a much better show than it was.

I was initially drawn to Kaze no Stigma because of its visuals, and it definitely did not disappoint in that department. It consistently looks good, and I can't think of any moments where I thought the characters looked sloppily drawn. The effects used for the various kinds of magic were pretty awesome and blended well with the rest of the animation.

The other reason I was drawn to this show was because of clips I had seen in various anime AMVs that indicated there would be romance between Kazuma and Ayano. Unlike the visuals, this aspect of the show did disappoint.

Part of the problem was Kazuma. He's good-looking, and his voice actors in both Japanese and English (I watched one episode of the show dubbed in English) sound yummy, but his personality kind of...sucks. At first, he didn't bother me that much. He's greedy and selfish, refusing to even help his little brother unless the Kannagi family agrees to pay him, but he has good reasons for being this way. He's arrogant and confident, but, as a Contractor, he has enough power to justify it. His behavior towards Ayano is smarmy, and he seems to enjoy pissing her off and making her blush, but Ayano is so arrogant, particularly at the beginning of the series, that I could see how it would be fun for Kazuma to push her buttons.

The thing is, except for the last few episodes in the series, Kazuma never really changed. He was always supremely confident about everything - he never seemed to worry that he might not be able to defeat his opponents, and there was never any doubt in his mind about his ability to charm and attract women. He only ever looked awkward or recognized that he'd messed something up maybe three times in the entire series. That ruined both the suspense during his battles (if Kazuma doesn't doubt that he'll defeat an enemy, and if he's so powerful that that lack of doubt is justified, why should the viewer feel any excitement and suspense when he's fighting?) and the excitement and appeal of his romance with Ayano.

In fact, other than maybe in the last two episodes of the series, I would say that the romance between Ayano and Kazuma is pretty much one-sided. Ayano blushes around Kazuma and basically acts like a typical tsundere character (looking at the TV tropes page for this, I would say she's Type A - her default emotion is anger), and Kazuma doesn't seem to give a crap whether she's in love with him or not. The way he acts, he probably figures that of course she's in love with him, because he knows he's hot and she's a hormonal high school girl, but there's nothing about his behavior that says he'd be at all upset if she suddenly got over her attraction. I've watched anime before in which the romantic hero is either aloof towards the romantic heroine (or hero, in the case of BL stories) or seems to enjoy upsetting them, but in all the more enjoyable romances with this type of character, there's at least some sign that they actually feel something for the other person beyond amusement and slight fondness. Some examples are Eiri Yuki in Gravitation (an absolute bastard towards Shuichi, but you know he'd fall into a black depression if Shuichi acted cold towards him and left him) and Inuyasha in Inuyasha (gruff and refuses to recognize that he has feelings for Kagome, but there are lots of obvious signs that he does have feelings for her).

The last two episodes have what I believe are the only truly romantic moments between Ayano and Kazuma in the entire series. Kazuma had flirted with Ayano before, and there's even one scene where he licks a bit of wine off her face, but none of those scenes ever felt to me like he meant them. It felt like he flirted with her because it was fun to make her blush, not because he actually felt attracted to her. However, near the end of the show, there's one scene where he kisses her on the neck. Although the kiss isn't physically all that much different from other things he's done throughout the series, it's more believably romantic than all the other "romantic" scenes in the show put together, because behind that kiss is respect and real affection.

I also loved the scene between Kazuma and Ayano in the final episode, where Kazuma kisses Ayano's hair. He tells her he'll be around to protect her and everyone else, and she smacks him (or at least tries to), telling him that she never asked him to protect her. She can darn well protect herself (and, really, she can, although she sometimes bites off more than she can chew and needs a bit of backup). What she wants is for him to occasionally lean on her a bit.

