Reviewby Theron Martin, Feb 2nd 2011
The Sacred Blacksmith
DVD - Complete Series [Limited Edition]
Cecily Cambell, sole heir to the respected Cambell household, has resolved to follow in her grandfather and recently-deceased father's footsteps and protect the Independent Trade City of Housman as a Knight Guard, but unfortunately the strength of her resolve far outstrips the strength of her combat skills. When she gets saved from a crazed, rampaging old war veteran by the dashing but sullen blacksmith Luke Ainsworth, she becomes fascinated with the katana he wields and begs him to make one for her as a replacement for an heirloom sword that broke during her fight against the veteran. Thus begins a stormy relationship which slowly develops as the pair gets drawn into a succession of complications involving demon swords and people being monstrously transformed by Demon Contracts, both of which are lingering relics of the devastating Valbanill War 44 years earlier. Along the way Cecily befriends Aria, a young woman who is actually the human form of one of said demon swords, and Lisa, a girl with elfin ears who serves as Luke's live-in assistant and is the key to a particularly dark chapter from his past. Cecily also gradually learns that Valbanill, believed sealed at the end of the last war, may not be so contained as commonly believed, and that Luke may play an integral parts in efforts to keep him sealed because he is a sacred blacksmith.
As fantasy anime series go, this lite novel derivative is an odd duck, as it seems intent on mixing moe romantic comedy with RPG-styled action fantasy. This is a series which has characters battling demonic creatures and/or each other with powerful magical swords at various points, yet it also has scenes where several of the female cast members wind up dressed as maids or visit a communal bath together and characters of both genders get flustered over suggestions of fledgling relationships. Somewhat surprisingly, the eclectic blend works well enough to overcome some deep inherent flaws and move the series to the positive side of the entertainment value scale.
Luke is the title character and gets the bulk of the flashiest action scenes, but even his handsome looks cannot overcome his surly personality; he may be the least interesting and likable of all of the series' recurring characters. Fortunately, the series instead centers much more on the far more interesting Cecily, with Luke being only a secondary lead for two of the three story arcs and barely present at all in the middle one. While Cecily may have the stereotypical “strong girl who's skittish about boys and romance” thing going on, she has a degree of honest, steadfast earnestness which goes beyond the normal knuckleheaded devotion to a cause. She is hardly single-minded in her purpose, as she does suffer from entirely reasonable fears and insecurities, but she does not let that stop her from trying her best to achieve the role that she has set for herself or be a generally good-hearted person.
Luke is obviously supposed to be both Cecily's foil and her potential love interest, but the relationship that Cecily strikes up with Aria, the human form of the demon sword of wind, is both far more interesting and the series' greatest strength. This is hardly the only series out there where weapons can take human forms and personalities and have relationships with their wielder, but this is one of the best examples out there. Aria is already an appealing character, with a cheery smile that contrasts starkly against the bloody carnage that she has been involved in over the years, but the way she interacts with Cecily and comes to appreciate Cecily's philosophy on how a weapon should be used (to protect, not just kill) is a joy to behold. Theirs is a very natural growing together of two friends and, ultimately, partners. By comparison, the Luke/LiSA relationship is much more pedestrian until the truth about LiSA's nature and origin comes out in the late episodes. The bonds between Charlotte and her bodyguards, as shown in the second story arc, also have their moments, especially when the series shows that the affection is hardly one-sided.
The first five episodes cover a sort of introductory arc which establishes the setting, introduces all of the main players, and lays the groundwork for Aria teaming up with Cecily. Episodes 6-8 bring Princess Charlotte and her bodyguards into the picture, while episodes 9-12 form a close-out arc concentrating on the main underlying storyline. The transitions between the arcs are jarring, as if the series was forced by time constraints to shift gears quickly; Cecily, for instance, suddenly jumps from being mostly incompetent in the first arc to skilled enough with Aria to stand up for a while against multiple demon sword-powered assailants in the second arc. That effect shows up in the overall construction, too, as in several places in the series (especially towards the end) the plotting feels like it is rushing developments along rather than letting them happen at their own pace. Filler content is often the bane of action-oriented series, but in this case padding the action out with more story and character development would have been a Good Thing and might have helped avoid the messy handling of the final episode, which has a nicely climactic fight but an inadequate build-up and set-up for it.
The aspect which most distinguishes the series visually is its character designs. Luke is typically handsome and monsters are typically monstrous, but Cecily is a striking figure with her ample-breasted, overly thin build and cosplay-ready outfit and Aria looks fetching in her belly dancer-styled get-up without being portrayed in an overtly sexy manner. LiSA, meanwhile, is heart-warmingly cute, especially in the alternate outfit she gets which is featured in the closing visuals. Other young female characters who come along tend to share either Cecily's overly thin build or LiSA's cutesy look, although none of them match Aria or Cecily for bust size. The magic used by Luke and LiSA in the spot-forging ritual is one of the sharper CG uses for magical effects out there, but background scenery and supporting characters also get pleasing looks, too. The animation relies too heavily on static panning scenes in some places but does deliver quality animation in others, especially in the climactic battle scenes. Fan service includes some brief but nicely-detailed nudity scattered across the series and regular breast-related jokes (making comments about Cecily's bust size, which naturally embarrasses her, is a recurring theme), but these are more bonus elements than a focus.
The highlight of the musical score is undoubtedly the cutesy, enthusiastic closer “Miracle Happy Day,” which primarily features LiSA in its visuals. Opener “Justice of Light,” by comparison, is more typical. In between the soundtrack does a solid job of complementing and supporting the story content, especially in the featured battle scenes.
The English dub will be hit-or-miss with those who first watched the series subbed, as casting choices result in some characters sounding a bit different in English. Cherami Leigh was the natural choice for the role of Cecily, given that she voiced a very similar character in Kaze no Stigma's Ayano; in her hands, Cecily has just a hint of a quaver at times which betrays that she's fighting down her own fears and doubts to complete some task, which feels right for the character. Anastasia Munoz gives Aria a deeper but not unpleasant voice, and who else but Monica Rial would be called on to voice a character like LiSA? Blake Shephard, meanwhile, is competent but less impressive as Luke and the supporting characters are voiced by the usual Funimation suspects. While the subtitles fully translate some terminology, the English dub script by Monica Rial leaves much of it intact in its original Japanese, including references to tamahagane (the type of steel traditionally used to make katanas) and various stages of the blade-folding and polishing process. The script otherwise takes a fair amount of liberties in wording things, which comes off worse in some places (Cecily's dramatic speech near the end of episode one is much better in Japanese) and much better in others (some more natural dialog exchanges, insults, and breast references).
Funimation's Limited Edition release retails for $5 more than the regular edition price, but that includes a sturdy box (which is oversized enough that it requires a filler box featuring bonus artwork) and a booklet containing an array of character art pages by both the original character designer and the one for the anime series. Amongst those pages are some sexier and more provocative depictions of LiSA and Cecily, including a double-sided centerfold featuring one of them on each side. Some of the tamer art from the booklet is used on the thinpack cases. The two disks split the twelve episodes evenly, with the second disk also containing a clean opener and closer. In a very curious move, all of the Next Episode previews are included in a single block on the Extras menu instead of being placed on the ends of the relevant episodes.
Although The Sacred Blacksmith stumbles in places and fails to fully develop its setting or carry through on the plot threads it establishes, it nonetheless achieves an occasional and undeniable level of sincerity in its characters' convictions and interactions and at least partly delivers on its potential. It may be far from the elite fantasy titles out there, but even within its genre you could certainly do far worse for a pleasing diversion.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Nice character designs, some pleasingly strong relationships, certain moments click.
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