Anime Programming in the US
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Lost in Translation
The Arcana Famiglia is a powerful organization that keeps the peace on the trading island of Regalo. The most unique trait of this prestigious "family" is their mastery of the Arcana—mystical powers derived from tarot cards. The current leader of the Arcana Famiglia, Mondo, wishes to choose a successor through a tournament called the Arcana Duello, and as added incentive, the winner will take the hand of Mondo's daughter, Felicita. However, two young men among the family—impetuous Liberta and serious-minded Nova—are more interested in protecting Felicita's freedom than letting her be someone's trophy wife. Together, Liberta, Nova and Felicita get to know each other better ... but with Felicita's ability to read minds, she may discover more than she bargained for in Liberta's violent past and Nova's troubled family history. Can the trio remain friends, or will the growing tension between them be too much to bear?
La storia della Arcana Famiglia is a strange case of false advertising: they say right in Episode 1 that they're going to have a tournament, and then halfway through the season, they're no closer to having started it. Instead, this saga of "cool guys doing cool things" relies heavily on characters and atmosphere, hoping that viewers will be more interested in friendships and rivalries among the Arcana Famiglia than who wins the Arcana Duello. That's all well and good for those who like to admire pretty boys dressed in snappy suits and ties (while learning about their tortured pasts), but those expecting an actual plot may be left wondering where it went.
Give the series credit for one thing, though: at least it gets filler episodes out of the way first. Episode 2 is basically about returning a lost kitten to its rightful owner, while Episode 3 involves various Famiglia members trying to babysit kids during a local holiday. By this point, people who don't like having their time wasted have probably already dropped the series—but more patient souls will discover that there is a story developing in between all the fluff. Tidbits of exposition ("Let me introduce you to how the family works") and hints of repressed childhood memories are sprinkled throughout these episodes, but barely enough to keep one satisfied.
Only in the latter half of Episode 4 does the story start to move forward. Liberta's past is finally revealed, stereotypical as it may be: of course he's the kid with dangerous untapped powers, as might be expected from the Fool (or wild-card) Arcana. Following that is Nova's turn in the spotlight—his unhappy family background and cold attitude are well-suited to someone bearing the Arcana of Death, creating a "negative" character who balances out Liberta as a rival. Then comes an obvious attempt at building a love triangle as Liberta, Nova and Felicita head out on a rescue mission—an episode that also brings out the hand-to-hand combat and Arcana sorcery promised way back in Episode 1. Think about that for a moment: having to sit through several episodes' worth of kitten-rescuing, casual interaction, and back-story, just to get to the part where the Arcana Famiglia actually makes use of their amazing powers.
Because the series is driven so much by the characters simply being there, good character design is a must. That's clear to see in the attractive and easily identifiable main cast: right away everyone notices Felicita, Liberta and Nova's color-coded hair (red, blonde, and blue respectively), but they also benefit from unique faces and silhouettes, as well as the way they carry themselves. Other key members of the family are also drawn with striking visual elements: eyepatches, shaved heads, glasses, whatever it takes to make it clear that this guy is not to be confused with that guy. Action scenes offer the characters their best opportunity to shine, and between the high-speed kicks, punches, spins, and swordplay, it's clear that animating these scenes are a top priority. However, there are also many long stretches of lazy, one-character-against-a-static-background animation, or even blatant shortcuts like frozen crowds and heads bobbing up and down to indicate walking. The backgrounds, too, are a mixed bag of genuine effort and cost-cutting laziness: brightly colored landscapes and houses give the outdoors a distinctly Mediterranean feel, yet sparsely decorated walls and flat colors make the Arcana Famiglia mansion look bland from the inside.
The Mediterranean atmosphere is also evident in the soundtrack, where acoustic guitars and ringing mandolins create a distinctive sound. However, the recorded volume of the music is often too low to make out a tune, much less get caught up in the emotion. Ultimately it's a missed opportunity for the series, which derives much of its appeal from how Italian everything is: Italian names, Italian setting, (disappointingly soft) pseudo-Italian folk music. In fact, the show tries so hard at cultural verisimilitude that it often drops Italian words into the script, so that lemonade is now limonata, the tarot is called tarocco, and obviously the family is a famiglia. It's a cute touch, although sometimes more distracting than it needs to be.
In the end, La storia della Arcana Famiglia is not what some may have expected. The first six episodes dash any hopes of this being about dueling with tarot-card abilities, or about the inner politics of power and succession in a family-like organization. Instead, it's mostly about just being there—getting to know these suave Italian guys and their backgrounds, and maybe taking care of kittens and kids. The handsome character designs make it tolerable (provided that one's tastes lean toward dapper young men in suits and ties), and the animation has its occasional moments of brilliance during the all-too-rare fight scenes. However, with the main storyline moving so slowly, or not at all, one has to wonder if there's anything worth looking forward to in the series' second half.
Overall (sub) : C-
Story : D
Animation : C
Art : B-
Music : C
+ Stylish characters with a troubled past, elegant Italian setting, and occasional fight scenes are enough to make it interesting.
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