At first, I was feeling a little overwhelmed at how the quirks of seasonal scheduling had me reviewing the first four episodes of Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood in a single run. That's a full quarter of the series to cover in just one write-up, and as I'm sure my editors will attest, conciseness is hard to come by 'round these parts, even on a good day. We're in luck, though, because even though there is a lot going on in this first quarter of episodes, it just so happens that reckless binge-watching may just be the ideal way to consume Joran, as ridiculous a spectacle as it has turned out to be.
The experience that most immediately comes to mind that I can compare Joran to would be when I saw Mission: Impossible – Fallout in theaters. I won't spoil the specifics – though you could no more “spoil” a Mission: Impossible movie than you could a theme-park roller-coaster ride – but the gist is that a seemingly successful operation goes terribly afoul, only for a series of increasingly elaborate twists and rubber-mask removals to reveal that everything was all a part of a supremely silly espionage scheme, one that totally succeeds in tricking the bad guys into revealing some key information (this happens at least once per film). Then, a few minutes later, Tom Cruise straight up HALO jumps out of the back of a jet, and Henry Cavill cocks his bulging biceps like a couple of shotguns before beating some poor fool into a pulp with a toilet, and—
Er…the point is that the latter-day M:I films are a parade of convoluted scheming and spying that are punctuated with delightful bursts of mindless action, and that's kind of what we've got here with Joran. The plot is both very complicated and basically pointless, and the characters are all pretty compelling despite possessing all of the complexity of Ethan Hunt, a man who is essentially just Tom Cruise if he switched out “being heavily involved in a nutso cult of charlatans" with “being a cool spy dude that jumps off of preposterously high places". To this end, Joran could absolutely be described as a flashy exercise that is all style and no substance, though I would immediately counter that, for anime like this, style is substance.
Beyond everything I already mentioned in the first episode's Preview Guide, here is everything we've learned so far about our heroes and their mission: Joran, whose real name is Sawa, is the last surviving member of the Karasumori Clan, a family of literally blue-blooded Changelings that have neato monster powers that earned the attention of the nefarious mad scientist, Janome. Jin, the leader of the government agency Nue, recruited her to hunt down Janome and his traitorous associates, which suited Sawa just fine on account of her all-consuming lust for vengeance and so on. Together with Sawa and Makoto, Joran tracks characters like The Treasurer and the Nue's resident cleaner of inconvenient corpses to seek out Janome's whereabouts. Also, it turns out the reason that tiny little Asahi keeps trying to murder Sawa is because Sawa murdered her parents, though Sawa has obviously grown a soft spot for the child, and even offers some pointers on how Asahi might one day more efficiently murder her. Daww.
Episodes 3 and 4 also offer all sorts of good bits – Sawa and Elena have some great interactions, for one, and there are some solid action cuts and lots of gorgeous background art – but what's truly important to take away here is that Joran is operating on the very specific wavelength of self-serious camp that I can't help but love. Everyone in Nue is ready to betray everyone else at the drop of a hat, I don't think Sawa has a single conversation that doesn't involve her explicitly reminding people about her single-minded thirst for violent revenge, and motherfuckers are portentously quoting Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot in‐between all of the explosions and stabbings.
To put it another way, I knew that I liked Joran by the time I finished the first couple of episodes, but Episode 4 is where the shite truly hits the proverbial fan, and it's right here that I started to suspect that I might love this show. We start by learning that Yamazaki, the kindly old lady from town, was actually Janome all along – he even pulls off a rubber old-lady mask, which only further vindicated my Mission: Impossible comparison – and that Makoto has been in cahoots with him this whole time, too. Not because Makoto is evil or anything, but because he wants “freedom" (more on that later), and because he's in love with Sawa, and wanted to bring her to the man she has been hunting, who also happens to have her still-living brother symbolically affixed to his Villainous Pipe Organ. This, in turn, leads to a climactic showdown that sees Sawa killing the ever-loving shit out of Janome just four episodes into the season, but not before he uses her brother's 'roided-out magic blood to turn himself into a Writhing Snake Abomination that eventually gets melted with acid.
It's all somewhat dumb, and deeply absurd, and so good. Joran's early previews gave me the impression that it might be a cinematic throwback to the revenge flicks of yesteryear (with Lady Snowblood being the most obvious point of reference), but what we got instead is a Magical Monster-Girl-Meets-Frankenstein schlock-fest by way of Quentin Tarantino. The writing does just enough legwork to get us from Point A to Point B, and it's completely within my aesthetic wheelhouse, too. Even when its animation is rough, the gorgeous coloring and confident direction ensure that every scene has something gorgeous to look at. Whatever it lacks in polish, Joran more than makes up for with pure chutzpah. To that, all I can say is, “Yes! Hell yes! Bring on the next serving of this sweet, sweet junk food, please and thank you!”
Odds and Ends
• One significant thing we also learn is that Makoto is also biologically female, though given the anger he expresses when Jin strips his clothing and reveals his breasts, I'm going to keep using male pronouns for him unless the script dictates otherwise. Also, I'm wondering if his reasoning for helping out Janome has something to do with seeking a “scientific” way to more fully assume a male identity. If that is the case, I hope the show will handle Makoto's characterization very carefully, because the way that could link issues of transgender identity to the horrific transformations undergone by Janome's monsters is…problematic, to say the least.
• Another detail that gets even less attention is that Elena has apparently taken in a child of her own, a boy who is almost certainly the child of the Treasurer that she claimed to have had killed earlier. My guess is that, now that the initial quest to destroy Janome is (seemingly) resolved, Joran is finally going to take some time to develop all of its casts' backstories and internal/external conflicts some more.
• Speaking of Elena, she is voiced by BanG Dream! alumnus Raychell, who does a good job with the English dialogue she keeps being given. In fact, every instance of spoken English in Joran has so far been surprisingly well performed and written, though I don't know if it's just a stylistic quirk, or if it is playing into the international conflicts brewing between the English and the Japanese in this alternate history.
Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.