Monday Anime: El Cazador de la Bruja

The final entry in Bee Train’s Girls With Guns trilogy is probably the oddest of the trio, to be honest. While all the elements found in the first two are present, it is as different as possible, and in many ways, that shouldn’t be a surprise, as the three shows seem to follow something of a pattern.

Noir, a hyper realistic, action packed, atmospheric series with heavy notes of borderline paranoia was the darkest of the three, and as such, the appropriate place it holds would be as the Night Series. Madlax, a mysticism infused series with over the top gun battles, and a convoluted plot that only really makes sense at the end, was somewhat brighter and more optimistic, especially in the final episode. Thus it becomes the Dawn Series.

Which makes El Cazador the Day Series, and in this mindset, it is the perfect culmination of the trilogy. The plot is more or less irrelevant, as the story is all about the journey, and the characters, focusing heavily on emotions over plot twists. In fact, there really aren’t any plot twists in El Cazador, and the show itself pretty much lays all of its cards on the table within the first few episodes, choosing instead to center on building to emotional high points and payoffs.

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Released in 2007, the series is actually set in 2009, and takes place, apparently, entirely in Mexico, in either our world, or one extremely similar. World hopping was old hat to Bee Train at this point, as they had released seasons one and two of the Tsubasa Chronicles at this point, as well as the continuation of their earlier success with .hack//Roots. They also had Murder Princess, a more post apocalypse style story, sort of. So, while the world of El Cazador is almost identical to our own, it may not actually be, as there are some elements that suggest is a near alternate

To call it the polar opposite of Noir is an understatement. Yet, at the same time, it takes the best elements of Noir, the realism, and the best elements of Madlax, the mysticism, and blends them with perfection, while still managing to be so different from either of them as to be a unique experience in its own right.

Actually, it kind of one ups Noir in the realism department, as the gun fights in El Cazador are over almost as fast as they begin. While El Cazador features a lot fewer actual gun battles, the fact that they aren’t drawn out is actually pretty realistic. Real life gun fights rarely go on for long periods, what with bullets actually being good at hurting and killing people. Extended gun fights might make great action, but they are hardly ever realistic, so El Cazador actually manages to one up both of its sister shows in that regard.

Plus, El Cazador isn’t really an action show to begin with. This is another area it departs from Noir, and to a lesser extent, Madlax. Noir was all about the action. Madlax was about action serving to move along the complex emotional story. El Cazador is about the emotionally complex story, with a little dash of action for flavoring. Again with that Night, Dawn, Day cycle, not to mention, El Cazador exists in a post Gunslinger Girl world, and the lessons that series taught were clearly learned by Bee Train.

In fact, I’d say El Cazador is almost an answer to Gunslinger Girl. Where Gunslinger Girl was about deconstructing the girls with guns genre, El Cazador effectively throws the genre out completely, choosing instead to be a story about people, emotions, and what makes someone human.

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Before I get into the brief synopsis of the series, and folks ding me for spoilers, I’d like to say again that everything I’m about to write was revealed by the show itself within the first few episodes. Seriously, there aren’t any giant plot twists or sudden reveals in this show, and we more or less start with at least half the cards on the table, and move to all of them before we’re more than four or five episodes into a 26 episode series. Which means these aren’t really spoilers, as the only way to actually spoil El Cazador would be to tell you how it ends.

Oh, and the show is built around a physics thought experiment first put forward by James Clerk Maxwell back in 1867. Briefly, the thought experiment goes that if a being capable of seeing the movement of molecules could control whether or not those molecules passed through a hypothetical gate, entropy could effectively be decreased, thus violating the second law of thermodynamics. It is referred to as Maxwell’s Demon. This has some bearing on the story, but we’ll come back to it when appropriate.

El Cazador de la Bruja revolves around a young woman named Ellis, who is wanted by the FBI for the murder of a prominent physicist, Dr. Heinrich Schneider, and has a one million dollar bounty on her head, dead or alive. The only problem is, Ellis can’t recall just what happened, as she has large portions of her memories missing, what with being the amnesiac in this series.

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Hiding out with an elderly fortune teller near the Mexican border with the U.S., she has a ton of bounty hunters looking to collect on her reward, but the one that catches up to her first is Nadie, a quick witted young woman with a sharp tongue. Nadie soon finds herself promising the old fortune teller she’ll look out for Ellis, as the other bounty hunters figure dead is good enough and are quick to shoot first and ask questions never.

