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The Mike Toole Show
Wizards & Warriors

by Michael Toole,

There are many, many good reasons why Mr. Zac Bertschy is the executive editor of this here site. He writes well and hits his deadlines. He's got a long career that tenders respect from most of the site's readership. He's organized and has an eye for talent. And most of all, he puts up with my bullshit. The reason I'm bringing this up is because a couple of weekends back was Nerd City 2012, a.k.a. the Penny Arcade Expo East and Anime Boston happening in the same damn city on the same damn weekend. Generally, I prefer the restless, constant energy of anime cons to the PAX vibe, which is punctuated by brutally crowded, frenetic days and chilled out nights, but I had a problem: I've got a standing promise to take my nephew to PAX East each year, so there wasn't any ducking out of it. In addition to that, I was kicking my dear pals at Anime Boston four hours of programming. Lastly, I was playing host to Anime World Order-ite Gerald Rathkolb. In other words, I was booked to the nines, tens, and elevens.

Of course, I was still going to write my column! I had to. I figured I'd be able to squeeze it in overnight on Friday or Saturday. This was a great plan that was destined to result in an excellent column and a well-rested Mike, and not the exact goddamn opposite. Fortunately, like I said above, Zac's very good at what he does, so he went ahead and suggested that I might want to take the cycle off and enjoy what I already had slated for the weekend. And now you know why there wasn't a Mike Toole Show last time! And knowing is half the battle.

Like many, I was convinced that PAX East and Anime Boston were somehow going to adversely affect each other. Specifically, I figured that the video game show, with its glittering expo hall and galaxy of game-nerd celebrities, would cannibalize the dork faithful from Anime Boston. Naturally, neither show really wanted this, and so they worked together to minimize it, in the form of shuttle buses and a neat AB booth at PAX East where you could both buy a badge (more than a few PAXsters without the coveted Saturday badge went this route) and look through a videoconferencing portal at the other event; this resulted in neat sign-based communication between PAX and AB. (My favorite: a handwritten sign proclaiming "COME TO ANIME BOSTON! WE HAVE GIRLS.") And at the end of the day, incredibly, both events posted growth in attendance. The Nerd Force is strong with Boston, after all.

The other upside of these events was their ability to spur inspiration and creativity. As usual, I was stuck for a column topic-- until I cruised through PAX East and beheld the astonishingly large tabletop gaming area. Right then, it hit me: fantasy anime. It's not surprising that Japanese animation is run through with eastern fantastic imagery, from yokai and yurei to cursed swords and magic portals. But it is kind of neat that, just as with science fiction, anime and manga are more than happy to mine western lore, literature, and film for good stuff to use in their own media. Currently, this is probably best manifested in ufotable's eye-popping Fate/Zero series, a low fantasy in which modern-day mages do battle for a Holy Grail (no, not that particular Holy Grail!) with the help of mighty warriors, both historical and fantastic. Famous (or infamous, if you please) soldiers like Alexander the Great and Gille de Rais rub shoulders with Gilgamesh and King Arthur and their awesome, physics-defying magical weapons! But anime steeped in western fairy tales and fantasy goes right back to the sixties. Let's have a look at five of the biggest and best examples of fantasy anime.

Anime fantasy's 800-pound gorilla is more like a 2-ton dragon; it's Record of Lodoss War, Ryo Mizuno's towering, multi-generational epic that all started from the Dungeons & Dragons campaign that he DMed for his friends while he was at law school. Mizuno teamed up with his pal Hitoshi Yasuda, the future creator of Mon Colle Knights, who founded a company called Group SNE to port the RPG's transcripts to old-school Japan PC gaming mag Comptiq, literally describing gaming sessions for the enjoyment of the readers. Mizuno was the showrunner, but the players, which included SF novelist Hiroshi Yamamoto (his popular monster-bash tale MM9 is available in English!), RPG sourcebook writer Miyuki Kiyomatsu, and fantasy writer Shō Tomono, all contributed to the narrative in-character. The serialization proved popular enough that Mizuno got to work on a proper novelization, and in 1988, Record of Lodoss War: The Grey Witch hit the shelves, kicking off a perfect storm of Lodoss-mania that led to RPG sourcebooks (which would eventually be expanded into SNE's popular Sword World rulebooks), computer and console games, manga, and in 1990, a high-profile anime OVA adaptation.

