Otome Youkai Zakuro Review

This is review number three hundred and forty one. This anime is part of the Fall 2010 line up. The anime I’ll be reviewing is called Otome Youkai Zakuro or Demon Girl Zakuro, and it’s a thirteen episode anime about a girl killing evil monsters. The first episode promised that, but it decided to tell something else. I bet the handsome characters in the title poster has something to do with it. Let’s read on.

Story

This anime is about a bunch of people in the Spirits Affairs branch of the military. Three male officers are asked to join the group, and they’re paired off with the half-spirits working that division. Their job is to help people with their spirit-related problems, but the relationship of each pair gradually develops into something more romantic. Love eventually develops, and the pair now has to learn from this as they try to focus on their job as well.

Taking the Pants Off

Otome_Yokai_Zakuro_09_720p_Minitheatre.org.mkv_snapshot_01.03_[2015.12.15_12.17.48]

I really didn’t think much of this anime, and the title poster isn’t really all that impressive. The title is pretty interesting, but you just feel a certain kind of cliché when you stare at the title poster. Why am I staring at the title poster? It’s because I don’t know what to make of the show at first. Demon Girl Zakuro sounds cool, but it has handsome characters in it. Oh gawd, where do they fit? As it turns out, this isn’t an anime about a demon girl killing beautiful people. This is, of all things, a romance anime. I think it’s both Romance and Supernatural, because of the cat ears, and it’s a pretty shameless one. The first episode is basically a group of hot guys ordered by the military to develop a romantic relationship with a bunch of hot girls. It’s so contrived that it’s a bit hard to get into it. Here’s a group of boys, and they will now be paired with the female characters and let’s just hope something sticks. It’s an annoying approach, and a bad sign of things to come because the anime can’t even be bothered to naturally create couples. This anime has a lot of really forced moments, and it’s a bit insulting that the anime thinks it can get anything from the audience doing that. A good romance takes time. After a good character development, the couple would eventually just talk and things naturally go from there. You don’t lock them in a room and expect magic to happen. This is the annoying this about the anime though, it so f*cking works. This show knows how to make a moment special, and make sure every single bit of time is properly spent into making the audience squeal like shameless fan girls, reducing them into the same shameless thing that this anime is. Don’t get me wrong, this anime has a lot of problems, with the story as the big glaring one, but it has a lot of really great scenes designed to keep you glued to the show. It plays its cards well, and produces great romantic moments to really indulge in. I’d show screenshots, but I was honestly so caught up in the fan girling moments that I don’t think I have any to spare.

Anyways, this anime is about the Spirits Affairs division of the Japanese military that consists of half-spirit girls tasked to kill bad spirits. They are joined by three handsome guys, and they are ordered to pair up with them. The group now fights bad spirits together, and they also take time to fall in love with each other. As I said, it’s so forced but things gradually become more tolerable since there is great pay off from the contrived pairings. The story is pretty straightforward as well, and the show is cleanly divided into three plot points. These plot points eventual converge into one big chapter towards the end though, so the progression is pretty smooth for the most part. Let’s now talk about the plot points, and the first one being the pairings. Romance is a pretty simple genre, but it’s unbelievably complex when you think about it. You can’t really force emotions when you’re talking about love, because the genre’s appeal is the genuine-ness of the characters that the audience can relate to. This anime jumped the gun too soon, and I was really ready to call it a bust. The romance in this anime might be forced, but this show is incredibly smart. It utilizes one of the shadiest tricks in Shoujo, and amplifies the hell out of it. It uses something I like to call the “shoujo scope” a lot. The Shoujo scope is the constant shots of the girl blushing, with her eyes in a bewildered state, to establish that she is feeling something for the person she is staring at. Constant shots of her facial reactions to the person she loves is a smart way to get into her head. You don’t need dialogue for this. You just need blushing scenes, or the eyes averting gaze, and it’s a full proof approach. It’s a subliminal thing in Shoujo that can establish emotions and really carry a scene. Shoujo scope works because the close up shot of this girl blushing is the same way the partner would look at this character. It means we’re seeing him see the girl react to him, and it always hits a soft spot. Trust me, it does wonders. Just take a look at this:

See, the guy is looking the girl with fascination and the effect of the Shoujo scope is thunderously felt. But it works the other way around as well.

Shoujo scope is so effective that it really made this anime feel special. It forced the romantic pairings, but the show really knew how to make it alright. All you really need is an expressive face, and constant close ups of it.

I got giddy with that last one. Keep in mind. The story sucks in this anime, and the moments are really forced. The characters are often just alone in certain scenes designed specifically to create a romantic moment, but gawd damn it, it works. So f*cking well.

