The Winter 2021 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Hortensia Saga ?
What is this?
The Kingdom of Hortensia is a world power thanks to its two main territories, Carmellia and Olivier, serving as its sword and shield. Until a revolt rumbles through Carmellia. The development threatens to upend Hortensia and the arrival of monsters only make it worse.
How was the first episode?
Boy, that sure was a bit of an awkward synchronicity.
I'm not going to hold it against Hortensia Saga that it just happened to air on the same day that the US Capitol building was successfully stormed, but it sure does feel strange. After all, it's a pretty standard way to start a high fantasy epic: a medieval pseudo-European kingdom, a coup led by a power-hungry duke, displaced royalty living in disguise… The closest thing to a twist here is that the displaced royalty is a princess living in disguise… as a boy! Although really, they should have tried harder than changing “Mariel” to “Marius.” It's way too easy to make the connection with such similar names.
There's nothing original here, and so I must invoke my typical disclaimer that I follow that statement up with: if this isn't your thing, don't bother. If you are into high fantasy, however, this will basically be comfort food. The beats are predictable but solidly executed: Mariel, now known as Marius, decides she wants to become strong so that she can win back her throne from the usurpers. Her compatriot, the ridiculously-named Alfred Albert, inherits a sword from his father who died in the coup and swears his revenge. Have I ever mentioned that I'm totally weak for stories about heroines who crossdress in order to achieve goals that they wouldn't be able to otherwise? Anyway, they're good kids and the ending seems to indicate that they'll fall in love, probably adorably.
Just as Hortensia Saga isn't going to get any attention for the originality of its premise, nor will it garner much acclaim for its visuals. The direction is workmanlike, neither especially creative nor incompetent. I don't care much for the character designs, either; while they're not conspicuously bad, there's something about their facial features and proportions that throw me off. The animation is mostly fine, but with moments of poorly-composited CG, especially when the two enemy armies face off with scores of identical soldiers moving in perfect sync. None of the vocal performances really grabbed me either, except for the maid Nonnaria, whose shrill squeals made me want to claw my own ears out.
With Hortensia Saga, you get pretty much exactly what you expect. If you like European high fantasy, go for it; otherwise, you probably don't need to bother.
One of my longtime Anime Wishlist items is a good Fire Emblem anime. Every few years when a new game comes out, I get my hopes up that this time, they'll make that multimedia synergy happen and put out a well-animated adventure starring a bunch of unique character designs with cool fantasy weapons that get in big, cool fights. Alas, that has yet to happen, so in the meantime I've contented myself with lesser attempts that nobody but me bothered to watch all of, like Chain Chronicle or Record of Grancrest War. And this season I may just do the same with Hortensia Saga.
That isn't to say I'm settling, since this premiere is actually a pretty solid start all things considered. It's all classic high fantasy fair – the young knight determined to live up to his late father's legacy, the disguised princess who fled the throne amidst war and hides her true identity – and if you've read one fantasy novel you can likely predict how everything in this story will go. But sometimes all it takes to make a familiar story worth watching is to tell it well and fill it with some likable characters, and that's what this premiere has managed so far. While he's your typical Good Chivalrous Knight, Alfred makes for a likable and empathetic protagonist, and it should be pretty fun to see if he ever figures out the secret “Marius” has somehow kept from him for 4 years. Also they got Kenjiro Tsuda to voice the one-eyed, grizzled mentor character, so I'm locked in until he eventually dies at the least.
My main concern with the show is its production values. While nothing in this premiere looks outright bad, you can tell the team is working with modest resources and getting by mostly through good timing and functional storyboarding. The action scenes are perfectly fine for what they need to be, but if you're hankering for full-on fantasy battle spectacle this probably won't sate you. I do love the absurdity of an antagonist who's so highly specced in Bow that he uses it for melee though, so if they can keep up silly ideas like that it may help compensate for the lack of pizazz.
Still, for what we've got right now I'm enjoying myself. Plus I feel at least a little duty to bat for a straight-on fantasy series coming out in the Age of Isekai. Albert may be archetypal but at least he's not wearing a tracksuit and making Dragon Quest references, and that goes a long way in my book.
Over the years, I've realized that certain shows require an adjustment in my evaluation criteria. I can't really focus on what the series is doing that is novel, challenging, or otherwise uniquely creative — because the answer will almost certainly be “Nothing” — so instead I try to ask myself: If this anime is going to be relying on incredibly familiar cliches and tropes, is it doing any of those things especially well? Is there anything about the visuals, dialogue, action, comedy, or otherwise that is at least bringing its A-game? In the case of Hortensia Saga, unfortunately, I'm pretty sure the answer is still a resounding “No.”
Not that this premiere is bad in any noticeable way. Its animation is…fine, I guess, and the plot is mostly comprehensible (the bar for these mobile game adaptations is so low, y'all). The key mistake that Hortensia Saga makes is the same one made by that one friend of yours who has always dreamt of being a Dungeons and Dragon DM, and was absolutely convinced that you would be completely bowled over by the custom campaign he'd made after reading two-dozen pages of barely coherent world-building notes that he scribbled down in a dubiously-stained spiral notebook. Admittedly, it's kind of endearing to see such earnest commitment to a fantasy world that is, frankly, a half-baked mishmash of story beats and characters ripped straight out of much better RPGs. Still, with apologies to both Hortensia Saga and Drew from my 12th Grade AP Gov class, you don't earn Cool Story Points simply by tossing out as many awkward names and poorly explained proper nouns as you can in less than twenty minutes.