This 13-episode series spread all over the world pretty quickly-- we got them in North America in 1995-- and the tale, which begins after the big war against darkness had already been fought and won, concerns a young knight from a dishonored house, as he leads a rag-tag band of classic RPG stereotypes - haughty elven ranger, pugnacious dwarven fighter, modest and moral cleric, troubled mage, and sneaky thief - in a struggle against a new force of evil, with the mysterious, cursed island territory of Lodoss as the backdrop. Lodoss certainly went over well, with a supremely accessible story, a large and varied cast of characters (adversaries Ashram and Pirotess are just as fun to watch as Parn and his elven gal-pal Deedlit, to say nothing of cool side characters like Kashue, an ex-gladiator raised to king), and a richly talented crew of animators courtesy of MADHOUSE. The thing is, like so much anime, it was a rushed, sloppy affair - watch the show now, and you'll spot a constant stream of hilarious animation mistakes that probably still makes Masao Maruyama wince. Also, thirteen episodes simply wasn't enough to tell Mizuno's story, so the narrative was shortened and a new ending was created, just for the viewers. This would eventually be rectified in Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight, a 26-episode 1998 TV series that is famous for having a thrilling, lavish opening sequence, followed by some of the lamest, ugliest, cheapest animation you'll see this side of Lost Universe. Heroic Knight does, however, manage to present a much more thorough version of the book series' arc, with pivotal heroes Spark and Neese, who were cut out of the OVAs entirely, carrying the story.

There's still a ton more Lodoss media where that came from, as well. Several manga adaptations were published (badly - generally flipped and poorly retouched) by Central Park Media, and Mizuno would revisit his mythical world in 1995's Legend of Crystania, a short feature film with a brace of OVA sequels that chronicles the exploits of Ashram and Pirotess after their departure from Lodoss. 1998 would also bring Welcome to Lodoss Island!, a short movie based on a series of gag manga from the pages of Shōnen Ace - Lodoss Island! segments also ran at the end of each Heroic Knight episode, and were more entertaining than the preceding episode an alarming number of times. (Sample dialogue: "I'm King Kashue. And here is my cashew! I'm a real nut!") There was a fairly excellent Lodoss game for the Dreamcast, a dungeon-crawler that walked and talked a bit like Diablo and allowed the player to step into the shows of O.G. Lodoss hero Beld. And most recently, we saw the action switch from the accursed island of Lodoss to the main continent of Alecrast, courtesy of 2001's Rune Soldier, aka Rune Soldier Louie. This is my favorite of the story's many, many spinoffs; Louie is an action-comedy that, while cheaply made, hits all the right notes, with a likeably daft hero (his first act as a mage for hire is to break his wand over the head of an advancing orc) anchoring a cast of chatty, combative lady adventurers. They still make new Lodoss media all the time - it's part of SNE's Forcelia RPG world, and there's still manga being published, but there's no new Lodoss anime on the horizon at the moment. But I'm sure there will be, sooner or later; just wait.

