Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Tsubasa: RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE
Living happily if busily in the desert Kingdom of Clow, Syaoran continues the work of his deceased archaeologist father, excavating a giant ruin of mysterious origin. His work keeps him from seeing his childhood sweetheart Sakura more than either of them would like, but otherwise both are quite content. Then one night Sakura sleep-walks into the ruins, which then try to absorb her. In the ensuing chaos, the Princess' memories are given physical form (feathers) and scattered all throughout various dimensions. With Sakura now a hollow shell in imminent danger of simply ceasing to be, Syaoran embarks on an interdimensional journey to restore her memory and therefore her life. He is joined by two other travelers—deceptively easy-going wizard Fai and surly, supremely skilled swordsman Kurogane—who have their own reasons for going dimension-tripping. Their means of transportation is a white rabbit/bun/thing called Mokona, provided by an interdimensional witch who demanded a steep price from each. Syaoran's price? His bond with Sakura; no matter how many feathers he returns to her, she will never remember him.
The product of the enormously popular Clamp's love of crossover characters (previously seen in Chobits and Angelic Layer) Tsubasa is the ultimate Clamp-fanfest. The premise—of characters traveling through dimensions populated by ex-Clamp characters—is the perfect platform for cramming in maximum character references. While not exactly a requirement for enjoying the series, it helps immensely if one is familiar with the group's past works. Knowing Sakura and Syaoran from Card Captor Sakura helps explain the tenor of their relationship, as well as King Toya's dislike of Syaoran and vaguely suspicious relationship with Yukito. Seeing Chi from Chobits helping Fai will spark interest, and Tomoyo's dominion over Kurogane will make sense remembering her personality from Card Captor Sakura. And seeing Arashi and Sorata from X living in (some approximation) of wedded bliss will bring a smile to the lips. But for the uninitiated, this all will be little more than a blur of unfamiliar faces. The basic story-line will be transparent to all, but all the lovely dressing will be lost. Not that it's bound to be much of an issue; the people most interested in this title will be Clamp fans anyway, and even relative anime neophytes are bound to have seen the X movie and Chobits, and at the very least have heard of Card Captor Sakura.
The problem with Tsubasa lies elsewhere—in the reason why Clamp fans will (need to) spot all of those little Clamp references: the series is slow. Gastropod slow. It moves at such a laborious pace that one has no choice but to stop and smell Clamp's roses. This is less a problem with the source material—which, while light on substance and languorously paced, was rarely boring—and more a problem with the choice of directors. Kōichi Mashimo—studio Bee Train's big-guns director—is a painfully limited director who adheres to a rigid film-making template that, while perfect for weaving trance-like tales of mystery punctuated by brutal violence a la Noir and Madlax, is ill-suited to the gee-whiz action-adventure of something like Tsubasa. What should have been a breezy lark is transformed by the laborious pacing, apocalyptic soundtrack, and endless panning shots into something muddy, ponderous, and far too serious-minded. So slow is it that, after five episodes, it's still stuck in the travelers' first world, long after it has become painfully obvious how it all will end.
Those familiar with Mashimo's work know what they're in for. Panned stills and long flashbacks of questionable necessity allow extra money to be lavished on the beautiful background artistry and short bursts of action, while simultaneously slowing the pace to a crawl. He does diverge slightly from his template by preserving Clamp's skinny, long-limbed character designs, but unfortunately his terrible instincts for the use of music, evident as far back as Ai City when he botched a climactic fight by choreographing it to a surpassingly cheesy disco tune, remain intact. As beautiful as the score is—and it's as beautiful as Yuki Kajiura's work has ever been—his ice-pick-to-the-frontal-lobes usage of it turns it into a non-stop aural assault that quickly becomes exhausting, and severely impacts its overall effectiveness. He even makes the mistake of using insultingly obvious insert songs to telegraph characters' emotions. Compared to the chilling use of similar Kajiura scores in Petite Cossette and My-HiME, Tsubasa is almost embarrassingly amateurish.
Funimation's freewheeling approach to dubbing—an approach that values quality over fidelity—is arguably better suited to flawed works than masterpieces. Such is the case with this series, in which the English version outperforms the original in several important aspects. The alterations to the script actually improve the flow and reduce the derivativeness of the original without significantly altering its meaning, while also bringing characters' emotions a little closer to the surface by reducing their reticence. For his part, Jason Liebrecht gives Syaoran a warmth and humanity slightly lacking in the original, greatly improving his all-important relationship with Sakura. In the Japanese, we understand the enormity of the sacrifice Syaoran makes in order to save Sakura, but in the English we feel it. The rest of the cast is dead-on; Vic Mignogna nails Fai's smiling-on-the-outside-only delivery, and Chris Sabat's growling Kurogane is more than a match for his Japanese counterpart. The end result is a warmer, more involving variation on the source material. Oh, and in case you're wondering, the desire to feed Mokona through a garbage disposal is a constant throughout both versions.
While, extras-wise, the text explanations of characters, settings, and Toya's role in the original Card Captor Sakura are nice, as are the clean opening and closing songs, the real fun is a series of auditions for the English main cast that gives a glimpse of the actors' early interpretations of their characters and how much (or little) they have changed en route to the finalized product.
A flawed adaptation, Tsubasa will likely appeal most strongly to established fans of the franchise and of Clamp in general. Others will simply be bored stiff. Though the stellar dub goes a long ways towards mending that problem, enjoyment of this series will hinge heavily on one's tolerance for Kōichi Mashimo's style of anime.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : C
+ Lots of crossover fun for Clamp fans; excellent English dub.
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