Karakuri Circus is a manga series by Kazuhiro Fujita (the same guy who did Ushio and Tora), which was serialized in Weekly Shonen Sunday from 1997 to 2006. The manga employs an unusual "choice-based" style, where it shows the two decisions a character can make at a pivotal point in a pair of boxes, a fancy arrow pointing to the decision made. The first decision is by Narumi, a sick kung-fu champ who decides that his job, passing out circus flyers, is more important than helping a young boy find the circus. He changes his mind when a group of well-dressed thugs attempt to kidnap the boy, as he rushes to save the day (still in his bear costume for work).
Then he finds out that the men after the kid, Masaru, are not men — they're dolls. Their controllers are hired by the relatives of Sadayoshi Saiga, the deceased CEO of Saiga Group, to which Masaru is the heir. Rescued by a mysterious silver-haired doll user named Shirogane, Masaru goes forth to find out just why the dolls and their controllers are after him.
A 36-episode anime adaptation by Studio VOLN and Studio Live aired from October 2018 to June 2019.
Karakuri Circus provides examples of:
- A.I. Breaker: Automata in general can move way faster than a human's eyes can see. However, they're also programmed to perform circus acts to their audience; on top of that, their definition of "circus acts" includes killing humans, while their definition of "audience" is limited to humans that don't have any weapon. The end result is that, when they're in presence of unarmed humans, they aren't allowed to use their full speed against them: they must move slow enough to let people see them coming. By extension, a martial artist such as Narumi and Liang-Ming Xia can fight an automaton with their bare hands without triggering its Super Speed. Someone armed with weapons such as guns and tanks or who has been heavily modified with cybernetic enhancements, however, is fair game. Another quirk of an automata's programming is that a puppet is considered a circus tool, not a weapon. This applies even to puppets that wield weapons, which is why Shiroganes use weaponized puppets to fight the automata.
- Alas, Poor Villain: The automaton Sylvestre dies regretting his loneliness and its disdain towards humans. Its killer tells it that, if they had met under different circumstances, he would have been happy to be its friend.
- Bookends: The first chapter begins with Narumi working in a bear costume for the circus to entertain young passersby. The final chapter ends with Masaru, now a young man, living in some European country and working as a dog costume for a cafe to entertain young passersby but he does his best to protect many innocent people with the martial arts he learned from Narumi.
- Creepy High-Pitched Voice: Most of the lesser automata have almost-annoying high-pitched voices even before they reveal their monstrous true forms.
- Curtain Call: In the omake of the final volume, every character of the series takes one last bow to the readers in the circus before they disappear on the final splash page.
- Fiendish Fish: The cavern system near Kuroga Village has a giant underground lake that hosts the local god, a gigantic river fish who tries to attack Masaru while he makes his way out of the lake.
- Fixing the Game: Automaton Jack Gambler is a Fat Bastard who claims that he can only be fought by gambling against him in various games, and enjoys humiliating his opponents as they lose, boasting about his luck. However, as Ming-Xia finds out, luck means nothing against him, since he can actually control the result of each gambling game going on, so she just slugs him in the face with a Qi-powered punch while he's tossing the coin for the last bet.
- Foreign Language Title: The series is written in Japanese but has the French subtitle Le Cirque de Karakuri.
- Heroes Fight Barehanded: Invoked. The main antagonists are the living alchemically-powered dolls known as automata. Unstoppable and deadly for any common mortal, they have a glaring weakness: since they're entertainers above all else, they won't use their superior speed or power against an unarmed opponent (audience, for them). The use of Chinese martial arts can disrupt their vital fluids and kill them, making them more vulnerable to bare hands than to conventional weapons.
- Hope Spot: After all the dust has settled in the mansion explosion, it seems like both Narumi and Masaru have made it through. However, when Masaru turns his head back, he sees only Narumi's left arm remains.
- Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: While Shirogane is pretty average, Narumi is an enormous martial artist.
