Verweile doch, du bist so schön!. Das Ewig-Weibliche Zieht uns hinan.
My German and Japanese skills are roughly equivalent, meaning I had no idea what that meant. Fortunately we have tools for this kind of thing now, so you all can translate that as well as I can! And once you translate it, you’ll find it doesn’t really do anything to help our understanding of this bizarre series! I know it’s a quote from the famous German poet Goethe’s most famous work Faust. And that’s as much explanation as we get of this famous quote.
This show is either an unmitigated and confusing disaster or it’s one of the most clever animes ever devised. I think the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. To be as confusing as it was at times, it was pretty entertaining. Among lesser known anime, I give this one decent marks overall.
There’s too many different characters from too many different eras. Most of the characters have an alternate appearance too, either from when they were younger or through some transformation, effectively doubling the number of characters you have to keep track of visually. And there isn’t much to any of the characters.
For those of you still confused, I’ll use this section to try to help out. First you have Reinhard Heydrich and Karl Kraft. These two are based on real characters from the Nazi German era. Heydrich was an infamous SS thug responsible for a great many horrors during that time. Kraft was a mystic who briefly had the ear of high ranking officials in the Third Reich. They essentially play those roles here, Kraft as a “mage” and Heydrich as an evolved version of his previous self. One source of of confusion, another source of confusion I guess I should say, is the fact that you’re never sure who’s friends and who’s enemies during the series. Kraft and Heydrich undoubtedly start on the same side, but seem more in opposition to each other as the series progresses. Anyway, these two have managed to live to the modern day, and bring a great deal of trouble to the MC of this time.
That MC is Ren Fujii, a blue-haired and blue eyed highschooler from Japan. Here things get really confusing. He’s related to any number of these bad guys from the past, and isn’t completely “normal” as a human. But it’s never really certain what those relationships are. His birth was artificial somehow, I know that, and at times it seems Kraft (Mercurius, another name for this guy) claims to be his father. Very confusing. He receives his unusual powers from his good friend Kasumi, a pretty and hot-blooded girl who hangs around Ren and his other friend Shirou. She looks a lot like Yuno Gasai, if you guys unhappily remember that name. I don’t know where Kasumi got the powers from. If that’s explained I missed it somehow. Shirou is the third of the musketeers, a delinquent with supernatural powers himself, and no explanation whatsoever of how he got them. I like his pretty girlfriend Honjou. She’s a beast.
Then the real confusing part begins. This whole “Round Table” concept comes into play and we get a big handful of retinue for Heydrich extending from the 1940s all the way up to the modern era. Valeria Trifa is the priest guy, also based on a real-world individual from the Nazi regime. Goetz (Machina) is based on another former SS member, some kind of Panzer commander best I can tell. Why they chose him I don’t know, though this Goetz character is more or less a “tank” type fighter. The last character that I can tell is based on a real person is Rusalka Schwegelin, based on a German “witch” with the same last name from far before the Nazi era. Mercifully the parade of horrors from our history stops there. But we still have a handful of retainers from that era. I like Eleonore von Wittenburg, a beast of a woman who follows Heydrich since she has fallen in love with him (her sanity or judge of character aside). She has zero respect for anybody, judging by her pronoun choices. The monstrous Wolfgang Schreiber, neither man nor woman, appears briefly as an enemy to Heydrich’s followers in the first episode before reappearing later as the depraved maniac with one of his eyes patched. There’s a handful of others but they’re not very notable, and they disappear quickly enough from the series as to not add too much to the confusion.
Then there are those who have replaced previous members of the Round Table. If I follow the story correctly, many of these new members were actually intended as sacrifices to open the magical portals (described as swastikas in the story). Chief among these is the beautiful Kei Sakurai. She was brought up by two other members of the Round Table. Not sure if those two were replacements or originals now that I think about it, but whatever. Kei wields a shining bladed weapon, bluish-black hair flying everywhere. She’s fun if confusing at times.
Finally you have the two ancillary yet not so ancillary characters in Isaak and Marie. Isaak is a bizarre character. I think we’re supposed to believe he’s Heydrich’s son. He’s supposedly a twin of a “Johann” whose role I forget. Maybe that’s Kei’s father? I don’t remember now. But anyway, Isaak is some sort of catalyst for the opening of the original portal during the Allies’ siege of Berlin in 1945. His mother is Lisa Brenner, who I should have mentioned earlier but forgot in the confusion. I don’t quite know what her role is though. Anyway, Brenner tags along with Himuro, the new candidate for macabre catalyst of the new set of portals. Confusing. But that last character, Marie. Yeah, I don’t know either. Hearkening to the post revolution era in 19th century France, she’s some embodiment of those who were executed at the guillotine. But then again she’s not. Yeah I don’t get it. Long story short, Kraft wants her to replace him in his position as a “god” so he can die. Yep, confused yet?
