REVIEW: ‘Seis Manos’ Offers Up Magic, Music, and Martial Arts

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Adult animation has been one of the places that Netflix has been excelling. With the recent launch and success of Cannon Busters, as well as a bevy other adult anime titles, Seis Manos marks a near-perfect addition to the line-up. Created by Brad Graeber and Álvaro RodríguezSeis Manos marks the first major adult anime centered on a Latinx story, specifically a Mexican story.

Set in 1970s Mexico, Seis Manos revolves around three orphans trained in Chinese martial arts, Isabela (Aislinn Derbez), Jesus (Jonny Cruz), and Silencio. When their Sifu and surrogate father, Chui (Vic Chao), is murdered, they join forces with Brister (Mike Colter) an American DEA agent, and Officer Garcia (Angélica Vale), a Mexican police officer, to avenge him. This isn’t a regular whodunnit. Instead, it’s a mystery that brings the siblings into the middle of a cartel, monsters, magic, and so much blood.

Through Jesús, Silencio, and Isabela, we get three fighters each using different martial arts styles fit to their personalities. Jesús’ is the most recognizable for a Western audience with his use of Drunken Boxing (Zuì Quán), made famous in the United States by Jackie Chan. It marks Jesús’s lighthearted, good nature and his coping technique for grief. Isabela uses Hung Gar, originating from the “fighting monks” of the first Shaolin Temple in Henan province. Its five variations are based on five animals: tiger, crane, snake, leopard, and dragon. This grounded style accentuates Isabela’s identity as the most intelligent and calm of the group. Finally, Silencio uses Bak Mei, also known as the White Eyebrow, a name worked into his character. The style itself is a lethal style not modified for competition and known as the most explosive of Kung Fu styles.

Beyond unique versions of Kung fu, we see these characters coping with tragedy in their own ways. Distinct from each other in martial arts style and perspective, their grief is unique to each of them. Jesús drinks it away, Isabela honors her father by listening to his teachings, and Silencio gives in to his anger and violence.

While I love Isabela’s power, it’s truly Silencio who is this star, even in his silence. Silencio had his tongue cut out by El Balde (Danny Trejo), the leader of the cartel, and cannot speak. Despite this, in a medium that relies on voice acting, he is made dynamic through flashbacks and in his fight scenes. As the story of the show progresses, Silencio comes closer and closer to unleashing the animal inside him while his siblings, specifically Isabela, try desperately to pull him back in.

Silencio’s character is also closely tied to the best use of music in Seis Manos. While the series features a norteño sound fused with traditional music heard in American Westerns, there is one standout song featured, “Mal Hombre.” Originally a Tejano classic from the 1930s, “Mal Hombre” tells the story of a young girl who has been abused and now, as a woman, has come to call out the man who traumatized her and how he continues to do so. The song is used to symbolize Silencio’s fear of becoming like El Balde, but it is also the backdrop to the first epic fight sequence of the series as the siblings try to defend the body of their father.

While the siblings are defined and dynamic, with every part of each character explained through more than just exposition or their words, not all characters work to uplift the narrative of Seis Manos, namely, Agent Brister. He serves as the ever-present arm of the United States and because of this becomes a stand-in for non-Mexican members of the audience. For example, he repeatedly asks for translations of the Spanish spoken by others since there are no English translations provided.

Sadly, this is to Brister’s detriment, as he does more to detract from the scenes than he adds to them. Serving as the American view of Mexican practices, Brister repeatedly discredits Mexican spirituality and pokes fun at it until he witnesses its power first hand. Where the animation itself serves as a celebration of Mexican identity and culture, Brister’s commentary picking it apart is ultimately a detriment to his inclusion in the series.

