Souten Kouro is about as GAR as it is possible to be without breaking the fourth wall. (It doesn’t quite equal the manliness of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, which is so GAR that it defies reality, but it is completely serious about it.) The animators have used epic battlefield spreads, panoramic zoom, and other sweeping gestures to further the mood. If the viewer didn’t already know from the fact that it is derived from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the opening makes it clear that this show is going to be about blood, death, and brotherhood.
It begins with an ancient tale involving mythological monsters, and then comes down to the “present day” for the storyline. This puts it firmly in the epic storytelling camp. Disturbances in the heavens lead to disturbances in the earth, and a monster goes to a grisly demise. Sadly, details such as a dragon having buck teeth make it a little hard to take the story seriously at times. Deliberately fuzzy graphics make for an intuitive metaphor that the opening tale is shrouded in myth and legend, but as a whole the visual metaphor does not work too well. Fortunately, the scene is soon forgotten as the human drama unfolds.
Souten Kouro does not merely tell a Chinese tale; it tells a Chinese tale using some elements of Chinese storytelling techniques, mixed with modern film techniques. (At one point, there is even a lens flare!) Thus the show has a different feel from the average anime, even from the average shounen. Music is stirring and suitably grand, and timed to match dramatic moments.
Cao Cao is introduced: young, bright, eager, and respectful. Immediately it is clear that the refined world he inhabits and the reality of China are at odds. The splendor of noble houses is contrasted with the squalor of the commoners. The kind-hearted Cao Cao is about to get a rude awakening, and perhaps with him, the kind-hearted modern viewer.
The brutality that follows is somewhat exaggerated, but on the whole, probably accurate. People did really kill in the streets and ignore the terminally ill, though they probably did not leap four feet into the air in the process, nor fling severed heads across courtyards. This is not the clean-cut world of modern comics; it is the desperate struggle of men in a time when law and order were lofty and distant ideals for impractical dreamers.
Cao Cao dishes out brutal revenge, but having first seen his cruel betrayal at the hands of the commoner, we are primed to be sympathetic towards him, even approving of the comeuppance. The man he eventually kills is a reprobate with none of the virtues of respect, honesty, or decency towards his fellow beings. Due to familiarity with the Western archetype of Robin Hood, a viewer may be somewhat accustomed to siding with one who steals from the rich, but here the robber is shown to be deceitful, unwise, and motivated by naked avarice rather than any benevolence.
Souten Kouro is not blind to the complexity of the situation, but here the social critique is secondary to the fact that this experience certainly shaped Cao Cao’s understanding of the world. It presents his mindset, long vilified in literature, as a reasonable product of the times and certain formative experiences. This is further aided by the fact that many of the opponents he faces are barbarians or bandits, and thus in the context of Asian societies of the time, equivalent to subhuman trash. It does not strictly limit itself to accuracy – the monk who aids Cao Cao possesses superhuman strength, and tosses horses about as though they were pillows – but it contains just enough to lend feeling to the story.
Overall, Cao Cao is treated with great sympathy in this work, a fact which is sure to cause controversy. In English there is an idiom, “Speak of the devil,” but in Chinese and Vietnamese, so terrible is his reputation that the idiom is, “Speak of Cao Cao.”
Will director Ashida Toyoo, known for his work on Vampire Hunter D and Fist of the North Star, pull off this adaptation? Or will this unusually serious take on things fail to attain the popularity of other, more lighthearted works derived from Romance of the Three Kingdoms?
Watch and find out.