If it weren’t for some other aspects of it that are interesting, this anime would be a miserable failure due to these characters. For one thing, we definitely don’t need a second version of some of these historical figures. Sure that adds to their aura of evil, but still. But beyond that, it’s just a mess. To a man the characters are underdeveloped and overly complex, a bad combination. Some of them contribute in interesting ways to the dialogue, something I’ll get to later. None of the characters are particularly memorable or heroic. It’s nearly impossible to even understand what they’re going through or commiserate with them, since the events they encounter, or have encountered, are either so monstrous or so outlandish that we cannot comprehend their effects. I would rate these characters even lower if they didn’t have some interesting contributions here and there throughout the show. More on that later.
Somewhere between Future Diary, the Fate/ series, Another (save your sanity, don’t ever watch that show), and Highschool DxD (just without the…you know), the art is as confusing as the characters and the story are. It makes me wonder about a lot. The similarity between Yuno and Kasumi is so strong it doesn’t feel like a coincidence, though I can’t imagine why they would have chosen to do this. Ren and Shirou have the Fate/ feel (imagine that, given that name). The shadowing and dark scenery are characteristic of the horror genre, hence my references to Another, and even Future Diary. I can understand the art being similar to Future Diary, since that’s also in the supernatural genre. I don’t get the horror aspect of the art though. There’s nothing particularly scary in that sense about this show. It’s gross at times but not like Another. Well, I suppose you could say Future Diary is supernatural horror. Still, this show isn’t, so I don’t quite get it. It’s…well, confusing.
But as this anime has a great deal of action, I can’t berate the artwork too much. The action sequences won’t blow your mind, but they’re quite good nonetheless. If I had to quibble about anything during action sequences, it’s that the motions often weren’t very complex or interesting. I thought Ren’s fight with Machina (Goetz) was the best, but even there I felt like it was a little underwhelming. Certainly the last battle between Ren and Heydrich was underwhelming. Still, I will never take away too much from the difficulty of this kind of animation, so I’ll break off my criticism there.
The artwork is not unpleasant, but like I said it is confusing. There’s never any one thing to attract attention or to focus on. Kei and Marie are the only really beautiful characters, and they’re somewhat ordinary even in that regard. Heydrich and Kraft are both German obviously, but they sport very Japanese hairstyles in this era. Schreiber is supposed to appear neither male nor female, but there’s only confusion about his appearance occasionally. Usually he looks unmistakably male. Wittenburg has the burn scars on her face (Balalaika, Black Lagoon), but even that’s confusing, as her “magic” is fire control. Stuff like that, it confuses the mind even subconsciously while you’re watching, and detracts from the visual experience. All in all, the artwork is disappointing, despite being good quality otherwise.
This is the part where I’m not sure if it’s really clever or utterly ridiculous. But this, along with the dialogue and one other curious aspect I’ll note below, is the only saving part of this anime.
A lot of the story revolves around this rather undefined idea of deja vu. You know, you feel like you’ve experienced something before when it’s happening, whether or not you’ve actually experienced it? That has a lot of potential in this show. I feel it’s left a little underutilized, even though it does extend through the entire series. Heydrich and Kraft are both trying to escape a state of being where they perceive everything as deja vu. Supposedly so is Shirou, though I’m not ever sure why. It universally makes them suicidal, and they all deal with that in different ways. That aside. But beyond this potentially being really interesting as a heavy undercurrent in this story and factoring into the idea of “stopping time” that I’ll mention a bit more below, not much comes of this plot element. This really could have been used to connect these rather abstract and difficult characters to the viewers’ experiences. Everyone’s experienced deja vu, and though it’s usually unremarkable, the experiences themselves are powerful enough to give us pause for thought. They weigh heavily on our memory in a lightweight way, if that makes sense. Memory is a big part of what it means to be human, and all kind of interesting literary ideas pop up when you’re presented with this kind of possibility in a story. But it doesn’t really amount to much in this show. As interesting a contribution as it makes to the story, it could’ve been done better.
The biggest thing I should note about the story is how many different legends and histories it draws on. The story is launched during World War II in Nazi Germany, thereby utilizing that world’s brief obsession with mysticism and the idea of eugenics. These two items form the basis for almost all of the characters. While they don’t do a good job explaining it, I think we’re supposed to believe that between Kraft’s “magic” and the ongoing eugenics efforts being conducted under the Nazi regime, we get these meta-human types that we see in these characters. It’s ridiculous but it works for the story.
