Reviewby Carlo Santos,
DVD Boxset Part 2
As the seven stars of the Big Dipper have predicted, the Xian Empire has been thrown into chaos by the clash between Taito—a teenage boy bearing the mark of the star Alkaid—and imperial general Keiro, who bears the opposing mark of Dubhe. Meanwhile, five Divine Warriors who carry the marks of the other stars in the constellation have entered the fight in hopes of restoring peace. One of them, Ryuko, has shockingly switched sides and joined Keiro, but another, Koyo, has joined Taito's side. The loss of Ryuko drains Taito of his fighting spirit, and it will take the efforts of friends and family to restore his willpower. Then, a tragic loss compels Taito and company to return to the Imperial Capital once more to defeat Keiro. The general's calculated rise to power—plus a sinister force pulling the strings behind the scenes—will make the battle tougher than anyone could imagine.
Well, at least the filler stopped.
The back half of Hero Tales continues as a dry exercise in traditional fantasy storytelling, with the expected stages of Taito's quest falling into place. He experiences a brief crisis of conscience, as all heroes do. He experiences a life-changing tragedy that strengthens his resolve, as all heroes do. And he engages in the final battle that will result in either world peace or World Destruction—because, hey, what else are heroes supposed to do? By choosing the most predictable path, this saga avoids any spectacular pitfalls or failures—but it also gives up any hope of achieving true greatness.
The first few episodes of this set are the least entertaining of the bunch, as they contain scene after scene of Taito being a self-loathing whiner. Everyone already knows he's going to snap out of it eventually, so ultimately there's no real drama involved—we're just waiting for him to decide he wants to be a hero again. What is unexpected, though, is the return to Lian Tong Temple: not many heroic quests have the party backtracking all the way to square one, so this story does break the mold in that respect. Lian Tong also sets the stage for a poignant (but predictable) death that sets off the series' endgame.
It's in that second journey to the capital—a span of about eight episodes right before the end—that one finally sees glimpses of what Hero Tales could have been. Intriguing plot twists abound, from the confrontation with former ally Ryuko, to Keiro's political gamesmanship in his quest for the Emperor's throne, to a daring break-in and rescue mission, to the Sword of Rule's fickle behavior in choosing a new master. (Apparently even superhuman forces can still have human faults.) But no intrigue is greater than that surrounding Shimei, the mystic whose erratic troublemaking and mastery of the undead belie a much darker nature. The shocking truth about Shimei's existence gives the story an added dimension of fear and uncertainty—and if he had played a larger role, the whole series could have been that much better.
As it is, though, the saga ends predictably, with Taito and Keiro screaming and glowing in Dragon Ball Z fashion as their ideological differences come to a head. The final blow is a disappointment, abruptly fading out and leaving viewers to assume that Taito won by the power of friendship or some other cliché. The epilogue is even more maddening, waving off unresolved plotlines by declaring that all the good guys survived, regardless of their physical state in the finale.
If the end is a disappointment, then we might as well try to find satisfaction in the middle—like the slickly orchestrated fight scenes that carry the influence of Chinese martial arts films. Between gymnastic maneuvers and deft weapons-handling, the combat sequences continue to be the visual highlight of each episode. The same might be said of the brightly colored period costumes and architectural touches that give the series its historical ambience. A wide variety of character designs also makes it easy to keep track of everyone, but ultimately the technical aspects drag everything down: Animation quality outside of the fights is adequate at best, character faces and gestures look half-hearted at times, and the obsession with making all magical things glow is a shoddy use of computer effects.
Speaking of obsession, traditional Chinese sounds continue to be the theme music to almost every establishing shot (although maybe not as blatantly as in the series' first half). But while erhus and bamboo flutes give the soundtrack its cultural flavor, serious fight scenes and drama are inevitably accompanied by a more conventional orchestra, with brass and string sections going all out. The theme songs aren't quite as effective, relying mostly on pop-rock formula, although High and Mighty Color's 2nd opening and 2nd ending are an improvement on the first pair of theme songs.
The quality of the English dub remains about the same as in the series' first half—listenable, but not outstanding. There's still a sense of self-conscious script-reading in the way the characters deliver their lines, and the pronouncation of Chinese words never sounds particularly confident. Some of the lines in the dub script also end up being convoluted tongue-twisters—a necessity to match the lip-flaps, but not always the ideal way to get a sentence out of one's mouth. In addition to the DVD's dual audio tracks, this set also comes with another full disc of extras: clean video clips for the second opening and closing (generic as they are), commercials and trailers from the series' original run, and another 30 minutes of the Japanese voice cast having a tangent-filled roundtable discussion.
Perhaps the best that one can hope is that viewers of Hero Tales might be inspired to learn more about actual epics from Chinese history. This series is only a primer at best, giving an anime-flavored taste of mystical powers, martial arts, and political intrigue in a fictional version of imperial China. And while each of those elements might be individually appealing, the series fails to build anything great out of them, settling instead for a predictable good-versus-evil quest straight to the end. Even a final arc with surprise twists and a mysterious wildcard character can't stop the series from barreling toward an ordinary, unsatisfying finish. In the end, they say that the people of Xian lived happily ever after—but the ones who watched this all the way through probably won't.
Overall (dub) : C-
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C
Animation : D
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Surprise twists and Shimei's presence add complexity to the final arc, while fight scenes continue to dazzle.
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