TV series, 12 episodes
Genre(s): Slice of life, drama
Synopsis: A young man is tasked with the protection of a girl his boss kidnapped from her rich family.
The good: Lovable characters, refreshing dialogue, little time committment.
The bad: Animation (for some), series conclusion is abrupt and somewhat arbitrary.
The arc of nearly every anime TV series is a bell curve. From humble beginnings, the story picks up steam and struggles to involve and incorporate more and more characters, settings, and conflicts as time goes on – until the final resolution approaches, at which point many of those characters are gradually shipped off in body bags and relationships built with care are torn down. The series concludes by wrapping up loose threads and offers us an ending, which either answers the burning questions and desires the series elicited in us, or leaves us even more mystified.
However, in a twisted take on this trend, Kurenai reverses the usual bell curve of anime storytelling and presents us with its mirror image: a story that wakes up with a roar and rushes off into initial action and drama, sometimes confusingly so, only to fall into hibernation for the entire middle part and wake up at the very end. But wait – that’s not necessarily bad. Read on.
Kurenai Shinkurou is a high school student who moonlights as a “conflict mediator” for the gangster woman Benika; his job consists of “mediating” conflicts by “beating the everliving crap” out of his clients’s “business partners”, a task made easier by his chilhood training in the martial arts known as the Houzuki Ryuu. He’s ambitious but stops short of being a dreamer, and there’s a certain down-to-earth, monastic quality to his life that reminded me of Leon, the gangster from the movie The Professional – with which Kurenai shares many other elements.
Benika-sama is a cold woman; she used to work for the Kuhouins, a powerful and rich Tokyo family with dubious matchmaking traditions for its men and women that will draw many a Western raised eyebrow. But hey, this is Japan, the land where blazing progress and tradition go hand in hand. When the Kuhouin woman Souju died some time before the series began, she made Benika promise that she would take Souju’s daughter Murasaki away from the Kuhouins so that the girl could experience the outside world instead of becoming a slave to the Kuhouins’ traditions. Benika complies during Kurenai‘s first episode, but then the logistical problem of what to do with the traumatized girl rears its head: Benika’s hardly the motherly type and she hangs out around heartless criminals. This leaves Shinkurou as the only option.
The Kuhouins aren’t exactly pleased to have a former employee kidnap one of their own, naturally, but as the series progresses this takes a backseat to the growing relationship between Shinkurou and Murasaki, who are forced to learn to live together. Shinkurou’s a bit of a loner, and Murasaki, as a Kuhouin, is accustomed to having her every need catered to by throngs of servants and maids. Sleeping on a stinking futon and eating ramen inside a dirty one-room apartment horrify her at first, but slowly, she comes to realize that the life you make for yourself isn’t about the things you own, but the people you’re with.
I’m always grateful to learn more about characters as a series progresses. I’m not talking earth-shattering revelations about their past or anything of the sort: simply discovering what a character is capable of, or what he/she truly believes in, is more entertaining to me than trying to wrap my head around yet another overwrought twist meant to shock me. In this respect Kurenai delivers. Its message, after all, is that people grow even when they make bad decisions – especially when they make bad ones, indeed. Take Tamaki, for example, Shinkurou’s neighbor. She’s a twenty-something young woman who wears nothing but track suits and loves to instruct Murasaki on the finer points of womanhood as she sees it. She’s carefree, mooches off everyone in the building, and doesn’t even seem to have a job or to be going to school. But as in real life, those appearances are a mask, and when Tamaki’s mask drops, it’s heartbreaking to watch.
Another strong point for the series is its realistic dialogue: the usual contrived idealistic speeches are nowhere to be seen, and neither are the great declarations of love, or the explanatory monologues that always go on for too long. Kurenai‘s characters talk to each other. Observe how Murasaki talks to Shinkurou at first, or how she formally addresses strangers. As the series goes on, she lapses into a more informal tone through contact with Shinkurou and the other tenants, and you see smiles creep up on her face more and more often as the memories of her deceased mother fade away into the background of a normal life.
I listed animation as a weakness in the summary at the top; allow me to qualify the statement. Environments are beautiful and vivid – even when we’re talking about the rather squalid building where the main characters live – but character animation is slightly off-kilter, with skewed noses and eyes that can’t decide between typical anime “moeness” and realism. It’s not horrible, a bit unsettling maybe, but I adjusted fairly fast and you will too, unless it rubs you the wrong way.
The other weakness: how short this series is, and consequently, how rushed the ending feels when it arrives. I won’t dare spoil it for you, but as long as you have two firing neurons you can already tell it’s going to involve the Kuhouins trying to kidnap Murasaki back. Nonetheless, even in its ending, Kurenai aims higher than most other shows. It is not a happy ending, nor is it a mysterious baffling one either. It’s an opening towards the future, as embodied in the last shot of Shinkurou and Murasaki together. This was a chapter in those characters’ lives, part of a larger story. Maybe one day, we’ll meet them again.
Yay or nay?
An enthusiastic yay for Kurenai, without a doubt. It’s short, it’s engaging, and it doesn’t come loaded with stereotypes or cliched dialogue. It’s not perfect, but then what is? You will not feel like you’ve wasted your time after watching it.