As I’ve mentioned a couple of times this month already, the thing that really sets the fantasy genre apart is the ability to do literally anything you want with it. The only real restriction to it is that you can’t violate the rules of the world you create. Mind that single limit, and you can go as wild and crazy as you want.
Of course, there’s times when you can even violate the rules of your own world, provided you make that violation something that can still happen. You can accomplish that by building up a set of small things, and then just extrapolating out to a big thing when the time comes. So, not really a violation of the rules, so much as a sneaky way to get around the apparent limitations of the world setting.
Yes, fantasy really is the genre where you can have the most fun. There’s a reason I love it so much. The only actual limit to it is your own creativity. Which, if you are me, or anything like me, is no limit at all.
One of the better examples of this kind of unlimited thinking I’ve seen in a fantasy anime is the 2014, 22 episode series, Hitsugi no Chaika, from legendary studio Bones, (Wolf’s Rain, FullMetal Alchemist, Soul Eater, everything you love and cherish as true and pure in this world or any other) which takes the fundamental aspects of a fantasy world, blends them with key elements of science fiction, and builds it all out into an epic series driven entirely by the characters.
And when I say epic, I do mean epic. Total fate of the world stuff goes on, but the characters, and their personal arcs, remain the central focus. Which is really just amazing to me, because all of this, everything that was done in Chaika, is insanely hard to pull off.
Trust me on this. I’m a professional. I know these things.
Okay, actually, it’s because my own fantasy novel, War Witch, does a lot of the same stuff, and I am vividly aware of how hard it is to balance so many separate elements. Fantasy, with sci fi underpinnings, driven by the character arcs, with epic fate of the world stuff is kind of my go to. So, it’s little wonder I found Chaika to be completely engrossing.
I’m a sucker for anything that reminds me of me.
Also, my humility is what makes me better than everyone else. That’s just science.
The story of Chaika is set in a world where a 300 year long war has recently ended. One country, the Gaz Empire, was finally defeated by an alliance of six nations when Emperor Arthur Gaz was killed by a group of heroes gathered from across the allied countries. Arthur Gaz, said to be several hundred years old, was a powerful mage, and inventor, who fast forwarded technological progress, but apparently went mad and developed a rabid thirst for power and world domination. So, heroes did what heroes do, and killed his ass.
In the peaceful world that follows, young Saboteur Toru Acura is having trouble adapting to a world without war. Basically, he’s a total dipshit, always looking for a fight, and has no skills or talents beyond fighting. Nor is he interested in learning any. His sister, Akari, also a Saboteur, kicks his ass on a regular basis, but to no avail, as Toru has more or less fallen into a deep depression now that the skills he spent his entire life honing are worthless.
Until the day he meets a young, silver haired wizard named Chaika, and rescues her from a unicorn. Which, I should note, is not the happy, fluffy, friendship is magic kind, but rather, pure nightmare fuel that feeds on the flesh of humans. This is important, as unicorns are part of a group of creatures known in this world as the Fayla, magical creatures that exist outside the normal realm of physics. That Toru was able to defeat one at all is amazing, and the first real example we get of what kind of training he went through, and what sort of a soldier he was.
Amazed by Toru’s abilities, Chaika immediately asks him for help in completing her mission, gathering the remains of her father, Arthur Gaz, so she can give him a proper burial. Toru is, to say the least, more than happy to help, since Chaika is kinda cute, and it gives him a chance to get in some fights. Akari is less thrilled, but ends up going along, if only to keep the other two from getting themselves killed.
With that, the trio begins a quest that will change the world, and maybe, destroy it in the process.
One of the big things that Chaika does right is in how it defines the system of magic it uses. Most fantasy settings simply have magic be a thing that people can do, and give it little other thought. The creator behind Chaika, light novelist Ichiro Sakaki (Scrapped Princess, Strait Jacket) really makes the use of magic a central aspect of the world, and gives it some major depth.
In a nutshell, magic requires a fossil fuel. Literally. To use magic, you have to harness the embedded essence, or memories, of a fossilized living thing. Unless you want to use your own, that is, which nobody does, of course. This approach is pretty nifty, as it limits just how powerful a wizard can be, while also creating an integral world aspect that becomes a major plot element later on in the series.
Most wizards rely on Gundo’s, gun like weapons that focus the magic energy being released from the fossil fuel to target the spell. The wizard still has to speak the incantation, and how quickly a caster can get their spell off is sometimes the deciding factor in a battle. It’s all very intricately detailed, and one of the more fascinating aspects of the world building done by Sakaki in the light novels the anime is based on.
Basically, wizards are magic using snipers. Which is super cool.
This approach to magic being a fossil fuel expands further out, allowing the use of motorized vehicles in a fantasy world, as well as flying fortresses, which leads to one of the more epic battles of the series. Sakaki really goes nuts exploring the idea of fossil fuel based magic, giving his world setting a genuinely unique feel, look, and attitude.
It impressed the ever loving hell out of me, is what I’m getting at. Sakaki really gets the idea of unlimited thinking in fantasy.
He also gets how important it is to have well crafted characters that drive the narrative. Toru’s sense of displacement is a core aspect of his character that drives most all his actions. However, when we later learn that he was considered a failure as a Saboteur, and that he has spent much of his life trying to prove his worth, his character takes on a new aspect. This development allow his drive to find conflicts in which he can distinguish himself, in order to prove to himself, if no one else, that he is worthy of being called a Saboteur, becomes a major part of his story arc. Especially when he finally decides to let it go, for the good of everyone he loves, and the world itself.