The first plot point features the romantic pairings. There are three of them, and one is featured more than the others. I’ll explain each pairing later. For now, you just have to believe that the romance is pretty great in this anime. Even though it jumped the gun in the first episode, the rest of the first half is dedicated to character development. We are introduced to each character, just as their partner is getting to know them, and the moments become a bit less forced. The romance is also nicely balanced with some episodes being a bit playful, and some episodes are wonderfully serious to really developing the relationship between the characters. As the audience, you are always rewarded with great romantic moments by this show. The one aspect of the romance that I really love is that it works with very little, but it still delivers some great things. With three pairings, it’s very hard to really focus on just one and the anime also has to deal with a lot of supernatural elements to really be solely romance, so the romantic moments are just created from very little. It stems really just from the dialogue. Can you imagine that? A romance story built solely on dialogue? This anime does that, and often use the story as a device to create cuter dialogue to strengthen the romance. The characters rarely touch each other, and the dialogue often builds certain physical scenes up. When two characters hug, it feels so satisfying that you just can’t stop watching. It’s amazing how much the romance works, and I think a lot of factors really contribute to it. The dialogue, the right moments executed at the right time and the characters themselves really make the experience worthwhile. This happened in the last episode:

They’re hugging, while caught in the enemy’s spider web about to die. The dialogue in this scene is strong and it’s so f*cking impressive how the show slipped this one romantic moment in just mere minutes before the two is about to be attacked by a giant spider. I know from experience that you need a lot more to really make a powerful romance story, but this show really just gets it. It knows how to make a really enjoyable one with very little, and it knows what we want from a romance story. We want to feel giddy, tremble in excitement and feel for the characters as much as they feel for each other. This anime gets it, and that’s why the contrived first episode really doesn’t matter in the long run when you realize you’re feeling happy just seeing two characters hug.

This anime isn’t just romance though. It’s also a supernatural anime. Taisho Baseball Girl taught me, with its catchy song in the first episode, that western influences hit Japan’s docks in 1925 and this anime is set in the same timeframe. The country is going through some changes, and it adopts a new western calendar that the spirits doesn’t like. The Spirits Affairs must now try to help the transition by stopping evil spirits from hurting people, and also help people realize that not all spirits are evil. I really think the show is just one solid element away from being a Shounen, but it just stops at being supernatural. The cases the Spirit Affairs tackles often involves some really hardcore bad spirits, like that one spirit storing dead bodies in its belly so it can create a stench of rotting corpse for some sick reason. I think the show really hits the head on how supernatural shows featuring monsters should be like, and I think this is one of the problems with this show. It tries to be action oriented while still being Shoujo, and the result is pretty awkward. I mean, you can’t really create a giddy love story when the female cast does a lot of this:

The anime wanted to feature the scary side of the supernatural spectrum, and it really affected the overall product. These monster killing half-spirits has to somehow turn into adorable kittens for the Shoujo to work, but the show still wanted to tell scary stories and really nail the idea that bad spirits are evil to the core. The girls are now supposed to act like super powered fighters, while still being dainty female characters. It causes an imbalance in the story. They really didn’t have to, but sadly the story calls for it. The story needed to establish that most spirits have the power to kill and hurt humans, and it ties in with the fact that the girls are half-spirits. The supernatural is really just there for the backdrop and to make the Shoujo unique. That’s all good, but you created potential with a story of girls with swords killing monsters. This story now has a chance to grow into something more action oriented and really dark with its scary potential. You’re now trying to suppress it though, so they can have blush moments with a bunch of dudes. It doesn’t feel right. It’s like a disservice knowing so much potential is there, but it’s purposely ignored to focus on other things. This eventually bit the anime in the back. Suppressing the potential made the action sequences look really dull. Since the show isn’t taking the supernatural appeal seriously, a lot of the fight scenes are pretty boring and often just two characters swinging swords for no reason. They lack certain flair that the first few episodes, concerning human eating demons, had. The supernatural aspect is still pretty decent though, because it’s used for a different reason: character development.

One of the best things in this show is the constant hatred of normal people towards spirits. It’s basically racism told in anime, because half-spirits are shot dirty stares, belittled by people and people just think they shouldn’t exist in this world. It’s such a powerful element of the show that really makes it special. It creates moments for the romance to appear, and also nicely establish the overall story of the anime. In this 1925 westernized world, people are having a hard time adapting to change and they show it in the worst way possible. This change eventually becomes a part of the story where even our characters can’t accept the change that well. The story calls for them to ever so slightly change though, so the transition is also part of what makes the romance special. The supernatural aspect is really just there to support the romance, because change happens in this supernatural backdrop relevant to the relationships the characters make. The point of showcasing the scary part of the supernatural spectrum is also to create contrast because not everything is bad. The half-spirits aren’t bad and most of the spirits they come across with are having a hard time with the change happening around them, thus reinforcing the romance of the show. It would’ve still been cool to see more monsters getting killed though, but that’s just me.