Nadie and Ellis strike a deal. Nadie will escort Ellis south, to a place called Winrey Marca, where she believes she will find answers about her past and her missing memories, and in return, Ellis will willingly go with Nadie to collect the bounty on her head. Dodging other bounty hunters left and right, the two steadily head south, but not everything is as it seems with either of them. Their journey is made more complicated by the manipulations of a rogue CIA agent, Douglas Rosenberg, and a coven of witches that will go to any length to protect their own secrets, which Ellis is tied to in ways she doesn’t even know.

The witches dispatch an agent, Jodie “Blue Eyes” Heyward to hobble Rosenberg, and keep tabs on Ellis. We quickly learn that she hired Nadie to serve as Ellis’s bodyguard and guide, something Nadie keeps from Ellis. Rosenberg sends agents of his own to observe their journey. The first, a violently psychotic young man named L.A. with an obsession for Ellis, holds the secret to her past. The other, a taciturn bounty hunter named Ricardo, always accompanied by a young girl named Lirio, soon comes to hold an agenda of his own where the girls are concerned.

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Eventually, all paths converge at Winrey Marca, the Place of Eternity, better known to locals as the witches village, where it believed people who actually embodied the concepts behind Maxwell’s Demon, the ability to observe and affect the movement of molecules, once lived, and Ellis faces the mystery of her past. Created in a lab from witch DNA, she is an artificial being, capable of harnessing the long lost power of the witches.

As I said, those aren’t exactly spoilers, as most all of this is laid out in the first few episodes. The only real mystery the show presents revolves around who actually killed Dr. Schneider. While the characters have little to no way of knowing this, the viewers probably won’t have much difficulty figuring it out, as even that isn’t really much of mystery after only a few episodes. The real question then becomes why, and that’s the more interesting aspect of it anyway, and something not revealed until near the end of the series when Ellis and Nadie finally come face to face with Rosenberg.

I may have also played up Ricardo’s angle a bit as being somewhat mysterious, when really, it isn’t. He’s a pretty straight forward guy. After trailing Ellis and Nadie for some time, he comes to respect and care for them. When his contract with Rosenberg ends up being cancelled due to Rosenberg’s under the table dealings gets him removed from his position in the CIA, Ricardo and Lirio end up helping the girls out whenever they run into each other.

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Speaking of Rosenberg and his dealings, turns out, during the cold war era, physicists working for the U.S. government discovered that witches were more than a myth, and had the ability to affect the world around them at a molecular level, at will. Deciding to try and harness this for military application, they started Project Leviathan, an attempt to clone witches. Of the test subjects they eventually created, only Ellis remains, the others being destroyed when the project was deemed a failure. Rosenberg, a young agent at the time, spirited Ellis away in the belief she could still hold potential, and gave her to Dr. Schneider in an attempt to awaken her abilities. Years later, with Ellis showing signs of having her dormant abilities awakened, Rosenberg begins making his move to secure Ellis for himself, even as his own illegal activities begin to come to light.

Which brings us to L.A. Beyond just being a violent psychotic, he is driven by an obsession to make Ellis his own, something he confuses with love. Her constant rejection of him, and Rosenberg’s manipulations, drive the young man deeper into his psychosis as the series progresses, slowly turning him from an antagonist, to a somewhat sympathetic character. As his background is slowly revealed, he becomes a much more understandable person, if no less creepy.

Jodie “Blue Eyes” Heyward is another interesting member of the cast. At first appearing to be an accountant with the CIA, it is soon revealed she takes her orders from the descendants of the witches, who operate in a coven governed by ancient laws. For the first part of the series, she works to undermine Rosenberg, but eventually is reassigned to recover Ellis from Nadie. This is where her story arc gets interesting, and begins focusing on those emotional moments. She is, hands down, the most interesting character in the show.

The real stars of the show, though, are Ellis and Nadie, and not just because they are the main characters. These are two of the most well thought out, believable, multifaceted and interesting characters to ever exist in anime.

Ellis starts the show as a blank slate, basically. Not just due to her fragmented memory, but also as an emotional blank. Most of her interactions with people are virtually robotic, and she appears to have the emotional development of a child. This slowly changes over the course of the series as she travels south with Nadie, however. She becomes more expressive, more emotional, and more conversational in a slow, but steady way. Her dormant powers are revealed to only be accessible to her during moments of extreme stress, and she almost never remembers using them afterward. Most of the time, the strain of using her abilities causes her to pass out, though this too slowly lessens as she begins to gain more control over them. Bluntly honest, Ellis is is often the straight man to Nadie, and the two make an excellent comedic duo.