Chaika has an almost flip side of the coin type story arc, however. Able to only speak in broken, rough Common, Chaika is a terribly naive young woman, driven by the loving devotion of a daughter. At least, until she discovers she is not the only Chaika. In fact, there’s dozens of Chaika’s, all with the same mission. Recover the remains of Arthur Gaz. While each believes they are doing it for a different reason, they all believe themselves to be the true Chaika, something that throws our Chaika’s understanding of herself into chaos.
What’s interesting about this, from the writing standpoint, is that Chaika, or White Chaika as they later call her, remains more or less herself even in the face of all this. She is conflicted, confused, and struggles to grasp what it all means in terms of who and what she really is, but the core essence of her character never changes. She is kind, warm, friendly, trusting, and honest. This does not change, even with the discovery that she isn’t even really a person, but a tool of Arthur Gaz to ensure his own resurrection. When faced with this, and the real meaning of the per-programmed quest she has been given, Chaika remains Chaika, and rebels against her creator, choosing to stand by her friends, and save the world.
In fact, by the end, she makes a tremendous sacrifice to not only defeat Gaz, whom she was created to save, but to save the people she loves, and even the people who have been trying to either stop her, arrest her, or straight up kill her. Because that is who she is, and no amount of programming can change that. She is who she has chosen to be, and that’s a pretty powerful thing.
We all choose who want to be. We make choices every day that define us to others. Sakaki made this the centerpiece of Chaika’s character arc, that little thing called free will, that not even magic can take away, warp, or defy. This, above all else, makes Chaika a true hero. Because she chose to be, even when it was hard, even when it hurt, and even when it cost her everything.
Like with DanMachi, that choice to do what is right above all else is what heroic fantasy is all about. Like with The Tower of Druaga, how that choice impacts the world is what epic fantasy is all about. That Chaika blends the two of these so seamlessly, is a real work of art, talent, skill, and innovation.
I could on about Chaika as a character for a while. She’s funny, sweet, silly, determined, and brave. I really liked her character, and her character arc, a lot. She truly did deserve to have an anime named after her, and she is in all ways the protagonist, even with Toru kicking around.
The show has a larger cast than Toru, Akari, and Chaika, however. Much larger. Too large to effectively get into, but I do want to mention the Gillett Corps, part of the Kleemann Agency, a post war reconstruction organization. At first charged with finding and stopping Chaika, they soon begin to learn that not all is as it seems, and eventually, join forces with Chaika, Toru and Akari to stop Gaz from actually taking over the world.
There’s also Frederica, a shape changing dragon, who is both adorable, annoying, and incredibly terrifying when the need arises. There’s Red Chaika, who is at first an enemy, but soon becomes a friend and ally to the main cast, and has a very different personality to our White Chaika. There’s a mess load more, but you get the picture how it’d be hard to properly cover all the characters and how they impact the story, without writing a small book, so we’ll move on to the technical stuff.
The animation is typical Bones. Fluid, beautiful, graceful, and seems like an effortless creation. There’s a lot of high points, where the animation does amazing things I’ve rarely seen other shows pull off, but there’s never any point where it dips, or is less than stellar. Really, this is textbook Bones style. Which means if you are a fan of their work, you’ll really enjoy just looking at this show. It’s beautiful.
The series was directed by Souichi Masui, and man, how this guy isn’t a top name director is beyond me. If you aren’t familiar with him, he was the director for Scrapped Princess, Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV, and Sakura Quest. He also did storyboards for shows like FullMetal Alchemist, Soul Eater, Ergo Proxy, and Beck. Basically, the dude has an amazing eye for what tells a story from a visual standpoint.
Chaika is definitely one of his stronger outings as a director. The big scenes, the ones that really matter, stand out and are incredibly memorable. Masui really does know how to blend quality storytelling, with big character moments, and strong visuals in a powerful way. He utilizes the medium of television with style, and has a knack for elevating what he works on to a work of art. Cat’s got a bright ass future, I hope.
The writing was done by Touko Machida, and she had a hell of a job in front of her. Adapting a large amount of material from the light novels into only twenty two episodes. This required some changes to be made, but she really did try to keep everything as true to the story Sakaki wrote as possible. They apparently caught her on a good day, as her track record is a bit hit and miss, with shows like Chain Chronicle, and Lucky Star being bright spots, while shows like Amnesia, and Tears To Tiara being low points. Which, I admit, is a purely subjective analysis of her work.
Frankly, when you take the whole of her body of work, which includes writing scripts for shows like Wolf’s Rain, Space Brothers, Samurai Champloo, Princess Jellyfish, The Heroic Legend of Arlsan, and many others, you get a broader picture of her actual talent. She’s a solid script writer, really, though I’ll always maintain that Chaika is definitely her best work. The story moves forward with urgency, but never sacrifices the characters personal arcs in the process. The world feels well developed, and real, but never typical. As much as Sakaki deserves credit for crafting such a rich fantasy world, Machida deserves credit for translating it all to the screen.
The music was done by Seikou Nagaoka, who is probably best known for scoring things like the Strike Witches franchise, and the El Hazard franchise. Since the music was always the strongest parts of those rather average shows, it’s little surprise the music for Chaika is simply amazing. Rich, bold, and inventive, it helps tell the story, rather just compliment it. Nagaoka outdid himself with this one, crafting music that plays to the emotions an heart of a scene at every turn.
Over all, I’d have to say that Chaika: Coffin Princess is one of the most inventive, creative, out of the box fantasy anime’s out there, and one that is not just ell worth a watch as a piece of entertainment, but a prime example of how versatile and wide open the genre of fantasy can be.
Most of all, it has a truly wonderful leading character that you will never forget, and really, that’s what elevates a good story, into a great one.