"Sought by the greed of men since the dawn of humankind, but only bestowed upon the women whose fate it forever scars, the witchblade. Is it the righteous sword of God, or the hand of the devil himself? Now a new bearer has been chosen, and she must discover the answers for herself. As she stands on the brink of destiny, she is forced to seek the balance between ecstacy and ruin."
Sure, it is somewhat lazy to quote the synopsis that airs in front of most of the episodes of 'Witchblade,' but really, it sums up the show quite nicely.
I never got into the 'Witchblade' comics by Marc Silvestri (of Cyberforce, Uncanny X-Men, and Wolverine fame), despite the fact that I did indulge in the Image Comics rebellion against Marvel Comics. The characters, save for a few, were always so cookie cutter, and were products of the "big guns, bigger boobs, even bigger muscles" era of comic books in the 1990's (except for Spawn, which was genuinely awesome). I gave up on the company in under a year, and never looked back. One of the books I ignored, 'Witchblade' garnered as much (if not more) success as the Image Comics figurehead Spawn, with a live action television series that lasted two years, a manga, and an anime series to bring the character to more audiences than comic book fans.
This iteration of 'Witchblade' is not the tale of Sara Pezzini, rather Masane Amaha, a young, large-bosomed mother who cannot remember anything from her past, not since a cataclysmic event changed Japan forever. She awoke with her six year old child Rihoko, but her only link to the child (and her identity) lies in a journal found with her at the time of the earthquake. She has also been bestowed with the mystical powers of the Witchblade, a force that drives her to fight creatures that threaten her (and transform into the least skin covering superhero outfit you can imagine). As she comes to grips with her new role in life, Masane (also called Melanie) discovers the double edged sword nature of her endowment, as her humanity slips with every use of her powers, while humans and monsters alike seek out the great power in her body.
I get that Japanese anime is loaded with exaggerated female forms, but not even 'Burst Angel' (the previous FUNimation anime release on Blu-ray) was this exploitive. Huge, huge breasts, supple hindquarters, and attire that defies physics is the norm here (those have to be the world's most firm 38GG's ever). The Witchblade outfit covers less than 20% of Masane's breasts, while just a tiny grey blob covers her crotch...but not her hind quarters in any way. She may as well be fighting villains in a micro bikini, or in the nude. In other words, this one's aimed at young males.
Sure, there are things for kids too, with the Rihoko (often called just Riko) character appealing to the youth audience, and a love triangle is in place for some dramatic depth with Masane, her boss Takayama, and Yuusuke Tozawa, a photographer who is the first to discover the secrets of Witchblade. The downside is there's more cast than just that, to the point that it is a detriment to the story, as it constantly goes off on tangents. All the characters in the housing unit in which Masane comes to live have their little quirks, but in the long run, they're all time wasters. Wow, a shy mystic. Ooh, a really big silent guy. Wow, a grumpy chef/landlady. Yippee, a creepy pedophile computer guy (a bad, bad combination) who tries to get with Masane (probably to get to Riko). These characters get their own arcs that do nothing for the main focus of the show, as they're background characters, but get foreground attention far too often.
The Reina story line, a bearer of a cloneblade, and a character of blood relation to the main characters, is creepy at best, as she plays her part in a family much like it were a science experiment. She is meant to be a polar opposite of Masane in how she handles relationships with children, but it is vastly disturbing. Her cloneblade compatriots are all paper thin generic villains, to boot, with no real character development other than their desires to have the real thing. Tatsuoki Furimizu, the head of the NSWF (a shady sub-fraction of what we'd consider a child welfare agency), is perhaps one of the worst developed, yet extremely creepy (in an incestual, would probably get freaky with a clone of himself kind of way) characters put into an anime, thrown in to be some generic villain fodder.
The story goes strong for fifteen episodes (in a twenty four episode arc), progressively getting darker and darker, but then, out of nowhere, for episode sixteen, characters stop, relax, and go to the damn beach. This entirely skippable episode contains one of the most pivotal first mentions in the entire show, about Riko's faith, which would have belonged much better in an episode that actually progressed the show. As it is, it's worse than a clip show (which 'Witchblade' thankfully does not have), as it's necessary to the story, yet does absolutely nothing. From the 'Relaxation' episode forward, the characters spiral downward, as the plot stops pushing towards an obvious climax and begins throwing in villains and events at random. This creates problems, as well, as there is no real focus or driving point to the show, that many other programs have. 'Samurai Champloo' had the samurai who smells of sunflowers, 'Evangelion' had the progression of Angels and Adam, the amazing 'Cowboy Bebop' had the Spike and Julia and Vicious love triangle, and 'Witchblade' is stuck with a villain thrown in out of the blue, who becomes some major threat.
The show has some fun (though hardly original ideas), through the Ex-con villains (ex-con not as in former convict, but a creature that appears human but transforms into a killer machine), Biotech, Neogene, cloneblades , iWeapons (the next creation from Apple?), and the like. The infusion of the former living to create weapons (though not fully explained coherently) is a neat idea, but these characters are abandoned after the beach episode changes the entire point of the show. Where once Ex-cons were the villains, along with cloneblade wielders, now the formerly considered good iWeapons are a threat, while the cloneblades have gone 'Star Wars' prequel, getting bigger, faster, and more prevalent than before.
