Pile of Shame
Legend of the Dragon Kings

by Justin Sevakis,

Legend of the Dragon Kings
(A.K.A. Sohryuden, Legend of the Four Kings)

When a much-loved book or manga series gets a TV anime adaptation, fans of the original work hold their breath. Some adaptations improve on the original work. Others take its potential, set fire to it, and then pee on it. In terms of quality adaptations and wasted potential, Legend of the Dragon Kings is pretty much at the bottom of the pile.

The series is ostensibly the tale of four orphaned-but-rich-and-successful Ryudo brothers: Hajime, who at 23 is chairman of the board at the school his grandfather founded; college-aged bishounen Tsuzuku, tough high schooler Owaru, and 13-year-old Amaru. (These names translate as "First, continued, ending, and leftovers." Apparently their parents suffered a lack of imagination.) The four get by with the help of their cousin Matsuri, who comes by to cook and clean for the boys. Their grandfather also looks in, and tells the brothers that they have their own destiny, and school isn't such a high priority for them.

Beyond being awesome in every way, the brothers have a secret: they all have strange powers. Physically, they seem superhuman. Amaru levitates. The reason is that they're reincarnations of ancient Chinese dragons, who were basically gods -- responsible for such things as gravity, fire and cold, sound and wind, and thunder and rain. The legend surrounding the boys is known by Funazu, a very old man who controls Japan's politics and wishes to control the Ryudo brothers' powers for himself. He sends henchmen after them, at first to kidnap Amaru, and then worse. The brothers inevitably end up at war with Funazu and his seemingly endless political and financial power.

As evil as Funazu is, it's very hard to root for the Ryudo Brothers. They're more or less invincible, they KNOW they're invincible, and consequently they're kind of obnoxious. Their personalities play like shoujo manga "hot guy" tropes -- Hajime is the strong, silent type; Tsuzuku is the aloof bishounen; Owaru is the jock and Amaru is the cute kid. Their personalities pretty much end there. There's simply not much more to it than that.

Legend of the Dragon Kings comes from quite a pedigree on the publishing side. The original books were written by Yoshiki Tanaka (Legend of Galactic Heroes, Heroic Legend of Arslan) and originally illustrated by none other than Yoshitaka Amano for the book's hardcover run, and then by CLAMP when the paperbacks came out. They were all very pretty, and the novel series were frequent best-sellers.

And then the OAV came out. With its simple, ugly line art and cheap looking animation. It couldn't help but be a let-down. Animated by Kitty Films around the time their big TV series Ranma 1/2 was wrapping up, the show came during a time of financial distress for the studio. As the episodes drag on they seem increasingly cut-rate. Even at the first episode there's little in the way of shading or detail, and by the end the characters go off-model pretty frequently.

Nonetheless, the show doesn't lack for big names behind it. The first three episodes are directed and storyboarded by Osamu Dezaki, with later episodes being helmed by Hisayuki Toriumi. Akinori Endo (Armitage III, Battle Angel, Moonlight Mile) wrote most of the episodes. And yet somehow, the show is a resounding failure -- fans in Japan hated it, and it was a slow seller in both America and the UK. In Japan, new episodes came out around once a month, with the entire series then getting a run on FujiTV after it ended.

I have to admit, the only thing I actually like about this god-forsaken series is the opening sequence. Maybe it's the very 80s power pop anthem ("WILLING" by ERI), or the fact that the very flowy visuals have absolutely nothing to do with the show or the story (there seems to be a prince and a hot lady who are lovers, but they accidentally keep killing each other with swords while posing awesomely). It's a nice touch of surrealism and weirdness in a show that is otherwise dull as dirt.

This is one of those titles that has two English dubs, and both of them are as bland and mediocre as the show itself. Central Park Media originally put out the entire show on subtitled VHS (it did not do well), and didn't go back and dub it until years later, when the company was getting desperate for new DVD releases. They handed off to the mediocre dub studio Matlin Recording (the studio infamous for dubbing the Patlabor TV series so poorly), and Matlin did their usual zero-effort work. (To their credit, a scene with Owaru and Amaru in the bath together was privately given an amusingly homoerotic parody dub. But we couldn't release that.) Jessica Calvello and Dan Green both put in some decent performances, which makes the whole thing seem a little better than it would otherwise.

Over in the UK, Manga Video released the series on VHS right at the peak of the company's heyday. Desperate to make the show seem more action-packed and less fantasy-oriented, they retitled the show "Legend of the Four Kings," and replaced the opening with their own custom-edited one, complete with industrial rock soundtrack. This dub is also pretty dismal, but looking online, it seems that quite a few people remember it fondly. Manga Video's usual London-based regulars (helmed by Michael Bakewell) turn in a middle-of-the-road performance.

I don't know what to do with this show. I've come close to buying the boxed set for really cheap a few times, and then thought, "crap, I am NEVER going to get through that show again." And then I pop in the Manga Video dub once in a blue moon and almost start to enjoy myself. Almost.

Japanese Name: 創竜伝 (Sohryuden)

Media Type: OAV Series

Length: 12 x 45 min.

Vintage: 1991-1993

Genres: Fantasy, action

Availability (Japan): A boxed set was released in 2001, followed by single volumes (containing 2 episodes each). Both are out of print, but fairly easy to find used. No English on 'em, of course.

Availability (English): Manga Video's UK releases never made it to DVD, but CPM's sure did. Despite being out of print for years, I was still able to find the boxed set online - new - for far less than SRP.

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