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Speaking of Nadie, she’s probably the best character in the show. Clever, resourceful, and quick on her feet, Nadie begins the show as the atypical lone wolf type. Despite her rather optimistic attitude, she hides a deep seated cynicism towards the world. Initially treating Ellis as a job, Nadie slowly grows to care for her, and when Blue Eyes tries to pay her off to walk away, Nadie pointedly refuses, claiming she’s decided to protect Ellis, no matter what. Where Ellis is innocent, Nadie is street wise, having spent an unspecified number of years working as a bounty hunter in Mexico. She has a bit of reckless streak that slowly tempers as she begins to take her role as Ellis’s guardian more seriously. She’s got a wicked sense of humor, which at first, goes over Ellis’s rather literal mind, leading to some genuinely great comedic moments.

As far as the plot goes, there really isn’t much of one. The show changes things up from both of its predecessors by spending most of its time being a road trip buddy comedy. Steadily heading south, the girls find themselves getting mixed up in other peoples lives, and usually helping them deal with their problems before moving on to the next episode. There’s a strong vibe reminiscent of the old Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk tv series through the first half of the series, but it all ends up playing a larger role in the story in the latter half.

Basically, each encounter teaches Ellis more about her own self, which helps her learn and grow as a person. It also serves to slowly build the relationship between Ellis and Nadie, which is the entire foundation of the series. As both have their secrets revealed, that relationship is tested, and strengthened.

The shows builds on the emotional high points to a big finish that is all about the emotional payoff, rather than a climatic battle. Some critics have dinged the show for an anti-climactic finish, but since the show was always about the emotional payoff, I can only surmise they missed the point of the show.

Which, to be blunt, is about love. Much like the Night, Dawn, Day cycle I mentioned before, the Girls With Guns trilogy follows certain emotional themes. Noir was about trust. Madlax was about grief. El Cazador is about love.

This becomes readily apparent when if you pay attention especially through the first half of the series. Each of their encounters during their travels is built around a different form of love. An early episode has them encountering a former bounty hunter turned diner owner, who is trying to prove to her daughter she isn’t a murderer anymore, which is parental love. In another, the show explores married love, when the girls encounter a former hitman who ended up marrying the woman that was his mark, giving up his former life to be with her. Pretty much every aspect of love you can imagine gets explored through the series, and for good reason.

El Cazador is, ultimately, about the love Ellis and Nadie have for each other. This comes into focus in the second half of the series, when a chance encounter at a bed and breakfast leads to Ellis having a profound spiritual experience, during which she comes to understand Nadie in a new way. It leads to Ellis experiencing her first bout of jealousy, as well.

While the show avoids putting them in overtly romantic situations, it still manages to scream it at you that they are heading towards a romantic relationship. Hell, even some of the promotional art for the show manages to convey it with little room for confusion.

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One last thing. Some critics of the series have pointed out that the romantic angle between the two leads was actually of the Just Good Friends variety, citing their young age. Except, their ages are never actually revealed at any point. Personally, I find it difficult to believe that, with the near real world setting, a teenage girl could get a license to be a professional bounty hunter, much less have a reputation, even in Mexico. That’s what you’d have to accept to buy that Nadie was a teenager. Considering her skill level and other abilities we see her possess, she’s obviously in her mid to late twenties.

Likewise, we know that Ellis spent at least ten years with Dr. Schneider, so unless we presume she was only four when she went there, she’s obviously older than the fourteen some people like to claim she is as proof she and Nadie aren’t a couple. Just me, but in watching the show, she looked more like she was eight, maybe ten, when she was taken to Dr. Schneider, so she would be around twenty during the events of the show. Granted, considering her origin, her age is kind of hard to pin down, just due to the fact that we don’t know the exact time line or growth cycle of the clones. However, we do see her driving a car frequently, so yeah, I’m gonna stink with her being around twenty, give or take a couple of years.

I do recall that Koichi Mashimo, the creative talent behind everything Bee Train, stated their actual ages at one point, but I can’t locate the interview now, so it is possible I am wrong about that happening.

Now, obviously, I’ve gone on about this show a lot more than I usually do, and to be honest, it’s because this is my personal favorite of the Girls With Guns trilogy, and one of my favorite animes of all time. Madoka Magica beats it out as my top favorite, but not by much, and I gotta admit, it’s really more a tie, with El Cazador sometimes getting the edge for reasons I’ll get into in a moment. Basically, I’m a romantic at heart, and I am easily swayed by a really good love story, which El Cazador is.

