Reviewby Mike Crandol,
DVD 5: The Soul Stealers
All roads lead to master magician Rox Roe as Orphen, Majic, and Cleao learn he holds the key to transforming the dragon Azalie back to her human form, but it would seem Azalie has plans of her own and beats the three friends to the sage's hermit retreat. With his last breath the sorcerer charges Orphen with saving not only Azalie but also Childman, who has become the victim of an unspeakable evil. Orphen must not only reclaim the Sword of Baltanders from the imps Volcan and Dortin, but deal with attacks from Azalie, Childman, and Flameheart. Fortunately he receives some help (as it were) from the Assassin of the Night, the Black Tiger.
"Orphen" is a series that is usually characterized by occasional flashes of great storytelling amid stretches of mediocrity, but "The Soul Stealers" rises to the occasion and provides a fairly consistent level of quality entertainment. Though the creators still manage somehow to find time for pointless filler so close to the end of the season's story-arc, the fifth volume of Orphen's adventures is packed with some surprising character development and one doozy of an unforeseen plot twist. While no masterpiece, this batch of fine episodes ensures "Orphen's" place as one of the top anime in the medieval fantasy genre.
After a seemingly endless parade of filler episodes on previous volumes, "Orphen's" plot finally regains it's sense of direction, and takes some surprising turns. The ultimate plans of both Childman and Azalie are laid bare to the viewer, and though Orphen himself has yet to realize them, they throw quite the monkey wrench into his own plan to return Azalie to normal. Flameheart and the Tower of Fang Elders continue to lurk and plot in the background, and though nothing comes to fruition in the episodes presented one at least gets the sense that something is happening, unlike earlier episodes where the characters appear to be standing around doing nothing. After some pointless business involving a volcano and an elderly couple living at it's base, Orphen discovers what he must do to save Azalie and heads off with Majic and Cleao to complete his quest....finally. After a satisfying viewing experience, the thought will likely cross your mind that "Orphen" would have been an excellent, tightly-plotted 13-part OVA series instead of the much longer and uneven series it ultimately became.
Episode 18, "Birds and Bees", proves that even mindless comedic filler can be made interesting if it relates to the overall story. The episode is by-the-book "Orphen" filler: Orphen, Majic, and Cleao chase Volcan and Dortin into a gigantic tree complete with giant bugs and other assorted creatures...hilarity ensues. The difference is that this time there is an important reason for Orphen to want to strangle Volcan's neck. Having learned that the Sword of Baltanders is needed after all to transform Azalie back, Orphen must reclaim the weapon from the two trolls he once shrugged it off on. It may sound like an inconsequentiality, but this tiny narrative hook is all it takes to turn a standard comedy routine into a genuinely involving narrative, and an episode you may have only half-watched becomes one of "Orphen's" best.
I say "one of Orphen's best" because not only does it combine humor with plot development, but it also features some unlooked-for character development of Cleao and Orphen. Previously the series had seemed content with it's essentially one-sided ensemble, so it's something of a surprise that the creators chose to finally develop their cast so late in the game. Having been outsmarted by Volcan, a crushed Orphen admits defeat and begs the imp for the sword. Moved, it is the hithertofore vapid, selfish Cleao who busts out of Volcan's trap and corners the sword-stealing troll. Thus a newfound respect and camaraderie between the renegade sorcerer and the "spoilt" rich-girl, which began in the previous episode, is cemented. Indeed, every episode of "The Soul Stealers" is ripe with long-overdue character development, as Childman is revealed to be more noble and Azalie more deceitful than either had let on. And the Black Tiger reappears not once but twice, adding some depth to his own character as well. If more is done with Majic, Volcan and Dortin's characters in the final volume "Orphen" may finally realize it's full potential.
The series' art and animation continues to be of average quality. There is an epic and pivotal battle between Childman and Azalie that could have benefited much if the animator's had been allowed to lavish a little more attention on it. One curious aspect of the video quality is that some episodes appear bright and vibrant while others look decidedly more bland and washed-out. It's almost as if ADV was only able to acquire digital masters of every fourth episode of "Orphen". The show's music is also comparable with previous installments, but I must rescind my complaint from my review of "Orphen vol. 4" about the new theme song. Like most J-Pop, it has a way of growing on you.
My views have not changed about the show's English dub, and I will continue to defend it against it's many detractors. The habit of altering the meaning of the dialogue has not completely subsided, but it continues the trend from "Mystere" of being more restrained, and though liberties are taken with the translation the intentions of the script are left intact. The American vocal cast continues their above-average performance for an anime dub, making the series twice as entertaining in English as in it's native language.
Anime is the perfect visual medium to interpret the literary genre of sprawling sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels. There have been many attempts through the years to bring these stories to life in anime form, but most have ended in failure. "Orphen", though flawed, is a rare example of an anime that pulls it off nicely. Fans of animation who also have a thing for swords and dragons shouldn't miss it.
+ the series returns to it's engaging plotline and throws some new twists in for good measure, wealth of character development makes up for the dearth of it in previous volumes
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