Reviewby Carlo Santos,
DVD - Complete Collection
Many know of the great onmyouji Abe no Seimei, but few know that he had a grandson, Masahiro. Although Masahiro aims to follow in his grandfather's footsteps, he's still rough around the edges at the age of 13. However, when Masahiro meets a powerful mononoke, he finds that he finally has the guidance and—when the mononoke changes to human form—the protection that he needs. The timing couldn't be better, because demons are constantly plaguing the capital, and Masahiro's famous lineage means that he's often in the line of fire. Eventually, Masahiro is assigned to guarding the imperial princess, but an even greater challenge arises when a dark force begins plotting against Abe no Seimei himself. As part of the plot, Masahiro's closest companion turns against him, and the boy will have to make the hardest decision of his young life.
There is no way Shonen Onmyouji is supposed to be this good. After all, we're talking about a teenage boy who discovers his amazing spirit powers and learns valuable life lessons by fighting increasingly tough opponents. There's absolutely nothing original about this, the title is the most generic thing ever (it could also be titled Demon Hunting Adventure), and the opening credits are completely interchangeable with any other action-fantasy anime. Yet after just a few episodes, we find ourselves rooting for the characters, wishing the best for Masahiro, and getting hooked on a generations-spanning tale of mystical intrigue. How does Shonen Onmyouji do it?
The answer is something often forgotten: Just tell a good story.
Sure, there are a couple of episodes at the start where it looks like Masahiro is headed down the path of another magic-blasting hack-and-slash snoozefest. But that's where the mediocrity stops, and the quality of storytelling quickly ramps up: each event connects logically to the next, isolated incidents turn out to be major clues and plot points, and each monster-of-the-week showdown is smartly woven into a grander tale. In fact, the entire first half of the series—which basically centers around a powerful demon trying to capture Princess Akiko—is so well-constructed, with layer upon layer of story, that following the plot is almost more fun than watching the sparks fly in the inevitable final battle.
After such dazzling theatrics, the middle episodes can't help but fall a little short, with Masahiro taking on less exciting missions (including, believe it or not, babysitting his older brother's kids). Yet even during this lull in the action, the seeds of the grand finale are being sown, so when things finally kick into gear—a rival from Seimei's past begins to move; the Emperor's entire family falls under attack—it's a perfectly timed, much-anticipated run-up to the big finish.
Admittedly, some of the magical theory in the final arc ends up tripping over its own complexity: "you have to defeat this person to unlock that other person who can lift the curse from that other other person" or something like that. Perhaps, spurred by the success of the first arc, this series tries to do a little too much for the finale. Still, the plot remains on the side of coherence, and even as it treads familiar ground—a decades-long grudge, a shocking betrayal, all-out magical warfare, and a heartbreaking sacrifice—it does so in a way that's gripping and emotionally involving. (Speaking of which, make sure to stay past the final credits to see the resolution of the one romantic plot point that everyone was hoping for.)
Visual design is one of the key elements that gives Shonen Onmyouji its unique historical flavor. Colorful Heian-period costumes abound, mythical creatures walk the night, and the grand architecture of the ancient Capital—although a bit dull at times—is a fitting representation of onmyou magic's golden age. The basic character designs are less impressive, however, relying on all manner of stereotypes: Masahiro the black-haired hero boy, Akiko the sweet-faced princess who always needs saving, Guren the tall, dark, bare-chested guardian warrior ... the list goes on. Even the shikigami spirits that serve the Abe family, varied as they are, seem to be copied wholesale from other fantasy anime and video games. The animation techinque has its shortcomings too, although less noticeable: behind the sharp linework and vivid colors lies a heavy reliance on computer effects for fight scenes, plus sneaky shortcuts when the framerate can't quite keep up with the action. Still, the visuals are polished enough to enjoy without having to avert one's eyes.
The music falls on a similar level of "good enough but not quite great," exemplified in the rousing but forgettable theme songs that bookend each episode. The background music, too, relies on a typical epic-fantasy sound laced with traditional Japanese instruments, but aside from setting the mood, there's nothing particularly memorable about it.
Meanwhile, the English dub of this series will remind viewers of one very salient fact: Japanese historical fantasy uses a lot of odd names. Although the dub has its strong points—the actors match the original voices fairly well, and deliver their lines with conviction—it is also a cacophony of questionable pronunciation, which is made all the more jarring when some of the characters try to force an accent. (There is one goddess who can't seem to decide whether she's from Old England, New England, or somewhere in the North Atlantic.) But give them some credit for using honorifics in order to maintain the show's cultural flavor. The adapted script is a mixed bag as well, and while it does a good job of rewriting and clarifying some of the trickier lines of dialogue (especially during huge chunks of plot exposition), there are also many dubbed lines that seem to have been changed from the original translation just for the sake of changing them.
At times, it seems that the world of anime is a never-ending arms race to have the prettiest characters, the flashiest animation, the most controversial topic, or whatever is deemed a measure of "quality" these days. Then along comes something like Shonen Onmyouji, which puts aside such superficial concerns to focus what quality really means: telling a good story. Yes, it is exactly about a boy who must use his amazing powers to save the world, but such a clichéd description doesn't begin to explain the surprising layers of depth in this historical adventure. Despite the series' faults—not-quite-spectacular production values, run-of-the-mill characters, a convoluted endgame—it still delivers the ultimate thrill of always wanting know what happens next. There's no way such a hackneyed premise was supposed to be this good. But it is.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : C
Art : B
Music : C
+ Takes a picturesque historical era and a familiar scenario and weaves them into a surprisingly deep, engaging, action-packed series.
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