Pandora Hearts Box Set 1
Is it surprising that a gothic anime with an artistic sensibility influenced by Lewis Carroll wouldn't be all that worried about logic? The first half of Pandora Hearts, a late 2010 release from NIS America, isn't hard to watch, and at times it's downright entertaining. Those like me who are easily frustrated with plot holes may find the first seven episodes disheartening as the show strings you along. Stick around for the second disc of six episodes, though, and it might weave its spell around you yet.
Oz Vessalius is about to grow up faster than he might have expected. The fifteen-year-old son of a lord, Oz is in the middle of a coming-of-age ceremony when he is drawn into a crazy world that he's only once seen in a nightmarish vision. It's a place known as Abyss, and it's as nasty as it sounds, populated with half-mad dolls and bug-like creatures that would love to devour a young man whole. In Abyss he meets a strange creature alternately known as Alice and B. Rabbit. That's because in her fearsome moments, she takes the form of a gigantic killer...well, rabbit. (Hold the Monty Python jokes.) But as Alice, she's a long-haired, only slightly crazy beauty of a girl.
To get back home, Oz makes a contract with Alice. She is seeking her lost memories that she thinks are hidden in our world, he gets to return to his old life...all good, right? Only later does he find out that it's not such a perfect deal for him...the only way he can be released from the contract is to die. Otherwise, when the contract's time runs out, he'll get sucked down into the deepest layer of Abyss permanently. And if that weren't bad enough, there's a group of hooded monkish figures looking to execute him. Isn't that special?
When Oz returns to the real world, there are some friends waiting for him...but not the ones he expected. They are a part of Pandora, something like a 19th century FBI that investigates when someone from our world makes a contract with a chain - that is, a being from Abyss like Alice. They quickly realize that to save Oz, they are going to need to help Alice unravel her own mystery and figure out why this mysterious band of ruffians wants Oz dead. An uneasy truce keeps them together as the clock slowly counts down on Oz's contract...
It normally doesn't take me three paragraphs to describe the plot of an anime, but that barely scratches the surface of it. I've left out virtually all the cast save for its most important characters, and I haven't begun to describe the personal issues between them all. Pandora Hearts is not a complex anime, but the concept requires some time to describe. For good or for bad, the show repeats its characters' goals and relationships often enough that you won't ever get lost - though you might get bored as it explains itself again.
The aesthetic of Pandora Hearts is not a slavish devotion to the Wonderland motif, but it certainly respects it. The "real world" is mostly aristocratic frilly shirts and long Victorian dresses, but anything related to Abyss has a looking-glass mentality, with oddities that aren't so much grotesque as haunting. While I could care less about ruffles and pantaloons and classic gothic styles - which seem to me like an obvious attempt to capture a female audience for an otherwise shonen program - I found some of the bizarre stuff of Abyss worked for me. (Freaked me out is closer to the truth.)
Pandora Hearts isn't convincing out of the gate. There's plenty of action, admittedly, and it's not unpleasant nor difficult to watch its first few episodes. However, it's not terribly well thought out. For example, there are at least two battles with gigantic creatures played out in city squares...and nobody but our heroes notice. Really? It's as if the whole populace disappeared. No one sticks a head out. There's not even a wayward bystander caught up in the action on the way to the hairdresser.
However, knowing how this series has played out so far, there's probably an explanation for that we just don't know yet. That's my second issue...we are kept in the dark about a lot of things not because there are a lot of great revelations to be made but because these characters are incredibly stupid. Many of the problems they run into would be solved if everybody sat down together in a room for five minutes and talked through what had already happened. Oh, there's plenty of talking, but not actual sharing of information. In fact, in one major circumstance - Oz's return from Abyss - certain truths that any intelligent human being would have immediately told him are saved for a later "reveal." Secrets that aren't really secrets get "disclosed" along the way, but only because the leads are too dumb to communicate with each other. How annoying is that?
If that doesn't stop you from watching, the tonal problems might. The series had a number of humorous moments that seem to be lifted out of FullMetal Alchemist, right down to the distorted "funny" character designs used in those moments. Now I found only a couple of these genuinely amusing, but none were bad. But what was uncomfortable was the shift between outright horror and comedy. There's a sequence where we see a young flower girl dragged down to Abyss with her chain, and it's heartbreaking. But not a minute later, the jokes are queued. To me, it ruined the moment.
But strangely, now that I've given you all my reasons to dislike this series, I'm going to tell you this: I eventually began to really like it. Right about the time the second disc of this collection kicks off, the story begins to focus on the real mysteries and becomes more focused as a result. We stop racing through plot points, the series starts to breathe a bit, and it finally all works. I felt for the characters as I understood them better, particularly as Oz's troubled relationship with his father is explained. Indeed, the second half of the box set gives greater weight and meaning to the flailing first half. I struggled to get through the first disc over the course of three days; I devoured the last one in a single sitting. That's how much better it gets.
As I see it, you probably know if Pandora Hearts is your thing or not. This kind of program is a no-brainer for anyone into gothic design and fashion, and if you're really into pretty pictures more than a great storyline, you'll enjoy yourself. The artwork still looks good despite an odd decision by the producers to add film-like noise to the DVDs in order to give it depth. Combined with some extra picture brightness, it's distracting at times, but not enough to ruin it (in my opinion). The music, while not memorable in the traditional sense, does an excellent job of setting the mood. And like all of NIS America's other releases, the box set itself and the accompanying artbook are things of beauty in their own right.
I'm having difficulty recommending this show for the reasons mentioned, but my frustrations in the first half were balanced by the storytelling improvements in the second. My rating is based on the benefit of the doubt and my genuine hope that the course correction seen about eight episodes into the series continues through to its conclusion. I am intrigued enough to keep going with Pandora Hearts, but I simply don't know if it will end well or not.
Pandora Hearts Box Set 1 -- violence, disturbing imagery -- B-