Then we add any number of Germanic and Norse legends into the mix. The manifestation of Heydrich’s powers is a giant golden floating city of a thing that’s supposed to be like Valhalla. Along with that floods in the ideas of valkyrie and einherjar, related beings in Norse mythology that seem to intermix into a handful of the characters here. The biggest German legend in this series is undoubtedly the references to Faust. For those who don’t know, Faust is the guy who claims to know everything and still wants more, hence the infamous deal with the devil usually known as Mephistopheles. You see some references to that here, particularly in Heydrich and Kraft, but also in the quote at the very beginning of this review, which is quoted from the most famous version of the Faust legend, the poem titled Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (shock your teachers, it’s pronounced “ger-tuh”, not “gothe,” as everyone is tempted to say it!). One of the things that drives Ren forward is his desire to stop time right in the most beautiful moments in his life, before they disappear or are taken away. That’s essentially what Faust is wishing for in that passage. And this, in the poem, is ironically something he cannot actually have. The poem is magnificent in its themes. This anime bumps into them like a bull in a china shop. But at least the bull got into the china shop, I will gladly say. This theme appears several times, forms somewhat of the basis of Ren’s ultimate power, and ultimately ends up not serving Ren’s ultimate purpose. It’s ultimately impossible to achieve in the manner he envisions it, just as it is to Faust. Although Ren isn’t the Faustian character here. But whatever!
The most central of the legends in the story are the Christian ones, specifically about the “days of wrath.” I won’t go into that here, as it is a difficult and unpleasant subject. Often writers in anime use Christian themes in an unwieldy manner, since they’re not super familiar with anything about the Church except its most outward appearance. Similar to how they handle the German themes, it gets a little crazy in untrained hands here. But supposedly Heydrich thinks he’s bringing about the “dies irae,” Latin meaning “days of wrath,” where the earth will be burned up. All that aside, that’s essentially what Heydrich is trying to do, burn everything off the earth so he can…I’m not actually sure what he wants to do afterwards! I never hear anything about a new humanity or anything like that. He just wants to destroy. I guess that’s the Nazi German coming through in him. But it furnishes the basis for the story, and the title obviously. I’ll note one more interesting thing about this title that might surprise you in the final section below.
Then the final straw among the legends hits us. A reference to another of the unhappiest times in Western history, the French Revolution. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know why the authors felt the need to bring this into the story. Initially the characters talk of “relics” and some kind of superpowers embodied within them. Hence when Kasumi, for whatever the hell reason, takes Ren straight from the hospital to a museum exhibit on famous blades, of course he encounters the guillotine. And hence our bizarre landscape of events unfolds. It’s so ridiculous it almost works! Marie, the original, was born to a warped set of parents at the moment her father executed some hapless unfortunate during the Revolution era. Hence whenever this blonde and green-eyed beautiful little girl touches someone, their head explodes off from their neck. Yeah. This of course leads to the predictable outcome of Marie being executed in the same manner. whereupon she lives on in this fantasy world on some beach, I guess embodied in the guillotine, where Kraft chooses her as is his successor and ultimately she meets Ren, etc., etc., etc. Man it’s confusing.
A handful of other legends pop up here too. The Valhala manifestation is adorned with lots of skeletal decorations, and while I feel like this is supposed to be in reference to the Third Reich again, it looks a bit like the Incan or Aztec figures we see in South America. Yes there’s a connection between Nazi Germany and South America, but all that craziness aside. The “Round Table” is of course an Arthurian legend (Fate/ series again maybe?), and seems very out of place. Isaak’s name is a reference to the Old Testament story where the patriarch Abraham almost sacrifices his own son, named Isaac (I guess “Isaak” is the Germanized version of the Hebrew name), before God stops him. A confusing reference for this show, beyond the obvious sacrificial nature of Isaak’s character. There’s probably more references to other legends lost in the blur.
With all this craziness going on, I suppose it’s handled pretty well. None of these legends are Japanese, and in untrained hands the themes are just flailing about in the story (tentacles anyone? can’t make this any crazier than it is). But it all ends up kind of working, at least for entertainment purposes. We’ll just ignore that rational part of us that’s screaming that none of this makes any sense, which is true. From Ren’s breaking friendship at the beginning to the formation and reappearance of Heydrich’s Round Table to the clashes between the powers that be involved with these events, it works out to be at least somewhat comprehensible and satisfactory. I can say that, regardless of the silly reincarnation theme that finally appears at the very end, I’m very happy to see the reincarnated Marie without the scarring on her neck. That’s a good place for all this messy story, with all it’s references to unhappy parts of human history, to very nicely end.
