Rocking opening theme? Check. Hideous undead monsters threatening society as we know it? Check. Cute Japanese schoolgirls wielding semi-automatic weapons? Check. Yes, all the ingredients are in place for Corpse Princess (aka Shikabane Hime) to appeal to anime fans who enjoy action horror, and – let’s be honest – especially if they’re male. Luckily, the story of Corpse Princess has the depth to rise above that admittedly simplistic description.
As the first episode opens we find the main character, the orphaned high school boy Ouri Kagami, as he is awakened by an odd apparition that only he can see: A ghostly cat who can talk to him. The cat leads him to the orphanage’s Buddhist temple, where he finds a seemingly dead girl on the floor in front of the altar. Before he can do anything about it others come in, forcing Ouri to hide. One of the newcomers is his adoptive brother, the monk Keisei Tagami. Rather than be shocked by the girl’s presence, Keisei and his monk companions don’t seem surprised at all, and Keisei rushes to provide aid to the already-dead girl. To Ouri’s shock, she comes back to life in his brother’s arms. The cat tells Ouri that it is because she is shikabane, and that he will soon become fascinated by them.
This is Ouri’s, and our, introduction to the world of Corpse Princess. The girl, Makina Hoshimura, is indeed dead, but she has come back to life as a shikabane hime. The term is used to describe a teen-aged girl who has died and then brought back to life for a very specific purpose: To become contracted with a monk to kill other undead monsters, known simply as shikabane. They are formed when someone dies while having regrets about something they haven’t finished. The regret can be nearly anything. By example, in later episodes, shikabane result from children who are killed in an accident when they only wanted to play, and a pop singer who can’t give up being a star. A shikabane hime, however, avoids the fate of being hunted down and killed by instead becoming the hunter. Her contracted monk provides aid and support, sometimes using their own life force to keep the shikabane hime going. According to their contract, once they have dispatched 108 shikabane, the shikabane hime may pass from this world to paradise rather than being condemned to the eternal punishment the of a typical unpure shikabane.
The anime thankfully does not fall into the ‘monster of the week’ formula that some rely on. True, there are many different forms of shikabane that threaten, but as they are defeated we find Ouri learning more and more about this hidden world, as well as becoming infatuated – just as the ghost cat said – by Makina in particular. More and more monks and their shikabane hime are revealed as Ouri is pulled into their secretive battles and we soon see that they are not a united force, but very much a secret organization. One which abounds with hidden agendas, sometimes working at cross purposes. This is not a static world, and important characters die, and secrets about the nature of shikabane hime, shikabane, the cat, the monks’ society, and even Ouri himself are first layered on, then peeled away like an onion. The result is a rich tapestry of plot and characterization, giving the viewer much more than the surface of cute girls battling monsters, the second half of the series in particular building to an exciting climax.
The Japanese animation studio Gainax (of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame) is the lead animation studio in this production, and it turns in another excellent visual treat. The battles are exciting, and suitably bloody for a horror adventure series. But just as much attention is given to tender moments as well as silly slapstick comedy. The shikabane monsters show a variety of creative, horrific design and the girls are indeed cute. In fact, perhaps a touch too cute. While Makina herself is normally proportioned and not as often shown in a sexualized manner, the same cannot be said for other female characters in the series. Fan service abounds, and is almost seemingly reveled in, with many up-skirt shots and comments about body parts. One girl is nick-named the ‘Breast Goddess’ by Ouri’s classmates, and one of the shikabane hime themselves has the (admittedly very apt) name of ‘Flesh’. It would be her in in the seemingly-ubiquitous hot springs episode who is depicted sitting nude outside the water with only a few exactingly-placed soap suds on her lush form. And the one shikabane hime who died before her body went through puberty is curiously enough contracted to the only female monk in the series, who is possibly the most generously endowed woman in the entire production, with all the jiggling during action scenes that implies. Even during the opening (the one with the rocking theme music) the camera manages to pan up a communications tower, zooming right past Makina and her incredibly short school girl skirt from below. Depending on your point of view this nearly unavoidable fan service either adds spice to an already exciting and involving series or is the main defect of it. I could easily see female viewers in particular getting tired of it, as it’s that pervasive.
Overall, however, Gainax and FUNimation have turned in another engaging, detailed adventure series that will appeal to viewers looking for a good plot along with their action. The series will certainly appeal to teen boys, but it may be a stretch to add it to young adult shelves, especially in conservative areas. It would be a good addition to the growing collections of anime available in the adult area, where it should find an enthusiastic audience.
Corpse Princess: The Complete Series
directed by Masahiko Murata
600 minutes, Number of Discs: 4, Season set
Company Age Rating: TV-MA
Related to: Corpse Princess by Yoshiichi Akahito