Reviewby Theron Martin, Jul 28th 2009
Romeo x Juliet
DVD - Part 1: Romeo Collection
Fourteen years ago on the aerial continent of Neo-Verona, Lord Montague usurped control from the ruling Capulet family in a bloody coup and made a diligent effort to erase any trace of the Capulets. Only one survived: Juliet, toddler daughter of Prince Capulet, whisked away into hiding by loyal Capulet henchmen. Since that time Juliet has been raised incognito, ignorant of her true identity and importance and aware only that she must disguise herself as the boy Odin for her own safety. Discontent with Prince Montague's draconian rule, Juliet assumes the secret identity of the Red Whirlwind to champion the cause of the oppressed people, but on her 16th birthday she learns the full truth of her heritage and finds herself obligated to assume the broader role of leader of a rebellion. But there's one massive catch: as the Red Whirlwind she was once rescued by Romeo, the very decent 16-year-old son of Montague, and was lovestruck at first sight. When Juliet, in a rare appearance in gender-appropriate clothes, later encounters Romeo at a ball, he is similarly smitten. As they eventually learn who each other actually is, the complications only deepen. Even though Romeo does not share his father's desire to kill off the Capulets, can love possibly blossom under such circumstances?
Whether or not Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet stands amongst the best of all of love stories has been much-debated over the course of time, but it is unquestionably one of the greatest and best-known, so much so that the very name “Romeo” has entered the English lexicon as slang for a romantic man. Its basic story thrust – a tale of two young lovers from opposing Houses whose relationship is tragically (and fatally) unable to escape the circumstances of said conflict – is so universal and deeply resonant that it translates well across different cultures and times, allowing it to be adapted into a vast variety of different forms, from the American play and movie West Side Story to the Japanese Basilisk franchise to the modernized 1996 movie version starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. That it took until 2007 to get a direct anime treatment is more surprising than that it actually got done.
Given that Gonzo, the same studio who made 2004-2005's brilliant anime reimagining of The Count of Monte Cristo, tackled the project, this endeavor also being a radical reinterpretation of the source material should come as no surprise. Gonzo has retained the names of major characters, the basic relationships, some of the underlying themes, and a few key scenes, but that's about it. Most new supporting cast members do have characters from other Shakespearean plays as namesakes, and the script does occasionally borrow lines from other Shakespearean plays, but the series also turns the structure of the story on its head by juxtaposing the roles of Romeo and Juliet. In this version, Juliet is the primary action star while Romeo is the wistful one who gets unwillingly betrothed to someone at his father's direction. That the Montagues and Capulets have a usurper House vs. hounded deposed House relationship, rather than standing as equal rivals as they do in the original play, also distinctly affects the story dynamic, as it adds an additional “my father killed your family” tension to the central relationship and gives the story a main villain in the form of Prince Montague, something that the original story did not have. This version even inserts William Shakespeare himself in a significant supporting role as a buffoonish but insightful playwright. Aging the title characters by two years does not significantly impact the original story, however.
Thus this series should be evaluated entirely on its own merits rather than as an extension of the overall Romeo and Juliet franchise. Looked at that way, the first half stands up quite well. It spins an effectively dramatic, sometimes beautiful, and occasionally even emotional story stocked with plenty of action and all of the requisite romantic moments, one which tells of a young woman's struggle to come to terms with who she is and what she must do while contending with the first flowering of spontaneous love. It also details a young man's increasing dissatisfaction with what his father has wrought and willingness to favor matters of the heart over matters of familial loyalty. Throughout it all, the inherent tragedy of these two specific individuals falling in love, given their circumstances, ever lingers, and the writing equally emphasizes both the pain and the joy such fresh love can bring. As a result, the almost desperate first kiss of Romeo and Juliet, framed by fireworks and tinged by heartbreak for the well-meaning person who gets left out, will stand as one of the all-time great anime smooches. For all the theatrics involved in setting that scene up (but this is Romeo and Juliet, so where better to use theatrics?), the way Juliet initially resists and only reluctantly accedes to her own desire gives the scene a sense of realism and conviction. Later scenes where Romeo and Juliet are together alone also show a convincing chemistry.
Also especially important is how seriously the series takes itself. Although a few light-hearted moments do pop up – mostly in the antics of Willy and Cordelia, although Benvolio's failure to comprehend a broom is a classic – these episodes entirely lack typical anime cutesiness and only flirt with fan service. Action scenes have more typical anime flair, complete with dashing flourishes of movement and physically impossible feats of leaping, but with rare exceptions even those scenes are played as much for drama as for thrill. Gonzo appreciated the weight of the material they were dealing with and the series is better for it.
