Angel Sanctuary Anime Review
Angel Hunting Prohibited Area
US Release By
3 25-minute episodes
2000-05-25 - 2000-08-25
Setsuna is not a normal young man. His only friend, Kira, is the leader of a street gang that routinely and brutally beats him. And, even though their parents divorced years ago and they have grown up apart, Setsuna has always felt unusually close to his younger sister--a bit too close. But as severe as these problems may seem, he is about to discover something else--that his body holds the soul of the Angel Alexiel, who lead armies and rebelled against God. But God has grown quiet and discontent is mounting within the halls of Heaven and Hell, while Alexiel's brother, the insane Rociel, cast out of heaven for his vanity, seeks his sister. The fate of not only Earth, but the realms of Angels and Devils may rest upon young Setsuna's shoulders.
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Angel Sanctuary amounts to a very badly built but still very interesting series. Badly built in that the story is rushed and scattered, the writing prone to unnecessarily confusing backstory and angelic technobabble, the glut of characters too poorly established to associate with, and the visuals poorly executed. Interesting in that, past the laundry list of controversial subjects and touchy theme material, it offers a few interesting characters, a harsh and unusual allegory for adolescence, and solid, if somewhat expected, shoujo-style drama and angst.
Leaving the unsatisfying end aside--the anime adaptation stops midway through the story--the manga proves that Angel Sanctuary could've been much better with some minor adjustments; as is, the anime serves as little more than a teaser for the manga. Taken entirely on its own, it's frustratingly flawed in the execution, but interesting nonetheless.
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Angel Sanctuary is certainly a memorable OAV series. It practically oozes controversy--the laundry list of touchy subjects covered include religion, incest, homosexuality, familial dysfunction, and even a touch of drug use. But, as intriguing as individual aspects of it are, a variety of flaws and a general sense of uneven construction cause the series as a whole to suffer badly. I'll stop just short of calling the end result a mess, but it's more effective as an advertisement for the manga (or supplement for fans) than as a stand-alone OAV series.
Among Angel Sanctuary's stronger points is the unashamed way it confronts the issues involved in the story--it neither shies away from its sensitive subject matter nor aims to shock. The strongest one, both in terms of social unacceptability and how much of the story revolves around it, is (a bit surprisingly) incest. The hero's feelings for his sister are definitely not standard romantic fare, and the turmoil surrounding their relationship, both internal and external, is where the series is at its best. The social and religious unacceptability isn't examined particularly deeply or eloquently, but these aspects are addressed as well.
Though Setsuna's battle with his incestuous desire stands on its own as part of the story, it also serves as an unusual and acute analogy of the oft-portrayed variety of feelings that plague the transition from adolescence to adulthood--isolation, misunderstanding, rebellion from the norm, and self-loathing, as well as some of the eventual triumph of coming to terms with yourself and finding your place in the world around you. In particular, the scenes where his internal monologue drowns out the voice of his mother or other adults yelling at him are among the most effective in the series.
Although there are plenty of other characters with potential, there are so many of them and so little time available to establish their personalities and motivations that I didn't end up caring a whole lot about anybody but Setsuna, Kira, and Sara. Though it improves a bit after it gets rolling, this is only the first of the problems the story has with itself.
Being a show with shoujo roots, most of the characters have more than enough angst to go around, although they do have a hard edge (both bad-boy types and the insane Rociel). In any case, if you're not into gender-bending shoujo-style prettyboys, you're in trouble--none of the angels or devils have a clear gender or sexual orientation.
On the positive side of the shoujo spectrum, I like that it doesn't seem to try too hard to set up most of the morally or emotionally difficult situations. True to form, several scenes do seem to work particularly hard at piling tragedy upon tragedy, but even these are usually abrupt and brutal enough to lessen the sense of constructed melodrama.
Moving on to the religious aspects, the Christian mythos used as a basis for the supernatural events in the series initially seems aimed at striking a nerve with adherents. As it plays out, however, the mythology has little enough to do with any actual religious beliefs that I didn't find it particularly worth looking at as commentary on a specific religion. There is an implied attack on the moral authority of humans with religious beliefs, but for the most part the Judeo-Christian connection is little more than a set of names and general concepts to work with.