It’s also not a dark series. It’s a very upbeat, humorous, and optimistic show, further setting it apart from Noir and Madlax, which could be pretty grim at times. There’s not a lot of high drama in El Cazador either, since the show relies on the emotional connection the viewer forges with the characters to provide the tension. It’s just a really different kind of series, and always makes me profoundly happy when I watch it. So, that’s something that’s hard to ignore, and probably what makes it just about my favorite anime of all time.

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Then, of course, there’s Nadie. I’ve mentioned plenty of times in the past that I have a strong love of bad ass ladies, and Nadie is my favorite of them all. More than even Erza Scarlett of Fairy Tail. Really, for me, Nadie stands at the pinnacle of bad ass ladies, because while she is absolutely a bad ass, that is not all she is. Nadie is a complex, multi faceted character. She’s warm, funny, caring, and thoughtful, all while being brave, clever, resourceful, and damn handy with a gun. She also has plenty of faults, such as being a bit vain, short tempered, not overly bright, and not very good at reading other people, or the situation. There’s a lot about Nadie to admire, and she’s probably the best female protagonist in all of anime.

As a series, El Cazador is probably one of the most quotable I’ve seen in a long time. The show is loaded with one liners and catch phrases galore. Ellis frequently responds with “Yes, sir!”, something Nadie lovingly mocks at several points. Ricardo has the awesome line, “I’ll buy you a beer in hell, amigo”, which he delivers on a few occasions.

It’s Nadie who gets the lion share of catchy lines, though. From her frequent use of “Yeah, no”, to “Oy vey”, she’s a quote making machine. Her best is her catch phrase, “Ya got any last words, say ’em”, which is delivered in a ton of different ways, from serious, to comical, to heart breaking. Bee Train outdid themselves with the dialogue on this one, is what I’m getting at.

Now, let’s talk about the animation quality. Frankly, it’s freaking gorgeous. The show is loaded with stunning backdrops that draw inspiration from the Mexican landscape, and is just overflowing with bright, vibrant colors. The animation quality is very consistent, and fun to look at. It’s a real feast for the eyes at every turn.

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The normal anime cliche of wild hair colors is noticeably absent, as well. Only two, possibly three, characters ever have a hair color that is not found in the real world, and all but one of those can be explained away with hair dye if you want. Instead, Bee Train chose to go with unusual eye colors. Rosenberg has purple eyes, for instance, while Ricardo, who is obviously Hispanic, has blue eyes. Nadie, while clearly being at least half Hispanic, has red hair and blue eyes, and various guest stars throughout the series, while clearly being Mexican, sport green, lavender, or garnet eyes.

Also noticeably absent, the over exaggerated emotion animation that you see in most shows. Nobody ever gets a red cross on their head when they are angry. Nobody ever has their eyes become big white circles to show shock. None of that is present, ever. Instead, Bee Train took animating emotion to a new high point, as every emotion the characters do express with their faces is easy to read, all without ever being exaggerated. It’s one of the best parts of the series, to be honest, and done with such skill as to be utterly convincing. Every emotion looks real, and is perfectly conveyed.

The character designs are simply lovely. Nadie is presented in a very realistic way, with the lithe build of a runner, while Ellis is simply adorable at every turn. Ricardo screams stoic with his very design, and Blue Eyes is both dowdy and sexy in turns, all while still being obviously the same character. It’s stellar work in terms of character design and consistency.

Despite being almost ten years old now, the animation holds up incredibly well, and could easily contend with modern anime at every level. Strictly from the animation end, El Cazador is absolutely a triumph for Bee Train, and one that still looks as good today, as it did in 2007.

Koichi Mashimo, who also directed, uses some very inventive camera angles to provide tension at the right moments, including inverting the view, and turning it on the side. Long, slow panning shots are also common, and he shows off how much he’s grown as a director at every turn, just by using the camera to make a static, dialogue free scene incredibly tense using nothing but the camera. Likewise, he uses lighting well, washing everything in bright, vibrant light that highlights to rich color palette the show utilizes. No grim, dark, or gritty anywhere here.

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The music is once again from Yuki Kajiura, and really, this may be her masterwork. Every single background song helps tell the story in new and creative ways, as well as being amazing pieces of music in their own right. The harmonica powered Ballad of the Bounty Hunter invokes a modern day spaghetti western, while the pan flute driven Desert Sunset is just beautiful beyond words, and captures a sense of the Central American setting. Inca Rose ties the various themes together by being the center piece song, with rich background vocals that feel almost religious in nature, and Maxwell’s Demon is just a damn great piece of music.