The series is a blend of grindhouse exploitation films, Hong Kong Kung Fu cinema, and Mexican folklore.  The magic of Seis Manos is in how the series brings these distinct elements all together. The strongest of these elements is the magic that comes from the writers’ understandings of Mexican spirituality and folk religion, especially when it comes to representing Mexican folk healing, curanderismo, on screen

When it comes to representing curanderismo, I worry. Growing up, my grandpa would tell me stories of how our family comes from a long line of cuanderos. How his mother was one and how she would heal his cuts and scrapes in the yard, or how she would perform healing rituals to help those suffering from pesticide poisoning in the fields because they weren’t allowed to see a real doctor. While I’m long past believing in religion, let alone magic, those stories stick with me. Thankfully, Seis Manos gets it right.

In representing curanderismo, the series puts power in the women of the show. It is an old cuandera, Garabina, who folds the world of Mexican magic and folktales into the series. It’s her magic that flows through other characters to move the story and ultimately, there were many moments throughout the series that I either remember the cuanderas in my family doing or I was told about.

They don’t need to be rescued from the men around them and instead serve as bastions of strength and power without the show shying away from the realities that the patriarchal Mexican society puts on them. The women of Seis Manos are both hero and villain, they’re goddesses and warriors, but most importantly, they’re dynamic.

This is shown particularly when the old curandera Garabina, who even when close to death maintains her agency and power. While dying, Garabina uses the last of her power to pass it on to another woman who she knows can end El Balde’s reign. She is brash, confident, and wise in only the way an old Mexican Grandma can be. It’s the choice to make her the reason for the siblings’ success that showcases how much the writers see the power that Mexican women have.

As we explore the spirituality of Seis Manos, we meet a version of Santa Muerte, a patron saint of the Cartels and those in dangerous living situations throughout Mexico. While she isn’t mentioned by name, Seis Manos uses her imagery and her lore to serve as a foundation for the cult started by cartel leader El Balde. Rebranded as Santa Nucifera, El Balde uses her to bring people physical power by mutating their bodies into monstrous and hungry beings that El Balde controls. Using Santa Nucifera to create an unstoppable force, El Balde takes over the peaceful town of San Simon and suddenly the siblings need to fight him not only to avenge their father but to save those stuck under El Balde’s violence.

While the monsters that the blood and body that Santa Nucifera creates are phenomenal, it’s how the series links it all back to Santa Muerte and folk practices that is beautiful, even with its evil intentions. El Balde looks to replace Catholicism as he takes San Simon, forcing Santa Nucifera on them and calling Jesus a fraud. While the siblings follow the Daoist tradition of their adoptive father, El Balde offers up a take on folk Catholicism that is rarely featured in media produced for American audiences, let alone in animation.

In regards to the animation featured from Powerhouse Animation, the people who brought us Castlevania, Netflix’s first critically acclaimed and fan-loved animation, it’s top-notch. Seis Manos’s overall style is similar to Jackie Chan Adventures but with buckets of blood and creative, vicious kills. Ultimately, what sets this series apart from others is the choice to use a film filter over the animation, calling back to the grindhouse cinema this series was born from.

As film bubbles and grain make small appearances, it’s clear the creators are lovers of the genres that they’re playing in. While the show is an action-fantasy there are horror elements to it, specifically in the creature design and use of dark magic. It offers depth to the storytelling while also adding stakes to the fight sequences.

Overall, Seis Manos is a must watch an animation that is adding a Mexican voice to the medium in a big way. If season two becomes a reality, there needs to be more of an emphasis on exploring the cultural melding between Mexico and China to really drive home the unique identities of the siblings. The series serves as not only an amazing watch for action fans and fans of anime, but also as a story with layers to be pulled back and explored.

Seis Manos is available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

Seis Manos
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    Rating - 9/10
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TL;DR

Seis Manos is a must watch an animation that is adding a Mexican voice to the medium in a big way. If season two becomes a reality, there needs to be more of an emphasis on exploring the cultural melding between Mexico and China to really drive home the unique identities of the siblings. The series serves as not only an amazing watch for action fans and fans of anime, but also as a story with layers to be pulled back and explored.