The story is set during the turbulent years of the shogunate, as dark forces try to undermine the shogun's power in Edo-era Tokyo. Shirou Sumiya is the leader of the "Way of the Paper Drawing" clan which captures the chaos of the struggles with rapid brush strokes. Sumiya is summoned to Edo, and his disciples, who have extraordinary powers in their secret drawing techniques, become part of the ensuring battles with giant drawn creatures.
Shoka (Calligraphers), is a bit of a strange take on historical fantasy, but then again, I've come to expect a degree of eccentricity, inventiveness and originality from the competition known as Animax Taisho.
Written by Saido Kenji, the screenplay for Shoka won the 7th Animax Taisho back in September 2008. The story is set at a time of unrest in Edo (Tokyo), during the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the Emperor has called on the Art Wielding Clan to counter the increasing appearance of strange monsters within the city. The clan leader, known simply as Publisher (although I suspect his real name is Genryu Jumonji), has ordered Sumiya
Shiro to return to Edo to help combat the threat.
One of the biggest problems with Shoka is the fact that the actual OVA (there's also a "making of"), runs for only 24 minutes, however the plot seems designed for a longer series. The upshot of this is that the story feels more like a pilot episode than anything else, something which really is detrimental to one's enjoyment of the show. The story is an interesting take on historical fantasy, especially given the usage of artists instead of the more traditional "heros", however the plot is haphazard, and while there is some attempt to explain the actions of the antagonist, there is little information given about the Art Wielding Clan.
Visually, Production I.G. have made Shoka into a pretty striking show. The rough, sketch-like character designs are unusual, and the contrast between these and the clean, detailed backgrounds and settings give the show a unique feel. The animation is generally smooth, and once again there is an unusual contrast between this and the character designs.
There are, however, some problems with the style of the anime. Some people may not like the design of the show, especially as the characters adopt unnatural poses or move oddly from time to time. In addtion to this, the show attempts to mimic more traditonal artwork at times, and this conflicts with the main style of the show. In all honesty, Production I.G. should have chosen one or the other, as both would work, however given the nature of the story they have opted to try and include both.
That said, given that this is an Animax Taisho winner, the experimental approach may be the correct one.
The acting is pretty decent throughout the show, and the seiyuu perform well for the most part, although there are some scenes that come across as overly dramatic. The music is suitably grand and dramatic, especially during action scenes, however it is also muted to degree so it remains in the background. The viewers attention is focused more on speech and sound effects because of this.
Now, given that Shoka is only one episode, one would expect there to be little in the way of character development. However, this could have been offset by some decent characterisation, so it's unfortunate that Shoka doesn't seem to bother making the effort. The viewer is presented with several characters, each of whom must simply be accepted as part of the story. Granted there is some effort given to the antagonist, but for the most part there is little to recommend in terms of the characters. This doesn't mean that they're bad though. They're simply ... unremarkable.
I will admit that I was somewhat disappointed with Shoka, in particular because it's an Animax Taisho winning screenplay so I was expecting a much greater degree of creativity than the show provides. In comparative terms, this is probably the weakest anime developed from one of the winning screenplays, although admittedly, most of the other shows are only slightly better. That said, there may be those who enjoy it more than I did for any number of valid reasons.
Shoka isn't bad, but as the emphasis is more on the visuals, this makes the show unremarkable in terms of its story. Granted there is a degree of creativity on display, but the lacklustre execution of the plot makes me wonder how the screenplay won the competition in the first place.
Hopefully, the next winner will prove a return to form for the Animax Taisho.