Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 20th 2009
Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee
Episodes 1-6 streaming
In the world of Amberground, a single star lights the central capital city, while other regions lie under a cover of perpetual night. It is out there in the darkness that residents rely on the services of Letter Bees, whose job is to deliver letters, packages and even people from town to town, while avoiding Amberground's deadliest hazard—a species of giant insect known as Gaichuu. When a young boy named Lag Seeing is delivered to his aunt by a Letter Bee named Gauche Suede, he is inspired to become a Letter Bee himself, and sets out to take the entrance exam. However, a number of obstacles stand in his way, including a mysterious package in the form of a little girl, and a dead-end town whose residents can't be trusted. Before he can even become a Letter Bee, Lag must prove his integrity among Amberground's common people.
Letter Bee may be one of the last few adventure series that is genuinely about adventure—as opposed to ones that eventually turn into nonstop fighting tournaments. Sure, this is only the first few episodes, but if the introspective characters and laid-back setting are anything to go by, they're not going to be having mindless, hot-blooded brawls anytime soon. Just look at Lag Seeing, who is not only burdened with an uncool name but is small for his age (that's a twelve-year-old?) and breaks into tears at the littlest thing. And just look at his chosen path in life, which involves delivering the mail, not training to get stronger or fighting to defeat everyone. This is an anime for those of us whose inner child does not dream of conquering the world, but simply making it a better place ... one delivery at a time.
If there's one thing this series does better than anything else, it's that subtle atmosphere of wonder and discovery. Amberground is revealed to us in little snippets of landscape, from deserts to coastal villages to forests to run-down old towns, slowly illuminating the details about a world that's intially introduced in broad, general strokes. The strongly hierarchical structure of Amberground (high-class people live in the light; middle-class people live in dim light; all the other losers can live in total darkness) allows us to look at the big picture, while at the same time following the characters' more personal stories. It's a world that's completely built from top to bottom, creating a unique background from which any number of stories can emerge.
The quality of those stories, however, isn't as hauntingly beautiful as the land of Amberground itself. There's a lot of melodramatic cheese to be found even in these early episodes, with tearful separations, wistful flashbacks, terminally ill siblings, and many dramatic speeches about the value of friendship and love. While some of these aspects are genuinely heartfelt—Gauche's noble sense of duty, Lag's relationship with his aunt, the finale of the Dead End Town story in Episode 6—the series also has a bad habit of going way too far with the crying jags and sappy monologues. Meanwhile, the presence of comic relief in the form of a temperamental little girl and an animal mascot only makes the emotional balance more awkward—it's hard to laugh when every other minute is spent lamenting the fate of Amberground's disenfranchised. Then there are the moments of Gaichuu-battling action, which seem like an obligatory concession to the series' target demographic of young males rather than a central element of a Letter Bee's duties.
Ah, yes, speaking of Gaichuu-battling action. This is where the animation, like the storyline, seems to be a mixed bag—the artistic intent is there, but it's handled in a clumsy manner, with plastic-looking CGI beasts looking woefully out of place among the scenery. The overall animation technique isn't much to rave about either, relying heavily on standard camera angles, taking a lot of still-frame shortcuts, and generally only stepping things up when the Gauche or Lag release their special monster-smashing powers. When it comes to backgrounds and character design, however, the artistry is far more commendable: the blend of feudal and industrial eras results in a unique visual aesthetic, not only among the characters themselves, but also in the architecture of the towns they visit. However, it's the night sky that really gives the series its signature look, with deep blues and purples in almost every scene and dozens of twinkling stars every time the characters look up.
Trying to capture the mood of the series musically is something of a challenge—this is, after all, a world of exploration and fantasy, but not the screaming sword-slashing kind of fantasy. The soundtrack addresses this challenge with a number of pleasant Baroque and Classical-inspired tracks, plus some imitation Gregorian chant for those really heart-wrenching moments. It's an idea that only works up to a certain point: the sheer amount of tinkly harpsichord music can be comical at times, and chamber-orchestra arrangements aren't powerful enough to hit the emotional extremes. The theme songs are more mainstream in their approach, though, with Suga Shikao's jazzy opener setting the mood perfectly for the series, although the closer performed by HIMEKA falls strictly in the realm of generic ending-song filler.
So, if Letter Bee's opening episodes feel a little different from the norm, that's because it's an adventure with a unique vibe—one that's built on the triumphs and tragedies of the human heart, rather than the triumphs and tragedies of having the best sword, or the best fists, or the best spirit powers. The only thing that matters is being the best letter carrier, which means surviving the wilds of a beautifully rendered fantasy world while reaching out to the hearts of both senders and recipients. However, it's the reaching out to the hearts of others that turn some of the episodes into melodramatic goop, and the "we'll settle for good enough" approach to animation puts a damper on the stunning visual design. Although the series still counts as good, it stops just short of being great.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Animation : C
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ A fully conceived fantasy world with striking landscape and architecture sets the stage for tales of exploration and adventure.
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