Tsukihime Lunar Legend (Volume 1: Life Threads) Review
Tsukihime Lunar Legend (as it has been renamed for Western distribution, the original Japanese title being Tsukihime or 'moon princess') chronicles the life of 'average' high school student Shiki Tohno as his fate takes an abrupt left turn into supernatural darkness. Naturally the premise for any such series requires a good hook or two, and this show certainly has them in spades. However what it seems to lack is the necessary good execution to match... but I'm getting ahead of myself again.
Our protagonist, whilst outwardly very normal-seeming, has a secret he has kept hidden from friends and family for eight years now. After nearly perishing in a car accident when he was quite young, his perspective on the world changed forever… quite literally. His vision became graced with 'mystic eyes of death perception', an eerie paranormal ability which lets Shiki perceive all of the (normally invisible) spiritual 'fault lines' that run through our world. Fault lines which, if cut with even minimal force, will thoroughly rend asunder whatever physical object they pass through.
Tormented by this mystic sight (and disbelieved at every turn by the staff of the hospital he is initially confined to), succour comes to Shiki one day when a mysterious woman takes him aside and explains that his gift will one day be needed to protect someone, but until that day he can blank the 'life threads' from his vision by wearing a special pair of eyeglasses she gives him. Whilst this solves Shiki's most pressing problem, for some unexplained reason his parents do not immediately retrieve him from the hospital, but decide to give him into the care of his aunt and uncle to be raised away from the family mansion.
And if you think that's an odd set-up, things are primed to get much stranger yet. After leading a relatively happy and uneventful existence during the intervening time, one day Shiki receives word that his father has died and – the Tohno estate now having passed into the hands of Shiki's younger sister Akiha – he is now required to leave his aunt and uncle and return 'home'… to an unfriendly manor controlled by an emotionally-cold sibling, overseen by always-watching staff, and burdened with all sorts of curious rules, including a house curfew of 7pm followed by a physical lockdown of the entire premises.
However, that's just to set the mood. The real action of the series kicks in during a week when the city is plagued by reports of a 'vampire' serial killer, Shiki is haunted by muddled memories of his childhood and a ghastly nightmare in which he slices a woman into 17 bloody pieces, and a student utterly unfamiliar to Shiki seems to appear at his school… though one whom all of his fellow classmates seem to recognise and treat as if she's always been there. And, just to make things worse, Shiki's about to have a real-life encounter with the woman he killed in his dream…
Now, putting it that way, it all sounds pretty promising, doesn't it? I mean, here's a show with plenty of interesting mysteries for the audience to ponder, a likeable protagonist with a murky past, an odd gift and an uncertain future, and enough backstory to begin weaving some good character development from. So why then does this first volume of Tsukihime Lunar Legend leave me so cold?
It's a combination of factors, really. First off, there seems to be a serious problem with the narrative structure the writers have chosen for this 12-part series. I understand the appeal of bouncing backwards and forwards in the timeline, using gratuitous flashbacks and unflagged dream sequences masquerading as real events, and exploring the unreliability of memory in the lead character… but these are techniques which require a certain amount of skill to use properly. As far as I can tell from these first instalments, the writers of Tsukihime haven't quite mastered the art; the first episode in particular is such a mishmash, structure-wise, that the first time I watched it I had no idea what was happening at all and personally felt as if I had just been plunged into the middle of a much longer series that assumed I understood the relevance of this collage of bizarre scenes.
Tied for a (very close) second place are the major issues with pacing and dialogue. This show alternates between on one hand cutting quickly from one scene to the next in what I can only assume is an effort to 'keep the viewer guessing' (i.e., not even allowing any time to digest what you just saw before distracting you with something completely unrelated) and on the other resorting to glacial stretches where absolutely nothing of interest seems to be happening. The latter are particularly prevalent among the scenes set at Shiki's school, and serve to highlight some of the dialogue faults as well; perhaps it is meant to be part of the 'atmosphere' of the show, but the artificial language and stilted interactions between Shiki and his classmates come across as almost robotic.
Anyway, I probably sound harsher about Tsukihime than I intend to. It's not unbearably bad or anything… and furthermore, I generally like supernatural tales tinged with just a dash of gothic horror. Considering that I quite enjoyed animé like Vampire Princess Miyu and Hellsing, I personally want to give Tsukihime a fair chance. But volume 1 ('Life Threads') didn't make a very good impression, so the remaining 2 DVDs have their work cut out for them in order to redeem the series for me. (For a slightly different take on these 4 episodes - as well as more background details regarding the production - please check out Matt's earlier review of the R1 release.)