- Humiliation Conga: Les Quatres Pionniers, the main villains for the first half of the series, are eventually destroyed by the heroes. When the Big Bad arrives, he has them rebuilt just so he can mock them for their failures. He doesn't give them new bodies like the other automata, so they are considered antiquated and useless in battle. When they fight again, it's just to show how powerful the next enemy is. And while they used to be top brass, in the new hierarchy they are now bottom of the rung, something that even their previous automatic companions never fail to gleefully point out. This would normally be considered their just desserts, as they were depicted as cruel and merciless, killing humans by the thousands and holding mankind in contempt for their imperfections. However, the new villains are far worse, lacking even their redeeming qualities — their loyalty to their mistress and curiosity toward human emotions — and since they have their memories wiped and still take their new predicament in stride, the reader almost feel bad for them. Eventually, it's a mix of this situation, those qualities, and some contrived circumstances that lead them to turn against their new master.
- Incurable Cough of Death: The manga begins with Narumi's doctor explaining the Zonapha syndrome, which makes it painful to breathe until the sufferer makes someone laugh.
- Monster Clown: The Shirogane are dedicated to wiping out an entire group of evil clowns called, appropriately enough, the Midnight Circus. The clowns are actually automata powered by alchemy, and their clownish appearance is actually meant to invoke laughter in humans.
- One Steve Limit: Zigzagged. Three characters, a puppet and two automata, share the name with the popular mask of Commedia dell'Arte Arlecchino. Namely, the first uses its French name Arlequin, the second uses the Italian one (Arlecchino) and the last one uses the English Harlequin.
- Philosopher's Stone: The Soft Stone is used to created Aqua Vitae, "Water of Life", which is used in the creation of Shirogane. Among other things, it can grant supernatural resilience and long life, especially if one dissolves oneself in it: whoever drinks the water afterward will inherit part of one's memories and personality.
- Poke the Poodle: A pair of minor villains try to ruin the protagonists' puppet show. Not only do they fail, but the protagonists also work the few attempts into the routine.
- Redemption Equals Death: Arlecchino, Pantalone, and Colombine suffer a rather messy and undignified death while they are villains, but after being rebuilt and having a HeelFace Turn due to new orders, they manage to die peacefully, having fulfilled the purpose for their existence.
- Reincarnation Romance: Éléonore is the great-grandniece of the original Francine and inherited her memories from Aqua Vitae. Narumi inherits the memories of Bai Yin, Francine's husband, from Aqua Vitae after he disappears from Masaru's life. They become a couple at the end of the series.
- Restraining Bolt:
- Automata possess Super Speed but have the primary directive to bring terror to humans so that the "audience" (unarmed people) can see and fear them. This means that they cannot use their full speed against unarmed people: instead, they must move slowly enough to be seen by the average human. Additionally, puppets and bare hands don't count as "weapons" — which means that automata can't use their full speed against puppeteers and martial artists.
- "Les Quatres Pionniers" have another primary directive: to obey the automaton Francine. When Lucille uses a puppet with Francine's appearance and orders them to kneel, they immediately do — even though their mistress is right there in the same room. It takes them several minutes to overcome their mental block.
- Stealth Clothes: The Nakamichi family encounters the heroes as they wear stealth clothes; they were broke and desperate enough to resort to stealing. It becomes a Brick Joke when, after a long and dangerous action sequence ending with a car crash, they're arrested by a policeman who rebuffs their claims of innocence by asking why they're wearing those handkerchieves.
- Thanks for the Mammary: In a manga-only arc, Masaru gets accidentally drunk on saké and ends up groping one of the three older girls in the room with him, mistaking her breast for a door pommel. Soon enough, his male friend tries to make him vomit out the alcohol by jamming his finger in his throat while another girl holds him, but Masaru drops his head and he ends up poking the girl behind him right in her cleavage line.
- True Companions: Narumi develops both romantic and filial feelings for Shirogane and Masaru respectively; when the latter two take off, they form a similar connection with Nakamachi Circus.
- Who Wants to Live Forever?: In a manga-only arc, a Shirogane's last words are that she regretted making the choice that allowed her to live for over two centuries.
- Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Masaru's relatives send elaborate, conspicuous, and highly destructive mechanical puppets to kill him, something that would be much more easily done with a sniper rifle.