If Record of Lodoss War is anime's Lord of the Rings, then Hajime Kanzaka and Rui Araizumi's Slayers would be the medium's answer to Terry Pratchett's Discworld, a neat comic epic that takes fantasy and turns it into farce. Most fans you talk to will consider Slayers pretty current stuff, and I guess that's understandable - the franchise got a big shot in the arm with two new seasons of TV episodes in 2008 and 2009. But the series itself is nearly as old as Lodoss, debuting in the pages of light novel launchpad Dragon Magazine in 1989. The original books are written from the point of view of Lina Inverse, a teenager destined to be one of the most powerful magicians ever. Unfortunately, she's got all the grace and charm of a... well, of a self-centered teen girl. She's loudmouthed, egotistical, greedy, and desperately insecure about her appearance. Lina takes up with Gourry Gabriev, a dashing swordsman with a legendary weapon whose appealing appearance is completely, utterly offset by his plainly ridiculous stupidity. He's got skill with a blade, but Gourry can never seem to remember what the plan is or where he's going, and routinely forgets the names and faces of both his enemies and his traveling companions. The two are later joined by Zelgadis, a taciturn, stone-faced chimera, and Amelia, a roving princess with a yen for shamanistic magic and a hard-headed, quixotic thirst of justice.

Slayers didn't look like a blockbuster, but its 1995 anime version pretty much flew out of the gates, buoyed by competent production courtesy of J.C. Staff and a wonderful, energetic performance by Megumi Hayashibara as Lina. In North America, Software Sculptors boldly experimented with pricing, cramming 5 episodes on each VHS tape and selling them at $20 per, ten bucks cheaper than usual. The company was rewarded with tens of thousands of units sold, guaranteeing that Slayers would become a fixture here. Slayers was red-hot in the 90s, with two TV series followups (for my money, Slayers NEXT, which expertly balances absurd comedy with intriguing fantasy action and a hint of weird, awkward romance between Lina and Gourry, is the series high point) and an array of OVA and movies, which eschew the traditional party of Lina, Gourry, Zelgadis, and Amelia (and sometimes Xelloss) in favor of pairing her up with Naga, a madly laughing, cocksure, bodacious magic-user in a spiked metal bikini. The two are more like Hardy and Hardier than Orville and Hardy, but the result is still some pretty good fare - Slayers Gorgeous, the third feature film, is the best one. It seemed like the franchise was finished after Slayers Premium, a short movie that married the characters of the TV series with the Naga of the OVAs and films, but improbably, Slayers returned for two more seasons, Slayers Revolution and Slayers Evolution-R, a couple of years back. With the exact same cast and crew, the new episodes are rarely exceptional, but are still very solid fare that sit well with the vast array of existing Slayers media. Several of Kanzaka and Araizumi's 50+(!) light novels have been published in English by the now-defunct TOKYOPOP; if you ask me, they're not that good, even with their young-adults pedigree. The only frontier that Slayers hasn't hit in North America is video games - Saturn and PSX title Slayers Royale was considered for localization by Working Designs back in 1999, but it never came together.

Slayers hits comic extremes, Lodoss is an even-handed high fantasy... and on the far end of the fantasy spectrum, rooted in tragedy, death, and darkness, is Kentarō Miura's Berserk. Berserk is another modern classic, which began its still-ongoing manga run twenty-two years ago holy crap. Actually, if you want a really interesting look at how much an artist's style can evolve and mature, compare Berserk volume 1 to one of the most recent books - Miura's initial pages are vital but a bit crude and dirty, which is contrasted sharply with his dazzlingly intricate current work. Of course, it's long been rumored that a big part of the reason why Berserk is published only sporadically is Miura's insistence on doing most of the comic's artwork solo, without the help of assistants, so that's a double-edged sword for you. The other reason, naturally, is The Idolm@aster; Miura is a dedicated fan of the pop star-training video game franchise, and his deadlines take a beating every time a new installment is released.

Berserk starts off looking an awful lot like low fantasy, a gritty medieval epic with hints of dark magic. The warring kingdoms of Midland and Chuder (I've always liked "Tudor" better, but whatever) seem like mid-European hellholes, with exotic enemies from afar who evoke faint impressions of Persia and India. Protagonist Guts has fallen about as low as you can go; born from a freshly-murdered mother, adopted by a cutthroat who sells the boy as a sex slave for pocket money, Guts slays his foster dad to escape and becomes an expert swordsman at age 9(!) purely to survive the pursuit of his pop's vengeful old drinking buddies. Long accustomed to wielding a heavy broadsword even as a child, Guts becomes an accomplished mercenary until his commander, the ambitious Griffith, betrays both his allegiance and friendship by sacrificing him to supernatural forces of chaos. Guts escapes his curse, at least temporarily, but gets to watch almost all of his friends murdered, his lover raped and psychologically broken, and his own body torn and crippled before his one remaining eye. What happens next is an epic and yet unfinished quest for redemption, justice, and a whole lot of cold, bloody revenge.