What makes this scene so powerful is that part of what emotionally wrecked Kazuma was that Tsui-Ling, his first love, had asked him to always protect her, and he wasn't able to keep that promise. I had been annoyed with Ayano, throughout the series, for being a tsundere character who seemed too immature for someone like Kazuma to ever develop feelings for - when Kazuma's past with Tsui-Ling came up, I thought Tsui-Ling seemed much more suited to Kazuma. This one scene at the end of the series made me change my mind, however. Tsui-Ling may have been more mature than Ayano, but she was too weak for Kazuma. Ayano might get pissed whenever Kazuma abandons her during battles, leaving her to fight enemies on her own while he goes off to take care of other things, but, the thing is, he leaves her because he knows she can probably hold her own, at least for a little while. He doesn't have to be her caretaker. I still think Ayano is a little too immature to be with Kazuma, but Kazuma says, at one point, that she's going to become a good woman one day, and I agree. When that time comes, I can imagine the two of them becoming a couple, and those scenes in the last two episodes are the reason why.

The romance between Kazuma and Ayano wasn't the only aspect of the show that was mostly mediocre, aside from a few scenes that redeemed it somewhat - the series as a whole had the same problem. I read reviews of the first and second part of the series on Anime News Network, and the reviewer felt that the first half of the series dragged a bit and the second half was more interesting. I disagree, somewhat. I found the first half of the series to be interesting, but not terribly spectacular or original. The series was at its strongest when it dealt with Kazuma's past and his issues with the Kannagi family, so I most enjoyed those parts in the first half of the series and the last few episodes. However, the third quarter of the series was so boring that it took an enormous amount of effort to make myself continue watching, and I almost couldn't work up the willpower to watch the final 7 episodes - thank goodness I didn't stop, because it did get better.

The Anime News Network reviewer for this series is Theron Martin. I'm guessing "Theron" is a guy's name (yup - found his bio), because he seemed to appreciate the second half of the series' increased fanservice (which consisted of sometimes oddly timed panty shots, a bit of hot springs nudity, and Catherine McDonald's cleavage and bouncing boobs). After Dance in the Vampire Bund, Kaze no Stigma's fanservice didn't seem so bad, and there really wasn't as much of it in this series as some other series I've seen. I suppose Catherine McDonald might appeal to some because she offers more fanboy fanservice opportunities than Ayano - Ayano may constantly and unrealistically wear short skirts during battles, but Catherine has cleavage and bigger boobs. Being not generally interested in bouncing boobs, I was not a huge fan of Catherine, who I found annoying and lame. I was very dismayed when I realized she was going to be around for more than one or two episodes.

Personally, I think this show could have been much better if it had scrapped all or most of the crappy "humorous" episodes that felt like nothing more than filler (in addition to not being a fan of Catherine McDonald, I was not enthused by the hot springs episode, although I did find Ayano's father's continued hopes that Ayano and Kazuma would have an "accident" highly amusing). The show would have been better served by developing Ayano and Kazuma's romance more and by spending more time showing Kazuma's past and how he moved beyond the more painful aspects of it, like his parents' decision to banish him and Tsui-Ling's death. There was never even an adequate explanation given for why Tsui-Ling, of all people, was chosen to be sacrificed - from what I could tell, she was sacrificed primarily to give Kazuma a more tragic past, and that's just not good enough.

