Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jan 24th 2005
This pseudo-historical soap opera continues as Miaka Yuuki leaves the mysterious "Universe of the Four Gods" book and returns to modern-day Japan. Upon realizing that her best friend Yui is missing, Miaka promptly jumps back into the book and returns to the ancient kingdom of Konan. However, the time-lapse between worlds has caused months to pass, and Miaka must first find her heartthrob, Tamahome. Thinking that she is a burden upon him, however, Miaka then runs off to the opposing kingdom of Kutou to find Yui. The best friends are reunited, but a misunderstanding causes Yui to reject Miaka and become Priestess of Seiryu (the dragon-god), the counterpart to Miaka's own title as Priestess of Suzaku (the phoenix-god). With reconciliation now a lost cause, Miaka resumes her quest to gather the seven warriors of Suzaku, for only then can she wield Suzaku's powers and protect Konan.
To understand the appeal of Fushigi Yuugi among female fans, simply consider the underlying premise: if you ever get sucked into a fantasy world, just collect enough bishounen into your man-pile and you, too, can have super magical powers! As a bonus, most of them will be madly in love with you. That's basically what happens to Miaka in this lovingly drawn but sloppily animated tale, and with some love polygons and all-out angst, it's a surefire shoujo formula. Just like the Universe of the Four Gods, however, once you get into Fushigi Yuugi... it may be hard to get back out.
The basis of Fushigi Yuugi is practically a pillar of modern storytelling—after all, who hasn't dreamed of being whisked to an alternate universe and wielding unexpected power? To set itself apart from similar tales, this series introduces multiple levels of plot and a cast of characters that get tangled up in each other. From Miaka's angle, we see the journey of an ordinary girl caught up in a fantasy turned real. Look at it from the "Universe of the Four Gods" viewpoint, however, and the overriding story is one of conflict between ancient Eastern kingdoms (but having no real connection to Chinese history, just so you know). Turn to the romantic perspective, and now it's a battle of emotions where everyone is attracted to someone. With so much potential for drama, it's no wonder that many fans have declared Fushigi Yuugi a dangerously addictive substance. In fact, the six episodes on this disc are just a small glimpse of the storyline at large.
Like a true soap opera, Fushigi Yuugi is driven heavily by character relationships—relationships where people do really stupid things in the name of love. Consider Miaka, a quintessential schoolgirl and the person least qualified to shoulder a nation's fate. She has Tamahome practically throwing himself at her, and what does she do? Run off by herself into the bad guys' kingdom! But Miaka's not the only character where the lights are on but no one's home. Tamahome thinks that the best way to show his love for Miaka is to surrender himself to the Kutou invaders. After all, what yields better angst than a couple so in love that they keep drifting apart? Everyone else wants in on the action too, with YUI lusting for Tamahome and the dashing emperor Hotohori challenging Tamahome for Miaka's hand. Imagine what will happen when the remaining Suzaku warriors show up. Maybe they could just switch to a tournament-style anime and fight over Miaka?
Longtime anime veterans Studio Pierrot, in their planning for the series, must have looked at Yuu Watase's original manga artwork and decided, "We'll never be as good as this." Their admiration for Watase's fluid style is evident throughout, even using her illustrations in the ending sequence. In the translation of Watase's character designs to 2-D cel animation, the characters of Fushigi Yuugi are drawn and colored with remarkable draftsmanship. Even the amusing shifts into chibi and SD style have an air of polish that today's comedies could take a lesson from. Unfortunately, this artwork is wasted on animation techniques that are the definition of lazy. Some of the still frames, looking like colored-pencil imitations of Watase's style, hang on the screen for entire stretches of dialogue. The watercolor backgrounds, which look good on their own, clash against the sharply rendered characters, and speedlines serve as the usual substitute for dynamic action (mostly swordfights or skirmishes). Once again the curse of old animation technology hampers some very promising visuals.
The English dub can be best explained by recalling that this is a re-packaging of an earlier Geneon (back when they were Pioneer) release. Miaka and YUI sound too much alike, and they both suffer from the squealing schoolgirl syndrome that used to plague almost every young female in an anime dub. Comic relief Chichiri, meanwhile, has had his mannerism of adding "no da" to every sentence converted into "ya know," which theoretically makes sense, but will probably drive people nuts—especially in the light of linguistic gaffes like the dubbed version of Kenshin. Even this, however, isn't as irritating as the episode recap narrator, whose attempt at the "aged storyteller" voice sounds more like a distressed granny. The best way to handle the dubbed version of Fushigi Yuugi might be to just switch to the subtitles.
In fact, switching to subtitles is about all you can do on this DVD, as extras are completely nonexistent. Don't bother looking for clean openings, closings, or production sketches. In squeezing six episodes onto a disc, Geneon sacrificed the bonus materials—but at least provided a reversible cover.
One key feature that's lacking from this romantic historical epic is a grand, sweeping music score. Sometimes a cheesy love song will play in the background while Miaka and Tamahome gaze longingly at each other—but if this is the most they can do for emotional impact, it's no wonder that other shoujo series didn't adopt the idea. Light instrumentals round out the sparse repertoire of background music, while the opening and closing theme songs are memorable but dated reminders of how far anime songwriting has come in within the past 10 years.
No one knows just how many anime fans have gone to a library trying to get themselves sucked into ancient books. What we do know is that Fushigi Yuugi was—and still is—a defining part of shoujo fandom (and for many North American fans in the mid-90's, the next step up from Sailor Moon). However, the expansive story and distinctive characters are probably best enjoyed by watching all the DVDs, not just one. Don't go into this series expecting technical virtuosity, but rather plenty of emotional hand-wringing and heartbreak. Ultimately, isn't that what shoujo fantasy is all about?
Overall (dub) : C-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : C-
Art : B+
Music : D
+ Addictive, character-driven soap opera, with plenty of hot boys for good measure.
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