Reviewby Theron Martin,
DVD 1: Legend of the Magatama
The Heian Era of Japan marks a time of great suffering in Heian-Kyo (aka Kyoto), as disease and famine ravage the populace. The legendary samurai archer Minamoto is dispatched on an imperial quest to recover the Magatama, an artifact which can restore the well-being of the land and people. Minamoto falls gravely ill before he can complete the task, however, so his younger sister Hikaru secretly assumes his identity and takes on his task. With the help of Minamoto's loyal henchman Watanabe no Tsuna and, later on, other companions, Hikaru pursues the Magatama through a land fraught with bandits and political intrigues.
Otogi Zoshi is set around 970 A.D. at the heart of Japan's Heian Era (794-1185). Many of the key characters in the series actually were prominent figures of the time; Abe-no-Seimei, for instance, really was a renowned scholar and onmyoji of the mid-to-late 900s. Minamoto no Yorimitsu (aka Raikou) was a famous warrior from the same period, and his four retainers, known as the Shitennou (the precursor of the “Big Four” seen in many modern stories, perhaps?), did include Watanabe no Tsuna, Usui no Sadamitsu, and Urabe no Suetake, all of whom appear in the series and join Hikaru/Raiko's quests. The fourth retainer, Sakata no Kintoki (aka Kintaro), hasn't appeared by the end of the fifth episode but it's a safe bet that he will eventually. Minamoto was most famous for killing the demon Shuten Doji, whose name pops up in the series as a villain who may eventually have to be confronted. Minamoto was also known for subjugating the Tsuchigumo, who have a prominent role in the first three episodes. Never mentioned in the old stories is any hint of Minamoto having been replaced by his sister, which is the point where this series diverges from history and legend. Another point of divergence is that the historical Minamoto was a renowned swordsman, while the Minamoto of this series is instead a renowned archer—though archery is a specialty is more in tune with what was typical of samurai at that time. (Samurai didn't actually specialize in swordplay until later in Japanese history.) And of course there's the whole business with the Magatamas, though the court intrigues are probably accurate. The result is a solid work of historical fiction which plays around with the real history about as much as the movie Braveheart did in telling its story.
Although it sports numerous intense action sequences, Otogi Zoshi is not exclusively an action series. Much of the storytelling appeal comes from watching the scheming of the imperial court officials and the interactions of the main characters. Hikaru's love and devotion towards her brother is so strong that she is willing to take great personal risk in this scheme to imitate her brother, and Tsuna's devotion to protection and serving (and possibly loving?) her is at least as strong and impressive, even if he is an overzealous blowhard. Although Hikaru starts out just lending her brother's name and reputation to their mission (as well as a bit of archery skill), it eventually becomes apparent that her role is just as important for managing the abilities and personalities of her more capable companions. Equally intriguing is her brief association with the incomparable entertainer Mansairaku, who pops up regularly but doesn't do a whole lot in this volume. One gets the sense, though, that Hikaru hasn't seen the last of him and that he will become an important player later on.
The character design, which emphasizes the long hairstyles typical of the time period, is gorgeous. Sumptuous costuming highlights the designs, easily ranking the series among the best in recent memory in both categories. In fact, the series is almost worth watching just on those merits. Backgrounds have the styling of period watercolor paintings in some places and resemble detailed colored pencil sketches in others, creating a stark contrast with the artistry of the digitally-colored characters. Use of shadows, especially on the characters, is outstanding, and attention is paid even to small details such as how Hikaru's eboshi (her hat) sits low over her eyes to further help disguise her gender. Though the animation uses highlight shots in some combat scenes, its overall quality is excellent. CG enhancement and perspective-shifting tricks contribute to several fluid, dynamic fight sequences and equally appealing Noh dance sequences. The red-tinted chase sequence at the beginning is also a neat stylistic effect.
The soundtrack is sparse throughout the series, allowing the writing to carry most of the burden for supporting the story—which is as it should be for a serious historical drama. When music is present it's typically Noh dance rhythms and haunting flute melodies played in traditional Japanese style, including one great sequence where Hikaru plays her flute on a rooftop as Mansairaku dances to it. The closer features a gentle adult contemporary-styled number playing over colored sketches of Hikaru, while the dynamic opener uses a unique rock mix infused with classical flute melodies and synthesizer support.
The English dub done by Bang Zoom! is an eclectic mix of performances. Taylor Henry, in what I believe is his first major role (he's done small parts prior to this), captures the devoted arrogance and bluster of the original performance of Tsuna, while veteran Kirk Thornton perfectly embodies the attitude of Sadamitsu but does it with a substantially different vocal style which may not appeal to some viewers. Julie Ann Taylor does fine with Hikaru when speaking in Hikaru's normal voice, but the use of a raspy voice when imitating her brother (where the original seiyuu simply dropped her pitch a bit) was ill-advised. Most other performances hit at least close to the mark and the English script is reasonably close. If you're not normally a “dub” person then this one is unlikely to impress you, but the problems aren't severe enough that I'd recommend against the dub for impartial or dub-favoring viewers. Oddly, there's one place in the fifth episode where the English dub cuts out for one line, a glitch which doesn't exist on the Japanese vocal tracks. Whether this was just a defect on the disk I had or an actual problem with the dub track is hard to tell.
Even the regular version of the first volume is well-stocked with extras. A second disk includes standard extras like company previews and textless opener and closer, but it also has the first installment of a lecture on the Heian Era by a Tokyo University history professor, who points out which aspects of the anime are and are not historically accurate. (Most interesting were the comments on how Heian Era Japanese disposed of their dead and rarely used poison.) Also present are the first two parts of a round table discussion involving the director, character designer, animation director, and the person responsible for serial composition, who discuss various behind-the-scenes aspects of the series production as well as particular episodes and characters. All totaled these extras compose an additional hour of material. On top of this is a set of liner notes which explains various historical elements from the Heian Era which are either represented in the anime or relevant to the anime. And the liner notes and both disks come in packaging no thicker than a single-packed DVD! (Other companies could learn something about space efficiency here. . .)
The main DVD includes both 2.0 and Dolby 5.1 audio options for both the English and Japanese language tracks in addition to separate subtitling options and five full episodes, which coupled with the extras makes this volume one of the better values out there. There's even a fully-animated sequence of Hikaru playing her flute on the main menu screen. The Scene Access Menu lacks a “skip to episode” option, though, an increasing (and annoying) trend in Anime Works productions which requires the viewer to skip through the scene options for earlier episodes to get to later ones. I also had problems getting changes in the language and subtitling options to engage when I used the Scene Access menu; anytime you change one of those settings you have to start over from the beginning and liberally use the “skip chapter” button on your remote if you want the setting changes to kick in. This is a major flaw in the encoding which I hope will be corrected for future volumes.
[Editor's Note: Media Blasters informs us that setup menu has been corrected in the second pressing of this volume, the navigation menu however remains the same.]
Otogi Zoshi achieves a good balance of action, drama, and intrigue in its first volume and is filled with interesting takes on historical characters. It's also easy on the eyes and a good value for the price. History buffs are sure to love the historical focus, while others will be drawn in by the action or gorgeous characters. The pacing and graphic content place the series beyond a younger audience, but I give it a strong recommendation for teen and older audiences, especially those looking for a change of pace from standard anime fare. While not the only anime to focus on a female character posing as a male during the Heian Era (see Kai Doh Maru), it is, by far, the better of the two.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Top-rate character design, excellent (and conservative) use of musical themes
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