Reviewby Theron Martin, Jun 13th 2011
DVD - Collection 2
While Guin, Istavan, and the twins must endure the dangers of a sea voyage and encounters with strange entities found on the voyage, other forces are on the move. In Earlgos, where the twins' aunt is Queen, Prince Scaal gathers his highland horsemen and sets out on an expedition to combat Mongaul, while in the Mongaul capital of Torus a bard works his way into the confidence of the young Mongauli prince and an aide to the Archduke sends assassins after Guin. In Parros, Aldo-Norisse's plans to woo Princess Amnelis and arranges other plotting behind the scenes proceed afoot, with Amnelis being totally suckered in and Astrias still pining to come to her rescue. Eventually Aldo-Norisse's plans come to enough of a critical mass to make an armed attempt from multiple directions to free Parros and defeat Mongaul, while Remus seeks to reach Parros and grow into being king, Amnelis struggles to deal with a broken heart, Rinda struggles with her increasing isolation, and Istavan gets restless enough to strike out on his own despite winning the love of his Shining Lady. For Guin this is more a time to advise than to lead or act, but as the geopolitical landscape shifts around him he, too, must seek his own destiny.
The first half of Guin Saga primarily focused on Guin and the lead role he took in combating the forces of Mongaul and protecting Rinda and Remus, but while he still gets a few opportunities for action scenes in this half, he becomes more an ensemble player as the focus spreads out even more; in fact, he goes two entire episodes at one point without appearing at all, even though he is the title character. (What is this, the Battle Angel Alita: The Last Order manga?) But that just shows the breadth of the story being told here. Once the Nospherus arc ended, the series became as broad and multifaceted a fantasy tale as you will ever likely see.
The complexity and density of the story through these thirteen episodes is remarkable for a pure fantasy title. Barely a moment is wasted because the story covers so much ground – and so many characters – that it simply does not have time for frivolities. The closest things to inconsequential events in these episodes are the assassins sent after Guin, which are built up like they will be something major but end up merely as a series of scattered quick battles, but even they exist to suggest that there are forces moving in the world which directly oppose Guin himself rather than the causes he champions or those he protects. That is just one of the half-dozen plot threads the series juggles at any given time, most of which are ultimately intertwined with the liberation of Parros and subsequent ultimate defeat of Mongaul, albeit not always intentionally (as in the case of the bard and how cozy he gets with the Mongauli prince).
Accompanying all of the plot points are the fleshing out and progression of an equally broad cast of prominent characters. The feature character on this front is Amnelis, who started out in the first half as a villain but gets so cruelly toyed with and screwed over by what happens in this half that she becomes much more sympathetic over time. Viewers get to watch as she advances from her stern military background to being a woman hopelessly in love to despair, vengefulness, despair again, and finally the strength that can only come from digging into the depths of one's soul, acknowledging one's failings, and committing oneself to a cause, and it is an interesting journey to watch. Aldo-Norisse, contrarily, becomes a curious mix of hero and villain in displaying a degree of amoral cunning and intricate scheming that would make Lelouche Lamperouge or Light Yagami jealous; the ease with which he can wrap people around his finger or maneuver even enemies into positions where they have no choice but to work with him is fascinating in its depravity. Meanwhile, Remus and Rinda continue to head in opposite directions, with Remus becoming stronger while Rinda becomes more dependent, while Istavan's determination to achieve his kingship under his own power keeps driving him away from people. Amongst newer characters, Prince Scaal is the one most certain to make an impression, as his dauntlessly independent spirit, absolute confidence, and utter lack of hesitation (one gets the sense that he would regard anyone who thinks something through as weak) make him a very charismatic figure. Less impressive is the bard Malius, who gets a little too wrapped up in his own melodrama. Many others serve their purposes well without leaving distinct impressions.
The greatest strength of the writing is that it juggles all of these plotlines and characters without missing a beat. Director Atsushi Wakabyashi, who also storyboarded the whole series, smoothly transitions between locales, allowing viewers to effortlessly keep up with what is going on where and being done by whom. The series composition and screenplay by Shoji Yonemora melds the events of several novels together into a work with a nearly flawless sense of timing and pacing (the use of the assassins are the only real trouble spot), giving the story more the feel of a continuous single narrative rather than several smaller components. He even allows the final episode to be mostly a wrap-up piece on the scale of the end of Return of the King, which in this case is necessary to put everyone in their proper place. The one significant flaw in these two men's efforts is that the drama sometimes gets laid on thickly enough that it feels a little forced, but given the grand sweep of events here, and the way that they play into the series' epic feel, that can be overlooked.
