The Winter 2018 Anime Preview Guide
HAKYU HOSHIN ENGI
How would you rate episode 1 of
Hakyū Hōshin Engi ?
What is this?
Taikobo is a young sennin working hard under the tutelage of Master Genshitenson. Seemingly ill-suited for study and meditation, Taikobo is thus assigned a very different task—to free the human world of malevolent spiritual influence, by defeating and sealing all 365 figures on the Hoshin List. At the head of that list stands Dakki, a hoshin who has spent long years ingratiating herself into human culture, to the point where she now serves as the Yin Empress. Taikobo may not have the strength to defeat Dakki, but he's determined to prove himself, and he'll soon discover new allies in the most unexpected places. HAKYU HOSHIN ENGI is based on a manga and streams on Crunchyroll, Fridays at 10:15 AM EST
How was the first episode?
It's a good thing these SimulDub write-ups don't need to dwell on the actual content of the series too much, because holy cats do I have no idea what to even do with this thing. The manifold mess of missteps haplessly holding Hakyū Hōshin Engi together have been chronicled by better people than me already, and anyone who sat through this thing when it premiered weeks ago has probably only done their best to forget about it since then. It's an astounding collection of clips and over-expository dialogue that you'd get just as much out of from reading the manga's Wikipedia page, and the production values there would probably be better too.
Which leaves this dub in an unfortunate spot indeed. Honestly, the collection of voice actors they've assembled to tackle this formless creature of a show seem to be doing the best they can with what they've been given. The always-workmanlike Josh Grelle is turning in his best 90's Shonen protagonist gusto as Taikobo, with Tyler Walker's sleepy-sounding Supushan complimenting him effectively, though he does sound a bit off during Supushan's ‘hypnotized’ scene. The rest of the absolute avalanche of characters introduced in this breathless first episode succeed in the primary job of sounding distinct from one another, with Kyle Igneczi's Shinkohyo trying his hardest to chew the scenery where he can. The problem is simply that the uncompromising expositional format of this first episode leaves very few of these actors with any room to actually emote or play up their personalities. At least 75% of the talking here has to be people explaining things to the main characters, each other, or themselves, and the way they race through it to fit the runtime (by the end of the first episode I couldn't believe we were still in the first episode) is noticeably taxing on the actors’ ability to even keep up. There's just no way to make what plays out like a series of encounters with video-game NPCs explaining everything sound naturalistic, and it's even more obvious in my native tongue. Between the near-indecipherable format of the first episode and the quantity of untranslatable jargon being thrown around, it's tough to say if Hakyu Hoshin Engo was deserving of a dub in the first place. If nothing else it at least expands the audience of those who can handle a good hate-watch to keep tuning in to see how bad it will get.
I won't waste any time, let's get down to brass tacks: this first episode of Hakyū Hōshin Engi was just awful to sit through. Terrible art, terrible music, and terrible writing are all placed squarely front and center to make for easily the worst premiere I've had to watch this season. Perhaps those familiar with either the source material or the original manga might be able to make better sense out of it, but for someone who barely remembers that Soul Hunter even existed, this premiere was damn near incomprehensible. Death March to The Parallel World Rhapsody was a boring and ugly mess to be sure, but Hakyū Hōshin Engi was far worse.
After blasting through a nonsensical cold open, we're treated to a title sequence that features one of the most irritating OP songs I have ever heard, only to be thrust back into the episode's barrage of setup for its world and plot. We're quickly introduced to our hero Taikobo and his quest to travel legendary China and hunt down hundreds of Bad Guys™ so he can he eventually fight The Biggest and Baddest Guy (Who is Actually a Lady)™, a vicious spirit named Dakki. Taiko is eventually joined by some allies, including Supushan, a giant-headed, talking, floating horse-thing that carries him around the world and helps him fight all of the Bad Guys™.
I'm trying to sound flippant, but this opening episode tosses so much mythological terminology and world-building detail at you so fast that it's difficult to get more out of the plot at all. Characters are introduced and begin fighting or assisting Taikobo with little to no motivation whatsoever, and scenes all feel stitched together with the thinnest of threads. One climactic sequence of Dakki wreaking some good old-fashioned death and destruction almost feels like parody in its slapdash execution, and the ending scenes to follow are so vague that I'm still not sure if they were supposed to be flashbacks, flash-forwards, or taking place in the present day.
