What They Say:
Trained since birth as the Clan of the Sword’s ultimate assassin, Alka has lived her entire life as a nearly emotionless human killing machine. Now, however, her Clan has been destroyed, her master murdered, and the Code she lives by leaves Alka just one final mission: to seek out those responsible and exterminate them. If that means taking on the impossible might of the Param Empire, and the demonic powers of their battle leader Jin Varrel, then so be it. But while Alka may be the hunter, she has also become the hunted. With a price on her head, she must evade or kill the bounty hunters intent on collecting her skin, and in the bloody shadow-world of assassins, that means there’s no one she can trust. It’s a ruthless battle for survival and revenge is a dish best served by the Code in BLADE & SOUL!
The greatest element for Blade & Soul is the magnificent orchestral soundtrack composed by Taro Iwashiro. This is one of the few times where Dolby Digital 5.1 would have made the biggest difference compared to the normal DD 2.0 since Alka barely speaks and all of her emotions and the atmosphere are evoked through the music. But the best part was the evolution of these same instrumentals as our main character begins to understand the effect her actions have taken upon the various groups within the series. The assault on our senses begins with Palam assassins trying to kill her during a raging storm: the rhythmic beat of taiko rumbles like thunder, shinobue (or the bamboo flute) echoes eerily as her foes fall and the haunting melody of kokyū (a bowed lute) mourns their loss. All of these traditional instruments are incorporated into the modern symphony flawlessly whereby you don’t notice anything different except for the marvelous unfamiliarity which they bring to Western ears.
Music itself becomes a character within the show, always dancing with the characters as they try to figure out Alka’s motives and her reasoning for this one minded determination to stay true to the Code. With each disk, they reflect her mood: the first is full of rage, the second is grim and haunting and the third is thoughtful and full of hope. Never before have I heard such a musical spectrum for an anime, the whole is comparable to a blockbuster Hollywood movie. And to add even more emotional drama, the opening theme Sayonara Usotsuki by MimimemeMIMI and the ending theme is Rainbow by LEGO BIG MORL are stirring in themselves; the opening theme almost seems like Alka is questioning her own motives, while the ending theme is a reformation of her final decision. This is one of the few times I want to turn up the volume on my stereo, boost the subwoofer to maximum and let the floor reverberate while I drift away into the world with just the sound. Sonic bliss …
While the music of the series brings the show to the forefront, the exquisite palette of colours used in the anime cannot be ignored. The world of Blade & Soul is surrounded by a vivid array of variety, from the burning deserts with its glaring sandscapes, to the calm farmlands littered by Heaven’s Spirits and the drab yet bustling cities festooned with various merchants hawking their wares. However busy they may appear to be, all of these environments are dotted with hues, which bring a deeper meaning to their surroundings.
The most prominent would be Heaven’s Spirits, the main cash crop for many of the villages, decorating their landscape with a brilliant indigo; the macabre irony to this floral monstrosity is although they are a colour signifying renewal for their growers by bringing in much-needed funds, the people buying and distilling them into the deadly drug are also rewarded by the same fortune. And yet, these same plants also bring misery and death for those who do not wish to profit from their growth via the forcible confiscation by Palam so that they may nurture more of this ruthless narcotic.
Of course, you cannot ignore the vibrant reds populating a majority of the scenery, from the spiked armour of the Pleasure Gang to the overwhelming towers of Tomon Inn and its hostess Karen’s wardrobe. While, in the strictest sense, this colour is supposed to bring good fortune to the wearer, you cannot ignore the other obvious meaning: blood. Each of these occurrences is surrounded by that underlying morbidity, although it tries to hide its face from the public, we all know that it has touched each of these groups to elevate them to where they are now, or where they soon will be.
But the most oppressive of all would the be overwhelming blackness signifying the Flower Monks. From the plates covering their bodies to the gruesome weapons and of course, the sickening power of the Impurity – they are all cloaked within the colour of Death. This elite force allows nothing to cross their path without first tasting the slumber of the grave; the sullen darkness overwhelms all who face them, but when they unleash that maddening power none have survived. This cruelty is also tinged with a touch of red, as the deadly flowers which bloom consume all who fall prey to the Impurity are devoured by their spiteful petals.
However all consuming the Impurity may be, it is still vulnerable to one symbol, Alka’s butterfly. This pink imprint upon her pale skin symbolises the one emotion which is able to defeat that power – love. It is obvious from the beginning that our assassin cannot use the gift since her master told her to be an empty pool so that she could kill more efficiently. But as the story continues and she learns of the effects of those murders then attempts to redeem herself, her heart starts to open to the concept of forgiveness. It is only when she has accepted it, does her brand open and allows Alka to spread her openness and defeat that sickness.
Finally, while the incorporation of all these colour symbols furthers the understanding of the series, the most intoxicating representation of this artistry is during the end credits – with Karen giving us a demonstration of fan fighting. While this discipline was never fully shown within the series, the technique called tessenjutsu does exist, and it would have been a nice expansion on her character if she showed us how she utilised it during her brief skirmishes. Of course, it probably would have not included the prismatic colour trails which follow during her final dance, but to watch her agility combined with those amazingly vibrant rainbows was a joy to behold.
It is a waste that Sentai Filmworks chose to use a colour scheme duplicating a battle-scarred landscape littered with Heaven’s Spirit to decorate the background of the collection’s case. Although they might have thought that they could entice buyers to the set by displaying the stunning female cast in the foreground, nothing about these lovelies really communicates the premise of the series – while the synopsis makes it seem like another show about revenge. The disks also uses the same theme by showing off the women in battle poses, but nothing is gained by this display. Guess they are hoping that the alluring pictures will entice their male audience to pick up the anime out of curiosity than more in interest to the story? Maybe the old saying that Sex Sells really does work?
