Ayashi no Ceres
Wow, for 5 years I had a preview based only on 4 episodes. I remember viewing it after having finished the authors previous work and thinking the first episodes showed great promise... But I couldn't find more. Thanks to the support of Jerry G. I can finally write a review based on having seen the whole thing.
The story begins with two golden haired twins. Aya is an energetic young girl quick to act on impulse and take things to heart, her brother Aki is more reserved. The two of them are basically normal school kids looking forward to their imminent 16th birthday which will be just another milestone in an enjoyable life.... or so they think. What they don't know is that the Miyagi clan, of which they are members, has a rather twisted history. Nor is it a "normal" history, one that over time becomes just a legend. The event behind it all was supernatural, and it continues to slumber in the blood of the family line.
The clan however, has changed with the times, and are themselves unwilling to be passive observers. They've become rich and determined to either protect or enhance their wealth and power. Thus some members of the family will go to any lengths to suppress any emergence of the family history. Others, even more aggressive, believe that the tools of science can be used to trap and harness this ancient power. Neither faction, nor those influenced by the original event, are overly concerned with what Aya or Aki think about it... they're just nice kids who got unlucky and have become pawns in a complex plot. Their only hope is to understand what is going on, and find a resolution that allows them to survive.
Yes, it's another overly vague synopsis in the hope of avoiding spoilers. This is because watching the story develop is one of the more fun parts of the series. The foundation is a traditional folktale, given at the start of the series, telling of a celestial maiden who had her robe stolen while she was bathing. Unable to return to the heavens without it she became trapped on earth, forced to live as wife and mother to a mortal man until she could recover it. The interesting part is how this story is projected forward into the modern age, with some surprising results.
And it truly is only a foundation. The author (Yu Watase) is a big fan of huge, sprawling and intertwined plots. There are at least four separate factions, a large cast, and substantial number of plans underway. Attempting to fully describe all of these plots, and how the events and counter-events all fit together would be a serious amount of work. In addition there are the character based stories that are woven throughout the series as well. It is sort of impressive in its complexity, and the whole "secret conspiracy" stuff is a very atmospheric driver. It also allows the end of episode cliff-hangers the author favors. However there is a weakness to it, the more competing plots the less coherent any single one of them is. In addition if there is a complex plan then pace is important, the show needs to build a sense of momentum to make one feel the plan is quickly progressing towards a climax. If not then the events can easily feel a bit artificial.
In practice the plots are just another foundation for the real meat... the drama. Much like her previous work, Fushigi Yuugi, the author is primarily interested in playing around with her characters. This includes the female lead and a suspiciously large number of skilled and powerful bishounen who surround her. Each character can also be multiplied through its spiritual identity, which is in essence another personality, and also through the bad guys' mastery of memory manipulation which allows for another personality. The primary romantic interest for Aya has this in spades, managing to achieve three distinct personalities, and one spiritual personality, over the course of the show.
The events exist primarily to mess with the minds of the main characters, which leads to the sort of aggressive drama the creator seems to like. And since this is aimed at a mature audience there are few limits in what she can do. It's pretty bloody, frequently psychologically cruel and there's a pretty substantial number of fatalities... often for little reason other than it makes good drama. There are multiple suicides, one extremely graphic, noble deaths, explosive destruction on a city wide scale and the casual slaughter of innocents. The show misses no opportunity to focus on the shattering effects this has on the surviving characters.
On top of that, in the great layer cake of drama that this show contains, there's a love story. The lead character has three potential suitors and was clearly intended to have a romantic triangle configuration. That part doesn't work since one arc of it, Yuhi, is too nice and too boring and as a result loses completely to the enigmatic Toya in virtually all aspects. Heck, his primary ability is cooking and his weapon of choice is cooking chopsticks... it takes a lot of work to make that cool. As a result he takes on a big brother role while the romance plays itself out over the entire course of the show. And this aspect is played with as heavy a hand as the rest of the drama.
There are two rather serious weaknesses in the show however. The first is the rather odd pacing. I mentioned earlier how a "big" story needs a sort of momentum, a feeling that things are coming to a crisis and the enemy is always on the move in order to build intensity. It really doesn't get the chance here because its entirely subjugated by the drama. If an episode (or two, or three) is needed for some emotional or psychological angst then the "fiendish" plots fades into the background. The bad guys even know, for the entirety of the show, where she actually lives but decline to do anything with that knowledge... perhaps they don't make house calls? Or perhaps it's just courtesy, after all the lead character knows exactly where the villains are, and what their plans are, and has the power to stop it but is too pre-occupied to actually do anything. Add in Toya and Aki not being able to decide which side they're actually on and the whole conspiracy thing falls apart and starts to look sort of powerless and silly.
The other problem is the drama itself, there's just so much of it and it's constantly manipulated for maximum effect. This reduces the consistency of the story because it becomes obvious that only the events are important, not the logic in how that event was reached. As a result the show begins to feel like a bit of a soap opera, and may be too much for some people. It was certainly too much for me. I don't have the best tolerance for this sort of artificial and exaggerated drama and frequently found myself looking away from the screen in the hope they'd get over it so the story could move forwards again.
The show also features the authors comedic handicap, rather silly comedy sections that get dropped randomly into the middle of events. This transition from serious drama to some visual or physical gag rarely works, and serves only to even further reduce the coherency of the production. In short its a watchable series, and the author does know how to write an imposing scene, but the overall result is pure soap opera.
The production is a touch dated now, showing the subdued colors and textures of pre-computer animation, it's not bad though. I get the feeling they drew heavily upon the source manga both in terms of character design and style, using quite a lot of linework to represent them. There's also a lot of pose shots to make it clear who the bishounen in the show are. This is in addition to quite complex clothing that must have been a pain to animate. Indeed, combined with the fact that the focus of the show is on the events not how they happen, the action tends to be fairly average. Action sequences are rare, short and more a sequence of stills than exciting and dynamic interaction. In line with the "shock" aspect they are also generally pretty one sided, especially in relation to the faceless black suited goons who go down in huge numbers (and pools of blood) over the course of the show. The setting is the modern world which is quite well represented but not particularly interesting, purely a backdrop. The voices are not bad, I thought Aya was a bit shallow at the start but it grew on me and there's some good voices for the males. The music is light pop and a small selection of ambient music gets used and re-used, it's not bad though having a subtle beat which builds tension nicely. In other words its quite decent animation, very well suited to the character centric nature of this title.
Another piece of high drama from the author of Fuushigi Yugi and definitely having a similar feel. A young girl discovers she has power within herself, but also finds lots of people have been awaiting access to it, and they are willing to be brutal to get what they want. Lots of bishounen, shock events, very heavy drama and decent production. A little too much for me personally.
Wow... I guess I'm not the only one who had a review that covered only the first disk. There's not really that many reviews around that cover the whole series.