The Fall 2018 Anime Preview Guide Ulysses: Jeanne d'Arc and the Alchemist Knight
How would you rate episode 1 of
Ulysses: Jeanne d'Arc and the Alchemist Knight ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
This may not be one of the worst series of the season, but it's definitely the most disappointing first episode for me so far. After all, how can you not introduce one of your titular characters in the first episode?
To an extent I can understand it; the goal is to establish Montmorency, aka the Ulysses of the title, and that has to be done first if he's supposed to meet Jeanne d'Arc later on, since she was only 17 when she came forward with her visions. The girls who ran around with him in his youth will also be significantly involved in the greater story if the closer (which I presume is the regular opener) is any indication, so their connection to Montmorency will have to be explored too. The story will also clearly be about these former friends get separated but eventually come back together in adulthood as both friends and enemies. So structurally, there's nothing wrong with this approach.
The problem is that nothing so far distinguishes this from any other fanservice-laden fantasy harem series out there. The opener makes it clear that the more reasonably-proportioned girls will soon become super-busty beauties who flash their assets in ridiculous fantasy costumes, and previews indicate that Jeanne is no different, with a "good" half and "evil" half of differing proportions. (It's also a bad sign when breast-size jokes are being made before the character even appears in the series.) The historical references are also mostly out the window already. Though the map of France shown at one point is historical, this is fantasy-France all the way from fairies, the Philosopher's Stone, Richemont being a female knight-in-training, or Henry V using some kind of magic that requires a giant pentagram made of fences. The details of the Battle of Agincourt are mostly wrong too; at least they got the part about it raining correct. The mediocre technical merits also don't help matters, as respectable character designs are hampered by inadequate animation.
Overall, Ulysses is crippled more by being utterly bland than notably bad. This might make a decent base for a fanservice-driven fantasy series in the spirit of Lord Marksman and Vanadis, but right now it's not doing anything to warrant further attention.
I'm of the opinion that you shouldn't let historical facts get in the way of good historical fiction. If a show needs to throw a few inconvenient details out the window in order to tell a compelling story, then that's fine by me. Ulysses seems to share that viewpoint, but despite its boatload of historical revisions, the story it tells is the polar opposite of compelling. Instead, it's clumsy, bland, and instantly forgettable. With neither an engaging cast nor a unique gimmick on hand to salvage the narrative, this is one of the season's least interesting premieres so far.
While other shows have featured generic or archetypal casts, the characters here are almost impressively dull. The four leads in this episode do, technically, have different personalities, but it's often hard to tell because of the weak dialogue. There's no tension in their minor disagreements, nor any spark of rivalry or romance in their interactions. They all just shuffle aimlessly through their plot-defined roles while stating the bleeding obvious without much wit or enthusiasm. It is, therefore, pretty difficult to care when the four of them are split up shortly after making a vow to remain friends forever, with the general implication being that they'll end up on opposite sides of the war. This is probably supposed to be a defining point of tragedy, but I got nothing out of it on an emotional level.
That leaves us with just Montmorency, who locks himself away in a tower to experiment on a rock with some help from his new fairy ally. It looks like he'll spend the remainder of the series raging against fate with an uncertain degree of success, possibly accompanied by the currently unintroduced Jeanne d'Arc. That doesn't fill me with a great deal of optimism, since Montmorency falls into an uninspired middle ground as a protagonist. He's not upbeat enough to play the idealistic hero, nor is he witty or jaded enough to follow a morally ambiguous route. The same issue applies to this episode's attempts at getting dark and serious, which consistently fall flat from awkward pacing and weak presentation.
If you're an optimist and the premise of childhood friends fighting it out in the Hundred Years' War sounds intriguing, then you might want to give this show one more week. The seven-year time skip at the end of this episode opens the door for any number of revisions to the main characters' personalities and relationships, so that's essentially a free pass for the series to get its act together. For what it's worth, though, neither the credit sequence nor the next episode preview left me feeling hopeful. I might check in later in the season to see if anyone calls our alchemist hero “Mont-moron-cy” in Funimation's simuldub, but that's the only reason I can think of to stick around.
To think that we have series with both “Ulysses” and “Jean d'Arc” in the title, and this premiere doesn't give us either a wayward Ithican soldier on a years-long odyssey back to his homeland or a young farmgirl-turned-holy warrior who is driven onward by visions of the Catholic Saints. Heck, we don't even meet a disaffected Irishman who wanders the streets of Dublin in an allegorical journey of ennui and political turmoil.
Instead, what we get is the usual kind of anime historical fantasy where they take historical figures from European history, turn them into attractive young anime heroes, and then get them mixed up in the war and strife of the time, though with more faeries and Philosophers' Stones than what the real French nobles probably had access to. Jeanne d'Arc and the Alchemist Knight isn't a terrible anime, but it's about as generic as can be, and that's before the premiere ends with the seven-year time skip that apparently endows all of the women in the cast with incredibly huge breasts and, shall we say, anachronistically designed outfits.
