Reviewby Theron Martin,
Collection 1 DVD
Rinda and Remus, twin heirs to the throne of wealthy Parros, are widely-known as the Pearls of Parros because of their physical beauty. When Mongaul armies launch a successful surprise attack on the capital city of Crystal, a desperate attempt to magically transport the twins to safety goes awry, instead depositing them in the heart of a hostile Mongaul wilderness. In their most desperate hour an unusual hero comes to their rescue: a hulking man with the head (or perhaps irremovable mask?) of a leopard and superhuman strength, one who can remember that his name is Guin and the name “Aurra” but nothing else. Soon they pick up further allies in the dashing mercenary Istavan, who believes that Rinda may be the “Shining Lady” who will ultimately guide him to his destined kingdom, and the Sem (i.e. ape-like humanoid) girl Sunni, and they will need them all to escape Mongaul forces and flee into the untamed lands of Nospherus. As a Mongaul army led by the Princess Amnelis pursues them, Guin must become the heroic leader he seems destined to be so that he can both protect the twins and fend off the invaders of a land where he feels curiously at home.
Nospherus is not the only land where grand gambits are afoot, though. In Crystal, on an entirely different battlefield, the Duke of Crystal, Aldo-Norisse, begins his own schemes to wrest Parros back from his invaders, while other allies of Parros start to make their own moves.
The anime version of Guin Saga is based on the first sixteen volumes of the most copious single-author novel series ever written; between 1979 and the author's death in 2009 (which occurred early during the anime's run), 126 core novels and 21 short story collections were published. Some of that sense of epic scope and breadth transfers through intact into the first thirteen episodes of this anime series; in fact, no other anime title can more readily and substantively claim the label of “epic high fantasy” than this one can. This is pure, old-school, Western-styled fantasy, the kind which evokes the spirit of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian tales and might inspire its own fantasy RPGs instead of being built out of them: magic, monsters, barbarians, knights, warring nations, individual and large-scale battles, beautiful women, characters to be saved and protected, and exotic landscapes all populate this setting and story. Only in minor ways does it offer any concessions to modern anime styling.
Over its first eleven episodes the series is a straightforward action-adventure tale, albeit one which occasionally drops blatant indicators about a Bigger Picture and offers just a sampling of its taste for dastardly deception and betrayal – only in this series the heroes are more commonly the perpetrators than the victims of such scheming. During that time the focus gradually shifts from the twins to Guin as he gets the lion. . . er, leopard's share of the heroic duties, although Istavan has some feature scenes, too. Initially Guin comes off more as a noble brute, but he shows over the course of the Nospherus escapades that he is a born leader just as capable of crafty planning, goading enemies into actions that suit his purposes, and encouraging allies as he is defeating enemies with raw power. He isn't invulnerable, either, as on two occasions he needs improbable assistance to defeat a particularly difficult foe; it is in these places where the sense of destiny inherent in Guin's character gets amplified a little too much. Istavan, by comparison, is a roguish type with some lofty ambitions, while Sunni is rarely more than a mascot character. Although the twins never actually do that much except get rescued, protected, and (in Rinda's case) cast prophecies, they still have a distinct presence and influence on events. Rinda is typically the strong one and Remus the weak one, but Rinda partly sabotages her character with her fangirl-like behavior towards Guin and Remus does finally grow some balls before the end of this set, raising the hope that he will not continue to be a pathetic wimp.
The series does not limit itself to just focusing on its main cast, however. Throughout the Nospherus block the focus regularly shifts to the Mongaul forces, especially onto Princess Amnelis, her chief advisor Marus, and a subordinate captain who is secretly and hopelessly in love with Amnelis. The reason for this emphasis becomes clearer in episodes 12 and 13, when attention shifts to events in Crystal and elsewhere but still keeps Amnelis and the lovestruck captain squarely in the picture; they will continue to have big roles in the second half of the series. Those episodes greatly expand the scope of the story, too, impressing upon the viewer that more has been set in motion by the seizure of Crystal than just the twins' sojourn through Nospherus and that not all fights in the series will involve swordplay and fisticuffs. Viewers expecting more than just an adventure tale should take those episodes as a precursor of the drama and scheming yet to come.
