Reviewby Theron Martin,
Drifters Complete Series
In 1600, Toyohisa Shimazu was badly wounded while covering the retreat of his uncle during the Battle of Sekigahara. But instead of greeting Death, he greets a man behind a desk in an odd corridor, who shunts him into another world. In this fantasy realm, he eventually discovers that he's called a Drifter, and there are others like him drawn there on the moment of their deaths from throughout the history of his world. Together with Oda Nobunaga and Nasu No Yoichi, he unites elves and dwarves in a rebellion against the oppressive human Oota Empire, while an association of mages called the Octobrist Organization point them toward an even bigger threat: the monstrous armies of the Black King, who seeks to eradicate humanity through the use of Ends, other warriors from their world who operate under a different otherworldly agent.
Here's a simple litmus test for whether you might like this series: did you like either anime adaptation of Hellsing? If so, then this adaptation of another manga by Kouta Hirano is probably for you. Despite being utterly different in story, it retains many of the distinctive characteristics of its predecessor: the same character design style, expression and pose work, color sensibilities, brazen bravado, bloody action, and (for better or worse) the same style of comedic asides as Hellsing Ultimate. But rather than a modern-day supernatural milieu, Drifters takes place in a fantasy setting with historical figures peppered throughout.
For those unfamiliar with Hellsing, this is essentially an action adventure stacked with larger-than-life characters gleefully performing brazen feats of derring-do, in such hyperviolent ways that make all but the most outlandish action series pale by comparison. Kenichi Suzuki's direction is a perfect marriage with Hirano's source material, as the visual flair Suzuki demonstrated in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure turns the elaborate poses and action flourishes into an impressive visual spectacle. Few other anime series can match the visceral thrill of Toyohisa going all-out or the devastating impact of Nobunaga's first barrage of musket fire. Few action series get as nasty as this one either, as when Nobunaga instructs his archers to coat their arrows in excrement so the wounds they inflict will fester. All of this is delivered with a visual panache supported well by a powerful musical score.
The actual story isn't complicated. The Drifters have been deposited into this world by a mysterious man at the desk in some kind of limbo to fend off the army of the Black King, which is stocked with more unstable figures sent to this world by the desk-man's female rival. (The greater machinations behind this rivalry are sadly not yet explored.) Along the way, the Nobunaga/Toyohisa/Yoichi trio get it in their heads to free first the elves and then the dwarves from human tyranny and build an army to overthrow the Empire and stand against the Black King. Meanwhile, the Black King's forces are on the rampage and occasionally come into conflict with Drifters. That's as far as the story gets in these first twelve episodes. To say that the story needs more time to fully develop would be an understatement. Two more OVA episodes are coming, but the comparative brevity of this series compared to its source's ambitions is its biggest flaw.
The series offers up a much larger cast than it has time to deal with. In addition to the core trio, a number of other historical figures pop up, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Joan of Arc, Rasputin, Hannibal, Abe no Seimei, Hijikata Toshizo, and the Count de St. Germain, with Hitler figuring into the story as well, and the Black King being a figure of spoiler-riddled importance. The Count gets heavily involved later in the story, but screen time for most of the other minor players is fleeting, with interesting tidbits for each character but little time to develop them. That is especially true for Joan, whose backstory is shown in more detail than anyone outside of Toyohisa and Nobunaga. She offers the most potentially intriguing twist on expectations, as being burned at the stake turns her into a vengeful hellion, making her the most interesting character beyond the lead trio, even if she doesn't get the screentime to take advantage of this strength.
At least the characters who do get focus are worthy of the attention. Toyohisa isn't as prominent in records of the Sengoku period, so his portrayal seems to be based on an extrapolation of his clan's principles. Regardless, he's a joy as an action lead, bullheadedly aggressive on the surface but driven by purpose rather than recklessness. He displays a distinct set of guiding principles somewhat in line with classic chivalry, but with some unusual twists such as his notion on the proper way to respect the dead, and a sense of bravado that's much more endearing than annoying. Nobunaga, meanwhile, acts as the practical-minded strategist. He has no qualms about getting his hands dirty and practically revels in his title as Demon King of the Sixth Heaven. Interestingly, he aims to become the power behind the throne rather than the leader of this new world, as he recognizes Toyohisa as a more inspirational figure to the people. Yoichi makes less of an impression, though his feats of archery are an actual reflection of the legends about him. Unlike the other characters, he is not portrayed at the age of his death; he claims to be 19 here but was 64 when he died. The recurring joke is that his whole family was composed of bishonen.
The series' general approach to humor is worth mentioning. The tone is almost identical to Hellsing Ultimate but more pervasive, with crude chibi art appearing for joke breaks multiple times an episode. Some of these bits are actually funny and to Suzuki's credit, they're not as disruptive to the flow of the series as they are in many similar anime. These bits aren't the only source of humor, as the clashes between different Drifters' overbearing personalities can also be a source of fun, but humor is still not the series' strong suit.
Fortunately, the production values are. Hoods Entertainment is more known for producing raunchy fare like Qwaser of Stigmata, but that series also displayed decent action animation, and they do a solid job on Drifters as well. The budget and time limitations of TV anime do hold the show back sometimes, but Drifters does a better job than most of hiding its shortcomings behind richly-colored visuals, lavish digital effects, and Hirano's signature poses highlighting only the eyes against shrouded faces. Naturally, that also means that the graphic violence quite high; this carries a TV-MA rating with good reason.The pulsing musical score combines the talents of the music directors for both versions of Hellsing, highlighted by stellar English-language opener “Gospel of the Throttle” by American rock band Minutes Til Midnight, which is a perfect fit for the tone of the series.
Funimation's English dub is anchored by Josh Grelle as Toyohisa and Robert McCollum as Nobunaga, and the latter in particular does a stand-out job, as does Justin Briner in a nearly-unrecognizable performance as Yoichi. Accents and speaking patterns appropriate to countries of origin are used liberally for non-Japanese roles, with one character even speaking in Latin at one point, and an alternate language for the fantasy world was also created to match English-speaking cadences, mirroring the Japanese track's cipher-based fantasy language. The dub's one flaw is that the thick accents applied can sometimes make the dialogue difficult to follow. Funimation's release is a standard Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack which includes English commentaries for episodes 1 and 10, promo videos, clean opener and closer, and an Inside the Episode feature, which is a collection of 6-8 minute interviews with various English staff and cast members about their characters.
Drifters ranks near the top of series from 2016 that I want to see continue. A second season is teased at the end of episode 12, and episodes 13 and 14 have been released in Japan as OVAs, but there's no indication of when a second season will actually see the light. Given how much fun this series can be, I will definitely come back for more.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Great visuals and musical score, lively characters, entertainingly dramatic bravado
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