Mirage of Blaze
Another title courtesy of Manifest 2004 (Melbourne Anime Festival) which was pretty impressive. Not entirely sure why they decided to show this series in full, I have my suspicions that scary anime fangirls were involved, but it was certainly an unusual experience.
The history of Japan is extremely rich in tales of blood. According to this anime it almost seems that you can't point at a flat piece of land without being told that a civil war castle, or battle, and in many cases both, stood on that very spot. And for every location there are a hundred stories, tales of hatred, love, loyalty and betrayal. The only thing that seems to be in common is that most of them end messily.
Of course this is just history, long since passed and buried away, it's not like it's ever going to bother the two young guys we start following. Sadly for them the mythology of Japan also includes a world of the spirit, a land now full of lost souls twisted by the events of that time. It seems that the war never truly stopped, the battlefield just became stranger, and it has grown to the extent that it is beginning to spill over into the real world. The two we follow don't have any idea that history is stalking them, enmeshing them in plots whose origins extend beyond the lifetime of any mortal human.
Sounds simple? You wish, this synopsis doesn't even begin to give a feel for the sheer chaos of the plot this anime has. Start with a large cast of narrow faced, short haired, bishounen types. The vast majority of them being moody types with hidden edges to their personalities. Then comes the question of which personality we're discussing. All but one member of the cast has strong, in most cases direct, ties to a spirit from the Japanese feudal period. The politics of the time, both between people and clans, seems to have been a tangled mess and it hasn't got any simpler over time. It's especially hard to follow as a western fan because Japanese historical figures, clans and locations would provide extra clues to the viewer.... but outside of Japan it is just a mysterious stream of obscure names to try and remember.
As if that isn't enough access to the spirit world has given the players in this story access to magic. This includes classical "haunting" type magic, ritual magic using powerful artifacts and Japanese mythology, and the more utilitarian "blow stuff up" magic. In this story ghosts are the footsoldiers of the earthly portion of the war, and it isn't too long before the spells are flying. It also means there's lots of potential to have people under magical mind control, in addition to the normal subterfuge, which means we can never be sure that a character we meet is actually going to stay that way. Then again the definition of friend and enemy is always open to re-negotiation in the complex feudal politics.
The lead character has it really bad. Not only does he have an overdose of angst but he's also fighting unnatural attraction (Yep, it's a shounen-ai picture, with so many bishounen you know it's coming) to one of his loyal followers in a previous life. A loyal follower who may have betrayed him, but he can't be sure of that because he's been told he's subconsciously repressing his memory of the event. The poor guy gets more and more confused as the show goes on, at one point basically having a huge angst overdose to someone who asked him a relatively innocent question. Apparently you can never trust bishounen with short spiky black hair, they're the flaky ones. Thankfully he gets it together before the conclusion so he can finally kick some butt that has been begging for it the whole show. Not to mention he can finally deal with his attraction that the opening titles gave away about 10 episodes previously.
So is it good? hm... that really depends on what you're into. The show is heavily influenced by shounen-ai style angst, tall thin men with narrow faces and carefully groomed appearances who spend a lot of time talking. The focus on the atmosphere in which these people meet, the way in which they express the connections between themselves, allows for some pretty intense scenes. The background story, while somewhat confused (it even skips threads a couple of times) gives a goodly sense of weight and a dark ambiance. The negatives are that sometimes the story goes way too far, straight into melodrama, and it's a little bit relentless in how it is endlessly trying to build up stress. This is magnified by a certain feeling that the show lacks real meat (fangirls may giggle now, I don't mind :) This is in terms of both the action, which rarely seems to have a meaningful outcome, and in the emotional. For example the tragedy of Minako is built up for quite a while, seems very important, but then seems to just vanish once it has served its purpose. The same basically happens to Yuzuru, who I fully expected to be a major character. Not to mention the wish that the two leads would sit down (or lie down if your tastes go that way) and just work it out rather than endlessly circling the actual issues for so many episodes. I can take unresolved tension to an extent, but this show really strings it out.
In simple terms the vast majority of events are to torment the main characters and their complex relationship. Lesser characters, the events of the past and the plots of the present thus fall off to the side. The events are also extended and stretched to keep them alive, the leads not allowed to find stability, which can become almost painful. I would tend to say that if you cannot cope with this sort of heavily stylistic and emotionally centered material then gives this a miss, the story and action are not there in sufficient qualities to make up for it. If the style doesn't bother you then this isn't a bad story at all, the characters are mostly interesting and there is a curiosity to see how all the elements it is weaving will come together in the end. The supernatural elements, steeped in Japanese lore, forming a wonderful backdrop.
As can be imagined the character designs are true to the genre, and characters are more likely to be killed than appear on screen with their hair messy. There's a shounen-ai theme running as the core of the story but there's virtually no physical contact in the anime (apparently there is in the manga). The dialog, character observation and connections to the real world are nicely handled and watchable. The action scenes are not that common, nor is the motion terribly interesting, but they're still fun to watch. The magic, represented mostly with visual effects filters, works pretty well. Solid production that well suits the topic, excellent voices (the fumaa ninja can really project) and decent music, although the opening song is under-impressive. Mirage of Blaze, as has been observed, sounds pretty silly in English.
Somewhat torturous Samurai drama coming from out of the spirit world to torment the young bishounen of Today! The plot is complex and the emotional undercurrents, keeping track of who betrayed who in which previous life, push it even further. Has a bishounen-ai aspect but balances that with some action and a pretty strong plot progression (especially for the genre). Pretty good production but it takes quite a while to get anywhere.