This week, a bunch of questions about Blu-rays! How's that Macross Plus blu-ray box from Japan? How's that crowdsourcing thing going? And why are the episodes divided up so strangely?
Reviewby Theron Martin, Sep 8th 2006
The Children of Béfort they are called: always white-haired and blue-eyed, never living past the age of twelve, and appearing 13 times in different generations over the course of more than 500 years. Their mission is a cryptic one to outsiders, their presence usually unrecognized as remarkable, until an early 20th century physicist who becomes obsessed with them starts to piece together part of the puzzle. Over and over again they have been reborn, always with the mission of finding a girl/woman named Tina and never having more than eleven years to accomplish their mission before they start to lose their memories. So stressful is their task that two are lost along the way, leaving only five to be reborn into the early 21st century to search for Tina once again, but their awakenings also leave behind heartache for the families they come from, too.
Thoma, the son of a priest and fortune teller who make their home on an island archipelago in 2012, knows nothing of the children or their mission at first. All he wants to do is help the orphan Chitto, who in turn wants to help a morose orphan girl named Helga find the place she's looking for, the place she keeps drawing, a drawing that looks exactly like paintings done by the previous incarnations of the Tina the Children of Béfort seek.
The cover art on the DVD cases may discourage some from checking this series out because it looks at first like it's targeted at younger audiences. Those that skip Fantastic Children based on that reasoning are only depriving themselves, however, as the first episode needs only a couple of minutes to convince the viewer that this is no simple kiddie fare playing out here. Though the series totally lacks graphic content and focuses mostly on several 11-12 year old kids, the pacing, overall dark tone, and complexity of the storytelling suggests that it was actually made for older audiences. Younger kids might have trouble following it, but older ones and their parents who give this one a try will find a remarkably absorbing tale of an ages-spanning effort by a handful of individuals seeking a lost soul. Why would they do this? You'll have to wait until episode 13 for the full explanation.
Although the goal of the children becomes clear very early on, their nature is revealed only gradually over the course of the first dozen episodes. These five (originally seven) individuals – Aghi, Hasmodeye, Soleto, Tarlant, Hisuma, and the lost Palza and Mel - are reborn as normal babies at irregular intervals but assume their distinctive white-haired and blue-eyes appearance over their first few years. Eventually they regain their memories of themselves and strike out to find each other. Once regrouped, they continue the hunt for the girl/woman they call Tina in their new era, but the process they use to be reborn each time causes them to lose their memories of who they really are before they turn 12, thus their time in each cycle is limited. They don't fully lose the memories of the children they were before their reincarnated essence takes over, which sometimes puts a great strain on them when their desires for the comforts of family war with their need to continue their mission. Although the rest of this process takes several episodes to be pieced together, the last point is evident up front, and it's the strain of that conflict which quickly makes the series compelling.
Alternating with the scenes of the Children of Béfort are scenes focusing on Thoma, the island-dwelling enthusiastic martial arts trainee who spends a good deal of time tooling around in a little boat. His chance encounter with solemn Helga draws him into the middle of the whole affair, although neither he nor Helga have any conception of the scope of what's going on; all he knows is that Helga needs to find a place she keeps drawing, and her orphanage mate Chitto is determined to see it happen. Mixed in with both are scenes of a detective nominally investigating a missing child but actually wrapped up in the whole Children of Béfort mystery, since the child he seeks seems to be one of them. It is he that eventually reveals the history of the Children, though the truth of who the Children really are and why they are doing what they are isn't laid out until the paths of Thoma's group and the Children converge near the end of Episode 12. The big revelations then follow before volume 3 ends with a recap episode.
Series which attempt an approach like this often drag in the early going, but Fantastic Children has paced itself quite well so far. Enough is going on that it never feels like the series is stretching things out or killing time. A couple of important side plots help, including one concerning a very slowly-aging child name Duma who poses a threat to the Children and another involving the escaped subjects of an experiment by the mysterious Ged Group, one of whom wields powers connected to the Children. They are also sometimes beset by strange shadowy forms which must be fought off, and both they and occasional other individuals can sometimes see ghostly forms. Again, most of these things and their relevance are explained during the third volume, as nearly everything going on here is connected in some way.
The backgrounds of Fantastic Children's artistry are creative, detailed, and very nicely drawn and colored in their renditions of ruin-filled tropical islands, historical Europe, and towns a bit off the beaten path. The digitally-rendered characters are drawn well, but their cartoonish designs and the sometimes-odd depictions of noses represent a much older style that may throw off viewers used to more recent design trends. Less well-handled are the occasional purely digital effects, such as the bees that come up in one episode. With few true action scenes the animation doesn't have much of a chance to show up, but it does reasonably well with its opportunities and is convincing in supporting scenes where its children must emote at length (which happens often).
The musical score is anchored by somber, mood-setting piano and viola(?)-based tunes occasionally punctuated with flute melodies. Although very effective at their tasks, the same few themes are used heavily over the course of the series, which can make them sound too repetitive after a while. The opener “Voyage” is an elegant, soaring number, while the closer “Misu no Madoromi” is a dreamy, enchanting song which sounds like it was plucked from the soundtrack for Titanic. Both are among the best of recent anime theme songs, which makes the soundtrack album (released domestically in the U.S.) a worthy consideration.
The biggest weakness of the series so far is its English dub, which is, in a word, crap. The lack of professionalism here is startling. Although a few of the roles are voiced capably, they are more than balanced out by awful performances in other roles, ones that are off-tone, poorly-timed, and/or wooden. In a couple of important roles the voices match so badly with the characters that they are entirely unconvincing; Gherta, the doctor in charge in the Ged Group, is a particular example, as she's supposed to be 52 but sounds 20, and a poorly-acted 20 at that. Some characters also have weird accents or speech qualities in English that probably weren't intended. Odex Pte Ltd, a Singapore-based company which normally specializes in the Far Eastern anime market, was responsible for this one, and they called on vocal talent so obscure to the American market that even the most devoted English dub fan is unlikely to recognize a single name in the credits. (No surprise, really.) The dub script isn't bad, but hopefully this is not an example of things to come from Bandai Entertainment.
Extras on all three volumes are limited, consisting only of clean opener and closer and company previews – and nothing more than the latter on the third volume. The original Japanese closer is retained on all episodes, with English credits provided at the end of each volume (albeit with a difficult-to-read format). The first volume also incorrectly lists its length as 75 minutes when it should be 125 minutes, while the second volume incorrectly lists 95 minutes instead of 125, which may give interested parties the false impression that this is not a series composed of 24-minute episodes. (It is.)
Despite its youthful look, Fantastic Children is a series aimed at older audiences which shouldn't be allowed to slip through the cracks. It can suck you in with its strong musical score and well-paced and involving storytelling, but its dub is only tolerable to the most hard-core dub fans.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Engrossing storytelling, great background artistry.
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