'Witchblade' is a two-toned mess at times, a case of great potential squandered by bad, meandering direction, a focus on broadening an audience, and the focus on sex appeal over fast and hard action. If you like your animes loaded with scantily clad females of ridiculous proportion, then 'Witchblade' is for you. If you like your cartoons to have serious questions of the meaning of oneself, about inspiration and drive, then 'Witchblade' may be for you...some of the time. If you like your animation to be straight forward, rather than a complicated mess, then you definitely need to skip 'Witchblade.'
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Witchblade' arrives on Blu-ray spread across three BD50 discs. The first two discs contain ten episodes each, with the last four episodes (and all of the extras) being found on the final disc. This set is packaged in a standard slide out box, with two disc cases, one containing discs one and two, and the last containing disc three. There is only one trailer before each main menu, and the top menu button will bypass each one (though the chapter search button will not).
'Witchblade' debuts on Blu-ray with an AVC MPEG-4 encode at 1080p in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio for all twenty four episodes. This transfer (or series of transfers, however you'd like to see it) is a technical step up from the last FUNimation release, 'Burst Angel,' but still has many issues that prevent it from being a top tier animation release.
All of the episodes share the same strengths and weaknesses, with no shows appearing much stronger or weaker than their counterparts. Colors are bold, wide ranging, and impressive, to say the least. Whites are natural, not too hot. Background characters aren't undefined blobs, like other animes. Backgrounds are nicely defined, as are character designs, but there is no depth to the picture (to be fair, this show is also not infused excessively with CGI).
Artifacting is still a major issue. Solid colors (especially blacks or dark blues in walls or suits) are breeding grounds for compression issues that pop up in every episode. Color banding is impossible to miss, though, like the artifacting, it is nowhere near as heinous or constant as that found on the Blu-ray for 'Burst Angel.' Aliasing is a concern, as well, with jaggy lines showing up far too often, with some shimmering, fluttering, and even pulsing of lines with even the slightest pan of the "camera," as it were. Black levels crush, while many shots, particularly noticeable in areas of lots of exposed skin (faces, or the many near naked costumes) have an unusual horizontal line gradient that looks like something out of VHS. This isn't a bad transfer, by any means, but it certainly isn't a great one.
The audio for this release is where things get nasty. "Burst Angel' contained a typo on the packaging, stating the original Japanese track was Dolby Digital 5.1 when it was, in all actuality, a lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track to match the dub. When I saw the packaging for 'Witchblade' stated the anime had a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix for the English dub, but a Dolby Digital Stereo mix for the natural track, I hoped to God it was just another mistake.
It was a mistake, don't get me wrong...but the packaging specs were accurate.
Now, here's the conundrum. 'Witchblade' originates from American comic books, and the natural language for the character, as originally created, is English. However, this 'Witchblade' doesn't follow the American iteration, as it is localized in Tokyo, and no longer stars NYPD homicide detective Sara Pezzini. The Witchblade doesn't have just one owner throughout its history, and has been wielded by Japanese hosts before. I am thoroughly against watching shows in their unnatural language, but the character's origins belong in this set of spoken word. For sake of fairness, then, both the English dub, and the Japanese natural track were utilized to formulate a score for this release.
The English track has a natural leg up here, as the show does make some use of the extra speakers in the mix. Bass levels are light, especially for some visually thunderous explosions, but they do add some nice accent to action and transformation sequences. Surround speakers get nice environmental sounds and soundtrack bleed quite often. Crowds actually register in speakers like a crowd on the few occasions they pop up. Localization isn't that strong, and motion is a gimmick here. The dub is somewhat annoying, with a few background characters sporting a classic sci-fi robot voice, while "lip synching" sometimes creates awkward moments that you expect from those old racist jokes about lips moving long after the words have stopped. Light dialogue has to sometimes fight tooth and bone to get prevalence in the sound mix. Also worth noting, some sequences have a light high pitched squeal that made me wonder if my ears were ringing or if my system was going on the fritz. There's also a pop in episode eleven (around the ten minute mark) that is hard to miss.
The Japanese track doesn't compare to its lossless dub counterpart. Localization in channels is still present, and dynamic range is still notable. The effects and score mixings don't blend too kindly, while the lack of real bass depth kills action sequences, no matter how light it was in the dub. This natural track got the short end of the stick, and doesn't grip or immerse the viewer into the program. It's a shame, really. Here's hoping FUNimation doesn't do as Miramax did with the Ultimate Force of Four titles so shortly ago and keep up this pattern.
All of the extras for 'Witchblade' are found on the third disc of the release, including:
I didn't stomp my foot like a whiny little brat who didn't get his way in the audio section of this review, but I am thoroughly dissatisfied that 'Witchblade' got an inferior track for the inferior dub (which was quite annoying, honestly). If future FUNimation titles take this route, they are doing a disservice to the material, and to the hardcore fans who prefer to watch programming in their natural state. The last two full length series to hit the format have been littered with video problems (unlike the 'Fullmetal Alchemist' Blu-ray release, which sported great video quality), as well, possibly due to being jammed onto as few discs as possible. I'd rather have these releases have a higher MSRP and be four disc sets, if it means the artifacting and banding issues would be a thing of the past (and that there would be no excuse to make the Japanese tracks inferior).
'Witchblade' isn't the best anime out there, but it certainly isn't the worst. The show has great potential, but squanders it on silly tangents and off-topic meanderings that don't progress the story one iota. FUNimation is doing anime fans a solid by releasing so many anime series as of late, but they need to bring out some of the big guns, rather than these shows that may appeal to existing audiences, but won't appeal to newcomers to the genre.