The greatest strengths of the writing and storytelling lie in the thrilling action sequences they stage and the complex planning and scheming used by the good guys. The writing also does a fair job with characterizations, though these often feel as much like plot devices as actual character development; even Guin is defined much more by his lack of memory and what he needs to do in a heroic sense than by any exploration of his character or depth. Far less impressive is the flow of the plotting, as the series too often feels like it is merely moving from one stage piece to another rather than progressing naturally. The writing also tries much too hard to work in colorful oaths, resulting in them often feeling more cumbersome than complementary (especially in English).
The artistry and animation show little weakness, however, as Satelight turns in another top-rate effort here. Background designs are a triumph, with wonderfully imagined and rendered fantasy settings and architecture which shine with vibrant color and a wealth of detail, especially one late scene involving lakes spilling out from high plateaus. Even more ordinary scenes like forbidding forests and wasteland vistas impress with their attention to detail and ambiance. Character designs may be even better; Toshiharu Murata, who has more mechanical design credits but has done characters for series like Blue Submarine No. 6 and Hellsing, took the original designs by Natsuki Sumeragi and adeptly modified them for anime form. In his hands the pale-haired, violet-eyed Rinda becomes a stunning beauty, easily one of the prettiest of all anime heroines (Istavan's comment at one point that nations will eventually fight over her does not seem like hyperbole), while Amnelis has more of a cold, mature appeal which makes her look much older then the mere 18-year-old she's supposed to be. Istavan's dashing good looks and Aldo-Norisse's enchanting bishonen form provide ample eye candy for the ladies, while Guin is such a studly figure that he seems above mere physical attractiveness – and yes, the leopard head is fully convincing if not necessarily fully-animated. The animation helps give the series a greater sense of depth than most anime titles normally have, with some fantastic battle animation and perspective shifts complemented by some only slightly lesser CG effects used in massed troop movements and windborne debris. Only some minor and infrequent quality control flaws keep this from being one of the best-looking recent titles. The visuals do make two concessions to common anime style points by giving many characters superhuman leaping capabilities and Marus an improbably oversized sword, but otherwise the look of this series little resembles the anime norm.
A generally solid soundtrack occasionally peaks much higher on the strength of some dynamic and compelling recurring themes, ones which draw out the full intensity and dramatic flair of scenes without going overboard. The prosaically-named “Guin Theme” is a dramatic, orchestrated instrumental number reminiscent of fantasy classics which does inspire images of grand adventure but does not stand out much as an anime opener. Closer “Saga ~ This is my road,” which begins with elegant use of Latin, makes much more of an impression, both as a song done in the style of Enya and for its well-timed highlighting of the great character designs.
Sentai Filmworks' English dub also does the series justice. Relative newcomers Elizabeth Bunch and Emily Neves are perfectly-cast as Amnelis and Rinda, respectively, and do great jobs in portraying both the arrogance and weaknesses of their roles, while David Matranga makes a fitting Istavan and David “Golgo 13” Wald ably fills the title role. If there is a weak casting choice, it is Jay Hickman as Aldo-Norisse, but that is more nitpicking than an actual problem. The English script stays fairly tight and subtitles are free of errors.
Sentai apparently saw this as a major release, as they have given the DVD version the deluxe treatment. Included is an entire disk of Extras with a total running time of about an hour. Amongst these are clean opener and closer, a collection of series trailers (including an early English one whose roles were, thankfully, recast), a 13 minute clip from the Japanese premier event, an 11 minute retrospective on original author Karou Kurimoto from her editor/husband's point of view, and a 29 minute interview piece featuring the seiyuu for the four most prominent male roles.
The first half of Guin Saga offers a lot to like, especially if one is a fan of the fantasy genre beyond RPGs and their derivatives. It trips up on sometimes-awkward dialogue and could certainly do a smoother job with its story progression and integration of setting details, but even with those flaws it is still one of the better recent fantasy anime.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Character designs, fantastic action sequences, epic scope.
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