The whole experience is disjointed and truly frustrating to watch; it feels like the crew of this new adaptation were working from a script produced by a bunch of different people all trying to recall the original series from memory and write down whatever scenes they could remember the most accurately. It doesn't help that the goofy character models and downright terrible costume designs have aged heinously over the past two decades, making it difficult for me to take anything that happens on screen seriously. This is obviously a matter of personal taste, but making everyone look like they were ripped straight out of shoddy Kingdom Hearts fanart is not a good look in the 21st century.
Series like DEVILMAN crybaby have proven that you can take a franchise that's been dormant for years and successfully resurrect it for a modern audience; Hakyū Hōshin Engi happens to prove the exact opposite is also true. It plants its foot firmly in the same beats and tropes from decades ago, but I have to believe that this mangled and rushed script is much worse than the original material. Anyone with a deep love for the franchise is probably better off just seeking out the original show. Anyone wondering whether or not this zombified version of Hakyū Hōshin Engi is worth watching should look to this quote from one of my favorite Stephen King stories: “Sometimes, dead is better.”
I do not remember much about the original Soul Hunter anime when I watched it a decade and a half ago. I do remember that I thought Bunchu's voice was really annoying. I also don't remember it being as incomprehensible as this remake. Hakyū Hōshin Engi suffers from a severe case of in-universe terminology that might be more straightforward to someone familiar with the Chinese language, but otherwise it's way too hard to keep straight. This is coupled with an incongruous info dump in the first five minutes before our hero is shoved out on his quest. It's possible this adaptation is trying to whittle the original's runtime into a single cour, which is just another huge mistake.
The premise should be simple enough: Shonen Jump hero embarks on a quest to defeat/capture a large number of spirit-like entities, a number devised mostly to ensure there was an excuse for the manga to run a long time. He's handed a magic item and sentient mount to assist him in his quest. There's also some babble about three different worlds, the evil spirits' influence on human politics, and I started glazing over from there. I can usually handle obsessive world-building but that's a lot to drop on an audience right out of the gate. We also get main character Taikobo's whole tragic backstory before you can say “I'm Koh Hiko, the Chinkoku Buseioh!”
Hakyū Hōshin Engi is a strong case for why localization can make or break how an audience enjoys a series. The above quote is the character introduction for Koh when he first encounters Taikobo. As for the second part? I have no idea what it means. I assumed it was an additional title or rank and decided to look it up. The best I could find was a still-active website on Angelfire that was very informative, describing him as the military head of the current emperor. It's hard to figure out exactly, because all of these words are Japanese readings of Hanzi, so they're hard to translate back. This might make a show like Hakyū Hōshin Engi more difficult than usual to subtitle, but I believe it is absolutely suffering due to lack of localization of its terminology.
Its design aesthetic is also extremely dated. Like original Kingdom Hearts and JNCO pants dated. All the characters feature at least one or two elements of overdesign where every “cool” idea from the time period was thrown at a wall. Baggy pants, cone shoes, complicated head wear, and of course masks. It's a painful nostalgia trip to a very awkward time, and I forgot how much of that was reflected in anime too. But here's Hakyū Hōshin Engi, forcing me to relive it once again.
This series is a remake of a late '90s series known in the West as Soul Hunter, which I never got around to watching. Hence this take on it is from the eyes of a newcomer.
And coming into it as a newcomer, there's exactly one nice thing I can say about the first episode: it has some gorgeous background art. The palace design in particular is a vividly-colored, beautifully-rendered reproduction of classic Chinese architecture and design, and shots of the city from street level are striking in detail despite their grunge. The floating mountains also stand out as spectacular creations, and some of the landscapes have an exotic flavor without being too otherworldly. If the whole first episode was as good as its background art, then this would be getting thrice the score I settled on.
Sadly, nothing else in the first episode is remotely close to matching that beauty. The character design aesthetic is a hold-over from '90s shonen manga styles, and their dated look is only made more obvious by contrasting them to the lush background art. (And what's with the oversized hands and feet, anyway?) Dakki's more sexy design and costuming looks stunningly out of place for the setting. The one early fight scene isn't bad, but it's grossly outclassed by Killing Bites at least, and a later fight is too brief, so the series doesn't measure up on that level either.
However, the real problem is the horribly sloppy editing. The story just jumps around with no sense of flow between scenes, as if this was a highlight reel from a much longer production. Not even the protagonist is properly established, and the motives of his potential allies are frightfully thin. The rebellion scene feels like it has a big piece missing, and while it doesn't entirely miss the mark at engendering guilt in the protagonist, it isn't as effective as it could be either. Attempts at humor fall flat and the protagonist's behavior is boneheadedly stupid even by shonen action standards.
