Reviewby Carlo Santos, Mar 23rd 2011
DVD Part 1
Taito, a teenage boy living at the Lian Tong Temple, has his life torn apart when the Imperial General Keiro stages a bloodthirsty invasion to find the legendary sword hidden there. In a last-ditch attempt to defend the temple, Taito grabs the sword—which awakens a mystical sigil on his right shoulder! Unknown to him, Taito bears the mark of the star Alkaid, one of the two Celestial Deities among the seven stars of the Big Dipper. But Keiro bears the mark of the other Celestial Deity, meaning that he is destined to battle Taito. Keiro wins this round and takes the sword back to the Imperial Capital, but Taito swears to follow Keiro there and have his revenge. Accompanied by his sister Laila, as well as fellow celestial warriors Ryuko and Hosei, Taito begins his journey toward a fated battle that could spell the end of the empire.
Can Hero Tales be faulted for containing exactly what it says in the title?
Oh, yes it can.
Simply telling tales of heroes doesn't cut it these days, not when there are so many other fantasy legends competing for our attention. It takes a particular spark of inspiration to stand out, and Hero Tales, with its vanilla-flavored storytelling, lacks that spark. Sure, the series is embellished with the trappings of traditional Chinese folk tales and superhuman martial arts, but what good is embellishment if the basic structure is flawed?
In short, the problem with this series' first 13 episodes is that it borrows heavily from heroic sagas of old—and adds nothing new to the concept. Indeed, the greatest challenge of the early episodes may be simply staying awake through all of them, as key elements of the story are presented in dull fashion: here's the Boy of Destiny, here's the Sword of Destiny, here's the Villain of Destiny, here's the ancient legend about why they're destined to fight ... All right, so maybe the script doesn't use the word "destiny" quite that much, but the theme of preordained fate is still hammered home to the point that one starts to wonder if the series has any depth beyond that.
It's only after bringing in the supporting cast that the story starts to pick up—and even then, party members like warrior monk Ryuko and hot-headed archer Hosei come off as cheap sword-and-sorcery stereotypes at first. An encounter with Hosei's master does lead to some genuinely touching drama—but it also results in an idiotic filler episode right afterward. Later on, Taito's arrival at the capital includes a delightful chance encounter with the emperor in Episode 10 that does more world-building than the previous episodes combined. Believe it or not, Taito actually talks economics, politics and philosophy in this little gem of an episode (and perhaps unwittingly gives away the show's left-wing leanings).
As the series approaches the pivotal Episode 13, a number of plot twists emerge that finally make the story worth it—a bit of good-evil duality, as well as some shocking family ties that will eventually turn the tide. But even with a key battle looming, there are still long stretches wasted on things like training scenes, lessons about the value of friendship, and Taito standing in a "Hall of Destiny" as he contemplates ... well, you can probably guess. One can only hope that the series' second half is more committed to serious action and drama.
If this series feels like a half-hearted grind through a historical fantasy world, then the so-so animation is partly to blame as well, with most scenes achieving only what's needed to get by. The aesthetics and color palette are pleasing enough, capturing the exotic feel of Imperial China, but technical flaws soon become apparent: character designs and faces backslide in quality (notably during throwaway scenes and transitions), basic gestures are drawn stiffly, and crowd scenes look embarrassingly low-budget. Don't even get started on the computer-generated effects, which look about five years behind their time with cheesy glowing auras and clunky 3-D modeling. The only real bright spot is in the fight scenes, which are executed with great fluidity and energy. Too bad the same can't be said for everything that goes on in between fights.
The essence of Chinese history can also be felt in the background music, which uses traditional instruments and melodies to a fault. While warbling bamboo flutes and wailing strings do set the atmosphere, their frequent and predictable use (pick a landscape shot, any landscape shot) becomes something of a campy joke as the series progresses. Fortunately, this is balanced out by conventional orchestra scoring during action scenes, giving those moments an air of seriousness rather than forced exoticism. A typical rock opener and a midtempo ballad bookend each episode.
Funimation's English dub takes a couple of episodes to find its bearings, with Taito and Keiro's first encounter especially grating with all the uneven yelling. But the cast eventually warms up to their roles, delivering a spirited performance. Given the lack of nuance in the characters' personalities, a little overacting doesn't hurt anyway. Distinctive speech patterns also make the jump to English smoothly: Taito's goofy habit of repeating something twice, for example, becomes an error of word usage (like "percussion" for "concussion"), and Ryuko's formal speech comes through in his use of big words and fancy sentences. In fact, the biggest translation controversy may be the decision to use Western names for the stars of the Big Dipper, rather than keeping the names from Chinese astronomy. Then again, it is a work of fiction, not a historical account.
In addition to the dual audio tracks, this DVD package also comes with an entire bonus disc of extras, which includes textless opening and endings plus a freewheeling roundtable chat between the four of the show's Japanese voice actors.
Although Hero Tales wants to show off the thrill of battle while evoking the spirit of traditional Chinese legends, there just isn't enough talent and effort put into this work to make it a winner—at least not yet. The first half of the series is defined mostly by its shortcomings: an origin story far too ordinary, characters lacking in unique traits outside of the fantasy mold, and filler events taking priority over real story development. The barely-adequate animation doesn't help, either. By the time the plot does take a dramatic turn, the show's audience may have already wandered off in search of something more interesting. And it'll take a real hero—or at least, a really good second half of the series—to win them back.
Overall (dub) : C-
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C-
Animation : C-
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Evokes the feel of a traditional Chinese legend and takes some intriguing twists in the later episodes.
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