Oz, Duke Vessalius' heir, has just turned 15 and is taking part in his coming-of-age ceremony when everything goes horribly wrong. A group of people in cloaks attack Oz, and Oz hurts his servant and closest friend, Gil, possibly killing him. Before Oz can figure out what's going on and learn of Gil's fate, he is dragged into the Abyss. While in the Abyss, he meets a powerful Chain named Alice, a.k.a. B Rabbit (Black Rabbit). Although most Chains look like beasts, Alice looks like a girl. In order to save both Alice and himself, Oz forms a contract with her.
Shortly after that, Oz and Alice manage to go back to Oz's world. The two of them, along with Break, Sharon Rainsworth, and Raven, work to find Baskerville, the group that plunged Oz into the Abyss, and deal with illegal contractors. While in the process of doing that, Oz and Alice hope to locate the fragments of Alice's memories.
Pandora Hearts started off slowly enough that I wasn't sure if I'd make it through the whole thing. It took more episodes than I expected for all the characters to appear and the basic story to be laid out. There were some interesting elements, but they felt like things that had been cobbled together from other series: the close master-servant relationship, the Chains (dangerous monsters) that could have contracts with certain individuals, the battles with illegal contractors, etc.
For a while, it looked like the show might turn out to be “monster of the week” coupled with “heart-breaking minor character's story of the week,” with occasional snippets of Alice's memories to keep things from becoming too boring. There were hints of mysteries, but I wasn't initially impressed with those, because at least one of them was so blindingly obvious I can't bring myself to consider it a spoiler, even though it wasn't revealed until six episodes in. When Oz got back from the Abyss, several years had gone by without him realizing it, and the mysterious young man known as Raven was actually his faithful friend and servant, Gil. The character designs for child and adult Gil could not have made that “revelation” more obvious.
Then the more shocking revelations and plots twists started piling on, and the series became more interesting. This is a bit spoilerish, but it got to the point where I wondered whether there was anyone in Oz's “present” who was actually from that time period. The way everything and everyone fit together was mind-bogglingly twisty.
However, this series was only 25 episodes long, not a hundred. Two episodes before the end, I thought about all the many loose ends and wondered how they could possibly be tied up. Alice still didn't have all her memories. Things were still up in the air as far as the Will of the Abyss went. Oz only vaguely knew how he fit into the whole thing, and he was still tied to Alice by a contract that was slowly dragging him back to the Abyss. Baskerville still needed to be dealt with. One particular character had been revealed to viewers as having come from the past, but why this was important had yet to be explained. And was Break going to die on-screen, or would viewers be spared that?
When long-running manga series are adapted into anime, the adapter has three basic choices: faithfully adapt the series and accept that the anime will probably not have a real ending; faithfully adapt the series, but figure out how to tack on something that feels like an ending; take the basic characters and premise and write a completely new story. Since I haven't read the manga, this is only a guess, but I'm thinking Pandora Hearts went with option #2. The series has something that felt like an ending. Unfortunately, that ending stank.
You know all those loose threads I mentioned? Well, the series chose to “deal” with them like so: Oz had an angst attack after learning something about his father that I thought had been obvious since nearly the beginning. Alice snapped him out of it (thankfully, at least a couple characters refused to allow Oz to wallow in self-pity). Despite spending a large chunk of the series not knowing where Baskerville was, this time Break, Gil, and the rest located them within hours and for some unknown reason decided it would be a good idea to face them alone, despite having recently fought a very taxing battle against hordes from the Abyss. When they came face-to-face with Baskerville, Baskerville left them alone, except for one person, who Oz and Alice easily beat. Oz shouted some inspiring and emotional stuff at that person, and then they all went home again.
It felt like an ending, but it wrapped almost nothing up and featured a completely unbelievable final “confrontation.” I kind of wished I'd stopped at episode 24.
There was enough of interest in this series that I might give the manga a try. When they weren't painfully obvious, the various revelations were a lot of fun. I loved several of the characters, like Break and Gil, and would love to see them in action more. I liked the idea of the contractors and their Chains, and some of the Chains were kind of cool. I want to know the full story of what went on during and just before the tragedy of Sablier. What part did Jack, Vincent, Oswald, and Alice play in it all? The anime touched on some of it, but I have a feeling it only scratched the surface.
All in all, Pandora Hearts started off slow, morphed into something fascinating, and then ended with a disappointing face plant. I think it's worth checking out as an advertisement for the manga, and also for the fabulous music from Yuki Kajiura and FictionJunction, but it's not going on my “to buy” list.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Soul Eater (manga) by Atsushi Ohkubo; Soul Eater (anime TV series) - Those who liked Pandora Hearts' mix of humor, drama, and action and enjoyed the partnership between Alice and Oz may want to give this series a try. I've written about the anime and have no idea how similar it is to the manga.
- Chrono Crusade (manga) by Daisuke Moriyama; Chrono Crusade (anime TV series) - Those who liked the idea and drama of a partnership that slowly drains and will eventually kill one of the partners may want to give this a try. The series has a 1920s feel with a bit of supernatural stuff mixed in, and features a girl who has made a contract with a demon that allows him to "power up" by feeding off some of her life force. I've read all the manga and watched some of the anime - I suspect the anime goes in a slightly different direction, just based on what was going on when I stopped watching.
- Fullmetal Alchemist (manga) by Hiromu Arakawa; Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (anime TV series); Fullmetal Alchemist (anime TV series) - This feels somewhat similar to Pandora Hearts, in that some pretty shocking things are revealed as the series progresses, and the teenage protagonists have to grow up fairly fast. Events from the past intersect with the present quite a bit, although not in the same way as in Pandora Hearts. I've written about volume 16 of the manga.The manga and first anime series (Fullmetal Alchemist) are very different. I've heard that Brotherhood follows the manga more closely, but I wouldn't recommend that Fullmetal Alchemist newbies start with that anime, because of how quickly it speeds through some of the initial character relationships and emotional stuff.