It's thoughtful, exciting, thematically rich and funny. It has cool characters. Its fight scenes are meaningful. It's great.
I'll set the scene. Chaika is a girl in a white Victorian dress, carrying around a coffin that's bigger than she is. Hence the title. She's impractical, innocent and fixated on her goal of collecting her late father's remains. She also talks in broken mini-sentences. She's cute and funny, but unfortunately she's trekking through a fantasy world that could eat her for breakfast. Unicorns are bloodthirsty fanged monsters, the seas contain kraken and the skies contain dragoons. (These are like dragons, but with weird magic and, as their name suggests, a tendency to form bonds with a human rider). Admittedly this world's reached a higher level of civilisation than your standard Tolkeinesque "dwarves and goblins" world. Research has created magic-based technology that even uses fossilised magical fuel, made from corpses and powered by their memories and emotions. The tech level is 19th century, more or less. (At one point we see satellites.)
That doesn't make this world safe, though. Five years ago, a 300-year-old war was ended when eight heroes killed the Immortal Emperor Gaz. This left a lot of monsters, soldiers and heroes with no employment and no purpose in their lives, so today the world has a problem with dangerous people with too much spare time and a nostalgia for war.
Apparently the Emperor Gaz was Chaika's dad. You might be starting to see the ramifications, especially since Gaz had been the most powerful sorceror who ever lived. Powerful people are thus going to be taking an interest in Chaika, not always just to kill her.
This is cool. It grabbed me right from the beginning. On the one hand, the show's addressing complicated, dark themes. What kind of person would feel nostalgic for war? Are humans capable of finding a new purpose for their lives? (Sometimes, yes. It's never easy, though, and for some people impossible.) What if you're being regarded not as a human being, but a tool? Does that matter? This is given a fantasy twist with the Demi-humans, man-made hybrids that were built expressly to be expendable cannon fodder in battle. Some Demi-humans have since found liberal masters. Others, to put it mildly, haven't. There's a ton here to think about and I think it's a fascinating, rich series that would repay study and rewatching.
These themes are reflected in the main characters, of course. That's what characters are for. Chaika is, extraordinarily, a good person who tries to keep her promises, help people in need and not be ungrateful to benefactors. This makes her a freak in the eyes of everyone else and she often gets scolded for it by the travelling companions she acquires. Chaika will argue even with people who deny that they're people. This world has enough human weapons for there to be a spectrum of them, but Chaika will befriend even things on the extreme end of that scale. "I'm not a human." "No difference. Have personality."
The companions she acquires, though, will include Tooru and Akari, a pair of saboteurs with 007-level combat ability and the power to turn their bodies to glowing red steel. The ideal saboteur has no emotions. Akari has basically achieved this, albeit with some very funny quirks that include a crush on Tooru (her adopted brother) and a tendency to spout spectacularly inappropriate delusions. Tooru is a bit further from this ideal, but he's still close enough that you can tell he'd kill everyone in the room in a heartbeat if he decided it was in his master's interest. Fortunately he's adopted Chaika. He might be a ruthless killer, but he's our ruthless killer and he doesn't have as much success as he'd like in telling Chaika she's being naive in, say, trying to save unnecessary people's lives.
Oh, and did I mention that Chaika's coffin contains a Gando, which is a magical gun so big that it needs bolting together and mounting on a tripod. If she gets enough to time to recite her incantations, duck.
These are scary opponents. Even Chaika's no pushover. It's not completely out of the question that they might be able to take down their world's most famous heroes... which is lucky, because that's exactly what they're trying to do. Pretty much every combatant in this series is a fairly terrifying fighter, which means that you don't want to get between them when trouble goes down. As I said, this anime's fight scenes are kick-arse.
Anyway, Tooru and Akari live by a saboteur's code, but Tooru had been masterless for so long that he'd turned into a bum and Akari was talking about having him stuffed. They want purpose. They'd have followed anyone. As it happens, they chose Chaika. Tooru's attitude to himself is one of the main threads of this show, with fierce loyalty but also well-reasoned explorations of why he's doing what he's doing.
It's a harsh, realistic show. A price is paid at the end and there's no reset button afterwards. It also feels like a world that's been thought through in detail, so for instance we get a good view both of its politics and the lethal consequences of bad decisions from those in power. The visual designs are satisfying too, being plausible and realised in the same down-to-earth detail that I get from the writing. The use of magic interested me. Then there's SPOILER, which comes quite early and changes everything. I wouldn't dare give it away here.
However at the same time it's also charming and funny. Chaika is adorable and even Tooru and Akari are capable of goofing off. Look at everyone's reactions to seeing the sea for the first time, for instance. These people are dangerous, but likeable.
Playing devil's advocate, one could even argue that the show has echoes of a harem structure, with the girls each having their own reasons for being interested in the only male, Tooru. Sometimes murderous reasons, but reasons. However: (a) all that's being underplayed and ignored, (b) the show isn't pushing that kind of thing and doesn't take it nowhere, even at the end, and (c) none of the regulars are pursuing romance anyway. Any impressions one might have to the contrary are just one's natural reaction to watching a show with lively interplay between characters one's become fond of.
Oh, and Chaika's incantations always end with a name like "the locator", "the slugger", etc. One of them's "the flasher". I laughed.
Incidentally, I've seen comparisons made between this and one of its author's earlier works, Scrapped Princess
. I can see the similarities, but I had mixed feelings about Scrapped Princess
and I think this show's better. I found it more entertaining, at least.
It's also avoiding fanservice, except (insignificantly) in the closing credits. The show's popular with girls, I understand, and also (less predictably) in former Eastern Bloc countries. That's what I've been told, anyway. A Bulgarian colleague at work was explaining it to me. Apparently the show has clever references that will tickle you if you're from an ex-Soviet country, but are unlikely to register if you're not. That would be me. The best I can get is that lots of names are referring to Soviet cars (Chaika, Gaz, Trabant, Acura, Abarth, etc.)
It's a thrilling adventure with cool fight scenes, but more importantly it's also ingenious and thematically rich. Wizards are effectively engineers, drivers or snipers. The characters are complicated and often damaged. These people can be refreshingly civilised, or else broken and/or monsters. It's intelligent. Our heroes are as sharp as whips and quite likely to spot things that the audience hasn't, even though we theoretically should have.
This show made me swear, in a good way. I should point out that some people think it starts slowly and have even found the early episodes boring, but personally I see it as primarily an exploration of its themes, worldbuilding and characters. The action stuff is cool, but secondary. I enjoyed exploring this story with these people. I laughed at the comedy, e.g. Akari's delusions, or the black humour of Tooru and Akari showing zero concern or compassion. This show can find gentle humour even in simple things like Niva asking for shellfish. I love the finale, even if in one way it leaves us slightly up in the air. I love what Chaika's trump card turned out to be. I love the show's foreshadowing, even though I'm sure I missed ninety per cent of it and I'm going to have to rewatch it one day.
"I give father funeral."