The Fall 2018 Anime Preview Guide Xuan Yuan Sword Luminary
How would you rate episode 1 of
Xuan Yuan Sword Luminary ?
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How was the first episode?
Xuan Yuan Sword Luminary is one of those shows that reminds me why I love contributing to the preview guide. Not because it's a great show that I wouldn't have discovered otherwise - Xuan Yuan is certainly not a great show, whatever else it is. But because it's such a strange show, a show whose successes and failures are so unlike what I'm used to. Xuan Yuan has narrative ambition and great animation highlights, and yet is in some ways one of the most amateurish productions I've seen in years.
The show's writing is its main failing, and also the main thing that makes this show interesting. Set in a world where the Taibai Empire is busily crushing dissidents with awkward CG constructs, this episode introduces far too many incidental characters, and proceeds with an almost dreamlike clumsiness of narrative structure. Pu Zhao, a boy who was forced into slavery when his village was destroyed years ago, develops easy friendships with his enslavers' chief engineer and also the literal empress, who no one recognizes in spite of her wearing regal formal wear from her first appearance. When that chief engineer flees the capital, the Taibai army burns down a random village in response, because this is a story where only the locations that key characters inhabit exist. Xuan Yuan struggles so ferociously against any sense of real place or grounding that it almost feels more like a stage play - or rather, like all of its characters live in a country which itself is no larger than a theater stage. The overall story being told here is standard enough to be parsable regardless, but all of the incidental details are hampered by a clumsiness that I actually find almost charming.
The show's aesthetics are similarly lopsided. There are some genuinely excellent cuts of animation in this episode, from the first demonstration of sisters Ning and Yin's martial arts prowess, to the final summoning of Yin's new familiar, Yun. But those animation highlights are undercut by awkward CG, a far greater number of clumsy cuts, and genuinely atrocious visual composite. Characters never feel like they're attached to their environment in this show - they look like they're being transposed over Nintendo 64 textures, with no sense of depth, flat lighting, and fundamentally simplistic background art. This awkward visual contrast ends up playing naturally with the writing's lack of grounding and awkward beat-to-beat transitions, resulting in a show that is almost cohesive in its clumsiness.
Overall, I can't recommend Xuan Yuan based on genuine merit, but I found myself weirdly sympathetic to this ramshackle production all the same. There's passion and ambition here, but both the storytelling and much of the visual design make this feel more like a student project than a professional production. If you share my weird fascination with shows that fail in unusual ways, I'd heartily recommend giving this one a shot. If you're just looking for an exciting and competently executed anime, you can probably skip it.
Xuan Yuan Sword Luminary is the very definition of a mixed-bag, as far as season premieres go. Roughly 60 percent of it is perfectly nondescript, average fare, while there's maybe ten percent worth of genuinely good ideas at play, and then there's the other thirty percent, which is legitimately terrible. Nothing in Xuan Yuan's first episode is bad enough to deem it a pure catastrophe, per se, but there's plenty here to ward off newcomers that might be looking for an otherwise decent fantasy action series.
The biggest problem here is the art and direction, which both range from being tolerable to downright embarrassing. Characters are rarely on model and suffer from a constant, rigid expressionless, and almost every cut of animation lacks fluidity or gravity of motion. Beyond just the technical aspects of the animation, though, the direction fails to put any of the premiere's pieces together in a meaningful way. In action scenes, characters will transition from attacking in the air to being on the ground, and then back again, with little rhyme or reason, and individual moments of impact and reaction are spliced together almost incoherently.
At one point, in the middle of one of the episode's major action sequences, a scene that takes place in the middle of the day transitions in the middle of a character's attack to a completely different scene, which takes place at night, and presumably hundreds of miles away. Then, when Yun and Ning are performing in a small village after Yun discovers her magic sword, the Taibai army somehow manages to literally sneak up behind the entire town to launch a sneak attack. This, of course, is in spite of the fact that the Taibai are marching around in giant mechanical spider-mechs.
Later in the episode, an incredibly stupid guard delivers a slap to Pu Zhao's friend, who just so happens to be the Empress of Taibai – not only is the slap itself hilariously bad in both its animation and sound design, but the episode then chooses to end on a shot of the guards severed and decaying head, and though I think it's supposed to read as a dark kind of gag, it's a completely random image to cut to credits on, given how overstuffed the rest of Xuan Yuan's premiere is.
In between the so-bad-it's-good moments, though, the rest of Xuan Yuan is much less memorable, though it's particular brand of generic RPG-styled fantasy might appeal to those with a particular love for the genre. Yin and Pu Zhao make for very cliched heroes; one's the responsible older sibling who stumbled into a magical destiny, and the other is the brilliant slave who just so happens to find himself in the good graces of royalty. When the show isn't forcing these characters into bad action scenes and incredibly awkward attempts as Serious Drama™, Xuan Yuan's story is the kind that is perfectly serviceable if you squint at just the right angle. At the very least, I think some of the Taibai weapon and armor designs are neat, and there's potential for Yun and Pu Zhao's friendship to become more compelling as they each become more involved in the opposing sides of the war. With so many anime getting released these days, though, it's difficult for me to recommend such a sloppy series on such faint promise of potential. This is one you can skip.
Japanese co-productions of anime have typically gotten a bad rap over the last couple of years. There are signs that might finally be changing, however; Phantom in the Twilight, a Chinese co-production which aired last season, ended up being much better than many previous efforts. Will this Taiwanese co-production be the next successful step down that road?
After the first episode, that remains to be seen. The series is based on one installment of a long-lived Chinese RPG series which utilizes characters, items, and events from Chinese mythology. If that's the case here then the story is taking grand liberties with its source material, as this is a setting where functional artificial limbs and magically-based cyborgs exist alongside mecha-like war machines. Of course there's magic being thrown around, too. The RPG origins of the series are plain in the appearance of various flamboyant, ridiculously-skilled individuals who are only barely introduced as major players in a rebellion, while the actual story seems like it's going to focus on a young man and two sisters who grew up in the same village but became separated in an attack three years before the main part of the story. While the sisters go around performing to eat and picking up a magical bamboo tablet which manifests a cyborg servitor and what I presume is the series' namesake sword, the young man becomes a fledgling engineer and finds himself gaining the favor of a young girl who turns out to be someone very important.
Actually there's a lot more than that going on, as this is a busy, rapidly-based episode which jumps around a lot. In fact, it's moving along too briskly, although it apparently needed to in order to get to the point where the young man earns his title and the elder sister gets the sword, which presumably sets up the rest of the series. I do hope future episodes slow down a bit or you'll have to hit the pause button and catch your breath to keep the story from flying by.
On the plus side, the series' design elements are outstanding. The war machines are all unique designs with a lot of character, costuming is lavish for many characters, and there are some beautifully scenic vistas in early shots. Some of the action scenes are also well-choreographed, especially the sisters' performance numbers. On the downside, those excellent designs aren't always used well. Scenes where characters take to the air look very awkward, as if the animation was attempting to duplicate Chinese martial arts wire work, and in other places CG used even for characters in action scenes doesn't always smoothly transition back to regular animation. Hence the episode is qualitative hodgepodge in a technical sense.
This series might have potential if it can smooth out its execution, but right now it has some work to do to be at a consistently-watchable level.
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