What’s it about? A nameless doll awakens with no knowledge but her purpose: to serve the noble house of Shadows as the companion and “face” for her Mistress, Kate, a being whose entire body is obscured by soot.
It came late in the batch, but here we have a series that hits pretty much every one of my buttons: an anime steeped in gothic aesthetics, themes about identity and perception, visual design that makes heavy use of contrasting dark silhouettes against vivid colors, and the kind of homoerotic mirror imagery that goes straight to my Yu-Gi-Oh! nostalgia.
The crew is catnip, too. Director Ohashi Kazuki is stepping into the role of series director for the first time but has already made a hell of a first impression; series composer Ono Toshiya penned the wonderfully underrated tsuritama in addition to the stellar adaptation of Land of the Lustrous; and animation studio Cloverworks is fresh off Wonder Egg Priority. It’s about as strong a start as you can get for this kind of series, excluding maybe having the name “Ando Masaomi” in the credits.
While the series’ trailer caught my attention, it was its haunting opening scene that hooked me. The first five minutes are almost entirely dialogue-free, slowly leading the viewer into the central Shadows mansion by train before focusing in on a sinister ceremony that each doll is required to undertake. It effectively intertwines the sense of decadence and dread that so often accompany stories borrowing from the European Gothic and shows us a great deal about the world even as it says very little.
The episode’s weakest segment is when our unnamed doll explores the mansion alone; while the set is appropriately foreboding, the voice direction and bits of frantic clumsiness edge a bit toward pweciousness, which fortunately tapers off once Kate is introduced. From there, things settle into a series of vignettes that alternate slice-of-life-style cuteness with a sense of melancholy foreboding.
There’s a continual sense of something just-off about Kate’s answers about her nature, about the doll’s emphatic enthusiasm to be with her mistress at all times, and especially about the pair’s synchronicity. Kate’s role sits ambiguously between friend, victim, and threat at various points, and the uncertainty adds weight to unassuming moments. Horror is a very difficult genre to pull off in anime, and this one has already laid strong groundwork for the kind of unsuspecting and emotional chills that made Toilet Bound Hanako-kun such a sleeper hit.
The story feels just on the precipice of a reveal, the kind that could lead to ever more unpleasant truths about the inner workings of the Shadows Manor—that good conspiratorial stuff that makes the best gothic stories tick. The opening and ending (which are completely gorgeous) imply that we’ll be spending at least a while more on setup, with at least four other prominent pairs of dolls and shadows, but that’s fine by me. A good ensemble character drama is much easier to pull off than a show that hangs entirely on a narrative puzzle box, especially when the source material is still ongoing.
This is currently my most anticipated series of the season, with as much artistic clarity as MARS RED but a cast that’s much easier to engage with emotionally. I’m already counting the days until next weekend.
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