Netflix continues its trend of creating new anime-inspired content, but few series display that combination of Eastern and Western influences quite like Seis Manos, a blend of Chinese martial arts and Mexican culture that works surprisingly well -- if you're a fan of 1970s exploitation cinema.
Seis Manos is a co-production of Powerhouse Animation Studios and Viz Productions, which distributed and dubbed Naruto, Bleach and Inuyasha in North America. Powerhouse, on the other hand, has primarily worked on licensed properties before now. Neither previously ventured much into original content. For both companies, Seis Manos represents a risk -- and a step forward.
If you're familiar with '70s Westerns, exploitation and martial-arts films, then Seis Manos' plot will play like a best-of moments of the genre. In a Mexican town, an old Chinese Daoist named Chiu trains a trio of orphans -- Isabela, Jesus and Silencio -- in the ways of martial arts. Isabela is a resourceful, level-headed leader; Jesus the fun-loving brawler; and Silencio the aggressive warrior with a dark past. However, the three live mostly in happiness ... that is, until some demon-possessed monster kills their master.
The orphaned martial artists set out for justice, to discover why Chiu was killed, and what ties he may have to the enigmatic drug lord El Balde. To reach their target, they need to work with local police officer and a U.S. federal agent hot on the trail of the cartel. What follows is a mess of bullets, fists, demonic possession and body parts.
By design, Seis Manos embraces all that makes its influences great and terrible. But in many ways, the "flaws" of the series only add to its charm. If you like '70s exploitation, warts and all, Seis Manos is a must-watch series. If not, you're still going to have fun with a brutal, yet unabashedly fun, experience.
Seis Manos isn't plot-heavy; instead, it overflows with thematic style. If you've seen a martial-arts film or a drug cartel film, you can predict each plot beat before it arrives. Much of the story is exaggerated by nature, but that by no means indicates that it's poorly written. Although the plot is frequently cliched, it never drags.
Befitting its inspirations, Seis Manos focuses on the clash of cultures. While many shows try to present diversity as a feature, this one depicts it as a true balancing act. Characters with drastically different world views -- as if they originated from different films -- try to find their way through this plot that combines black magic, martial arts, zombie-like demons, cop drama, blaxploitation -- a little bit every 1970s film staples.
The animation and aesthetic is pure grindhouse: There's a film grain covering every scene, and animation frames are missing to give everything a slightly stuttering look, befitting of its source of inspiration. Character designs are exaggerated, in particular in the case of Danny Trejo's villain El Balde, who's just every bad-guy cliche rolled into one glorious package.
The characters are, in general, quite good, although stock in nature. A few stand-outs include Jesus, a chubby bruiser who drinks hard and fights harder; Garcia, the local police officer who's fed up with all the demons and drug lords in her town; and Brister, a Vietnam War veteran-turned-special agent on a mission to stop whatever is going on. All of them are essentially stock characters, but in the best possible way.
The music is distinctly Mexican and Chinese in style, which can be occasionally jarring as it switches back and forth. The voice acting, in general, is good enough.
But this series' main draw is its bone-crushing, blood-letting fights. By mixing the stylized action of anime with that of any martial-arts story and the brutality of '70s horror, you get gorgeous, grotesque violence. Nothing is off-limits; one minute, you'll see people with guns getting clobbered with fists, then have demonic dogs pounce down with their claws before another guy gets hit by a truck. People's faces are blown off, heads get pealed away, demons eat people alive, and good people get crushed beneath debris.
What Brad Graeber and Álvaro Rodríguez have created will not appeal to everyone. But they did the best they can to deliver a quality, stylistic series to their target demographic: fans of exploitation and anime. If you're a fan of Machete or Ninja Scroll, you will love Seis Manos.
Seis Manos Season 1 arrives Thursday on Netflix.