To be honest, these kinds of episodes are the hardest to write about, because there just isn't too much to say about the show outside of its consistent mediocrity. The character designs are fine, though the animation is inconsistent at best, and many of the show's scenes are lit far too darkly for their own good. The script is the usual mix of exposition and predictable character interactions that essentially outline all four of our heroes as the usual types: There's Montmorency, the reckless and driven hero; Richemont, the badass fighter girl who loves meat; Charlotte, the cute and waifish girl who's generally nice; and Philip, who's just Philip. There's one pretty funny scene where the kids must inexplicably fend off a squad of English soldiers, and Richemont is the only one who is even the least bit capable, where the others have to bumble their way through not getting run through with sword. It's funny, and possibly the only moment of the premiere that I was genuinely entertained by.
Ultimately, this whole episode is just setup, leading us to the time skip at the end where Montmorency is put to sleep for seven years after meeting Astaroth the Queen of Faeries, who emerged from the Philosophers'' stone that he got from Nicolas Flamel, and it's just a lot, you know? Too much exposition, too much generic fantasy hogwash, and too much mediocre art, with none of the wit, or inspiration, or visual panache that would make any of it worthwhile. You might dig Ulysses: Jean ‘dArc and the Alchemist Knight if you're really hankering for a Hundred Years’ War anime, but otherwise you shouldn't feel the need to commit to this one.
Some shows aren't noteworthy in terms of their successes or failures, and just sort of exist in a blase neutral at basically all times. Ulysses is one such show, presenting us with an alt-history take on the Hundred Year War that basically possesses no hooks at all, either in terms of its narrative invention or its aesthetic execution. This show's premiere wasn't terrible, but I'd almost prefer if it were - at least that would give me something to pay attention to. This was just twenty minutes of narrative pulp, the prologue for a story that already feels far too long.
The clearest issue with Ulysses' premiere is that its characters just aren't engaging. I actually really like the concept of a bunch of young nobles who establish fond friendships during their school days, and are then forced to balance those feelings against their political loyalties later on in life. It's a familiar concept, but an engaging one, and it tends to lend itself to stories that nicely balance intimate character stuff and grand narrative ambition. Unfortunately, our four leads Montmorency, Richemont, Charlotte, and Phillip are all simplistic archetypes, and their conversations are a mix of very tired anime beats (the haughty ojou-sama Charlotte picks on the wilting flower Phillip) and generic “we'll be friends forever” pablum. Even with most of this episode dedicated to sketching out their friendships, the writing just wasn't convincing enough to succeed.
Ulysses' visual execution is similarly tepid. Most of this episode's visual appeal is lost in its consistently murky compositions, where heavy brown shadows undercut any attempt at atmosphere or sense of place. The character designs are similarly generic, and the outfits are ahistorical anime-fantasy ensembles that seriously undercut the show's historical drama pretensions. The episode was also hampered by consistently awkward pacing, and utterly failed to build up any of its key dramatic moments.
On the whole, Ulysses isn't incompetent enough to find funny, nor genuinely entertaining enough to be worth watching - it is perpetually, resiliently just sort of there. This one's an easy skip.
Maybe someday I will understand the anime obsession with Jeanne d'Arc. Today is not that day. I do know that if you take your history and saints (and possibly religion) seriously, Ulysses may not be the show for you, because apart from a shot in the preview of Jeanne French kissing a guy, the show also says that Jesus swallowed the Philosopher's Stone (or more correctly, the Elixir of Life made from it) and that's how he became immortal. That's probably not going to sit well with some people, although I doubt that any insult was meant by it. But this is an episode indicating that history is going right out the ol'window, and that makes it at least a little fun.
The story begins in 1415 in a completely anachronistic school where young Montmorency (presumably Anne de Montmorency, a French statesman; yes, Anne was a guy) is desperately in pursuit of alchemy in order to preserve the lives of his friends who are likely to fight in the 100 Years' War, although as the show unsubtly throws in, it's only been going for 80 years thus far. Sadly for Montmorency, his buddy Arthur de Richemont (a girl in the show) heads off to the Battle of Agincourt and gets herself captured by the British. Thus the band of brothers (the other two are “Charlotte,” probably Charles d'Orleans, and Philip, likely Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy) are split up, and somehow Montmorency and the Queen of the Fairies Astaroth manage to spend seven years trying to concoct the Elixir of Life from a stone Montmorency found in a family storehouse. This puts us pretty much in line with things to head to the Siege of Orleans later in the show.
So yeah, we're taking some liberties here, although I think “Astaroth, Queen of the Fairies” is the one that cracked me up the most. But the bigger issue here, even if you're a history buff/stickler like me, is that things feel quite jumbled in the episode itself. While Montmorency has a semi-decent reason to believe that his friends are in danger and that immortality is the only option, his attempts to learn alchemy seem underdeveloped, especially as the one guy he knows who may practice it is actively warning him off. Likewise, the friendship between the four main characters doesn't seem actually close; instead we're simply told it is and expected to accept that. A few other historic figures are thrown in for what seems to be fun – although Henry V's evil pentagram on the battlefield is pretty funny – but it mostly feels like the focus isn't where it needs to be. There is plenty of action, but it's largely off-camera.
Ulysses: Jeanne d'Arc and the Alchemist Knight's first episode is best taken with a block of salt. It isn't terrific, but it does have the potential to move beyond a muddled start and aspects of it are unintentionally amusing as pertains to history. This is probably faint praise, but if you got a kick out of Nobunaga The Fool, this will likely be appealing.
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