That said, Angel Sanctuary sets its world up as a place where Heaven, Hell, and Earth are not all that different, or that far apart. The series' plot is built around the conflicts between the self-indulgent and flawed Angels, the not-necessarily-evil Evils and Demons, and the human world that both are connected with. That's also where things go very wrong.
The biggest flaw is the amount of material it tries to squeeze into three OAVs--far too much to do justice to the whole. The series doesn't feel hurried, just jumbled--dense explanations of mythology and dramatic scenes involving poorly-introduced characters with motives that don't seem to make sense at all are stuffed together with almost no segue or flow.
Among other things, we're subjected to a lot of the angelic equivalent of technobabble. Lengthy descriptions of wars, political conflicts, and reasons for the pending apocalypse punctuate the plot, most of which sound remarkably like nonsense to a viewer not already familiar with the manga. I found myself re-watching scenes several times to try and figure out what they were talking about, but in the end most of it is entirely unnecessary--it usually doesn't further the plot and most of the descriptions are too rushed and unclear to mean much anyway.
Although things even out a little bit after the first episode (partly because you've gotten your bearings at that point), it all comes to a very abrupt conclusion. I did like the unexpected twist, but several of the best dramatic scenes toward the end lose a lot of their impact because there simply isn't any setup until a few minutes before the climax. You're also taunted with a completely indecipherable preview of the never-animated continuing story.
Ironically, a look at the original manga reveals that there was actually enough time to do a lot more with the same material. The OAVs attempt to cover roughly the first three volumes of the manga; many scenes are taken almost word-for-word from the manga and surprisingly little was cut out. However, some very brief moments here and there that set the stage for later events were unwisely removed, leaving things like the ongoing connection between the "Inorganic Angel Rociel" and technology under-explained and easily missed.
Worse yet, the manga explains the same things about Heaven and Hell much more clearly, and probably spends less time doing it; the muddled nature of the backstory has as much to do with poor scriptwriting as anything. It's perhaps not a coincidence that this is the only time director Kiyoko Sayama ever wrote a screenplay. To her credit, there are a handful of flashbacks that work fairly well, but only a handful.
With shorter, clearer explanations, a minimum of pruning, and a few brief scenes (or just lines) added here and there to establish things that come into play later, the story could have left almost everything intact and done a much more effective job with its strong points. Honestly disappointing.
Next on the list of inconsistent things about Angel Sanctuary comes the visuals. Basically, the series always borders on looking really slick, but rarely succeeds. There are a variety of the sort of creepy, symbolic, and subtly supernatural images that you'd expect out of a shoujo series involving angels lurking in the human world, but the animation is awkward or choppy enough to badly mar most scenes with any action in them. Other parts have all the visual elements but just aren't drawn well enough to pull off the full effect. Sad, since the manga is very stylish and the budget seems to be there--many (though oddly not all) scenes are just very poorly animated.
The art is also somewhat inconsistent, with occasionally bland backgrounds contrasting with detailed and attractive character art, but overall it's quite good, if a bit brightly colored for the subject matter. I also like the classic shoujo-style character designs, though I got some characters confused a couple of times. Still, telling who is who is much easier than in the manga.
Even the music is a mixed bag. Most of the background themes are good, though none stand out in my memory. The opening theme is weaker but acceptable, while the end is awful--it sounds more like karaoke than professional singing.
The voice acting in Japanese is all around very good. Both the leads and minor players sport a variety of dramatic performances and reasonably distinctive voices. Kenji Nojima as Setsuna in particular has some powerful moments, without seeming overblown or annoyingly angst-ridden. There are also a couple of small but unusual turns from Ai Orikasa that I enjoyed, but then I always notice her--convincing as both a frightening and powerful angel and (uncredited) as Setsuna's distraught mother (the overlap doesn't seem to be symbolic of anything, if you're wondering). I only skimmed the English dub, which seems solid enough.
In the end, I was surprised by Angel Sanctuary; surprised because despite being very disappointed by the numerous flaws throughout the production, I still felt that it was worth watching. On the whole it's a rather poorly directed, choppily written, rushed mess, but it brings enough interesting concepts from the source material to make for at least an interesting experience. Certainly not for everybody, but it might be worth a shot, and fans of the manga will at the very least get to see plenty of familiar scenes faithfully played out onscreen.