So yeah, this episode is pretty much a disaster. I don't even think that fans of the original will find much to like here, as the beautiful backgrounds aren't enough to make up for the show's many other flaws.
I have to give Hakyū Hōshin Engi credit. Normally it's only possible to earn this lowest score from me by being actively repulsive—either so gross or so mean-spirited that my time spent watching feels physically unpleasant. Hakyū Hōshin Engi isn't gross or mean-spirited; in fact, all signs point toward it being a pretty routine, if outdated, Shonen Jump property. But this anime adaptation is so stunningly poor that I can't actually bring myself to give it that 1.5.
I have to assume this adaptation is strictly intended for longtime fans of the manga. Nothing else could really explain this episode's laughably terrible pacing choices or really, most of its choices altogether. The show opens with one of those operatic, action-heavy cold opens that seem designed to assure the audience “don't worry, people will punch each other eventually,” before we're buried in exposition about protagonist Taikobo and the spirit world he inhabits. Hakyu's exposition manages the difficult feat of being both exhaustively tedious and uselessly vague, so that even by the end of this episode I only had the faintest idea of the relationship between its various magical sides and creatures. Then Taikobo immediately rushes off to fight the final boss, because apparently things like dramatic buildup just don't exist in this world.
While this premiere's first half is painfully slow, its second half feels more like a youtube abridged series with all the jokes taken out. Taikobo's motivation is established in one absurdly quick and emotionally sterile flashback, he's pushed out on his journey one scene after that, and then he immediately runs into the super-powered bad guy Shinkohyo, who straight-up announces he'll be adopting Taikobo as his rival. One scene after that we're at the capital, one scene after that Taikobo is challenging the empress Dakki, one scene after that he's defeated and watching his tribe all get slaughtered. Again, only the thought that this is recap intended for an audience desperate to get to “the good stuff” could explain any of these pacing choices—to a general audience, this narrative is basically unwatchable and definitely lacking in dramatic impact.
Hakyū Hōshin Engi's aesthetics aren't much better than its storytelling. The show's one good feature is its lovely backgrounds, which are rich in color and detail, but unfortunately most of the time those backgrounds are obscured by Hakyu's hideous character designs. Hakyu's characters are a mix of '90s era design hubris and just plain madness, bedecked with gaudy ornaments, giant gloves, and preposterously oversized triangular shoes. Hakyu's shoes almost make me happy the show is so terrible in all other respects; after all, it'd be a waste to squander good storytelling on characters whose shoes are so goofy you can't possibly take them seriously.
On the whole, there's basically nothing to recommend Hakyū Hōshin Engi outside of its squandered background art. Some manga relics should stay in the past.
Are you ready for a trip back to the '90s with a shounen reimagining of a 16th-century Chinese novel where everyone wears clown shoes? I don't think I am. I was vaguely aware of the original Hoshin Engi manga at some point, mostly as “that one with the horse/capybara hybrid thing,” and Hakyū Hōshin Engi isn't making me regret not having pursued it. This first episode feels like it's trying to cram way too much into what should be an introduction with a hook, throwing what appears to be a couple hundred years of backstory and a ton of named characters and story-specific vocabulary at us without giving anyone a chance to breathe.
Granted, it's got a lot of ground to cover. The original novel(s) run multiple volumes in translation and the Hoshin Engi manga itself is twenty-three volumes, so I figure they're trying to reach some specific point. Also, Chinese mythology is not known for its small number of its important figures, so it makes a certain amount of sense that there'd be so many named characters in the first half-hour. On the other hand, all of this is totally overwhelming and doesn't give us any time to get behind hero Taikobo and his mission to stop Dakki, whose sole motivation seems to be living an easy life by being beautiful and evil. Then there's all that stuff about this person or that clan, and it just feels like too much.
Visually, it's easy to tell that the source material originated at a very specific time in shonen manga aesthetic – and it's not an era that's aged well. With huge square-ish eyes, lashes and cheek coloring that don't stay within the confines of characters' faces, and the aforementioned clown shoes, Hakyū Hōshin Engi looks really dated. The backgrounds fare much better, with some really striking scenery both indoors and out, but in general the art of this period doesn't have the staying power of some other outdated styles. I suppose if you're a fan of the original manga or anime, this is probably going to be more fun, but as an introduction to the story, this just feels like a confused and overstuffed mess that can probably be left alone.
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