Some anime skimp out on the plot, characters, and themes and try to get away with just spending all their money on top notch animation and beautiful artwork. The powers that be think they can get away with this, perhaps only by the skin of their teeth, if at least the production values shine. They hope that audience will be so enticed and overwhelmed that they won’t notice the anime is missing key components. Sometimes they do succeed with this underhanded technique. The opposite is also true; there are dozens of examples of anime with brilliant ideas, characters, or concepts that just can’t seem to get a good budget. These anime sadly end up looking very unpolished, but still manage to tell an excellent story. Spiral is one such example. Looks are not everything; in fact I’d argue they’re one of the least important aspects to telling a good story.
Two years ago a nationally famous detective disappeaed. “Little” Ayumu Narumi is a high school student, and brother to the detective. The last time Little Narumi spoke with his older brother, it was over the phone. His brother said something about how he was going to investigate the case of the “blade children” and then vanished. This left Little Narumi in the care of his brother’s wife, the police detective Madoka. Little Narumi takes after his brother and seems to have a real gift for solving crimes, puzzles, and winning at mind games, but lacks motivation and confidence in himself. The anime begins with Narumi being framed for attempted-murder and having to prove his innocent by solving the crime! The show starts with a great suspense-thriller episode and only gets better from there on. The first few episodes have Little Narumi investigating crimes, which all end up being related to the mysterious “blade children”. He solves these crimes with ease, in Case Closed/Detective Conan style, with appropriate dramatics (and a cool catch phrase the writers forget about after a few episodes). From timed bombs that taunt the heros, to poisonous gas, to people being pushed out of windows like they’re Frank Olson (too soon?), this anime deals with suspenseful but very grounded threats.
Little Narumi ‘s lack of self confidence is a major theme of the series, and we slowly see him begin to change. This makes for some excellent character development. Little Narumi is a great character to root for, never annoying, and really cool, but he’s far from perfect and we get to see his weakness too. We are wisely kept in the dark of the many mysteries early on, and are given time to guess exactly what happened or who “did it” much like in Case Closed. Little Narumi is assisted by his friend, the school journalist Hiyono Yuizaki. Hiyono complements Little Narumi perfectly. She is always there for support, and always cheering him on, explaining how Little Narumi should have more faith in his abilities. And while Little Narumi is a genius at solving crimes, he lacks some general knowledge, and does not know much about the people at his school. Hiyono, as a reporter, has a wide range of general knowledge to supplement Little Narumi’s mystery solving abilities. Additionally she has files on almost all her classmates, the teachers, the staff, and even people who work and live in the surrounding area. These files, and her general book of notes, become indispensable to Narumi. Hiyono also has a talent for hacking computer systems, which is helpful to Little Narumi. Finally while Little Narumi takes time to think things through, Hiyono is a quick thinker and fast to act. They are excellent foils. Watching Narumi and Hiyono solve these early cases is very exciting, and it is fun to play along. In each episode more and more clues to the larger mysteries at hand are collected (Where is Narumi’s brother and who are the blade children?) .
The middle episodes of the TV show deals with the aforementioned “blade children” testing Little Narumi. The blade children want to use Narumi’s investigative and problem solving skills, but only if he can prove himself good enough, and only if he can be trusted. Often these tests have one or multiple characters lives on the line, and involve Narumi solving difficult puzzles or figuring out the deceit in the blade children’s game. He must also be able to outthink, outwit, and outsmart them, and sometimes manages to beat them at their own game. These episodes are incredibly suspenseful, and entirely engrossing to watch. The final arc in the anime deals with Narumi finally helping the blade children defend themselves against the hunters. Once this arc begins the anime falls into a serious slump. These episodes lack the suspense and thrilling element of the earlier episodes. Eventually things do pick up, and the conclusion is a huge nail biter that will have you guessing how Narumi is going to get out of this one. Sure the anime ends without ever telling us “what” the blade children are, despite asking that question the entire time, but the ending is still satisfying. The manga continues and explains what the blade children are and what exactly was going on, but the explanation is idiotic and wacky, and ruins the previous story. It adds incredibly unlikely, and frankly silly, concepts and science fiction elements that just don’t belong in this kind of story. I am happy the anime ended where it did.
Spiral is part mystery anime, part suspense-thriller, with some comedic moments where it matters. It has some really great episodic mysteries that tie into the larger plot, but also some exhilarating traps/games/puzzles where lives are at stake. Never before has a simple game of ball been so thrilling. Not only do these games keep you on the edge of your seat, but they’re also incredibly well thought out. There is real brilliance in this anime in how the challenges are designed and solved. This, coupled with the fact that the anime is largely about Narumi growing as a person and learning to believe in himself makes for a wonderful anime. Sure it slumps in the middle a bit, but on the large this is a climactic and intelligent series that challenges the viewer to think. You are not just a passive audience, you have a role when watching this. Whether it’s figuring out who pushed a poor girl off a 3rd story ledge, playing chicken with drinking potassium cyanide, or trying to peg the other person with a ball, it’s always thrilling. But it is more then an excellent suspense-thriller with great character development, this anime has some great comedic moments. While they’re clearly not the main focus, the Kodocha-esque zany-bouncy comedic moments are really entertaining. Somehow the show manages to balance and transition between the two tones without serious mood whiplash. This is no easy feat, as many other shows have tried and failed to achieve such a balance.