The artistry in the second half continues the first half's penchant for vivid and finely-detailed settings, this time with an emphasis more on giving each city and nation its own distinctive architectural and layout characteristics; even the interiors of rooms vary dramatically between the different settings, and that is an eye to detail not commonly found in anime series. The character designs are as beautiful as ever, with Rinda still being the prize amongst female characters (especially in one late scene where she's in full regal dress), though some of the dresses she gets put in are less than fully flattering. Rigea, the daughter of Aldo-Norisse's retainer, also looks suitably impressive in full dress armor and actually has the physique to pull it off, while the one weak point is the generic look of the assassins; although distinctive-looking, they are also designs that have been done many times before. These episodes do have occasional spots where the refinement in character rendering is not quite up to par, but thankfully such flaws pass quickly. The sharp coloring and animation are as strong as ever and get plenty of opportunities to show off.
The musical score sometimes lays the most dramatic of the established themes on too heavily, helping edge certain scenes more towards melodrama than drama, but on the whole it continues to do an effective job at promoting the sweeping, epic feel of the series and suitably juicing up key action scenes. The opener gets a slight visual update but otherwise remains the same, while closer “This Is My Road” only becomes even more fitting as the series progresses.
Sentai Filmworks seems to be treating Guin Saga as a mid-range title, as it has no listings for a Blu-Ray version at this time but it does have an English dub and this collection, like the first one, has a third disk just for Extras. It includes typical offerings like clean opener and closer and a set of Japanese trailers, but the real jewel is the early 2009 interview with original author Kaoru Kurimoto about her 30 years writing Guin Saga. This is one of the best such interviewers one is likely to come across on an anime DVD, as it is edited well and Kurimoto – one of the most prolific novelists ever – is very frank and personable about her creation and the way she approaches it. Over the course of 55 minutes she discusses early influences (not surprisingly, they included Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs), her thoughts about various characters (whom she identifies most with may surprise you), the way she writes (illness forced her to reduce her standard for a “good day” down to 25 pages from 50), the philosophical approach she takes (she sees herself more as a cloud or wind reporting on events rather than a god and describes writing the series as actually entering her second home), and her plans for the series (she originally intended to write 100 volumes but realized after 50 that she had set her goal too short). Amongst the most interesting comments are her admission that she has trouble writing female characters (which carries through into the anime, as no female character beyond maybe Sunni is shown being consistently strong and independent) and her discussion about why one prominent character from the anime gets killed off much later in the novels and how she felt that it was beyond her control that it happened; the story just inexorably went in that direction, she basically claims. Kurimoto did not live long enough to see more than the first few episodes of the anime version, and her thoughts on that are not included here, but based on her interview comments I have to think that she would have been delighted with how it turned out; all of the characters stay true to her descriptions and the sense of exploration and discovery she so loved to put into her novels is fully retained.
While Sentai got the Extras right, the English dub in this half has some big issues. Key performances are still fine – it is hard to imagine a better fit for Guin than David Wald, Blake Shepard sounds better as Remus as his character's attitude hardens, and Kalob Martinez gives Scaal a suiting attitude – but the dub suffers from bizarre lapses in quality. Leraldo Anzaldua, who has done some great dub work elsewhere, strains to get the right pitch for Malius and absolutely cannot sing in the voice he uses (the lyrics he uses are a mess, too), one key emotional scene involving Amnelis and her maid Flori is so incongruously awful that it sounds like a parody, and one-liner supporting characters in a couple of places use inexplicably kooky accents. Lip-synching is also unusually weak for a 2000s-era dub, which is only compounded by frequent poor decision-making on filler dialogue (i.e. the lines used to make shorter translations match up with the animation of characters talking). The subtitles are error-free, but the flaws in the dubbing suggest a rushed effort which is well below the normal standards for ADR director Stephen Foster and Seraphim Digital.
The anime version of Guin Saga brings most of its early storylines to some degree of conclusion in its final episode while leaving plenty of hooks for further adventures and plot developments. The continuation of the expansive story is, unfortunately, not available in English and seems unlikely to ever be, and the last few minutes of the last episode leave the door open for further animation but strongly imply that none was planned. Still, what is available here is a great and involving ride. Kurimoto's story may oversimplify some practical aspects, but few anime better capture the spirit of high fantasy.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Excellent technical merits, busy but easily accessible story and plotting, suitably epic feel.
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