“Dies irae” has come to refer not so much to the legend aforementioned but more to the musical items written under that title. In the time long past, usually these pieces were incorporated into requiems, long pieces of music composed for funerals. And I wondered at the outset of this show whether the entire motivation behind this anime was the music. I might be right. While manga of course can’t have music, the writer could anticipate his story being cast into anime, and certainly could be inspired by the music. I don’t know how many different iterations of “dies irae” music were incorporated into the music for this series, but I know for certain that the two most famous versions of this piece feature prominently in the music. Mozart’s version is the most famous (obviously) and is featured regularly in passages and, most notably, in the opening. But some of the best scenes in this show are accompanied by Verdi’s version, a short but epic piece of music written for another (though less traditional) requiem sometime in the 1870s. Though obviously not written for the purpose, I find this piece to be one of the best battle accompaniments you could imagine. And here I finally found it in anime! Those scenes will make your blood pump faster and the hair stand up on your body. They are quite fantastic to watch and listen to. I wonder what Mozart and Verdi would think of their work being the only thing that stood between an anime being a total disaster and tons of fun! For if it wasn’t for the potential inspiration behind this music and its usage throughout the show, this anime wouldn’t be half of what it is. It’s very interesting, almost impossibly rare, for music to make that much difference in an anime. Leave it to the great masters to do it!
To conclude about the music, that’s what great art can do. That’s what I love so much about the greatest works of anime, and art in general. They exist on a higher level, and bring everything up to their level as much as they can. This anime would be almost completely uninteresting without this music. But with it, it inspires sensations you cannot easily experience elsewhere. Great art has power we cannot explain, and gives power to its settings in ways we cannot explain. In the anime realm, I like to bring up Tokyo Ghoul in this regard. Tokyo Ghoul is a bloody and depraved horror show, with a slightly confusing story and too many characters. But you have Kaneki, white hair, horrid mask, single red eye, and one amazing scene among all anime scenes where he transforms into that creature, that puts this show on a level no other can achieve. That is the power of great art. To surpass “normal” and do the truly extraordinary, impossible to describe or even recreate.
Well, all that aside, in our case here, we’re still left to examine the wreckage beneath the top-tier music. And here I should briefly mention dialogue. For one thing, there are some moments during this show where what the characters say is so funny in context you’ll laugh as hard as you will at the nutjob things they say in Gintama. A lot of these come from Trifa actually. That actor, Ken Narita, does a really good job. You might know him as Sesshoumaru from InuYasha. One of the funniest to me I remember was from Shirou however, where we suddenly flash to him amidst all the confusion and he says something like “I’m starting to look like the bad guy here, and I don’t like it!” It’s just really funny how it’s handled in the scene with all the setup and how he says it. But also, if there’s any cleverness to this wacky story, it comes through in the dialogue. Yes, most of the dialogue is made up of confusing references to something we’re not privy to or grandiose expoundings about some vaguely philosophical concept, characteristic of these kinds of grandiose settings in anime. But some of it really kind of fits. Kei figuring out that von Wittenburg is actually in love with Heydrich, and all that exchange between those two, is really kind of interesting and makes you think “Yeah that makes sense.” Trifa’s motivations become clearer over time, as does his often confusing dialogue, once his backstory is revealed. Schreiber’s monstrosity is revealed not through his actions (well, we do have the one scene between him and Schwegelin) but through the horrific details he supplies about his upbringing, a vomiting forth of information prompted by a vulgar comment Shirou makes to him, though Shirou himself had no idea about this past beforehand. Ren and Shirou affectionately call Kasumi “Bakasumi,” since she apparently isn’t the smartest cookie in the first place. Another clever use of dialogue. Wittenburg’s harsh choice of pronouns, regardless of the setting, is usually very noticeable. Those stand out to me, but there were many times during this series where my attention was sharply re-engaged by the interesting flow of the dialogue. I don’t ever have a section devoted to dialogue in these reviews because dialogue is usually so non-central to anime, but in this show’s case it’s one of the things that saves this series. It’s actually remarkably good, very uncharacteristic of most ordinary anime dialogue. Good enough that I had to make a giant paragraph for it here at the very end of this review.
So this show gets saved by music and dialogue. Probably this is the two things motivating this entire series, very likely originating at the manga level. Because without those two things, this show is unmemorable and confusing. But I’ll end this with a positive note. I will always remember the power of the music and the entertaining exchanges in this show. It is rather unique in that regard, and therefore, in that sense, a wildly successful endeavor. It was pretty fun to watch all things considered.