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Wednesday, 19 January 2011 00:00

Demonbane

From the ranks of eroge-to-anime conversions comes Demonbane, a little blast from the archives courtesy of Crunchyroll's recent deal with Kadokawa. A magical book in human form, a demented evil rocker, a failed magician and a giant robot - what's not to like..?

Kuro Daijuhji runs his own detective agency - although work is so slow you could hardly call it working, really, so when he receives a summons from the Hado Group, a company so powerful they're the effective rulers of Arkham City, he's not about to turn the job down.  The task?  To track down a magical grimoire - something an upstanding citizen wouldn't normally go near, but the amount of money he's offered in payment (and his need for that money) overrides any objections Kuro may have.  Makes you wonder what the Hado group is doing looking for something of such power.  The answer?  Demonbane, a mecha of immense power that Ruri Hado plans to use to oppose the Black Lodge, a powerful criminal group.  But something that powerful's bound to attract the attention of more than one grouping, right..?

Well, yes and no - while the Black Lodge is ostensibly under the control of one Lord Therion, backed up by his own grimoire Etheldreda, it's one of those organisations where being the charge is more of a curse than anything else, as Therion's immediate underlings - the members of the Black Lodge's elite group, Anticross - line up one after the other to do away with Therion & each other to claim the leadership for themselves. It takes a lot of forward planning to avoid that sort of attention, y'know.

The Black Lodge has had Arkham under its feet for a while now, and Ruri - at just sixteen a very young but dependable leader for the Hado group has been planning on using Demonbane, the "Deus Machina" (or "giant mecha", to you and me) that her late grandfather spent much of his life working on, to remove them from the city. There's an issue, though: the mech relies on a combination of technology and magic to work, and while they've got the techonology working, they still need the magic. And that's where Kuro comes in. Kuro has a bit of a past working with magic, and he once trained to be a mage - although he dropped out of college before he qualified. With mages being a secretive bunch, though, it's that experience that brings him to Ruri's attention - he's the only person with magical experience they've been able to find, and beggars can't be choosers. Even he wasn't expecting the grimoire he was searching for to be in the form of a feisty little girl, though, as that's the form the Necronomicon has taken. Currently answering to the name of Al Azif, she's short, short-tempered, and amazingly powerful in the right hands - which Kuro seem to be. And so Arkham's latest crime-fighting duo are formed.

From there things fall into a fairly predicatble routine - Al takes Kuro as her contractor, and together the two kick the evil Doctor West's guitar-strumming behind, while behind the scenes the baddies begin plotting on how to deal with their new nemesis, blissfull unaware that West is the least of their problems and that behind the scenes, Therion has cooked up a plan - Plan C - that will see devastation unleashed upon the Earth and potentially see Al and Kuro left trapped in nothingness for eternity.

I love me a good plan, especially in this case where the "C" stands for "Cthulu" - yes, the series draws quite heavily on Lovecraftian lore, which is never a bad thing - and it's a plan that's been designed to survive any attempts that his loyal underlings may have cooked up to dispose of him. You see, fate / destiny also plays a large part in the unfolding story, which may or may not work for you - I've never been a fan of the concept of being guided by an unseen hand, simply doing what you were expected to do as the cogs of the Great Machine sweep you to your predetermined end. I'll rail against such storylines for as long as I'm able - and fortunately, Demonbane sort-of averts the whole idea through some clever storytelling.

And it needs to be clever, as 12 episodes isn't enough, I'm reliably told, to do the source story any justice. The series is based on a PC eroge game - one that's conveniently due to get an English-language release from JastUSA just about now - that has a detailed, epic story attached to it. It's also got a habit of waving Kuro's massive, er, equipment right in yer face, if you catch my drift, but then it is an H-game. Trying to squeeze all that into a 12-episode anime leaves the pacing rushed at best (especially as they couldn't resist the lure of the barely-relevant beach episode), and if you don't keep up with the show's frantic pace it's quite easy to get left behind in a sea of "wtf?"-level confusion.

Production values also aren't great. The series was produced in 2006, and yet Gravion - which was made several years earlier and which it seems to crib some of its design themes from - is by far the better-looking series. Demonbane has some nice character designs to work with, but doesn't put them in particularly good-looking settings - and it's nearly impossible to find a clear shot of Demonbane itself anywhere in the series. C- for look and feel, guys.

Cramming so much story into a short space does at least mean that most of the battles are pretty short - a minute or two, tops, before the villain du jour is either betrayed or finds themselves on the wrong end of Lemuria Impact or Shining Trapezohedron. There's at least one character with a nice little case of split personality, with her passive side being very aware of what her dominant personality is planning and knowing she's not going to be able to survive the results that genuinely quite saddening to watch.

While the fighting makes for some nice eyecandy, though (when you can see what's happening), the good stuff is the connection between Al and Kuro that slowly grows as the series progresses. It doesn't take much to see it coming, but the way it's played out and the way it touches on events in the later episodes is really very well done, and it's a large part of what made Demonbane so enjoyable to watch. We'll just gloss over the minor detail that Al looks about 12 ("But she's a 1,000-year-old book, your Honour! Honestly!"). As the closing credits begin to roll at the end of the series, it looks like anything but a happy ending, as well - which I was satisfied with, to be honest. I'm not a fan of happy endings just for the sake of pleasing the fans - if a show works better with the bittersweet, then go for it. Hang around until the end of the credits, though, and the happy ending is delivered, with a little bit of Reset Button chicanery.

For all its failings, though, I found myself really enjoying Demonbane. Admittedly, we're almost getting into so-bad-it's-good territory, as those pacing problems don't make it an easy show to love, but there's a charm about the show and most of its characters that's also undeniable, and it's a series where I was waiting and hoping on a western release for quite some time. It also makes some genuinely surprising story decisions along the way that it should really get some credit for. Okay, so a streaming release on Crunchyroll isn't quite what I wanted, but it'll have to do for now. A real guilty pleasure of mine, and one that I can't help but recommend you at least check out.

Rating - ***