Reviewby Theron Martin,
El Hazard - The Magnificent World
DVDs 1 and 2
When high school student Mikoto Mizuhara investigates an ancient ruin beneath his school, a strange woman appears and transports him, his bitter rival Katsuhiko Jinnai, Jinnai's sister Nanami, and their teacher Masamichi Fujisawa to the fantasy world of El Hazard, where each of them eventually discovers a peculiar special ability: Mikoto can awaken ancient technology, Katsuhiko can communicate with a buglike race called Bugrom, Nanami can see through illusions, and Mr. Fujisawa gains phenomenal strength and fighting ability when sober – a problem, since he often isn't. Scattered across the breadth of El Hazard, the four transplants eventually become embroiled in a variety of plots and schemes, including the assault by the Bugrom on the land of Roshtaria and her allies, the efforts of Roshtaria to implore three priestess to unseal the Eye of God (a weapon of mass destruction left over from a previous age) to defend the alliance against the Bugrom, the efforts of the Bugrom to locate and awaken the dreaded Demon God Ifurita (who happens to be the same woman who brought Mikoto and company to El Hazard), and the effort of the leadership of Roshtaria to conceal the fact that its second Princess, Folara, is missing by having Mikoto – who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to her – masquerade as her. Behind them all the Phantom Tribe schemes for a power grab of their own, while one of the priestesses schemes to earn herself a husband in Mr. Fujisawa.
If you were active in American fandom in the late '90s then you probably either saw or knew about some incarnation or another of El Hazard, as its various series made frequent appearances at convention video rooms and were among the earlier anime series to be widely-available in video rental stores. Although it did not persist into the current decade, its popularity in Japan in the second half of the '90s was sufficient to warrant 11 OVA episodes (subtitled “The Magnificent World”) spread over two series, a 13-episode TV sequel (subtitled “The Alternate World”), a 26 episode TV series (subtitled “The Wanderers”) which provides an alternate retelling of the original story, and its own pen-and-paper RPG. Most of the video content was originally released on VHS, and all four series have been available on DVD since the early 2000s, but license holder Geneon Entertainment has recently opted to do a cheap rerelease on the original OVA series, offering both volumes (which span the first seven OVA episodes) for the economical MSRP of only $14.98 each. Given that the boxed set of all the OVAs retailed for over $100 when released back in 2001, that's a steal for anyone who fondly remembers the series but never got around to adding it to their collection.
The downside of the economical price is the lack of anything new; if you got the original boxed set then you're wasting your money by buying these volumes. The two volumes constituting the original OVA series are purely reprints of the original DVD releases, complete with the same menu screens and Extras, and it does not appear any attempt was made to redub, update the sound, or improve the graphic quality. The sparse offering of Extras includes an art gallery on the first volume, line art and clean opener/closer on the shorter second volume, and some bonus interior art on both. An Easter Egg does exist on the first volume, however, which can be accessed by pressing “left” on the remote when the cursor is lined up with the “Enter the Magnificent World” option and then hitting “Enter.” It gives you a secret audio-only message which suggests that more Easter Eggs may follow, although none were apparent on the second volume.
The series starts with a fairly standard “individuals transported from the real world into a fantasy realm where they discover special abilities” set-up but quickly throws a few big variations into the traditional plot: one of the main characters must spend most of these episodes in drag, another becomes the remarkably effective leader of the bad guys. Its myriad plot threads weave together to form light-hearted, high-spirited storytelling which rarely takes itself too seriously and never gets dull. A lively and colorful cast of mostly one-note characters also contributes greatly to the entertainment value, whether it be the megalomaniacal Katsuhito, the enterprising Nanami, midget flaming lesbian Alielle, hotheaded priestess Shayla-Shayla, or Mr. Fujisawa, the dedicated teacher (and equally dedicated lush) who turns into a bold kung fu master when sober but must spend his time dodging the advances of the priestess determined to marry him before she gets too old. Even the buglike Bugrom have a lot of character in their nonhumanoid forms. Only in the second tier of secondary roles do the personalities start to disappoint.
The background artistry uses several impressive and creative fantasy vistas to form the setting for the series, while the character designs, which show the distinct influence of Tenchi Muyo (not surprising, given that series director Hiroki Hayashi was also one of the main individuals behind the original Tenchi Muyo OVA), provide an array of distinctive looks as broad and colorful as the personalities of the characters. The animation, while not strong by OVA standards, nonetheless does the job, and fan service consists of occasional suggestiveness and undefined nudity. The flaws in the artistry lie in the quality control. Especially compared to the later episodes, the first episode starts out looking positively awful, and while the artistic quality does gradually increase, it never reaches the level of the better OVAs from the '90s. The special visual effects used for explosions and magical blasts also fail to impress, even if one considers the age of the production and all-cel animation.
A lively and highly varied musical score makes up for most of the artistic problems. Anchored by grand fantasy and historical themes flavored with Middle Eastern riffs, these seven episodes jump around a lot in style and instrumentation. Some scenes carry soaring synthesized numbers, while others are light and playful or dark and dramatic, as befitting the tone of the scene. Each episode closes with a song which, if one ignores its synthesized sound, might have come straight out of a Broadway musical. It comes available in Japanese or equally well-sung English depending on the language option you use.
The English dub courtesy of Animaze, which dates back to the original VHS release of the late '90s, offers an uneven level of performance quality paired with creative reinterpretations of dialogue in the English script; the three key Bugrom subordinates of Katsuhito get named after the Marx brothers in English, for instance. Shining brightest is Bob Marx's brilliant performance as egomaniac Katsuhito, which sets the gold standard for male maniacal laughter, while at the opposite end of the spectrum stands a gratingly weak attempt to duplicate Ifurita's monotone by Tiffany James, who (not surprisingly) has done no other anime roles. Christy Mathewson, who went on to do much better work elsewhere, also gives a too-hesitant performances as Makoto, as if he were more concerned about matching lip flaps than making it sound smooth. All of the other roles, most of which represent early-career work by longtime anime veterans (Mona Marshall, Melissa Charles/Fahn, Ruby Marlowe, Lia Sargent, David Lucas, and William Fredrick Knight, among others), fall somewhere in between, with each good performance generally being negated by a weak one. If you want to see the English credits, though, you'll have to look in the Credits option on the main menu, as the episodes retain the original Japanese credits only.
El Hazard does not even come close to representing the cream of the crop of '90s anime, nor did it establish any new trends or have a marked influence on the course of anime. It does, in fact, merely represent the popular styles and story themes of its time. Its success and popularity can be attributed to putting together a meaty enough plot with lively characters and a good amount of action to produce a highly entertaining series, one which stands with Slayers and Visions of Escaflowne at the top of the popularity curve of mid-to-late '90s fantasy anime.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : B+
+ Entertainment value, economical pricing.
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