Reviewby Theron Martin,
Ruin Explorers - Fam and Ihrie
DVD - Complete Collection
Mighty civilizations ruled the land before a war over the control of magic devastated it, forcing mankind into a long rebuilding process. In this new era intrepid adventurers who explore ancient ruins in search of the magic and treasures of the past are called Ruin Explorers. The swordswoman Ihrie and the Wiccan mage Fam are one such duo. Ihrie is on the prowl for the Ultimate Power, which she intends to use to rid herself of a curse which makes it tricky for her to use her own magic, but she and her partner have been down on their luck until approached by the merchant Galuff, who claims to know where it is but be incapable of getting it himself. This sets the duo on a quest which involves conflict with a rival Ruin Explorer duo who also seeks the Ultimate Power. Eventually it also gets all four – plus the merchant and his dog! – mixed up in a prince's quest to avenge the destruction of his homeland by a powerful sorcerer who once served the prince's father.
Both subbed and dubbed versions of this four episode 1995 OVA series were staples of viewing rooms at anime and gaming conventions through the late '90s and very early 2000s, and it was originally dubbed and released by ADV Films in 1998 (in fact, current Maiden Japan executive Matt Greenfield did the ADR work on it himself), so it being licensed-rescued by Maiden Japan is hardly a surprise. At the very least it represents a prime bit of nostalgia for those whose anime fandom dates back that far, and the elements that made it entertaining back in the mid-to-late '90s have aged well. That this new rerelease might garner it some new fans, especially amongst the tabletop fantasy RPG-playing crowd, is hardly inconceivable.
The manga on which the anime is based originally appeared in RPG Magazine, which was published by the same Hobby Japan now more known to anime fans as the publisher of the Queen's Blade game books. Thus it was likely the complementary comic typical of gaming magazines from that era rather than a feature piece, so it would have to have been tailored specifically to fantasy RPG fans. Unlike many other RPG-inspired works, though, Ruin Explorers fully captures the spirit of heroic fantasy without giving too much of a “dice rolling behind the screen” kind of feel. It does not constrain itself by casting its characters neatly into “classes;” Ihrie can use magic but mostly uses a sword and wears armor, for instance, and pretty much anyone who uses magic can apparently use healing spells. It also does not engage in self-aware metagaming. As a result, it can tell a breezy, free-wheeling story about adventurers who explore trapped dungeons, fight monsters and villains, deal with rascally merchants, and go on quests, and if along the way it should happen to engage in a bit of actual character and story development, where's the harm in that?
In many respects the series has a look, attitude, and feel similar to the original Slayers TV series, which came out at about the same time but has no significant commonalities in production companies or staff. All of the first episode and most of the second and third are dominated by silly fun as Fam and Ihrie get into one awkward situation or another or squabble with their rivals Migel and Rasha; although Fam's veritable war with Rasha over the dashing prince Lyle can get a bit irritating after a while, these parts are usually quite entertaining, especially the running gag about falling through floors. It has some amusing little twists on a regular basis, too, such as how Rasha is unreasonably frightened of a certain thing or why Ihrie is so circumspect about using her magic even though it is shown to be rather powerful. Lyle's story taking over inevitably forces the tone in a more serious direction whenever it happens, but prior to episode four those story elements do not predominate. Episode four, however, is a radical change, as it plays seriously and rather grimly from the beginning and only lightens up after the climax. Along the way we get a good feel for where Fam, Ihrie, and Lyle are all coming from and a convincing (if not especially well-developed) sense of female bonding between Fam and Ihrie that carries not the slightest hint of lesbianism. We also, surprisingly, get a bit more depth out of the main villain Rugudorull than one would initially expect, as he turns out to be more a case of good intentions gone horribly, horribly wrong than just a pure “evil for the sake of evil” kind of villain, and that his backstory casts Lyle and his father as guilty of obliviousness is an interesting tarnishing of their otherwise-perfect images.
On the technical front the series is far from a masterpiece. Director and scripter Takeshi Mori, who was known in the '90s for directing noteworthy OVAs like Otaku no Video and Gunsmith Cats and in the 2000s for TV series like Vandread, Stratos 4, and The Skull Man, leads a studio Animate team in creating a project that uses some very limited animation in places; this is especially true of Lyle's flashbacks, although the visual effect still gets the point across nicely. Action scenes are also hardly gloriously detailed affairs, although they also generally do not take the kinds of shortcuts commonly seen in fights scenes from the late '90s and 2000s. The animation is good enough to pull off the visual gags and give a good sense of powerful magic being afoot, however, and some of the facial expressions used in the series are classics. Character designs use a sharp-nosed aesthetic typical of the time period but rarely seen these days, but that is hardly the only reason why many of the designs stick out. Fam is a delicate, narrow-bodied figure suggestive of a fantasy RPG elf (although she does have a tail) and Ihrie, with her long hair and never-explained x-shaped scar on her cheek, convincingly pulls off the impression of a rough-edged beauty. Other characters have more generic fantasy character base looks, but not completely so. Potentially objectionable content includes a couple of brief scenes each of nudity and graphic violence, but overall the title is remarkably light on prurient fan service and bloodletting, so the TV-PG rating assigned to it is only a bit of a stretch.
The soundtrack is a little stronger. Opener “Magical Beat,” which is also used for the episode 4 closer, is an adequately enthusiastic and dramatic but also fairly generic opener, but closer “Dear Myself” has a gentler, more cutesy sound that somehow fits the series well. In between the fully orchestrated score occasionally goes a little over-the-top in a hammy way, but this series has a lot of ham in it so that hardly is a detriment.
Maiden Japan's release retains the original 1998 English dub, which was a solid effort overall. The script may take some wording liberties, which includes fleshing out certain parts a little more, but it scrupulously stays on-topic. The voices are hardly perfect matches for the originals; Jason Douglas gives Lyle an older, more noble (and vaguely British) sound than the boyish original performance and Tamara Lo takes a raspy approach to Ihrie, but neither performance is a problem and they are joined by wonderful efforts like Guil Lunde playing up the merchant Gil's slick, weaselly demeanor, Phil Ross's “wise old man” rendition of the spirit Sargus, and Jessica Calvello's high-pitched, flighty Fam.
In rereleasing the title Maiden Japan has retooled a few things, including restoring the original title screens and Japanese credits and adding the “Fam and Ihrie” (which is in the original Japanese title) back into the title. They also add in Japanese voice credits, which were conspicuously absent on ADV's 2000 DVD release; (thankfully!) update the subtitle font; and give the case a new and much sharper cover. The original DVD only had a collection of screen shots for Extras, which is replaced here with clean opener and closer and an audio commentary for episode 2 by Kelly Manison (Rasha) and Brett Weaver (Migel and the dog Gil), which was apparently done a few years after the dub was recorded. The one error is that the case lists the run time as 100 minutes when the episodes actually average 29 minutes in length (not counting the separate English credits scrolls), so a run time of 120 minutes would have been more accurate.
If you always thought about picking this one up but never got around to it then this is the version that you want, as it has a better set of Extras, has numerous small tweaks that improve things, and is cheaper (MSRP of $19.98 compared to the original's $29.98). Newcomers will find a fun couple of fantasy adventure hours that will consistently entertain without straining your brain.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C+
Art : C+
Music : B
+ Many fun recurring gags, likable characters, captures the spirit of fantasy RPGs while avoiding the mechanics.
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