Reviewby Theron Martin,
DVD 4: Modern History
In modern-day Tokyo Hikaru is the teenage landlord for Tsuna, a reporter who specializes in writing stories about the occult and other strange happenings. Ladies' man Sadamitsu and his young charge Kintaro are other tenants, as is the psychic Urabe. Raikou, Hikaru's older brother and Tsuna's sempai, has been missing for a year since disappearing while researching a story, but the mysteries left in his wake only heighten as a number of strange phenomena begin to occur all around Tokyo. Ghost trains, time warps, spontaneous flooding and fires, and unseasonable weather which causes out-of-season plants to bloom: what connection do these events have? How are they related to events of the past and the tall, mysterious man (Mansairaku) Hikaru keeps bumping into amidst all this strangeness?
So you've killed off most of the cast of your Heian Era series by the end of the first season. What do you do for the second season? Reincarnate them all in modern times playing out a different but related storyline, of course!
Reincarnating characters from hundreds of years in the past into modern times has certainly been done before; it's one of the central gimmicks of Inuyasha, and Gasaraki did it for a couple of episodes, among others. Never before, to my knowledge, has it been done in anime on the scale seen in Otogi Zoshi, however. So dramatic is the transition that this volume almost feels like a completely different series; it his different opener and closers, significantly different musical scoring, and different DVD menu screens (which had remained very consistent amongst the first three volumes). All that remains the same are the character names, general appearances, and basic relationships. Seeing how characters are reinterpreted for a different era is always interesting, but is this enough of a connection to keep the interest of those originally hooked on the series by the period trappings? Fortunately we don't have to rely on just that.
Group discussions included in the extras of previous volumes have indicated that the Tokyo Arc storyline is to have a distinct connection to events which happened in the Heian Arc, and indeed there are already some indications of that throughout this volume, especially in episode 18. It will be interesting to see exactly how close the ties between the two eras become, as the success of this gimmick hinges on how well the connection is executed. It will be just as interesting to see if the writers can keep their storytelling fresh in this new arc given some troubling signs. The modern-day equivalent of Mansairaku, for instance, has degenerated into being the stereotypical supernatural mystery man who tosses out cryptic warnings, occasionally helps Hikaru out, and then disappears, and most of the plot in these five episodes unfolds in a predictable fashion. Still, the concept of two stories connected across more than 1,000 years is an intriguing one, and at least the creators didn't fall into the trap of the Tokyo Arc just being a modern-day replay of the Heian Arc. They also have kept this story arc loaded with such a degree of historical detail on Tokyo that even a Japanese viewer would probably have to watch the University Lectures segments to fully appreciate it all.
The artistry that was one of the Heian Arc's highlights has also undergone a substantial change. Gone is the long, flowing hair and sumptuous period costumes which made the lush character designs of earlier episodes so appealing. Although features and build have been carried over more or less intact, hair and clothing styles are decidedly modern. Logical updates were used; Sadamitsu dresses like a pretty-boy biker, for instance, Mansairaku wears a trench coat, and Tsuna has a hunky athletic look complete with a bit of a goatee. Hikaru has traded in her highly traditional woman's dress for the common fare of a modern teenage girl and has no need in the modern era to dress like a man. (And, thankfully, they have not yet shown her in a school uniform.) When drawn right, the main cast still looks quite appealing, but unfortunately that isn't always the case. Body proportioning is inconsistent in episodes 14-17 and in the opener, resulting in scenes where some of the characters look distorted compared to the norm for their appearance. Discrepancies are keyed to changes in clothing or the angle at which the character is seen, especially in Hikaru's case; she often looks much broader and shorter in the torso when wearing something which covers her shoulders, for instance, and how thick she looks in the hips depends a lot on whether she's wearing a skirt or jeans. These effects have subsided by episode 18, though they remain in the opener. Minor characters are much less remarkable, although many are clearly patterned off of secondary characters from the Heian Arc.
While some problems do exist in the character designs, the background artistry is a significant improvement from the Heian Arc. Almost everything is better-drawn, better-detailed, and fits better with the character art. Color schemes are generally lighter but also more faded than what was seen earlier. The animation fares well; characters sometimes look a little awkward when running, but movements are otherwise smooth and animation shortcuts are minimal. Overall it is still a good-looking series, though not in the same way that it was in earlier volumes.
Updating the story and artistry also required updating the soundtrack. Background music has dispensed with the flute melodies and Noh dance rhythms used in the Heian Arc in favor of more modern themes, resulting in an entirely different sound. The new closer, which is also set to sketches (albeit much cruder than those used in the Heian Arc closer), uses a different song but has a similar tone, while the new opener is entirely different. Gone is the hard-edged, dynamic opener of Attack Haus, and replacing it is a more jaunty, laid-back guitar-based number by a guy calling himself Gomez The Hitman. The dramatic opening visuals have also been changed for images that include various characters lip-synching to some of the lyrics. The English dub casting remains the same, however, and actually has improved a bit since there is no longer a need for Julie Ann Taylor, Hikaru's VA, to use a raspy voice to imitate being a man. She does not put the petulant touch into her performance that the seiyuu for Hikaru did, but such a tone does not feel right for the character and her vocal quality fits the role at least as well. Other key English VA performances are close enough in style to the originals, and suitable enough in vocal quality for the character, to be fine for their roles.
Otogi Zoshi has been amongst the richest of series when it comes to extras, a tradition continued in its fourth volume. As before, the extras are all on a separate disk included inside normal-size packaging, and most of the extras are of the same type as those seen in previous volumes. The two Group Discussion pieces (#5 and #6) this time feature the director, sound director, chief writer, and a Production I.G PR/Advertising rep talking about issues ranging from character commentary to sound issues to a discussion about how the Tokyo Arc came to be structured the way it was; it is especially interesting to note from these that production time factors helped shaped the story the way it is, and how the story was set in Tokyo primarily because a contrast between the “old capital” (Kyoto, aka Heian-Kyo) and the “new capital” (Edo/Tokyo) was desired. The University Lectures feature a different professor from Tokyo University but otherwise continue the tradition of explaining and commenting on various locations and historical issues which come up in each episode. Also included is a music video for the opener, which uses clips from the animation. All totaled there are nearly 80 minutes of extras present not counting the company trailers. Add on the presence of five episodes, 2.0 and 5.1 tracks for both the English and Japanese dubs, and a separate subtitling option and you have a great value for a normally-priced DVD.
In turning a period action series into a modern-day supernatural mystery/drama the creators of Otogi Zoshi have made an incredibly bold move. Whether or not this will ultimately prove to be a successful gimmick remains to be seen, and there are some niggling inconsistencies in the character renderings to be worked out, but it is certainly not something you ordinarily see in anime. “Modern History” deserves a look by anyone who has followed the series so far and hopefully will be enough to attract the attention of some who might have ignored the series before. The story of Hikaru, it seems, has a ways to go yet.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Great overall artistry, bold plot gimmick
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