There’s two insert songs used, during the mid season episode “Maple Leaf”, and the final episode. “Forest” and “I Reach For The Sun” are both are arranged by Yuki Kajiura, and performed by Emily Bindiger to stunningly beautiful results. Also arranged by Yuri Kajiura are the opening and closing credits, with the former, “Hikari no Yukue” being performed by Savage Genius, and the latter, “Romanesque” being performed by FictionJunction Yuuka, returning after working on Madlax.

Then there’s the taco song. Yes, a song about tacos. It’s a recurring gag in the show, and is painfully terrible, while still managing to be catchy. I don’t know who wrote it, but damn.

If you only ever buy one anime soundtrack in your life, make it this one. The music really is some of the best ever done for an anime, or any tv series anywhere. It’s haunting, beautiful, memorable, and just amazing.

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I’d give an opinion on the plot, but as there really isn’t one, per se, we’ll just skip that so I can say again that the emotional arcs of the story are what really matters. It’s a perfect example of allowing the characters to be the center piece of a story, and the best example ever of how little a plot really matters when characters are this damn good. I would happily watch Nadie and Ellis drive around Mexico, having adventures, forever. With or without a plot.

The biggest criticism the show ever faced was actually not about the lack of a plot, but rather, the lack of backstory on most of the characters. We learn about Ellis’s, and to an extent, Blue Eyes, but beyond that, the character backgrounds are pretty much left blank. We know Nadie lost her family at a very young age, but that’s it for her.

Ricardo is a slightly bigger mystery, though it is suggested that before he was a bounty hunter, he was a mercenary, and may have been married once, and had children, as someone who knows him claims Lirio, the young girl he travels with, isn’t one of his. Speaking of Lirio, no explanation is ever given for why she’s with Ricardo, why she can’t speak, or where she comes from. She’s just there, and he obviously cares about her a great deal, just as she trusts him implicitly. Who knows why, and frankly, it doesn’t even matter, certainly not enough to be critical over it.

After all, as Nadie at one point says, she’s a free spirit who lives in the now. Leaving the past behind is a major theme of the show, so whatever the past these people had, they have clearly left it behind. It has little to do with who they are today, for each of them has chosen a new path in life. Ricardo as Lirio’s guardian, and Nadie as Ellis’s.

Last of all, El Cazador was given an English dub by Funimation around 2009, and it is, no joke, probably the best dub ever done. You guys know I can be critical of a bad dub, but this show is actually infinitely better in English. Trina Nishimura, especially, adds so much character to Nadie, who is already an incredible character to begin with, it’s amazing. One of the best performances ever by an English voice actor, with ease. I cannot praise it highly enough.

Not to take anything away from Maxey Whitehead as Ellis, of course, who does an astounding job of building Ellis’s voice to match her slow emotional awakening. It’s a joy to listen to, and makes it obvious why Funimation tagged Maxey to play Alphonse Elric in Brotherhood, based off the strength of her performance here. It’s done with a skill that is amazing.

Bob Carter adds a pitch perfect drawl as Ricardo, while Ian Sinclair delivers an amazing amount of arrogant menace to Rosenberg. Jamie McGonnigal is excellent as the deranged L.A., while Clarine Harp gives Blue Eyes everything from a meek turn, to an authoritative command. Then there’s Monica Rial, playing the mute Lirio. Yeah. Though, her performance marks her as the only American voice actor to voice a character in all three Girls With Guns series. She played Kirika in Noir, provided background voices and served as the script writer on Madlax, and then joined El Cazador as Lirio.

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As an emotional journey, El Cazador is an amazing anime, complete with a smattering of Spanish in the English version, and visible in signage all over the show, capping off Bee Train’s Girls With Guns trilogy in a way that would have been impossible to beat.

During my first encounter with the show, it was still in the midst of being dubbed by Funimation. I simply fell in love with every aspect of the show, and the wait to finish it as the dub was released was painful. Even in the original Japanese, the show is wonderful, but the English voice cast brings so much to it, it’s even better watched that way.

The most overlooked of the Girls With Guns trilogy is, ultimately, in my opinion, the best of the lot, and deserves to be ranked as one of the most ambitious, and greatest animes of all time.

I dunno what else to tell ya at this point. Go watch it, and fall in love.

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