Andrew Osmond keeps calm and carries on
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The start of an action anime series is often a bewildering experience, dropping the viewer into a whirlwind of unfamiliar folk having very big fights. K’s like that, but luckily the main character starts the show as baffled as us. Yashiro Isana is a bit different from the standard schoolboy hero; he’s albino-white (hence his nickname, Shiro), he has a voice like a Japanese Michael Jackson, and is effete and effeminate. You might think he’d be beaten up endlessly but not a bit of it; he’s massively popular with his peers. In Japanese, Shiro’s voiced by Daisuke Namikawa, who played Italy in Hetalia, the hero Yu in Persona 4 The Animation, and the salaryman Rock in Black Lagoon. Both Rock and Shiro start out as completely unassuming guys, who then see their worlds blown to the heavens.
Meanwhile in the world… Unseen by ordinary mortals (or muggles, in the Harry Potter sense), there are fiery battle royales waged through Japan between superpowered clans, each headed up by a ‘king.’ The two most important clans in the show are stylistic opposites. Homra is the red clan, a band of young delinquents and drop-outs (a bit like Akira, but more organised). Scepter 4 is the blue Clan, a veritable army in military garb resembling the Fuhrer’s forces in Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood. Despite their differences, the kings have an almost mystical level of charisma and nobility which flows into those who serve them – an idea which, oddly, was also played up in the bonkers anime fantasy Horizon on the Middle of Nowhere.
In K, these strands collide when Yashiro goes into town and finds the reds on his heels, determined to barbecue him alive. The reason is a video recording that shows a person who’s the spitting image of Yashiro murdering a member of Homra. Yashiro is saved by a lone swordsman, Kuroh – he’s effectively a samurai transplanted into modern-day Japan, like Goemon in Lupin. Kuroh is devoted to his own King, even though that King’s now dead (how samurai!). Unfortunately, Kuroh has only saved Yashiro in order to slay him personally. Yashiro gets away, escaping back to his school, only to find (and you’ll have to bear with us here) a nude magic girl in his room with decidedly feline mannerisms. With Kuroh and the Homra clan out for Yashiro’s blood, could life get more complicated? Answer: yes, and lots.
If you’re a bit overwhelmed by the show’s opening, which starts with an especially humungous Red/Blue battle, our advice is to keep calm and carry on. The central thread is a simple thriller plot – Yashiro as the wrong man (well, boy) who gets chased around by scary people because of a crime he knows he didn’t commit… only could he, somehow, be guilty after all? The wider details of the show’s world are, as usual for anime, sketched in more over time, along with the relationships between the other cast. Despite their ‘enmity,’ there turns out to be a strong male rapport between the Red and Blue Kings, which has been accused of pandering to the yaoi crowd – well, it does, but it makes the conflict more interesting too! Meanwhile, the backstory takes us to wartime Germany and the terrible bombing of Dresden in 1945, a mirror of what was happening to Japan at that time.
If the anime story seems a bit overstuffed, that’s because it’s part of a larger franchise. More of the K world has already been laid out in three distinct manga, plus a series of light novels. Moreover, the anime, like Eden of the East and Blood-C, leads up to a spectacular finale which is satisfying but still leaves big questions hanging. Indeed, a feature film sequel (K: Missing Kings) opens in Japan this July. It’s not the only K this summer; it’s also been announced it’ll become a stage show in Tokyo in August.
It’ll be interesting to see if the play attempts to present the swordplay and fireballs of the anime version, because they’re mighty spectacular. The opening episodes are an almost absurdly lavish, show-off advertisement for the GoHands studio. GoHands is best-known for animating the Mardock Scramble trilogy, though it has a long list of support credits on anime from Soul Eater to Puella Magi Madoka Magica. K’s colour scheme is particularly distinctive, with lots of green and blue filters. Although the level of animation drops after the early visual splurge, K is lifted throughout by its worldbuilding, a mix of funny future fancies (Shiro’s room comes with animated wallpaper and officious robot servants) and recognisable details from reality.
Some of the action scenes, for example, take place in a highly realistic Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s main shopping districts. Yashiro’s king-sized school, meanwhile, is on an island accessed by a railway across a long suspension bridge, reminiscent of the Rainbow Bridge that spans Tokyo Bay. You can cross the real thing by automated train, though sadly it goes over the bridge, while the K train hangs underneath! But then, anime can be much cooler than life, though the harried Shiro might not see it that way…
K the Complete TV Series is released on UK Blu-ray and DVD by Manga Entertainment.