Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Sep 3rd 2014
BD+DVD - Part 10
The S-Class Wizard Trial on Tenrou Island is officially a shambles. The Fairy Tail Wizards are scattered across the island, battling for their lives against the dark guild Grimoire Heart. Only Cana, desperate to take her place as her father's daughter, is still striving for the first master's grave. The rest of the guild is bouncing around the island, trading opponents and allies until they get the ones they need and dig in for some serious butt-kicking. Grimoire Heart proves more difficult, however, than Natsu and company had dared fear. The arrival of sub-commander Bluenote almost wipes them all out, and even if they can get past him, guildmaster Hades still remains. And what about Zeref, bane of all the world? Where does he fit into all of this?
As seems to be the pattern with even-numbered Fairy Tail sets, set ten ends cleanly, bringing the Tenrou Island arc to a typically action clogged, satisfyingly villain-abusive conclusion. It even skips, or more accurately stops before, the arc's cliffhanger coda, leaving the series in a nice, happy resting place. Which together makes this is as satisfying a clump of episodes as the anime has yet to put together. It's tempting to say that, after all this time, Shinji Ishihara and his cohorts are finally getting the hang of animating Hiro Mashima's pile-of-fun shonen adventure, but the hard truth is that the satisfaction has nothing to do with them. It's just Mashima, flexing enough muscle to defy their infelicitous influence.
Being the climactic half of the arc, this set is basically all action, but it's action with purpose. That's Mashima. He's an action specialist who knows that cool moves and unexpected strategies and pummel-worthy baddies are all fine but that what really makes a fight work is the story behind it.
Oh sure, the set's opening fight—between Lucy and a giant-headed, sumo-wrestling voodoo-doll-user—is mostly a chance to revel in the show's peculiar brand of action comedy (its finish is abusively funny), but it's also an opportunity to revisit the oddball teamwork of Lucy, Natsu, and Happy, reminding us of why they're the core of the show's action ensemble. Likewise Juvia's surprisingly vicious match against petite dervish Meldy is a reminder that her feelings for Gray are more than just a running joke. The hopeless struggle to best scary Bluenote is all about Cana: about her feelings for Lucy and her guildmates; about her shifting priorities and her heartbreaking decades-long quest to connect with Gildarts. Erza's fight, with a tree-manipulating Rastafarian, is mostly about how stinking awesome Erza is but also puts a warm new wrinkle in her protective persona. Gray's match with Ultear links her motivations with his tragic past, bringing something like a hundred episodes' worth of history and feeling to bear on their icy deathmatch. And the finale, which finds the battered remnants of the guild staging a desperate last-ditch attack on Hades, delves into the origins of the guild itself, as well as the origins of the world's magic and Zeref's place in its evolution. (It also finds a substantial—and funny—role for the guild's trio of magical kitties to play).
Naturally we love the fightin'. Arrogant old asshole Hades' defeat is as soul-satisfying as anything the show has ever delivered, and it is absolutely fabulous to see middle-aged Gildarts stretch out and show what he's capable of. But it'd all be just so much empty flash if it weren't for the tantalizing clues dropped about ongoing concerns (like Zeref). Or the tragic familiarity of Cana's struggle to let her dad know how she feels. Or the bittersweet denouement of the Gray/Ultear battle. Or the Dickensian horrors of Ultear's upbringing (a lachrymal workout that features a sick child, a desperate mother, unscrupulous researchers, a faked death, and a one-sided reunion with awful repercussions for the child's soul).
That the show has so much emotional and narrative weight to swing around, and that the weight is enough to lend real impact to all those fights doesn't actually make Ishihara and co.'s deadening mediocrity easier to abide. If anything it makes it harder. Knowing there's that wealth of series-changing plot (Zeref on the move! Ultear reveals all!), all that build-and-release tension, all of those twinges of feeling and full-force heart-punches, out there amongst the lightning blows and flashing swords and maniac magic, and yet to only be able to feel a fraction of it, only see a washed-out shadow of the vivid action-comedy that rightfully should be… that's worse than feeling nothing at all.
How the animators go about damping the arc's fire is pretty much the same as always: with a combination of wan, we-don't-care-enough animation; simplified, less-than-expertly controlled art; dully unimaginative editing and framing; insistent rock-guitar scoring; and slightly padded plotting. The finale has none of the otherworldly beauty that cropped up here and there during Edolas's arc-ending war. The fights are dulled by a lot of cheap shortcuts used in uncreative ways. Generified versions of Mashima's punk-energized character designs drain the cast of charm and humor. Periodically sloppy art distracts fitfully from unfolding events. Ishihara's action instincts are, to put it as kindly as possible, painfully pedestrian. Punches connect with no panache; special moves are delivered like unspecial moves. He lets some fights run on too long, fattening them with unfun extra innings, and cuts others too short. The addition of unnecessary voice-over narration helps none of this, nor does the insultingly obvious explanatory dialogue ("someone, give us courage" pleads Lucy when everyone's courage fails, just before Natsu makes his courage-bolstering speech).
Funimation's dub stays pretty consistent, which mainly means that it's competently acted, faithfully cast, and just generally effective and kind of average. As Lucy, Cherami Leigh is still an improvement over the miscast Aya Hirano. Lydia Mackay sells Ultear's duplicity better than Miyuki Sawashiro. On the other side, no one is particularly convincing when asked for heavy emoting. Cana and Ultear's flashbacks come across their moving power the same way their Japanese versions did: by having adorable character designs (the only real standouts by the way) and by featuring desperately lonely tots. It takes really bad acting (or a particularly cynical audience) to take the sting out of desperately lonely tots. (A score that's better at being gentle and emotional than rocking and kickass also contributes). The writing is pretty tight when the show is being serious and amusingly improvisational when things get wacky, meaning the dub tends to improve when gags take over.
This is a standard Funimation DVD/Blu-ray combo set: Nothing special in the packaging. Two DVDs and two blu-rays, with episodes split 7-5 and 8-4 respectively. Reasonable but not excellent high-definition transfer (on the blu-rays). Clean OPs and EDs (all equally boring). Two commentary tracks: one for episode 109 with Leigh, Bryan Massey (the voodoo sumo), and ADR director Tyler Walker; and one for episode 119 with Walker, Tia Ballard (Happy), Rick Keeling (Pantherlilly), and Jad Saxton (Carla). The one unique extra is a twenty-minute video about the marketing side of the business, featuring three visibly uncomfortable members of Funimation's marketing staff.
Tenrou Island is what you'd call an Important Arc: large and exciting, with lots of interesting changes to the characters, their dynamics, and their world. There are new romantic complications, new revelations, new rivalries. It's big and often surprisingly tense fun. As always, my recommendation is this: don't watch. Read the manga. You get the same strengths, only amplified and without that little spare tire of in-arc filler.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : C-
Art : C-
Music : C
+ Big developments, big action, and big emotions.
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