Karneval BoxartEvery so often, a series comes about that seems to excel on every technical level, though it falls short in the finished product. It’s a show that, while engaging, and even interesting, lacks that certain “oomph” that just pushes it to become more than a sum of its individual parts.

Sadly, Karneval fits perfectly into this category.

Karneval is a sci-fi action series that was produced by Manglobe (Samurai Flamenco) and directed by Eiji Suganuma (Kodomo no Jikan, Ninja Cadets). The show tells the tale of Nai, a naive lad who seeks a man known only as Karoku. Nai has no idea on where to even begin his search, and his only clue is a mysterious bracelet that was left behind on the day Karoku disappeared. In his travels, Nai is somehow captured by a mysterious woman of means named Miné.

His captivity is short-lived, though, as the most unlikely of saviors comes to the rescue. Gareki, a street-smart thief with a dead aim, was robbing the manor. Miné, who obviously isn’t the most giving of people, takes this poorly, and sheds her human facade to become a monstrous beast. While the two are able to escape, their fortune is short lived. The two hop onto a train, in the hope that they can get out of the city before all hell breaks loose.

Yeah, that doesn’t happen.

Karneval 002 - 20140724The train the two board becomes a crime scene, as terrorists storm the executive cars, and take a wealthy industrialist hostage. To make matters worse, the train is rigged to explode, if their demands aren’t met! The day is saved, when Circus, a super-secret group of government-issued defenders, makes their grand entrance, to save the day. And, whether he likes it or not, Nai finds himself on the radar of the group. Will they be able to help Nai find his lost companion, while keeping the world safe from the genetic monsters that are walking among the rest of humanity?

To summarize that mess of text, Karneval is a series about a pair of kids who get dragged into a group of super-powered, monster-fighting carnies. Nai, for reasons disclosed later in the series, has the ability to draw out the monsters, known as “varuga.” Since Circus is the best lead he has, Nai lends his gifts in exchange for their aid in finding Karoku.

It’s a bit silly, but it works. Karneval is able to deliver a decently compelling experience, though it offers little in the realm of surprises. It’s pretty much a given from the beginning that Nai, Gareki, and Circus will have their goals converge. Likewise, there is little surprise as to who the major antagonists are, and major plot points seem to occur mainly as a matter of course. There’s no real drive, no real push that drives the characters. Rather, the whole series just coasts along on autopilot. It moves from point A, to point B, and so on with little real purpose, as everything builds up to an ending that could be described as ambiguous, at best, non-existent at worst.

Karneval 010 - 20140724And, really, that’s Karneval’s cardinal sin. The series delivers itself with the enthusiasm of an old man diving into a bowl of lukewarm soup. Dialogue, character interactions, and even playful banter feels like it’s being delivered half-heartedly, like the cast really had little investment in the series as a whole. And, unfortunately, this kills the suspension of disbelief and limits just how much a person can get into the series as a whole.

It really is a shame, since Karneval excels on all of the technical aspects. The series is, visually, quite stunning, with gorgeous character designs and slick animation. The environments make wonderful use of color and shading, and the camera work is impeccable. There is a wonderful use of framing and mise-en-scene to sell the atmosphere of any given scene. The fight choreography is top-notch, with wonderful pacing and flow. Possibly the most impressive, though, are the few scenes where various members of Circus actually put on a circus act. These segments are simply a joy to watch, as characters glide effortlessly through the air, and the world just draws the viewer in.

Then harsh reality rears its ugly head, and the viewer is pulled back into the realm of unenthusiastic delivery and mechanical progression.

It’s a shame that this really is a factor. Karneval hs all of the trappings of a fantastic show: a great setting, an intriguing story, interesting characters (on paper), and a genuinely gorgeous aesthetic. In many cases this would be the type of series I’d be all over, praising to high heavens. The generally bland and lifeless delivery and cruise-control plot progression, though, just squander so much of that potential.

I won’t say that Karneval is a bad show. On the contrary, it’s interesting and there are a lot of elements that are incredibly enjoyable. Unfortunately, though, it falls just short of being good.

Thanks to FUNimation for providing a review copy!