The animation in Spiral is cheap and never impressive. Certain scenes, specifically when a character rides a bicycle (although there are others), do not look natural at all. These scenes flow in an ugly sort of way. Character movements seem blocky at times and disappoint. Additionally shortcuts are used and it is noticeable (one scene is shown at least three times with different dialogue and no attempt to even disguise it). This is just pure laziness. The artwork too is boring and cheap. The color palette looks washed and faded and never even approaches pleasant. Character designs are adapted in a pretty straight forward fashion from the manga and look quite good at least. But the designs were never original or that impressive to begin with. Backgrounds are not detailed very much at all and just bore you to tears. All in all this just looks like a very cheap effort for a 2002 show (compare to: Azumanga Daioh, Haibane Renmei, Petite Princess Yucie, and Witch Hunter Robin) If the artwork and animation is unimpressive and cheap, then the music is it’s polar opposite. The background themes are works of pure brilliance, adding the suspense and drama perfectly. While these are not musical pieces one would listen to on their own, they are still top notch stuff that create the perfect atmosphere for each scene and keep you on your toes. The background music is so good you almost forget they cheaped out on the artwork and animation (almost….). The ending theme too is a solid song, that effectively concludes each episode and sounds both calming and catchy. The one problem with the music is however the sin against humanity opening theme song, which is the worst opening theme in any anime. The singer is out of tune and possibly tone deaf, the melody is offensively annoying, the guitar riff and drums feel phoned in, and altogether it sounds like nails against a chalkboard. I do not understand how such an altogether horrible piece of music was used as an opening theme for an anime TV series. The band that “plays” this song, Strawberry Jam, seems to have not gone on to do anything else. And this is a good thing for the sake of mankind.
The dub was produced at Funimation Studios, and is an early Christopher Bevins work. Bevins has been Funimation’s best ADR director for as long as I can remember. However when listening to Spiral one quickly hears how far he’s gone since his early days. I must preface this by saying I am a huge fan of Bevins and many of the actors used in this show are great. I mean absolutely no disrespect in this review. There is no problem with the casting, and in fact I love the choices made. It is the acting that is a problem. The acting on Spiral is a weak and forced effort on the large. Daniel Katsuk ,who hasn’t done much work in anime, plays the main lead “Little” Ayumu Narumi. I can say he fits the character perfectly. However he needed a bit more direction at times as he often just sounds bored instead of actually acting. More then a few times it felt like he was falling asleep while in the booth. Caitlin Glass plays Hiyono and she can come off as annoying and too cheerful early on. Toward the later episodes she does come into her own and finds a balance between the annoyance and the excessively perkiness and settles down. Christopher Bevins himself plays Kanone Hilbert, the blade children’s absent leader. He puts on a southern accent to show the character is from the States, and logically this makes sense. However this becomes aggravating really fast, coupled with the fact his acting in all the flashbacks isn’t too great, you can really start to dislike this dub. Once the character appears in the flesh however his acting improves and you even warm up to the accent. Laura Bailey is hugely disappointing in an important role later on. There is some good news however, as Sean Schemmel and Sonny Strait have great cameos in this and do a fine job. Greg Ayres does a decent job as Kousuke,another blade child, and there’s nothing to complain about there. Monica Rial plays Rio, one of the cutest but most deadly blade children. She has some perfect moments when she’s being incredibly evil or very emotional. John Burgmeier is the star in this one, he does an excellent job playing my favorite character from the show Eyes Rutherford, the de facto leader of the blade children while Kanone is gone. Eyes Rutherford is also a world famous pianist. He puts on a British accent (which is appropriate as the character is British), and although it doesn’t sound entirely authentic, it works for the part. His acting is quite good throughout the show. Overall the dub is a mixed bag, some shining moments of brilliance but also many problems and not up to modern day Funimation-factory (FUNi-factory) standards.
Funimation released this a handful of times on DVD. It has some decent extras, like some good english cast commentaries (Bevins is the man!) . This series has been out of print for a few years now, but you can still purchase it on amazon for under $30.00. At that price it’s a steal.
Positives: Incredibly suspenseful, brilliant mysteries and mind games, characters balance and compliment each other, naturally funny, and smart.
Negatives: The powers that be spent no money on this. The art is washed out, the animation is cheap, and the opening song is horrible. It slumps in the middle a tad. The dub can be annoying, and some may be bothered by the ending.