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Other shoujo stories with a generally similar theme include Earthian, X: 1999 and X: The Motion Picture, Please Save My Earth, to a lesser degree Tokyo Babylon (much more introspective), and maybe Revolutionary Girl Utena (generally weirder, but with similar apocalyptic overtones).
Notes and Trivia
Based on the Angel Sanctuary manga series by Kaori Yuki, which is available in English from VIZ. The anime, as mentioned in the review, follows roughly the first three volumes of the manga, one per episode. The manga, as hinted at by the preview for a nonexistent fourth episode, continues considerably longer--this is only the beginning of the story.
The anime adaptation is, interestingly, directed, scripted, and even storyboarded by Kiyoko Sayama, so it's hard to blame anyone but her for the pacing and dialogue issues. She has done storyboards for or directed individual episodes of a number of well-known series ranging from 3x3 Eyes to Kaleido Star, but the biggest projects she was the head director on are Vampire Knight, its Guilty sequel, and Saber Marionette J to X. Angel Sanctuary is the only project she ever did the screenplay for, although she does often do the storyboards for episodes she directs. While female manga artists and writers are common, Sayama is one of the few female anime directors in the male-dominated Japanese industry.
US DVD Review
The DVD was one of the better releases among USM's newer-style DVDs. To start with, the video is crisp and bright, as is the audio--no significant problems that I noticed. The episodes are indexed, the full bilingual cast is included (at the end--the entire original credits, and even opening copyright screen, are intact for all three episodes), and there are even a variety of fun special features: Character sketches, other artwork, a really cheesy quiz game, and one of USM's "making of" videos about the dubbing process. As with similar bonus flicks, you'll get to meet some of the actors, watch a bit of acting, and get various people's thoughts on the story and characters--interesting stuff. There are also some (Windows-only) DVD-ROM bits to see, including scripts and browseable images (the same as the ones you can get to through the menus).
After USM went out of business, AnimeWorks picked up the license, and currently has an "Enhanced Edition" DVD available. It lists bilingual audio and subtitles, but no other special features.
Angel Sanctuary features several very violent sequences, a variety of highly controversial (and mature) themes, and a fair amount of overt sexuality. It is most definitely in the 16-up category.
Violence: 3 - Bloody and direct, but not particularly gratuitous.
Nudity: 2 - Some brief nudity.
Sex/Mature Themes: 4 - Mostly non-physical, but there are blunt mature themes and incest features prominently in the story.
Language: 1 - Little that I noticed.
Staff & Cast
Original Japanese Cast
Setsuna Mudo: Kenji Nojima
Sara Mudo: Ayako Kawasumi
Sakuya Kira: Takehito Koyasu
Kurai: Yuko Miyamura
Arachne: Mayumi Asano
Kato: Yuji Ueda
Alexiel: Ai Orikasa
Rosiel: Susumu Chiba
Katan: Shinichiro Miki
Seraphita: Ryusei Nakao
Mother Mudo: Ai Orikasa
English Dub Cast
Setsuna Mudo: Scott Cargle
Sara Mudo: Tara Jayne
Sakuya Kira: Vinnie Penna
Kurai: B. Simpson
Arachne: P.M. Lewis
Kato: Tristan Goddard
Alexiel: Suzy Prue
Rosiel: Crispin Freeman
Katan: Jeff Gimble
Seraphita: Edward Hajj
Mother Mudo: Shelly
Narrator: Eric Schussler
Original Writer: Kaori Yuki
Director: Kiyoko Sayama
Storyboard/Screenplay: Kiyoko Sayama, Kenichi Kanemaki (script, ep 2)
Character Design: Shuichi Shimamura
Art Director: Shuichi Shimamura, Hitoshi Morikaw (2), Itsuko Takeda
Production: Bandai Visual Co, Ltd., Lantis, Hal Film Maker
End Theme: "Knife of Romance"
Lyrics: Satoshi Hiroe
Performance: Hikaru Nanase
Available in North America on bilingual DVD from AnimeWorks, labeled an Enhanced Edition. Previously available from the late US Manga Corps on one bilingual DVD, as well as dubbed VHS.
At last check RightStuf had the Enhanced Edition in stock. Strangely, Amazon has apparently purged the old USM DVD from their catalog entirely, and doesn't stock the new one, either, although they do have the VHS version listed; if you want the older DVD, your best bet is eBay, which had plenty of used copies listed at last check.