Angel Sanctuary

Social customs vary from country to country. In some places, looking someone right in the eyes is a sign of disrespect. In others, taking your shoes off when you enter a house is a necessity. These aren't true in the West, but they are definitely true elsewhere. However, there are certain inviolable rules that exist throughout civilization, taboos that seem to follow in virtually every culture.

One of those is incest. Unlike some social mores like homosexuality that are falling away in today's social order, incest is one that is unlikely to go away for a variety of reasons. The topic is the centerpiece of Angel Sanctuary, a drama that uses a backdrop of pseudo-religious angel/demon war to discuss the verboten topic. Although I'm told the manga addresses many more issues, this one is front and center in the anime. And frankly, it's a beautifully animated, well-scripted 3-part OVA series that I enjoyed, but one I also feel plays with its audience and presents an unrealistic, rose-colored gloss to a dark issue.

Setsuna has a problem: he's in love with his sister Sara. Although they rarely see each other due to their parents' divorce and subsequent splitting-up of the family, Setsuna cannot keep his mind off of her. He assumes that his passion is only one way, and his best friend Kira tries to convince him to stay far away from this forbidden fruit. But scarily enough, this is Setsuna's lesser problem. As the program runs, we find out that Setsuna is the reincarnation of Alexiel, an angel who rebelled when she saw the plight of demons tortured maliciously by other angels of light. Thrown out of heaven, apparently, she now is embodied within Setsuna. However, Setsuna's love for Sara won't let Alexiel manifest herself. But Alexiel's twin brother Rosiel will not let her go, and he employs a group of demons to try and kickstart her reawakening. As Setsuna finds strange powers awakening in himself, he finds his greatest hope and worst fear realized: Sara wants to return his affections. Setsuna will find his destiny within this dark dream, but he may lose all he holds dear in the journey.

Angel Sanctuary is amazingly and hauntingly beautiful. Although it employs quite a bit of digital panning, a technique I personally despise, the artwork is striking, the designs fascinating. Although there's not a lot of movement, there's never a point that the audience is left feeling that it was poorly animated. It certainly keeps a shoujo feel, with many of its characters having bishonen traits, but it's not overwhelming (as the recently reviewed Five Star Stories tends to be). This one's a looker.

I also found the plot of Angel Sanctuary very engaging. Saying that, I have to mention that anyone with a background at all in Christianity will have to throw out what they know to find this story even vaguely comprehensible. Manga creator Kaori Yuki has taken a lot of Christian concepts and blended them so thoroughly with Buddhist and Shinto beliefs that they bear little resemblance to anything actually biblical. The watcher can be offended by the obvious changes or come along for the ride anyway. I left my own personal views at the door and found it entertaining. Ultimately, the show is not really about the angel/demon war; I would have found it ridiculous if it was. It's a soap opera where everyone has secrets and forbidden love rules the day. And it's a good soap opera at that, one full of twists, action, and surprises that kept me engaged throughout.

But the lynchpin of the series does not work. The affair between Setsuna and Sara is played out much as if this was Romeo and Juliet, and it downplays the serious repercussions of their actions. Although Setsuna goes around telling everyone that he's weird and foolish and sick for loving Sara, the show shows Setsuna in a positive light. There is no real regret. There is no family to worry about except their "crazy" mom; there are no friends repulsed by their union. Their illicit relationship is plot driven, not character driven. Instead of dealing with the real issues of incest, which often delve into problems of abuse and control within a dysfunctional family, we see it portrayed as a romantic option made more dreamily intoxicating by its prohibition. It just ain't right.

Angel Sanctuary is a thoroughly beguiling OVA series that has a solid plot running through it that almost makes us forget how disturbing the subject matter really is. Intriguing and well animated, I was caught up in its story while I was watching it. It was only afterwards that I started thinking about just how wrong-headed it is. I'm going to give it two grades because of this, since I know no other way to do it and make sense of it. I'm giving it an A- for its storytelling ability and thorough entertainment value, but a C- for the way it mishandles a very sensitive subject. I liked it while I watched it, but when I thought about it more as I was preparing the review, the more I needed a shower to soap off the dirt. Caveat emptor--let the buyer beware.

Angel Sanctuary -- graphic violence, disturbing treatment of adult subject matter -- A-/C- (B- overall, I guess)