Berserk's got a checkered history, when it comes to anime. One of the manga's early arcs, the Golden Age, was adapted as a 26-episode TV series in 1997 by OLM, who turn in work that's far different from their usual kid-friendly productions. The animated series was a late-night affair in Japan, but a broadly popular hit elsewhere; here in North America, the Sci Fi Channel explored airing it, only giving up due to the violence. The DVDs have been in print for a decade, and Dark Horse began publishing the manga just a year later, in 2003. Despite the 13-year head start, Miura's frequent breaks have allowed Dark Horse to bridge the gap completely; 36 volumes in Japan, 36 volumes in the US. Media Blasters, in brighter days, had frequently promised that their partners in Japan were developing a sequel series, but nothing materialized. It seems like fans were finally getting their wish when a new series of feature films was promised in an ad in the Berserk manga, which has remained very popular. The first of this series came out in February. I'm happy that there's new Berserk anime - the trailer looks great! However, it's an adaptation of the Golden Age arc, the very same story that was already told in the TV series. I kinda wish they'd gone a little further. Viz are releasing the movies in the US, so fans over here will soon get a chance to see for themselves if the new stuff is as good as the old stuff. Beyond that, the only significant parts of Berserk lore are a pair of video games; one of them, the Dreamcast Sword of the Berserk: Guts' Rage, was released in English (it's pretty good!), but the other, a PS2 title, was not.

Alright, maybe I overdid it when I described Lodoss as Japan's Lord of the Rings. That's partly because Lodoss sprang forth straight from Dungeons and Dragons, and partly because Japan already has its own Lord of the Rings - Kaoru Kurimoto's Guin Saga! Guin Saga's possibly the single most expansive fantasy narrative in any language - many acclaimed fantasy writers have written thousands of pages about their worlds and heroes, but starting in 1979, Kurimoto published one hundred and thirty volumes of Guin Saga novels. Granted, most of these are "light" novels that clock in at two or three hundred pages rather than the meaty 500+ page yarns that George R.R. Martin, Stephen R. Donaldson, and Tanya Huff spin up - but still, the sheer scope and ambition of Kurimoto's story is really something, especially when you realize that, right from the start, she envisioned it as a 100-book series. Wow!

Naturally, Guin Saga is an absolute staple of fantasy reading in Japan. Its story is interesting, telling the tale of predestined royal twins and their protector, a mysterious warrior with unparalleled skill in strategy and combat, puzzling gaps in his memory, and the face of a leopard instead of a man. In theory, that's scary and kind of absurd, but Guin is an awesome character, an earthy and honorable fighter akin to Robert E. Howard's Kull the Conqueror. Armed only with a sword, a loincloth, and one strange word stuck in his head - "aurra" - Guin sets off to protect the kids, save the land, and solve his mysteries. While Kurimoto, who sadly passed away in 2009, had finished the main storyline of Guin Saga, she was still toiling away at side stories right up until her death. Fortunately, she stuck around just long enough to see Guin Saga finally make the jump to anime; Satelight's TV series began just weeks before her passing. I've managed to see the whole thing, and while it doesn't quite crackle with the energy of Slayers or Berserk, it's a solid, ambitious piece of work, and a rare example of a TV series that markedly improves as it goes along. It's available on Netflix, and I say it's good fare.

