Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Nov 18th 2009
Tower of Druaga: the Aegis of Uruk
DVD - Season 1
Eighty years after legendary hero and present-day king Gilgamesh stormed the Tower of Druaga and slew its eponymous demon overlord, opportunists from across the world still flock to the reconstituted Tower to try their luck plundering its untold riches. Legend has it that the greatest treasure of them all, the Blue Crystal Rod, lies on the top floor guarded by the supposedly slain Druaga himself. Inexperienced adventurer Jil, fresh off his bitterly humiliating stint in his brother Neeba's exploratory party, is determined to get to the top floor and put Druaga down. He soon attracts a small party of like-minded iconoclasts and, during a lull in demon activity known as the Summer of Anu, makes his bid for the top floor. Unluckily for him the competition—including, but not limited to his brother—is good and he, unfortunately, is not. At least, not yet.
Basing a big-budget anime on a game that was basically Pac-Man the RPG may seem the height of foolishness, but The Tower of Druaga: the Aegis of Uruk proves to be a surprisingly entertaining exercise in mating pop self-awareness with classic fantasy thrills. It's both smarter and more exciting (not to mention funnier) than it has any right to be, and if it's visibly constrained by its source material, well, that isn't exactly unexpected.
Druaga makes it clear from the outset that it doesn't take itself too seriously. Episode one is a buck-wild skewering of RPGs that leaves no trope unpunctured: party-building, power-ups, leveled items, dead comrades, evil overlords, even tentacle rape—they all come in for a drubbing. It's pretty darned funny and sets an ironic tone that the series resurrects whenever things get too genre-bound, but its real purpose, in retrospect, is to map out with surgical precision and towering derision exactly the path the series will later take in a far less compressed and entirely less ironic manner (sans tentacle rape). The party-building, the tower-ascending, the dead comrades, and of course the demon smackdown at the end—the series makes no attempt (or perhaps more accurately is unable) to avoid any of the clichés it so gleefully savages in its opening twenty minutes.
However, it approaches them with such careless good humor that it's hard to resent it for its essential derivation. How can you hate a show that lapses into the 8-bit graphics at crucial (and hilarious) junctures? Or that spikes even its most deadly brawls with knowing pratfalls? Or, better yet, that devotes an entire episode to thoroughly trashing the game on which it was based? Combined with director Koichi Chigira's proven skills with action (he was the man behind Full Metal Panic and Last Exile after all), the result is formidably fun.
Bizarrely enough, given its obvious (if good-natured) disrespect for its tropes, the show has a disconcerting habit of somehow getting them to actually work. Not always, of course—Jil's justice-gibbering, for instance, is plain humiliating—but often enough to make one wonder what alchemy it is that allows the show to make, say, a sticky-sweet collaborative dragon slaying both convincingly uplifting and ineffably cool. It's a habit that gives Druaga enough dark edges—remember that dead teammates are also one of its tropes—that, light as it is, it never feels entirely inconsequential. Indeed, the apocalyptic finale, with its curveball ending and blindsiding tragedies, is anything but. It sets the stage for a more emotionally complex and narratively adventurous second season than would ever have been thinkable just four or five episodes previous.
Chigira is a master of harnessing the often uneven skills of Gonzo's animators, and he doesn't disappoint here. The series' delicately detailed settings are wonders every one, and Druaga's Tower—in which the bulk of the series is set—is a beautifully realized wonderland of intricate organic interiors and lacy, soaring architecture. The character designs (by Burst Angel artiste Ugetsu Hakua) for their part occupy that intersection of cute, cool and sexy that so many series strive for but never reach, and luckily suffer little from Gonzo's usual quality-control issues.
The series as a whole is coolly and unobtrusively stylized, and the action…oh the action. Chigira's genius for wringing jaw-dropping action set-pieces from television-sized budgets would place him in the top tier of anime directors even if his flawless comic timing and skill with Gonzo's patented 3D CG didn't already do so. The battle against Druaga is a breathtaking showcase for his skills, a kinetic sword and sorcery spectacular that is thrilling in a way that traditional fantasy anime never are.
If only the monster designs (Druaga, who is a magnificent example of Gonzo's CG at its most majestic, excepted) weren't so corny. It's a little hard to get into the lesser fights when Jil's party is battling beasties on loan from Looney Tunes. Even so, and even if you already caught the streaming version, any fan owes it to themselves to see this at least once in its full DVD glory.
Providing support for Gonzo's visuals is Hitoshi Sakimoto's sprightly, flexible score. The score leaps with remarkable ease from humorous jangling to melancholy solo piano to full-blown orchestral fantasy-action. It lacks that indefinable spark that separates the superior from the superb, but it's effective, full-blooded stuff, and Chigira thankfully knows better than to flog us with it.
Another fine reason to check out the DVD is the dub. It's a remarkably subdued work from the notoriously intrusive folks at Funimation. The performances are restrained, the script is (relatively) faithful, and even the voices are pitched well within the range of everyday conversation. It flows well, captures the eminent likeability of lead scribe Shoji Gatoh's characters, and for once the English cast seems as comfortable emoting as it does tossing off one-liners. Which, by the way, they do well. Special mention goes to the prickly rapport between Chuck Huber's gaseous Melt and Monica Rial's razor-tongued Coopa. Rarely has affectionate bickering been so genuinely funny.
Two sizeable extras round out the set: a silly alternate version of the already silly opening episode that keeps tabs on what everyone else was doing while Jil was doing his Gainax thing in dreamland, and a silly commentary (by Rial, Huber and Todd Haberkorn) for the equally silly fifth episode.
In transforming a plotless 8-bit game into an unexpectedly involving popcorn spectacular, Druaga pulls off a feat the likes of which haven't been seen since Pirates of the Caribbean turned a theme-park ride into a heady dose of swashbuckling junk food. Is it silly? Sure. Is it kind of pointless? Heck yeah. But is it boring? Never. Bring on season two.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Funny, fun, and occasionally exciting, with an eleventh hour twist that makes the prospect of season two a pleasant one; wonderfully illustrated.
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