The third plot point appears at the second half of the show. It’s about this group of people trying to get their hands on Zakuro. A group of mysterious individuals want Zakuro for some reason, and it soon blows up into a big conspiracy regarding half-spirits. This is basically the main plot of the anime, as it features a group of bad guys trying to take down our group of good guys. This is also the weakest part of the show, because it isn’t really told that well. The mysterious group’s story is pretty messy, and I think the show rushed it at the end. It is badly predictable, since you can tell early on who the main bad guy in the show is. With the pathetic action and the rushed story, the third plot point is a bit rough to see unfold. While it does have good characters, the progression should’ve been a lot better. Things just really happen in the third plot, and it doesn’t have the same focus and development as the first plot point. I think that’s also why this plot point didn’t really mean much. The romance is really the shining star of this anime, and the third plot point really just served as some sort of conflict to force more romantic moments from the characters. I’d give points for trying to tie all the loose ends at the later episodes though. The show might have its focus scattered, but it still tells a neat story. The tale of the spirited pregnant mothers giving birth to half-spirits, the mysterious group’s origin and backstory, and the way it relates to the characters are all nicely presented even though it could’ve been told a lot more effectively. The action should’ve been more interesting, the conflict should’ve meant a lot more considering the gravity of the situation it’s trying to tell, and there should’ve been a more detailed way to telling this spiraling story of conspiracies but all that potential takes a back seat to the romance. It came to a point where all seven cast are present for the big fight scene at the finale, but all they really did is run and look at a burning building. I even laughed at the pathetic fight with the fox spirits. It didn’t really look that good, and it’s the effect of simply pushing the supernatural aspect to the background and focusing on the romance when there is an abundant of potential action scenes to be realized.

If there’s one thing this anime has done incredibly well though, aside from how it creates shameless romance, is showcasing interesting characters. Every character in this anime appears to be complex and incredibly fleshed out. They aren’t just simple plot devices. The show really takes time to focus on what they are feeling, and it gives them more dimensions when they start doing things in the story. One good example of the show’s incredible way of presenting characters would be when we are introduced to the fox woman that takes care of the girls. Kushimatsu assumes the role of this overprotective mother. The show takes the time to explore her backstory. She is worried for a reason, and the show explains that. She isn’t just afraid racist people would harm the girls. It’s deeper than that. The more you see her fret for their safety, the more you start to care for her as well. The wonderful thing is that Kushimatsu has very little scene in the show. I can count five notable scenes, and most of them are just dialogue exchange with the head of the Spirit Affairs. The show is so great at presenting characters that Kushimatsu’s role becomes a lot more meaningful than how it started out as. It becomes more interesting now that a side character can be this well-developed. The main characters should a lot more impressive, right?

That’s a bit of a yes and no when it comes to the main characters. First of all, yes the true main characters: Zakuro and Agemaki are wonderfully developed. The rest of the main characters are badly one dimensional though, but they don’t really need to be much since Zakuro and Agemaki takes up most of the romance in the show. The rest are just there for variety, but they still play their role to the point that their romance is pretty great as well. Let’s talk about the true main characters though. I find their relationship pretty cute, because Zakuro has her defenses up for the entire run of the show. She has her problems, as explained in the second plot point, so Agemaki really had hard time trying to be on good terms with her. They have this slapstick dynamic that I find cute, since Agemaki can be a bit clueless at times and Zakuro just won’t let her true feelings show. Of course, if they keep their shtick up in the entire run of the show then it can be tiring. This is where the character development really comes in to make sure their romantic slapstick doesn’t go stale. Agemaki is a dude that is scared of spirits, but he is really trying to change, and he’s doing his best mostly because he has feelings for a half-spirit girl ready to call BS on any of his half-hearted comments about spirits. He is an understanding guy that is also pretty guarded, but he really tries to close the gap between him and Zakuro. At the run of the series, he really lets Zakuro into his world and we see them establish a really wonderful mutual understanding between them. This eventually blossom into something more. Zakuro, on the other hand, is your typical tsundere. At the heart of it, she is really just a tsundere but the show made sure she isn’t stuck to just that stereotype. With a rich backstory about her mysterious past and one of the many spirits denying the westernized change, Zakuro is a stuck up girl that just won’t back down. She has her ideals and she won’t budge for anything else. This stubborn character eventually learns to compromise though, and she mostly does it because she finds strength in Agemaki. He acts as her support, so they now somehow support each other in some way that leads to some adorable romantic scenes and for their relationship to really develop into something more serious. As I said before, the payoff for their romantic story is so damn good that I actually want to re-watch the show. I won’t though, because I have a weird rule about that.