The opening scenes of Albert's tragic death at the hands of some random werewolf guy, which comes after the equally tragic death of Hortensia's king and some other knight with shiny hair, ask us to care deeply about a bunch of people we don't know, fighting an enemy we've never heard of, over a conflict that we can't understand. The eventual payoff of this very long opening sequence amounts to backstory that could have easily been communicated in a couple of lines of dialogue, and it comes before the dry info-dump that basically summarizes everything you just saw anyways. Then, we're re-reintroduced to a slightly older (and orphaned) Alfred and “Marius” — who is super obviously the Princess Mariel in disguise, though our boy Alfred has somehow managed to remain oblivious to that fact for almost half a decade. What do we get to become invested in their story? A lot of melodrama about those aforementioned dead parents that we don't really care about, and then a random, disastrous encounter with some guy named Roy. Roll credits?
There's a chance that Hortensia Saga could develop into something more than the anime equivalent of one of those direct-to-video Dragonheart sequels, but I'm not particularly interested to stick around to find out. I'll keep track on the social media feeds to see if it is worth picking up in twelve weeks' time, but I highly suspect that if, by then, most folks haven't forgotten about Hortensia Saga completely.
There's something floral afoot in Hortensia Saga. I don't doubt that it's intentional – as a name, “Hortensia” means “garden,” and one of the major players in the civil war that this show is chronicling is called “Camellia,” which is of course a type of flower. Just why all of this is going on hasn't yet come clear, although I'm definitely getting “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” vibes.
The plotline seems like a fairly simple thing: one day the evil Duke Rugis rose up against the king, sparking your basic civil war. In the ensuing battles, the king died alongside many of his trusted knights, and surviving knight Maurice Baudelaire spirited Crown Princess Mariel out of the palace. He brought her to the orphaned son of another knight, and young Alfred vowed to take his father's fight…even apparently unaware that “Marius” is really Princess Mariel in disguise. That he still seems to be laboring under this misapprehension after a four-year time skip is a little shaky, but I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for now – especially since Mariel's identity seems very much like something that needs to be kept away from the evil duke and his probable-son, Roy, who is just the right age to marry Mariel and cement Rugis' hold on the throne should she reappear. (Conveniently, the name “Roy” means “king.”) In the meantime, he has Mariel's little brother Charlot as his puppet king, which can't be good for the poor kid.
To say that Hortensia Saga is ambitious in scope feels about right. It definitely wants us to view this first episode as the opening in a sweeping epic about the fate of a princess and her nation, and so far it's doing it better than last season's Kings Raid's opening salvo. That's not to say that it doesn't have some questionable moments – Roy fighting Alfred in close-quarters with a bow while Alfred has a sword is a little odd, and loyal maid Nonnoria's voice is basically nails on a chalkboard every time she opens her mouth – but it's intriguing enough to merit at least a second episode. I'm also feeling decently confident about some of the smaller details of the piece, if only for one specific reason: when Marius and Alfred are standing at his family's gravestone, we get a clear shot of the names inscribed upon it. There's his father, of course, and his deceased sister Bernadette. But there's also his mother's name – Hortense. Given the name of the series as a whole, I can't think that that's not significant, and if it truly is, that's the kind of attention to detail that could make this series turn out to be more than this first episode suggests.
For better or worse, medieval Europe-influenced fantasy does not come any more classic or traditional than this new series. It would feel at home alongside fare like Record of Grancrest War and should appeal to any who liked that series.
The typical set-up is all there: thanks to a betrayal and some unexpected mystical elements, a young man has come into a position of authority upon the death of his father. He has an elite soldier from the opposite side to fight when he is finally ready for battle, and his inexperience shows to the point that he cannot handle the battle without help. He will have to get stronger to achieve his goals of protecting the land and people he loves. Naturally, there's a loyal retainer of the father (in this case the young man's uncle) and a loyal young maid in twin-tails involved, too; Nonnoria is basically the spiritual cousin of Lord Marksman and Vanadis's Titta.
The one significant twist in the set-up – and the one factor which could make this series worth watching – is that the young man's new squire, Marius, is clearly the princess that's been missing since her father (the king) was killed in the incident that also took the life of the young man's father. She apparently cut her hair short and is disguising herself as a boy in order to hide her identity from the usurpers, and she has presumably become the protagonist's squire so that she can learn to fight back herself. The uncle is doubtlessly fully aware of this ruse, but the young man isn't. That preserves the potential for future romance (which is implied by the closer) and provides easy justification for keeping the two close together. How long the ruse will last could be one of the series' more interesting aspects.
But will that be enough to hold interest? Nothing else about the series sticks out so far. Several colorful- looking individuals (doubtlessly from the smartphone RPG that the series is based on) are briefly introduced and look like they will come into play at some point, but they are a very standard-looking assortment of archers and warrior-types. A dungeon crawl-type episode is previewed for next week and legendary monsters are popping up, but again, nothing new there for the genre. The artistic effort so far is solid, with several nice character designs, not bad but also nothing special, and the world-building so far is quite basic.
In other words, the series suffers more from blandness than any technical or specific writing deficiency, which is why I can't rate it any higher.
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