The decorating scheme used on the case is carried over to the menus with the scorched battle scape supporting one of our female cast displaying the selection of the episodes in a combat ready pose. While you choose your selection with a cursor likened to Alka’s mark, the first minute of the opening theme Sayonara Usotsuki is played in preparation for the upcoming carnage; this arousing music gets the viewer properly motivated for the excitement of the show, but it does get tiresome after it restarts at the end of the cycle. Perhaps they could have made a better selection to cycle the entire song or allow the watcher to switch the music off, but then they probably not expected too much time spent to make your selection.
While Sentai Filmworks did not put much thought into the additional materials for the collection aside from their usual selection of trailers and textless opening/closing animations, directors Hiroshi Hamasaki and Hiroshi Takeuchi plus studio Gonzo did give us a great treat unintentionally with the creation of the Blade & Soul Review after the end credits. Each twenty second snippet isolates a relevant tidbit and expands the information to the show itself. And lastly, while the plot of the series only expands to the first twelve episodes, there is a thirteenth one which should be considered an omake. Which of course, in any heavily influenced female cast show, they give us the obligatory fan service onsen show! Who could ask for anything more? It is a comforting respite from all of the battles and bloodshed … now all I need is a cup of warm sake so I can take a nice long soak.
Alka is the sole survivor of the Clan of the Sword, a band of assassins who helped shape the history of many important events, but now she is wanted by the Palam Empire for the murder of her master – Hon Dougen. Of course, as with many influential conquerors, they had use for the Clan, but now that their usefulness has come to an end, the need to erase any trace of their collaborators is essential; their plan was to frame an innocent of the crime, but they did not expect the scapegoat to resist to her slaughter. Many of their own soldiers have fallen before her blades, none able to repel her deadly attacks as witnessed by the trail of blood and bodies she has left in her wake. So now, their only choice is to send an elite group of mercenaries, erroneously named the Flower Monks.
They are lead by an emotionless woman named Jin Varrel with her followers the colossal Ga Gangte and the manipulative Yoo Ran. Dressed entirely in black, the moniker is gained by their usage of a demonic power named Impurity; it is a monstrous force which engulfs its victims within a shroud of black flames, consuming them entirely before vanishing in a whisp of ebony and crimson blooms. Their massacres are infamous, incinerating entire villages and regions which dared to disobey them or their employers, the Palam, all in their yearning to dominate the one commodity which will bring them even more power – Heavens’ Spirit. This mysterious indigo bloom is farmed in vast quantities, harvested then refined into a potion which heightens one’s physical power to the absolute peak for a limited time. It is via this elixir by which they maintain control of the masses, but that domination is being threatened by the sole legacy of the Clan. She must be eliminated … no matter what the cost.
But, she has one defence against their trump card and the deadly conflagration which they control, a curious brand which her master near her left arm – a pink butterfly. It from this symbol by which the Empire has placed a bounty upon her head, and it from this mark that her allies gather – for better or worse. Jin Hazuki is an obnoxious drunk gunslinger who will hunt anyone whom she thinks can turn into quick coin. Dan Loana, the leader of the Pleasure Gang, a group of treasure hunters who loot tombs and wear sets of tacky crimson spiked armour. And finally, Elle Karen, the mysterious proprietor of Tomon Inn, the only oasis that one can relax and drink to your heart’s content while she entertains with her mesmerising fan dance. All have a connection to the Palam or Alka, whether through a loss or for vengeance, but they will play their parts in unraveling the mystery of her symbol and the truth behind her master’s murder. If this is for good will or bane, only time will tell until someone tips their hand to show her a path to freedom or one stained in more lives.
On the surface, Blood & Soul may appear to be a fan service anime based on the Korean MMORPG (massively multi-online role playing game) of the same name, which was nothing more than an effort to generate interest for the programme before it hit Japan’s shores in mid-May 2015. However, the show takes a much deeper look into an adventure from the life of an emotionless executioner into someone who now tries to redeem herself through the lessons of a fallen master.
It begins with Alka being a resolute person who only follows her Clan’s Code, which drives her to take revenge for the death of Hon Dougen and her dishonour; in short, the first arc (or first four episodes) involves her complacency and steadfast determination, all while she is faced by the horror her misdeeds and those obliquely caused by Palam while in pursuit. But as she recovers from a failed encounter, the second arc begins with the revelation of the effect Heavens’ Spirit has upon the people it touches, a chance meeting and lessons from her fellow student and then the contemplation of how she now has begun to feel the weight of the lives she has taken and how it has affected those connected to them. The final arc is one of salvation and redemption in which the meaning of her master’s words have taken hold and Alka has to deal with the growing emotions now welling inside. However, as those feelings come to bear and she learns to deal with them, the strength always within allows her to overcome a foe or resentment for her past and finally make peace.
Thus, while Blood & Soul can be enjoyed on the surface as a dance between scantily clad, beautiful women fighting for their lives, it is also the struggle of one person dealing with the past and how to continue on with her guilt. Mistakes cannot be completely forgiven, but they can be endured and tempered into something stronger which will forge the way into a new tomorrow. If you have the resolve to stoke the fire and then quench what you have wrought, you will emerge with a keener edge which can cleave any misgivings you may now have and guard your future. Alka found that out the hard way, but in the end, she became a better person and an even truer friend.
Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0, English Subtitles, Clean Opening Animation, Clean Closing Animations and Sentai Filmworks trailers
Content Grade: A
Audio Grade: A+
Video Grade: A+
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: A
Released By: Sentai Filmworks
Release Date: October 27th, 2015
Running Time: 325 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widsecreen
Sharp LC-42LB261U 42” LED HDTV and Sony BDPS3200 Blu-ray player