Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
DVD 5 - Beast Within
The Na Tuunk rebellion draws to its conclusion now that Hakuoro and his merry band have thrown their lot in with the rebels, but regardless of outcome, Hakuoro risks losing his loyal retainer Karula. Later, Hakuoro's friendship with Kuuya, regent of Kunekamun, provides him with a window into her troubled kingdom. Believers in an old god, the Kunekamun have a terrible power at their control in the form of giant, apparently indestructible mechanical warriors, and when attacked by a series of aggressive neighboring polities they are forced demonstrate the horror of their weaponry. There are those within the nation that advocate the subjugation of all neighboring nations as a means to protect themselves from religious persecution. Even if it means subjugating Kuuya's newfound friend Hakuoro. But their plans have reckoned without Hakuoro.
After a fourth volume that mired its battles and drama in endless pat exchanges of musty old anime platitudes, this volume gets back on the right track by tying up the boring Karulawaturei arc, and then diving straight into a series of nasty and dangerous battles that culminates in a fully expected but nonetheless interesting revelation about Hakuoro. It's the first volume to not only create anticipation for what is to come, but also make rewatching the early episodes seem an attractive option.
The series has always been quick to move from one story arc to the next, so the move isn't exactly a surprise, but it is a relief. The introduction of mecha to the battlefield provides a genuine threat to the protagonists (how do you fight mecha with swords and arrows anyway?), though it does effectively make strategy—the main draw of the series' earlier battles—moot. Kumekamun's situation is more complex than the usual evil oppressors vs. righteous freedom fighters structure of earlier conflicts (think of it as a simplified version of the Six-Days War). And then there's the unveiling of Hakuoro's true identity. The narrative squeeze leading up to the revelation, though transparent in its purpose, is tense and unforgiving, and without giving too much away, the revelation not only casts Hakuoro's relationship to those around him in a drastically different light, but is also relevant to the origins of the world he lives in. Unfortunately, the series is still rather lacking in complexity, subtlety, and originality. Each new nation is introduced as if created on the spot. The moralizing, while less ubiquitous, is still cheesy and hackneyed, as are many of the scenes intended to be warming. Characters are easy on the eyes and generally sympathetic, but fall with disheartening ease into established stereotypes and never give more than a perfunctory struggle to escape. The cackling evil King Niwe has been replaced as primary villain by a maniacally laughing bloodthirsty bishounen in a red mecha. Quick Dilandau, report the identity theft before things get out of hand! You can even tell naturally passive or active characters by whether their ears droop down or point up. Ouch.
Visually, the series is solid all around. There isn't anything particularly exceptional about the animation—outside of the interesting use of 3D CGI during battles—just an overwhelming sense of stolid quality. The use of effects like speedlines and blurring to imply more movement than there actually is isn't uncommon, but use of stills is fairly minimal. Rural and riparian backgrounds provide settings that are easy to look at, if lacking in proper fantastical atmosphere. The half-beasts that comprise the majority of the cast flirt again with Escaflowne rip-o...er, homage, though with limpid-eyed good looks all their own. The mecha, on the other hand, are kind of goofy.
The score is of a similar caliber. It isn't something that makes very good listening independent of the visuals. Combine it with the visuals, and it supports the action well, covering all the requisite emotions with very traditionally cinematic sounds. The director sometimes uses the score where it really isn't needed, but when the chips are down (as in the climax of episode 22) demonstrates pretty good instincts for the placement of musical support and silence.
ADV matches the original work with a solid dub that is equally unremarkable. The cast turns in fine performances, hitting all the right emotional notes and just generally giving the original actors a run for their money. Without exceptional material to work with, though, they can't turn in exceptional work. The adaptation clings tight to the subtitles, making changes necessary for maintaining reasonably natural dialogue and matching lip-flaps, but altering little else.
The extras for this title have been more extensive than the anime norm since the beginning, and this volume contains all of the regulars. Clean OP and ED, a short gallery of character art, extended next-episode previews. More substantial extras are the superfluous "story so far" informative videos and another amusing omake video, this one dealing with Touka and the sad, sad fate of her favorite doll.
The Kunekamun arc injects some real tension into the series, along with a small dose of moral ambiguity and a heaping helping of interesting changes in the form of Hakuoro's big secret. This volume winds up tight and builds to a thoroughly satisfying climax (if you ignore the concluding episode of the ill-timed Karulawaturei arc). But the limited depth of detail and scope still prevent it from excelling, while the conventional characters and plotting make it rather predictable (I'd bet money on the discussions of various divinities having direct bearing on Hakuoro's situation).
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B
+ Real sense of danger in the battles; Hakuoro's identity finally (partially) revealed.
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