Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jan 6th 2008
DVD 1 - Persistence of Time
The phoenix is a legendary bird whose blood is said to grant its drinker immortality. Over the millennia, many seek its rejuvenating powers; few, however, benefit from the pursuit.
At the dawn of time, a primitive people populated the Land of Fire, living at the base of a volcano in which the immortal bird made its residence. They are slaughtered one day by the soldiers of a nearby kingdom, under the orders of its queen Himeko, who daily trembles at the horrors of her aging body. The leader of the troops, Sarutahiko, spares the life of one child, adopting the boy as his own. Himeko, unbalanced by her fear of mortality, pursues the phoenix with religious fervor, and soon the land is bathed in fire and blood.
At the end of time, when the Earth lies decaying on its death bed, a group of researchers finds the phoenix on the surface of the moon. Their desperate research into its life-giving properties unfortunately ends in fiery chaos. Doctors save Leona, one of the surviving researchers, by replacing the destroyed half of his brain with a robotic matrix, but the operation leaves him permanently damaged, raging and trying to escape until he meets a beautiful girl and falls in love. Only she isn't a girl. She isn't even alive.
Phoenix (AKA Hi no Tori) isn't necessarily the best introduction to the world of Osamu Tezuka, Japan's "God of Manga," in anime. It isn't nearly so accessible as Astro Boy or Kimba the White Lion, nor is it a visual showpiece like Metropolis. It makes wild leaps in time and space, and even within a single story-arc it doesn't cleave to standard story structures. It is, however, an ambitious vehicle for many of his recurring intellectual concerns, and fine entertainment to boot.
The first thing to strike one when watching the "Dawn" story arc (which comprises four-fifths of the disc's episode count) is its unconventionality. Its first major male character is dead within minutes, its second abandoned at the end of the first episode, and its third a spectacularly ugly mass-murderer who is soon sporting a lumpy red pickle-nose that makes him look like Boozy, the eighth dwarf. The story glides from one character to the next, detailing how each is affected by the phoenix. There is no central plot and no clear main character; its tone is in turns tragic and cruelly ironic. It soon becomes clear that Tezuka's intent is more philosophical than diversionary. The pursuit of the phoenix allows him free reign to trip through time and touch upon questions about the nature of life, natural cycles, desire, birth, death and what it is that makes us human. What he says isn't always surprising, especially given how often his ideas have been recycled in anime, and subtlety is not one of his merits—profundities are sometimes presented in a way that borders dangerously on the preachy. Nevertheless, it doesn't hurt to listen, and the disregard for standard rules of entertainment is actually quite refreshing.
In spite of that disregard, under the stewardship of director Ryousuke Takahashi (a veteran best known for his politically-charged mecha thrillers), the show actually proves surprisingly entertaining. He knows the importance of matching big ideas with big emotions, and provides the cast with suitably biblical buildups to their frequent displays of flamboyant theatrics (the scene in which a man emerges after months trapped underground to find himself at the bottom of an inescapable sinkhole is a particularly hammy highlight). The wealth of plot is kept lucid and involving under his sure hand, the pace swift and the frequent tragedies surprisingly tragic given their shallow build-up. He even manages the tricky business with Leona's cybernized duplicity of vision with aplomb, nailing the episode's discomfiting romance in the process. He's also good-natured enough to admit, at least visually, to the preposterousness of Tezuka's character designs—the volume's best joke is the sight of Sarutahiko's nose emerging from behind a tree like a ship's prow from behind a cape.
He can't do anything about the phoenix however; for all of the glittery computer effects, it can't help looking like a mutated chicken with Bambi eyes. Everything else is animated with as much panache as a budget that is obviously inferior to his works with Sunrise will allow. The many images that impress themselves upon the mind owe more to Takahashi's skill with editing and judicious use of fluid action and slow motion than to the solid but unremarkable animation. His juxtaposition of cartoony retro designs with brutal violence actually adds to, rather than detracts from its unsettling power, and he keeps the backgrounds attractive, appropriate, and colorful enough to match the characters.
The series' score is a largely classical work that don't truck with no sissy new-fangled ideas about subtlety. Nearly every scene is accompanied by an appropriate composition that does its support right out in the open; soaring symphonies and lyrical choral works so obvious in their intent that they're almost daring you to call them cheesy. In short, pitch-perfect musical counterparts to an ambitiously mythic spectacle.
Dub fans will be happy to know that this is one of Media Blasters' rare series to feature an English language version. They'll be further gladdened to hear that the English script makes a concerted effort to adjust the dialogue to a more believably conversational cadence, and that it is decently acted. There are issues of course (few of Media Blasters' dubs are free of them). Some of the incidental dialogue in the "Dawn" arc sounds too modern for its setting; at least once the script adjustments excise an important reference, leading to an embarrassing nonsequitur; and sometimes the mix lets music and sound effects overpower the dialogue. But it's hard to fault any dub that can so convincingly do long drawn-out cries of anguish. Noooooo!
The impressive opening, in which science, religion, mythology, and nature flow one into the next, really says it all. This is an ambitious work, perfect for those looking for something that at least tries to be more than a simple diversion. Just ignore the schnozzes.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Modern mythologizing with big ideas, epic scope, and considerable entertainment value.
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