Critical to the success of the story content is the series' wonderful musical score, composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto of Final Fantasy XII fame and performed by Sydney, Australia's Eminence Symphony Orchestra. Though the timing seems slightly off in a couple of places, the mix of piano-based and fully symphonic numbers ably conveys the spirit of action, sense of dire menace, melancholy longing, or earnest love required by any scene. The soaring Japanese version of the Secret Garden song “You Raise Me Up,” performed by Korean singer Lena Park, serves as the series' fitting and powerful opener, while a version of it with its original English lyrics highlights the climactic first kiss scene. The more hard rock-styled “Cyclone” by 12012 is an odd choice as a closer, though, as on several occasions its blaring sound breaks the mood set by the end of an episode.
While Romeo x Juliet does not represent one of Gonzo's premiere artistic efforts, it still generally looks good. The artistry suffers at times in the character renderings, a color scheme that is sometimes a bit too flat, and the dumpy designs for the dragonsteeds, but it shines in its CG renditions of flags and the beautifully lavish interior décor in the castle scenes. The architectural design of the city of Neo Verona is a wonder to behold, with its multilayered look, innumerable bridges and walkways, and a fascinating mix of crumbling ruin and aged classic European stonework which gives the city a sense of history far beyond that found in most fantasy settings. It may not be the prettiest of fantasy cities, but never before has one more cried out for a dedicated travelogue. Juliet's character design is also an interesting one; she is pretty but not drop-dead gorgeous, and in fact she takes second seat to Romeo in terms of looks, but she has great hair when she lets it flow and a certain visual appeal no matter what she wears. (The Red Whirlwind outfit in particular is sharp.) The consistently contrasting blue and red color schemes of the Montagues and Capulets also makes for a striking, if more subtle, visual impression. The animation in the action scenes focuses more on flourishes than actual dueling but does not much use typical anime fight scene shortcuts. Otherwise it works well when focusing on main characters and impresses less otherwise.
Funimation has taken an interesting approach with the English script: some of the episodes are scripted entirely in Shakespearean-style dialogue, and even those episodes which do not wholly give themselves over to such an approach still have many lines which use more poetic turns of phrases in their interpretation of the original script. The Japanese script, aside from directly quoting a few of Shakespeare's lines, reads straight, but this is an effect which could not have been accomplished in Japanese anyway. The English script also inserts a few additional Shakespearean references if viewers listen closely. The inconsistent use of the Shakespearean approach seems fickle and makes the effect more of a novelty than a style point, but that it could be accomplished at all and still match up with the lip flaps is quite commendable. The Next Episode previews do consistently use poetic phrasing and are good enough at it that they are worth listening to even for viewers who might normally skip them.
The English dub also has its own merits. The only questionable casting choice is Sean Hannigan as Montague, as he cannot match the resonating depth of original seiyuu Kouji Ishii's voice, though his vocal style is better-suited to speaking Shakespearean-style lines. By comparison, R Bruce Elliot, J. Michael Tatum, and newcomer Margaret Walker are perfect choices for Conrad, William, and Lady Ariel respectively, and Maxey Whitehead, as Antonio, further proves that she is unmatched amongst current English voice actresses at dubbing young boys. (She was also brilliant as Czeslaw Mayer in Baccano!) Amongst actual performances, kudos go to Brina Palencia's rendition of Juliet, as she convincingly makes Juliet sound more boyish when masquerading as Odin and effectively conveys the character's wide emotional range. Chris Burnett is less impressive as Romeo but gets the job done. The weakest performance belongs to Sean Michael Teague, as he never settles on a regular speech pattern for Benvolio and too often seems too tentative. Robert McCollum's Curio also has a bit of the latter problem, but more minor supporting roles are uniformly great. Overall, the strengths of the dub outweigh the weaknesses.
Funimation has stuffed all twelve episodes onto a pair of thinpacked DVDs which come in an artbox-style slipcase. The second DVD has textless songs and a 27-minute “making of” TV special which plays more like a lengthy series promo. Disappointingly absent is any kind of on-disk or liner note Extra identifying all of the references to other Shakespearean works. Funimation does, however, earn style points for giving this release's box a blue color theme and calling it the “Romeo Collection” while the box for the second half will have a red theme and be called the “Juliet Collection.”
If you hate Romeo and Juliet because of lingering memories of having to slog through all that poetic dialogue in high school English classes, do not let that dissuade you from checking out this version. It is an entirely different animal, and a remarkably well-raised one.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Beautifully captures the essence of Romeo and Juliet's developing young love, musical score.
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