The other couples are Susukihotaru and Riken, and the twins and Genryu. The twins and Genryu is probably the most one dimensional romance, because you can’t really make heartfelt moments when you’re with two girls. Or can you? But really, it’s all harmless flirting for the twins when it comes to Ganryu. The show even spent time focusing on their weird threesome, and it looks awkward. Ganryu is also the scrawny type character, and he’s paired with flirty characters so they just overpower him by default. There’s no balance to be made to really make a cool romance story.  I guess they hug a lot though. The show rarely let characters touch, but the twins are an exception. They hug and tease Ganryu a lot, giving us wild possibilities when the other couples do it, but these physical scenes doesn’t really mean anything in the long run. They had one cute moment when Ganryu can tell the real identities of the twins, but it doesn’t really fly that far.

The last couple is my favorite. Susukihotaru and Riken is a really cute couple. Riken is the silent type, so he doesn’t really say much and Susukihotaru is the timid type so she stays quiet as well. Their love story is pretty sweet though, because they let their actions do the talking. With their reserved personalities, it often comes as a sweet surprise when they try to break from their usual personality. Riken would always try to reassure Susukihotaru in often the sweetest ways, and the girl would respond with the best Shoujo scope in the series. Their romance is doubly cute though because of Susukihotaru’s power. She can read emotions just by touching someone, and she often gets the best response when she’s touching Riken. No words of sweet nothings are ever exchanged between the two, but their facial reactions are often enough to know where their relationship is headed to. It’s a shame the main couple took most of the screen time though, since I kinda wanted to see them act cute some more. That’s Ok though, since this couple made all their moments precious with very little effort. The main couple’s strength is total dialogue building up to physical scenes, but this couple’s romance is a lot more impressive since it has very minimal elements to it. Riken is badly one dimensional though, but I think Susukihotaru’s personality is enough to carry their pairing all the way to the end.

The character development of this anime also benefitted the antagonists, and the other supporting characters. I love the character study done on the main villain. In the second half, it was all flashbacks and rushed expositions leaving the story badly developed. The story took some damage mainly because the characters were being smartly fleshed out in the process. The main villain’s backstory is incredible. He’s not just a bad guy with a bad plan, but the flashbacks reveal his tragic past. He isn’t born bad, but he was raised bad devoid of warm emotions, so all his motivations are more pathetic than threatening. His plan is more lashing out about his tragic upbringing than anything else, and it’s so well done. He is introduced in the second half yet he’s properly developed in such a short time. His personal issues, his connection with Zakuro and his mindset in general is told beautifully that it does benefit the rushed story. He sucks as an effective villain though, but he does come off as more than just a one dimensional bad guy. I think every antagonist had their side of the story nicely explained so it helps to understand their motivation. There’s this little girl that is jealous of her sister, and she does some stupid things in the series. Her actions make a whole lot of sense though, because the show explains why she is jealous of her sister. It comes to a point where you understand why she has to do those stupid things, because she’s no longer a one dimensional character meant to be a plot device. I don’t see a lot of shows devote time to character development, so I am a big fan of this anime. I’ve seen twenty four episode anime fumble in character development, but this show did it in half the time, with very little effort.

Look at JC Staff at their high point. Releasing Bakuman, Tantei Opera Milky Holmes and then Zakuro is a clear sign that they know their sh*t, and they have a solid audience that wants what their presenting. This romance anime nicely fits the JC Staff style, and I do hope they go back to this kind of shows. While I do love Prison School, I still hope the blushing girls and the cute romance is something they can re-introduce to their repertoire of shows. This show reminded me why I love JC Staff in the first place, so I do hope they can bring their magic back. I’ve seen them try to rekindle the fire, but they did a horrible job at it. I think they just need one solid romance to adapt, and things will go their way. Then again, they had Golden Time and it sucked so I guess I’m a bit conflicted. Either way, I hope other studios can recapture what JC Staff lost and just give us cute romance stories. There’s a resurging interest in romance now, so maybe the magic is coming back. I just need to review current shows to actually see it. And, gawd damn it, this is directed by Chiaki Kon. I know this director by heart, because she has one specialty: cute romance. She directed the BL shows of JC Staff, and she understands just how romance works. She knows how to make a scene work, and I think her style is a big part of what makes this anime great. She does suck at telling stories though, but she’s been botching stories for a long time now. That’s okay, because few directors can tell a romance quite like Chiaki Kon.