My final example has one of the best series names ever - Bastard!! Those two exclamation points are VERY IMPORTANT. Anyway, Bastard!! is Kazushi Hagiwara's 25-year-old, ongoing epic tale of Dark Schneider, a powerful wizard who, ages ago, was vanquished by the evil Anthrathrax. Reborn in a kid's body, he sets to work murdering old colleagues like King Diamond, who betrayed him, and trying to save the magical land of Metallicana, mainly so he can have it for himself. Yep, Bastard!! is pure, ridiculous Heavy Metal Fantasy, a story in which the hero looks like a buffed-out cross between Vince Neil and Yoshiki Hayashi, is practically invincible, and tempts every woman he sees, especially his dark-elf girlfriend, who is also his foster daughter. Because that's just how cool and awesome Dark Schneider is!

Bastard!!, like everything else on this list, is still ongoing. The manga's actually gone to some really interesting places, revealing a lot about Dark Schneider's unholy origin and his rebellious, Hellboy-esque view of the world, when it doesn't involve Dark Schneider beating bad guys, hooking up with ladies, and saying hilarious things. Unfortunately, it wasn't popular in English, so Viz canned it after just 19 volumes – man, I only made it about 8 in, and you can't get most of the rest anymore! As recently as 2009, Tecmo was working on a Bastard!! themed-MMO, but that got abandoned too. Still, if nothing else, the 6-episode OVA is wonderfully fun viewing, brash and noisy and funny and kinda dirty. It was a popular fansub choice in the VHS days, but eventually came out courtesy of Geneon, even though their legal eagles mandated some funny name changes (Anslaslax, Metarikana, etc.). These days, it's not too hard to find. I implore you to watch it if you can; it's literally the perfect 1990s OVA, in that it looks great, is pretty short, and got derailed before being finished. That's right, those six episodes were supposed to be eight episodes! Enjoy your cliffhanger, suckers!

Obviously, there's a ton more fantasy anime and manga out there. One of the world's most popular current anime/manga franchises is Fairy Tail, a snappy action-adventure story of wizards on a quest - wizards with boring names like Lucy and Natsu instead of awesome, wizard-y names like Positivulus Wandwaver and Dragonimo Incantatiousesque. Hilariously, while it's only seven years old, Fairy Tail already has about as much manga as Bastard!! and Berserk. Hopefully series creator Hiro Mashima, who absolutely does not draw his characters vaguely similarly to Eiichiro Oda, doesn't get distracted by video games. The other current notable fantasy franchise would, of course, be Queen's Blade, which is apparently about something besides boobs. Indeed, Queen's Blade grew right out of the RPG scene, based on a book-based gaming system from Hobby Japan. The bits I've seen seem like there's a pretty OK story there, but if you ask me, it's subverted completely by the formula of "take a preposterous female warrior stereotype and get her naked." Still, if you've ever stared at the chainmail bikini babes in a Boris Vallejo painting and wondered what the story was there, man, Queen's Blade is a good enough bet.

And there's more anime fantasy- way more! There's Dragon Half, a comedy manga with a hilarious and disappointingly brief OVA adaptation. There's Scrapped Princess, and Claymore, and Deltora Quest, and Spice and Wolf, and Heroic Legend of Arslan. If you expand the scope to include more exotic techno-fantasy, there's Escaflowne and Windaria and Heroic Age. Throw in anime based on popular fantasy video games, and you've got... well, Final Fantasy. And Fire Emblem, and Dragon Quest, and Blue Dragon, and Ys. What's fascinating is the fact that nearly every damn one of these titles is available in English in some form or another; I guess that fans and publishers both see western fantasy-based anime as accessible. I said that anime fantasy goes right back to the 60s, because it does - just check out the Princess Knight manga or The Little Norse Prince anime. The only major title I can think of that hasn't gotten any sort of English-language adaptation is Ryu Knight. Can you think of another one?

What's your favorite fantasy anime? Mine, well... probably the original Lodoss OVAs. They're a sentimental favorite. If you want to discuss your favorites, or your favorite isn't here, or you want to point out that there's a new Dragon Age anime coming out that I forgot to mention, chime in with a comment!

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