Karakuri Circus – Episode 1

By: Dee October 11, 20180 Comments
A giant puppet with a clawed hand stands in the center frame, pointing his claw at a man. Behind the puppet, a woman in a leotard crouches, arms thrown downwards as if controlling the puppet.

What’s it about? After his father’s mysterious death, 11-year-old Masaru Saiga is fleeing from a nefarious group who seem to be after his family’s company. He meets Narumi Kato, a man with impressive combat skills who will die if he doesn’t regularly make people laugh. Then, just when all seems lost, a powerful puppeteer called Shirogane appears to serve as Masaru’s bodyguard. She and Narumi team up to protect the boy and stop the evil organization.


Content Warning: Violence against children.

Congratulations, Karakuri Circus. I don’t know how you did it, but you managed to make Murder Circuses and Puppet Fights boring.

A sepia-toned image of a variety of old-fashioned dolls staring lifelessly forward.
Where’s Justin McElroy when you need him.

I really can’t stress enough how much this show is Made For Me on paper, and how disappointing it was in practice. Do y’all know how much I love circus aesthetics? Or fantastical puppetry? Or creepy dolls? Or badass lady bodyguards who can do sweet flips? Seriously. Inject that stuff straight into my veins.

Yet here we are.

At one point, Narumi is fighting some contortionist puppets on a train, and a clockwork doll gets run over and its limbs go flying everywhere in beautiful body-horror glory. It’s one of the few genuinely striking moments of animation and direction in the episode, and I should have thought “this is the coolest freaking thing I’ve ever seen!” Instead, all I could think was “how much more time is left on this thing?”

Answer: Half the episode. Woof.

A man-shaped clockwork doll comes apart, it's arms flying off with gears and wires streaming from them.
Seriously. Just. HOW. Did you whiff on this one. So bad.

The weird thing about Karakuri Circus is there’s no singularly terrible thing about it. It’s more of a potpourri of minor weak elements that are greater (lesser?) than the sum of their parts.

Aesthetically, it’s pretty ugly, with a lot of long faces and contorted, grotesque expressions that give the impression we’re not supposed to like anyone (even though we are). It lends itself to some solid villain designs but makes the already-grating Narumi come off as extra unpleasant.

Storyboard and animation-wise, it’s competent but uninspired, with fairly flat action sequences in a premiere that’s stuffed with skirmishes. Most noticeably, the writing is rushed, cramming in a lot of unnatural InfoDumps and trying to shove a bunch of character backstory into too few minutes.

None of these by themselves would be all that bad, but taken together it’s like the premiere is constantly poking you in the side of the head. It never settles into the story because it’s always jerking you out again thanks to clumsy dialog or stilted direction. Every character feels limp and lifeless, utterly lacking in energy.

An older man stands in front of a boy. The two are in a room full of dead-eyed puppets. The man says "If your dad should die before you grow up and strange things begin to happen..."
Sorry, I was distracted from his hilariously specific advice by the DEATH CLOWN HOVERING OVER HIS GRANDSON.

The desiccated execution also makes the parts that might have just been minor annoyances stand out all the more. Like how Shirogane wears a skintight leotard that appears to have two li’l boob pouches so we can always see their every contour. Or how our first shot of her is from the back, bent over, putting said leotard on over her underwear.

Or how she’s given exactly two facial expressions, both pretty, while the guys get to make big, ugly, exaggerated faces all the time. Or how she reverts into a hyper-feminine, doting maid-figure as soon as she’s done kicking ass with her murder puppet. All of which suggests she’s more fantasy object than character, despite her impressive combat skills.

(Side note: I just used the phrase “kicking ass with her murder puppet” and I. Felt. NOTHING. What is wrong with this show?)

A woman in a skintight leotard, her every contour draw in detail, slashes one hand forward as if attacking a figure in the foreground.
Why even wear clothes at this point.

Also, Narumi’s answer to Masaru apologizing for “dragging him into this mess” is to smack the shit out of him. Sure, he then says some nice, inspiring words about never giving up and it being okay to ask for help if you need to, but like. Maybe don’t hit the child before you say it? Just a thought, Mr. Hero.

Again, none of this on its own would be a deal-breaker for me, personally. Even the fetishization of Shirogane is pretty tame, all things considered. I could look past it if it were actually fun to watch her kick puppet ass and take doll names. But everything is so lackluster that (much like Shirogane’s boob pouches) it makes the genuine issues stand out in even sharper contrast, coming together to form not just a dull experience, but an obnoxious one, too.

A man wearing a full-body bear costume grabs a crying boy around the neck and holds his other fist up menacingly. He screams "Laugh, or I'll knock your brains out!"
Our Protagonist, folks!

And. Okay. Listen. All reviews are subjective and true critical objectivity is impossible, etc., etc., but “boring” is one of the most subjective evaluations, right up there next to “funny.” It varies wildly based on personal taste, which makes it difficult to evaluate in a review.

For all I know, you’ll like the art style and the clumsy writing won’t bother you. Then you’ll also have an easier time overlooking the low-key skeeviness surrounding Shirogane’s character and Narumi’s overbearing aggressiveness with Masaru. To which I say, truly: Awesome. Please do go forth and have fun with this one.

But if you’re like me and Karakuri Circus left you cold… well, take heart! Thunderbolt Fantasy is back for a second season. So at least we won’t be completely bereft of rad puppet fights this fall.

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