Roll up, roll up! Come one, come all! Grab you’re ticket and bring a smile because the circus is coming to town…sort of. In a world twisted by corruption and threatened by monsters, there is only one organisation capable of fighting for justice, I’ll give you three guesses as to who. So sit back, relax and enjoy the mayhem that unfolds when super-powered acrobats take on those who long for destruction in one form or another.
We enter our story as soon-to-be-protagonist Nai finds himself at the mercy of a particularly forceful lady named Mine. Luckily for him, and story progression, said situation is interrupted by a cat burglar whom we will all come to know as Gareki (because that’s his name). Any sense of peace is short lived however, as Mine rather swiftly returns…as a monster. Cue escape/fight scene. After using wit and trickery to ensure his safety (and Nai’s I suppose), Gareki speeds to safety aboard a train…that has been hijacked. Though, coincidences aside, this particular sequence of events allows us our first glimpse at Circus, the synonymously titular organisation. As expected from their name, the operatives of this particular group are flamboyant and create quite the spectacle, especially when contrasted with the normalcy of the rest of society. Though the fact that a train hijacking can be considered normal also serves as a pretty strong indication of just how threatened the world of Karneval is. Kind of. This is one of those series that, in showcasing the guardians of society, never really focuses on the world outside of Circus’ jurisdiction.
Regardless of his involvement with Circus or newly budding friendship with Gareki however, there is one thing that Nai must do: find his friend Karoku. Though he left behind only a bracelet, Karoku possesses some form of connection with Nai that serves as a source of hope that they will find each other once more. This is of course very important because…ummm…friendship? I mean who wouldn’t consider Karoku a friend worth finding, what with all the…ummm…stuff he did? Ok, I’ll be honest here, I have no idea who this guy is and why he’s so damn important. I mean sure, friendship is a valid reason for Nai to long for a reconnection, but we as the audience receive no true indication as to who Karoku is. We learn from Nai that he’s warm and smells like sunshine. Cool. What else Karneval? I’m all for a journey, but I wouldn’t mind a few more clues. The series does slowly reveal the true nature of Karoku and Nai’s relationship, but it just doesn’t feel like enough given the length of the series. 13 episodes is more than enough to give us a little something more.
Karneval also has a habit of jumping the gun a little bit when it comes to compassion. Now let me explain, because that sentence makes me seem like a bit of a monster. Characters are introduced throughout the series, some with connections to the main cast, others existing as simple acquaintances of the week. Now whilst it is understandable why characters respond so fondly to new faces within the context of their lives, the abundance of good will is not entirely warranted by the amount of screentime said faces receive. Even old friends are shown to us only briefly before large plot points drop, limiting the amount of emotions one can feel for them. Though their stories are objectively interesting, sad, happy or anything in between, it all just feels a little shallow.
If you couldn’t tell from literally any still frame from the series, Karneval is all about the visuals. Namely: costuming. With the main force for good in this universe moonlighting as a circus, the characters are understandably vibrant and have a heavy emphasis on what they wear. Even simple shirts become a fashion statement, namely because the series doesn’t seem to believe in the concept of muted colours. Whites are pure. Blues are solid. Yellows are bold. Sparkles are…present. I haven’t even gotten started on the design of the clothes. Frills, ribbons, ties, suspenders, belts, jackets, even stovepipe hats. Everything gets a go. Possibly all on one character, at the same time. It’s just that kind of show. This flair is also noticeable on the characters underneath the outfits, mainly in character’s eyes which are very well defined and compose of a multitude of colours. Nai for example possesses large eyes that feature both red and yellow, contrasting with his otherwise pale palette. This, along with the costuming, serve to bolster the notion that Circus does not employ people whom would traditionally “blend in” with society.
On a darker, but equally quirky, note exist the Veruga, twisted beasts with whom Circus do battle. Though humans serve as the base frame for these creatures, they swiftly reveal a far more horrendous form when thrown into combat. Take Mine for example. Though seemingly a well-to-do lady, a multitude of bone snapping and skin stretching reveals a multi-jointed, long armed creature who poses just as much of a combat threat as she does a visual one. Though the transformation sequence and menacing form of the Veruga is played up in the first episode, their lingering human elements when transformed adds a certain amount of body horror to the series, though the extent of this is entirely dependent on the monster in question.
In regards to sound, Karneval holds up fairly well. Though it has its moments of weakness in regards to intense emotion, the dub does a good job of capturing each characters personality. Hirato particularly stood out to me, as Ian Sinclair did a fantastic job at presenting the friendliness and dry wit that make him such a likeable leader. The banter between the cast was also a positive element, especially the exchanges between Hirato, Tsukitachi and Akari. Though not an inherent focus of the series, it does present you with the knowledge that these higher ups have a friendship all their own, providing a nice respite from the Nai and Gareki relationship. So keep an ear out for that. The soundtrack also benefitted the series overall motif, blending in distinctly “circus” tunes with most of the songs, most noticeably in the intro.
On the meta side of this release, Karneval houses a neat little collection of extras, though admittedly nothing too extravagant. Both episodes 1 and 13 get the commentary treatment, providing a nice little behind the scenes info on the recording process and the benefits of owning cute pets…it makes sense in context. Also included is a brief video where J. Michael Tatum (voice of Tsukitachi) runs through the main cast of Karneval, noting their personality traits and unique taste in clothing. Also tune in for trailers, promos and all that fun stuff.
Overall, Karneval presents an interesting concept. Unfortunately, the execution of this falls a tad short. Though the visuals are undeniably fantastic and provide the series with a look all its own, they are not enough to distract from the issues that dwell within the plot. It just feels that the series tends to be more flair than substance, which is disappointing due to the potential that exists within it. wound up spreading itself too thin across each of its story elements, resulting in a sense of shallowness. The circus for which the organisation was named was shown but twice, Veruga’s were not as prevalent as initially implied and Nai’s overall motivation was left far too ambiguous. Ultimately, unlike the trapeze artist so briefly shown in episode 2, Karneval just couldn’t find its balance.
Do you think you can handle life under the big top? Then why not check out Karneval over at Madman?