1: 'Reversal Impulse'
Shiki Tohno is having a bad week. What with news of a serial killer with a 'vampire-like' style of murder splashed all over the papers and TV, it's not the best time for him to have to leave his home of the last eight years to return to his family's opulent mansion, and to a sister he barely recognises from dim childhood memories. And memory itself seems to be an issue of late for him, between failing to recall a classmate that everyone else treats as a long-standing member of their circle of friends… and the more serious problem of confusing dreams and waking life. The last straw comes when, the day after a nightmarish vision of slicing a beautiful woman into 17 pieces, Shiki meets her in the park.
2: 'Black Beast'
The woman, we learn, is named Arcueid Brunestud, and with an enigmatic smile she goes on to cheerfully list each and every cut he made when killing her in his dream. That out of the way, she also idly mentions that she's a vampire, and that – now weakened by Shiki's 'dream' attack – she requires his protection against another vampire who has been stalking her: Nero Chaos. All question of whether or not he should believe a single thing she says is put to rest when Nero turns up, siccing massive shadowy beasts on the two of them.
3: 'Mystic Eyes of Death Perception'
In the wake of their first battle with Nero Chaos, Arcueid takes the time to explain some things to Shiki… the most important being a clarification of the bizarre power he has to discern the 'lines of death' that underpin all of mundane reality, and by breaking things along those lines, to utterly destroy them. The audience is also (through this exposition) handed a bit more detail about the two paranormal factions fighting for dominance beyond the veil that makes up the mundane world: the True Ancestors (of which camp Arcueid professes to be part) and the Dark Apostles (Nero Chaos being a typical representative).
4: 'Garden of a Cradle'
The final episode on this disc is a bit of an anticlimax. During the past few days that he's been assisting Arcueid, Shiki of course has not been back to the Tohno estate… so when he finally does make his way back 'home', it's not surprising that it's to a mixed reception of vexation (that he broke the curfew 'rules', amongst other things) and relief (as it appears, despite her coldness, that Akiha was genuinely concerned for her brother's safety). However, back at school things start to get weird again, and there's still the unresolved mystery that is Ciel… the schoolmate of his who doesn't fit with his memories prior to that week.
Tsukihime Lunar Legend is a modern production (late 2003) and as such has been graced with a nearly-pristine anamorphic presentation in the original 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The transfer is of excellent quality and I detected no major flaws at all on the video end of things. The colour palette is sedate and somewhat restricted (clearly by choice), and there's good use of high-contrast to create stark images and deep shadows. However, things fall down a bit on the animation side. Although there's nothing at all wrong with the character designs for this series (although several, including Shiki's, are bog-standard animé stereotypes), the show seems to be slightly let down by the fluidity of the animated sequences. In particular, scenes containing extended dialogue are almost entirely static, and even the action scenes (such as we witness in episode 2) clearly were produced on a minimal budget… or at least one that did not prioritise realistic motion or fluid animation. So it's a bit more basic than the beautiful picture deserves.
(In addition, there seem to be a few notable differences between the video transfers on the R1 and R2 versions of Tsukihime. As Matt and I happened to choose several of the same scenes as worthy of screencapping, you can compare the same grabs from his review with the ones here.)
Your standard bilingual animé disc, this DVD features Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks for both the original Japanese and the English dub. For my primary viewing, I watched all four episodes through in Japanese, but then, feeling as if I had missed something rather big, went back and watched the first one a second time in English just in case – as is often the case with dub scripts – the production team decided to 'simplify' the story for a Western audience. As it happens, they didn't do that with this show, but at least I've verified that the voice actors on the dub don't completely mangle the reading. This is one of those shows that you can safely enjoy in either language.
Designed by Madman Interactive, the menus on this disc aren't anything to shout about. Featuring extremely subtle background animation over a pretty – but predominantly static – frame, the best thing about them is the pleasant loop of theme music that plays underneath.
Nor will the special features included on this first volume have you dancing in the streets. In fact, there's only one 'real' extra, a non-credit opening that lets you watch the intro sequence unsullied by textual overlays. Beyond this you have the 'psuedo-extra' of two trailers for other releases (Gungrave and Paranoia Agent)… and that's it.
Tsukihime Lunar Legend is a show with a promising concept, but poor implementation. Already one-third of the way through the total run of 12 episodes, I'm seeing little in the way of character development (for the protagonist or anyone else), and while there are many interesting mysteries to be explored here, they are let down by the somewhat hamfisted narrative, pacing, and dialogue. Add to this lacklustre animation (albeit rendered as a nearly flawless anamorphic print), and I don't know how strongly I can recommend this show even to fans of the 'vampire' animé sub-genre. For the moment I'd personally say 'hold off and let me see if things improve in the remaining 8 episodes'.