Overall, I found this series to be better than ok, but not good enough that I'd ever want to watch it again. It's not going on my "to buy" list, but it's not a bad show. I'd recommend it for the flashy effects during the battles, its interesting "the black sheep returns" premise and presentation of the various magic user families (I would have liked it if there had been more of those kinds of episodes, but, unless you count Catherine McDonald, those episodes stopped after the first half of the season), and the conclusion of Ayano and Kazuma's romantic storyline. The artwork was pretty good, the character designs were nice and made it easy to tell everyone apart, and, although the characters were often only mildly interesting, they at least weren't painful to watch.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender (non-Japanese animation, TV series) - For those who'd like another series featuring humor, drama, and awesome battles between characters who use magic based on the four elements, this might be a good series to try. If you saw the recently-released live action movie based on this series and were not impressed, don't worry, the original series is much better. The series focused on Aang, the Avatar (the one person in the world who can wield all four elements). He was supposed to keep the balance between the four nations, but he disappeared 100 years ago. When Aang is finally found again, the Fire Nation has taken over most of the world. Somehow Aang, with the help of several friends, must bring balance back to the world.
  • Naruto (manga) by Masashi Kishimoto; Naruto (anime TV series) - The first half of Kaze no Stigma, with its many episodes featuring element magic using families and their secrets and problems, reminded me a great deal of this series. Like Kaze no Stigma, this series also has spectacular battles, humor, and even a bit of romance, and there are lots of ninja families with interesting clan-specific abilities. One of appeal of the series, for me, that I think might appeal to fans of Kaze no Stigma, is the amount of emotion crammed into some of the relationships between clan members. I'm particularly fond of the tense relationships between Neji Hyuuga and his cousin Hinata (Neji was raised to protect her but came to hate her after his father was allowed to die for the good of the clan) and Sasuke and his older brother Itachi (Itachi slaughtered his entire clan, except for Sasuke, leaving Sasuke to grow up with a burning desire for vengeance against the brother her once loved and looked up to). The angsty moments don't weigh the series down, and I find them to be a lot of fun. A warning, though: this series is long, and the anime has an excruciating number of consecutive filler episodes. The series is continued by Naruto Shippuden. I haven't watched much of the anime version of Shippuden yet, because it's excruciating in a different way - it tries to avoid filler episodes by making everything take as long as possible.
  • The Fire Rose (book) by Mercedes Lackey - For those who'd like another series featuring element magic users, this might be good. The Fire Rose is the first book in the series. Each book is loosely based on a fairy tale - this one is based on Beauty and the Beast. A fire magic user who was disfigured by an attempt at forbidden magic (he tried to become a shapeshifter and ended up stuck in a form that's part human, part wolf) needs help researching ways to get his body back to normal. Unable to trust his apprentice, he hires a down-on-her-luck scholar who eventually discovers what he looks like and that he can use magic.
  • Black Cat (manga) by Kentaro Yabuki; Black Cat (anime TV series) - The anime and manga are two different animals - I only got about five episodes into the anime and don't plan on finishing it, but basically it takes the main character as he was in the past in the manga and puts him in the present. If that makes any sense. Anyway, in the manga, Train Heartnet used to be an assassin working for a secret organization. He eventually left the organization and to become a sweeper (a bounty hunter). The tone of the series is similar to Kaze no Stigma, and Train reminds me a lot of Kazuma (only he's not smarmy).
  • Inuyasha (manga) by Rumiko Takahashi; Inuyasha (anime TV series) - Those who'd like another series featuring a tsundere heroine (sweeter and less angry than Ayano, in my opinion) might want to try this. Like Kaze no Stigma, there's plenty of action, and this series has much more romantic development. I haven't finished the series, so I don't know if the romance concludes in a satisfying way, but I can at least say that, in typical Takahashi fashion, it's dragged out a lot. Like Kazuma, Inuyasha has a former love he may still be hung up on too much to fall in love with someone new - but of course viewers/readers can tell he's falling in love with Kagome anyway (who, confusingly, is technically a reincarnation of his old love). Kagome is a modern high school girl who is transported back to the past and must find and purify the shards of the Shikkon Jewel with Inuyasha and several other companions.
  • Nabari no Ou (anime TV series) - I haven't read the manga this anime was based on, and, although I own the whole series, I have yet to watch it all. This one has lots of signs that it will end tragically - I was assured by someone on YouTube that things end well, but I'm pretty sure that person was lying to me in order to convince me to keep watching. Anyway, those who found the episodes of Kaze no Stigma that focused on the various magic using families particularly appealing might want to try this. This series is set in modern day Japan and features a bunch of ninja families who all want the tremendous wish-granting power that is trapped inside an apathetic young boy. The boy, one of the main characters in the series, ends up in a complex relationship relationship with one of the people sent after him, a relationship which develops into a kind of friendship.

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