The Winter 2020 Anime Preview Guide
-Sorcerous Stabber Orphen
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Sorcerous Stabber Orphen (TV 2020) ?
Community score: 3.3
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How was the first episode?
Based on a series of light novels that began way back in the early '90s, Sorcerous Stabber Orphen has been adapted into manga and anime a number of times over the years. In terms of both storytelling and aesthetics, this new production shows its material's age in a variety of ways, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. After weathering our current era of isekai saturation, it's nice to be reminded of simpler times, when light novels aspired to do stuff like emulate the feel of a tabletop RPG.
Orphen does indeed feel a great deal like a tabletop RPG, though it also echoes many of the tropes of old-fashioned shonen manga, like through its dubious sense of humor. The “humorous” shouting matches scattered throughout this episode reminded me of shows like Trigun in the worst possible way, but in spite of that, I actually felt reasonably attached to both protagonist Orphen and heroine Claiomh by the end of the episode. Their one major conversation demonstrated effectively contrasting personalities and solid chemistry - and in spite of this episode's lack of any extended exposition, I still got a solid feel for the mechanics and conflicts of Orphen's sorcery-centric world.
In terms of aesthetic execution, Orphen is a fairly mixed bag. The show's character designs feel charmingly retro, yet updated enough to not clash with modern design or production sensibilities, and this episode had plenty of flavorful expression work. The actual animation was more suspect, with this episode's extended cut of combat animation feeling both weirdly rushed and completely weightless. Additionally, while I appreciated the employment of a traditionally animated dragon over some CG monstrosity, watching a single, unmoving drawing of a dragon float across an open sky does not evoke a convincing illusion of a dragon in flight.
That said, there was nothing truly terrible about this episode, and what it lacks in polish it might make up in nostalgic novelty. Sorcerous Stabber Orphen's premiere falls right in the middle of the seasonal pack, but if you've got any fondness for or curiosity regarding old fashioned fantasy anime, you might want to give it a shot.
I remember seeing a handful of episodes of the 1999 adaptation back in the day (probably in convention viewing rooms), but didn't remember much about it beyond it striking me as so generic for fantasy anime at the time that I couldn't be bothered to watch the rest. I recently rewatched the first episode of that series in dubbed form and it only reinforced that my decision years ago had been a correct one. While this new version's first episode uses some of the same characters as were seen in that version and operates with the same basic premise, it takes a markedly different approach to structuring the story. Whether that's actually an improvement or not is a matter for debate.
At the very least, the visual technical merits on this new version, courtesy of Studio DEEN, are a significant upgrade. Both the artistry and the animation look sharper, especially in the color use, though character designs are still mostly a throwback to the stylistic conventions of the '90s. The direction here also shows a more current sensibility on setting up shots in action scenes. On the downside, the first episode is saddled with one of the weakest musical scores that I've heard in a while for a fantasy action series. Also, the tone here is a mess; the episode wants to be lightly comical at some times and rather dark and serious at others, but the transitions between the two, and the balances they strike relative to each other, are uncomfortable ones. The result is some attempts at slapstick which fall quite flat, and the annoying dwarves still being around does not help.
In a storytelling sense, the main change is to put up front how Azalie wound up in dragon form (something which was only alluded to in the first episode of the 1999 version) and establish better how Orphen fits with the Tower of Fang. That results in his interactions with Cleao (the blond younger sister) and Majic (the human boy) being much more limited here; it's hard to tell from this episode that they are both going to become primary supporting characters on Orphen's upcoming journey, so only the advertising art and opener suggest that. The sense of him being “cool” and a laid-back schemer also does not come through as clearly in this version; there was a certain cockiness to him in 1999 that I don't see yet in 2020.
Comparisons aside, the big drag on this version is that it isn't updated enough stylistically, so it winds up feeling like a thoroughly generic fantasy tale. I'm not sure if a Fruits Basket-level update would have been enough to escape that, but nostalgia or not, it's going to have to show more than what it has so far to win over a new generation of anime fans.
I've tried for years to get into Sorcerous Stabber Orphen. The novels, the manga, the original 1999 anime series…none of them have really grabbed me. This new anime offering comes closer, possibly because the two dwarves are downplayed more and I find them incredibly obnoxious, but it still comes across as very by-the-numbers, a standard fantasy plot that doesn't bring quite enough new to the table to be all that exciting. It seems to follow the basic “bad thing happened, so young person goes out to make it right” adventure formula, with the catch that his companions are more annoying and that his former compatriots at the Tower of Fangs are probably in the whole mess up to their eyeballs, although that might not be widely known.
The fact that everyone from the Tower who is present when Orphen (a much easier name than his original, which I always want to say is Limoncello, although it's really not) is perhaps the most intriguing moment of this episode. We know from the opening, which basically functions as a prologue, that Azalie was working with a teacher named Childman when she was transformed into a dragon, and the world-building information tells us that the original sorcerers were born from a union of dragons and humans, so it seems entirely possible that Childman was up to no good in a way that fused magic and genetic tampering. That sort of thing almost certainly ought to be forbidden, and this seedy underbelly of the otherwise respected Tower of Fangs is definitely a draw here. That Orphen left after witnessing Azalie's transformation can't have gone over well with Childman (assuming he wasn't punished; perhaps he blamed Azalie), so showing himself at the end of the episode feels like it must be a major risk.
That all of this plays out in either the beginning or end of the episode while the middle is largely devoted to Orphen and the dwarf brothers trying to pull of a con (in his defense, Orphen doesn't know what's going on) and the introduction of a human female character who clearly has zero interest in going away is a bit of a problem. The intrigue is more interesting than the day-to-day silliness, which is largely what's turned me off of the franchise in the past, because that's more where the focus seems to be. In this version's favor, the zany plot the dwarves are hatching is much less played up than in other variants, making this rather more appealing, because it implies that we may get more of the Azalie/Tower of Fangs storyline. But between characters who already come off as one-note and animation that isn't terrific (Orphen's fight scene looks an awful lot like him just waving his arms close to someone), this once again has defeated my efforts to get into this franchise.
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