Reviewby James Beckett,
Sorcerous Stabber Orphen
In a world of sorcery, monsters, and powerful beings known as Deep Dragons, a trio of orphans were raised to become magicians and warriors at the academy known as The Tower of Fang. Leticia was always the levelheaded and studious one of the three, while Azalie would eventually grow into an incredibly talented wielder of both black and white magic, and Krylencelo's talent on the battlefield would see him handpicked to be the successor of the legendary assassin, Childman. Azalie's sorcerous experimentations eventually saw her transformed into a terrible monster, however, and Krylancelo vowed to forsake his training, along with his own name, and dedicate his life to rescuing his adoptive sister. Now, years later, he goes by the moniker “Orphen”, and his search for Azalie has brought a young woman named Claiohm and a would-be-sorcerer named Majic into his care. Not only is the reluctant anti-hero now saddled with two more mouths to feed, but his adventures are about to become more dangerous than he ever could have predicted…
I checked out a DVD of ADV's release of the original Orphen anime back in the mid-2000s, though all I could remember of it was that the dub was pretty corny and everyone had goofy names. Now, a decade-and-a-half later, I went into Studio DEEN's new adaptation of the Sorcerous Stabber Orphen with basically the exact same level of background knowledge. After finishing the first couple of episodes, I will admit that I was prepared to write the story off yet again (even though Funimation's new dub is leagues better than what I remember from the ADV production). The world of Orphen still feels very much like a cookie-cutter light-novel fantasy setting, complete with a completely incongruous set of absurdly named characters and locales, all wrapped up in a mythos that can often feel like someone got way too enthusiastic over a round of Dungeons & Dragons Mad-Libs. The magic spells are all invoked in the most earnest and cheesy of ways (“I summon thee!”, “I invoke thee!”, and so on), and you've got a whole set of creatures known as Deep Dragons, none of which are actually dragons.
This can get awfully confusing and silly, especially since Orhpen's long-lost sister Azalie has been transformed into what us Earthlings would definitely call a dragon, but whenever the characters in Sorcerous Stabber Orphen are talking about “Dragons”, they're actually referring to, like, giant telepathic wolf demons that can melt your brain. It's weird. I also wasn't terribly impressed with the show's production values; the animation and music were all fine, but regardless of how much high-octane thrills and spills were happening on screen, I would be hard pressed to recall a single distinctly memorable image or musical cue, and that's when the whole show is at its freshest in my mind.
Once I gave Orphen (the anime) a little more time, though, I found myself surprisingly invested in its goofy world and characters. Orphen (the guy) is your typical brooding-bad-boy anime hero, and he honestly isn't very interesting all on his own, but his interactions with the show's many side characters are genuinely charming and interesting most of the time. My favorite aspect of this season's 13-episode run was the way it split the difference between the present-day adventures of Super Serious Stabber Orphen and the flashbacks that showed his life as Krylancelo at the Tower of Fang. If all we had to go on was Orphen's quest to find Azalie, it would feel terribly cliché and one note for far too long, but it means so much more when we get to know Azalie and all of Orphen's other friends and teachers so well, and it colors in the emotional stakes of Orphen's journey very nicely. Conversely, this gives Orphen's burgeoning friendships with Claiohm and Majic a lot more weight too, since you understand how significant it is for the man to be opening up to others again. While Orphen's fraught and complicated relationship with Azalie is the heart of Orphen's story, it wouldn't matter if the show didn't do a good job of making all of the other relationships matter too.
Another boon is the fact that Funimation's new SimulDub of the show is pretty darned good. David Matranga has actually reprised his role as Orphen all these years later, and he does a solid job of making our hero equal parts gruff and likeable; it's nothing especially mind-blowing, but it works, and it isn't like he's being given a lot to work with, either. Sarah Wiedenheft and Ry McKeand do very good work as Claiohm and Majic, respectively, as they capture their characters' abilities to get on Orphen's nerves while always staying on the audience's good side. My favorite two performers, though, would have to be Lindsay Seidel (Azalie) and Mallorie Rodak (Leticia) who each provide Orphen's two sisters with strength, wit, and welcome naturalism. This anime was largely carried by its cast, for me, so I was very happy to know I would enjoy their rapports equally in either English or Japanese
This is especially fortunate since the plots of most Orphen episodes are fairly pedestrian, at least so far. Things could pick up whenever the series resumes for its second season, but the current batch of the Orphen Gang's adventures with mysterious assassins, forest cults, and the always dangerous mysteries of the Deep Dragons don't do much at all to push the mold or subvert expectations. This isn't a bad thing in and of itself — a story doesn't need to be subversive to be good, but cliché scripts will almost always be working from the disadvantage of predictability, and Orphen rarely clears that hurdle gracefully. There was one story-beat early on in the season that really did surprise me, but everything after that I was able to see coming from a mile away. Still, the character-writing in Orphen remained solid-enough throughout that I didn't mind sticking it through to the end, though it was often a case of me putting the work in to get through the show, rather than me being completely hooked from the get-go.
To put it another way: When I was growing up, a large portion of my television diet consisted of what I've come to call “laundry-folding TV”. These were the sitcoms, cop-procedurals, and long-running cartoons that I could enjoy perfectly well while they played in the background, while most of my focus went to folding laundry and doing other household chores. I highly doubt that many viewers would ever nominate Sorcerous Stabber Orphen as the one anime that completely changes the medium forever or anything like that, but if you need something cozy and lightweight to put on while you turn off your brain for a little while, you could do much worse. This might sound like I'm damning Orphen with faint praise, but I think the world needs mind-numbing junk-food anime just as much as it needs the artsy stuff. I expected to find Orphen to be completely stupid and forgettable nonsense, and instead it turned out to be the fun kind of stupid nonsense that I didn't know I needed. Let's hope the show can keep up the momentum for Season Two.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : C+
+ Fun characters with interesting relationships make the world feel engaging, flashback structure keeps the scripts interesting, Azalie and Orhpen's dynamic remains compelling throughout
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