Sight and Sound

Lily Hoshino is a talented mangaka. She knows how to make wonderful characters, and I think it’s her experience publishing so many works. Most of them are BL though, but I think that’s also part of this anime’s charm. The way she designs the male characters are reminiscent of some good guy-on-guy love making. Riken’s personality is also oddly that of an “uke” so I think she did some magic with this anime. Male characters are often tall and lanky with broad chests and slim waists. In BL, this is done because they look great shirtless with their awesome manly figures and this effect are implemented on the anime as well. She pairs that hot body with some strong facial designs though. Expressive is the right term for it, because well, yeah, they look hot.

The right amount of jaw line with the soft eyes and the strong manly expressions equals a hot bishounen character. I think aside from Ganryu, the male designs are all like that. They resemble strong uke characters ready to dominate their partner, and I think this subtle element will be a big reason why you’ll be attracted to the guys in this anime. I’m talking to you, freaky fujoshi readers. Female design is pretty great as well. They have long maid clothes though hiding their bodies, so their facial designs is really the only thing I can really give notes to. They look incredible though. Zakuro alone looks absolutely stunning, since her strong girl face that looks great blushing, crying or pouting works impressively well under Shoujo scope. The detail works on the female characters are pretty great as well. The hair design is given careful attention as it nicely compliments the personalities of each character. Notice that Zakuro sports the classic tsundere twin tail, because she does rock that personality hard, but it’s just a subtle hint implemented in the design. The uniforms are also pretty great. I like the frills, and the characters still look flashy even though they don’t show a lot of skin. I think only one character ever sports a sexy outfit, and I do think it’s nicely designed. It’s not given much attention to, but one of the fox girls acting as antagonists has an open slit shrine maiden uniform, and she has a string underwear showing to the side slits. It looks sexy as hell. Why am I noticing a side character’s outfit when I’m watching this show? I don’t know myself. I like her design, I guess.

The animation is pretty top notch. I’ve seen Bakuman, animated by JC Staff as well, and this anime looks a lot more impressive. If there’s one thing that makes the manga come alive, it’s the facial reactions. Zakuro’s reactions alone give life to the manga. She’ll act sweet, tsundere, angry and shy often in the same scene, and the animation nicely captures this. Facial reaction in this show is amazing, because the romance does need those blushing scenes to work. The characters also nicely come alive with those dynamic reactions, and the anime nicely captures the energy of the manga. It’s pretty impressive because the gentleness of the manga is also nicely captured with the show’s delicate color palette. The animation really gives justice to each panel, and I especially love how it made the Shoujo scope a lot more dynamic. Those close-up facial reaction scenes are so great in the anime, and you just can’t stop watching the girls blush.  They’re adorable. The fight scenes are decent. It’s not the animations fault that it looks dull. The story just doesn’t really have a great any notable action scene in it, so the animation just feels a bit subdued. The romantic scenes are greatly presented though. The hugging scenes are told especially well, and the kissing scenes are also great. I’ll tip my hat to Chiaki Kon. She paced the scenes so smartly that you can’t help but smile.

The anime’s OP is “Moon SIGNAL” by Sphere. The song is pretty decent, and it’s about being in love The lyrics is your typical pop idol group nonsense, but it does climax into a cute chorus. I’m not a fan of idol songs though, even if the singers are notable VA actresses. The OP sequence features a short montage of the anime, and then a few scenes of Zakuro’s story. She has some deep issues in the show, and it’s nicely presented in the OP without any spoilers. It also features a beautiful animation I quite like in the show, and then a shot of the romance right at the end. It’s an awesome OP. The anime has three ED each sung by the three pairings in the anime. I won’t go each one, but they all sound pretty great. The voice actors blend well as they sing. It is cute music, because they really complement each other’s voice and the lyrics about being love struck adds novelty to the songs. It’s accompanied by the mangaka’s colorful illustrations really setting the mood to the beautiful duet you’re listening to.

Overall Score

7/10 “The story isn’t that impressive, but you’ll be busy gushing at the adorable romance.”

The romance in this show is really great, and it’s amplified by the strong character development of the anime. I would’ve liked a more impressive story, but the experience is still pretty great despite that. It does lack a more memorable scene to really carry it through though, but I think this anime is still one cute ride. It’s one of JC Staff’s best romance works, so I think people will appreciate that. If you like cute romance, then you’ll like this anime. If you like well-developed characters in your anime, then you’ll love this one. It lacks a decent story, but I think the pay-off is still pretty great. For the romance alone, I recommend this one.

Thoughts~

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