Tag Archives: Studio Pierrot

Blu-ray Review: Onigamiden (Legend of the Millennium Dragon)

Legend of the Millennium Dragon (Onigamiden)
Dir. Hirotsugu Kawasaki (Spriggan, Naruto)
Produced by Studio Pierrot
Released by Sony Pictures, 2011. 98 minutes.
SRP $45.99. Buy from Amazon!

Onigamiden—known in English as Legend of the Millennium Dragon—is Studio Pierrot’s attempt to make a movie that isn’t Naruto and Bleach. (Considering that Pierrot is the studio behind such powerhouse franchises, and has produced dozens of notable anime over the past few decades including Urusei Yatsura, Kimagure Orange Road, and Fushigi Yugi just to name a few, it gets little love from fans compared to SHAFT, Madhouse, Gainax, or Ghibli.) The story is adapted from a two volume novel Takafumi Takada, and is trying to branch out into more historically grounded material and themes. There are times when both the look and the themes of the movie resemble Princess Mononoke more than a shounen action franchise.

Unfortunately, Onigamiden doesn’t come close to the sensitivity and nuance of the best Ghibli movies, and its exquisite background work and fluid battle animation both literally and metaphorically can’t hide the relative flatness of the people in front. For a film that clearly had a large budget and opportunities for originality, it feels workmanlike at best in its plotting and characterization.

SUMMARY

In Heian-period Japan, the nobles are battling a constant invasion of monstrous oni into their city. Their leader, Gen’un, uses his powers to summon a modern middle school boy, Jun, to their time to be their Savior from the oni. Jun has the power to control a mighty dragon, Orochi, and it is up to him whether he will take on the mantle of being Orochi’s master.

PACKAGING/EXTRAS

I reviewed the Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack. Both discs come in the standard Blu-ray translucent box, with each disc on the inside of the front and back covers respectively. There are no inserts of any kind, not even of the chapters of the film.

The only extra offered on the Blu-ray is a still gallery of concept art from the film. It showcases just how much detail went into the backgrounds, and is beautiful in its own right. The BD Live simply provided links to other Sony Pictures productions and offered nothing specific to the film. The DVD had no extras.

The lack of extras represents a missed opportunity: perhaps some words from the staff about the project’s background, an overview of the Heian period of Japanese history, and an explanation of the film’s mythological background would have been appreciated. The film assumes some knowledge of both Japanese history and traditional mythology, something not all Western audiences will have—and this is clearly targeted for a more mainstream release than many anime.

AUDIO/VIDEO

I reviewed the Blu-ray on a Playstation 3 in 720p. The video quality is consistently excellent. Lines are sharp and well-defined, colors are rich (particularly in the backgrounds), and there was no noticeable motion blur, even during the intense battle sequences. The subtitles were readable at all times. The visual quality of this disc is excellent.

As for the audio, the voices were clear and distinct and the mix between the music and dialogue was balanced. As I do not have a surround sound setup, I was unable to test the 5.1 channel mix.

CONTENT

Anime is a visual medium, which means that the way a story is told visually is just as important as its more literary characteristics (plot, character, setting, etc.). Ideally, the visuals should do the work of the storytelling in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a more verbal or written form. There have been anime whose stories were not necessarily the most comprehensible, profound, or even original, but whose sumptuous visuals were still a delight to behold. For me a lynchpin example is Akira, whose animation quality holds up decades later even if its story is a bunch of metaphysical fluff.

Sadly, Onigamiden is not one of those anime whose visuals help redeem a lackluster story. The background art, showcased in the Blu-Ray gallery and the in the movie itself, is detailed and rich; the battle sequences are fluid and detailed. But the characters are as flat as their 2D, oddly blank (even for anime) expressions. The plot hinges on a single simple reversal that still doesn’t lend either side much nuance, and ends up being preachy in the way other “noble savage” stories like Avatar, Dances With Wolves, and others tend to be. Given its setting and the art style, it is probably trying more to be like Princess Mononoke, but Miyazaki’s film was actually more balanced in its man vs. nature conflict than this one. With a predictable plotline, the otherwise beautifully rendered battle sequences are robbed of any real sense of urgency or danger. The final battle, in particular, feels unnecessarily drawn out, though of course it involves the full force of the titular dragon.

The protagonist, Jun, is in some ways a typical whiny male anime protagonist—he takes the reluctant in reluctant hero to a new level. Then he suddenly transforms, with little transition, into a much more resolute character. The only other character who is given any kind of change is Raiko, who honestly might have made a more interesting central character than Jun. Raiko, Orochi, and many other elements of the story are drawn from Japanese mythology and legend, and the movie presumes prior knowledge in order to catch the full resonance of who these people are and their roles. It may explain why the movie sometimes feels curiously underexplained while at the same time being simplistic.

The lackluster soundtrack also tended to diminish any epic quality the battles were supposed to have. The horn-driven pieces in particular set the wrong mood for the sequences that were intended to be fast-paced and exciting. They felt more like the generic pieces that would accompany, say, a battle in Naruto or Bleach than a cinematic epic, and this was when the movie was trying to reach for grandeur at times. Even a cookie-cutter John Williams-esque score (composed, say, by Yoko Kanno in her orchestral mode) would have been preferable.

CONCLUSION

The bottom line is that Onigamiden is a well-mastered disc, but the pretty film in it  is dragged down by its simplistic and unevenly executed story. It’s an admirable attempt by Studio Pierrot to do a non Naruto or Bleach project, but seems thin by comparison. It’s not bad, per se, but neither is it very good. It’s worth a rental at most.

OVERALL GRADE: C+

2011: Everything Old Is New? (And Onward..)

So happy to see that around the time of my last post, a small group of new shows arrive with my notions well complimented. It seems as though despite the ever glowering cloud of desperation often gumming up recent anime schedules,this worry has finally found a weak spot. That, or the old fixer-upper solutions are no longer working. Whatever the case, it seems that certain prayers may be answered this season as not one, but three shows debuted this last week that offer shining proof that anime can indeed offer more than the expected warm blankie/cocoa combo they’ve been dishing out ad-nauseum over the last several seasons.

(Not that I dislike cocoa, mind you. But one too many makes for a violently upset Wintermuted.)

Starting off with Level E, a punchy, goofy science fiction comedy set in a world where extraterrestrials co-exist amongst the ignorant human population until the day one decides to move into the new home of a young baseball hopeful (Sans permission, and  is of the “just won’t go away” quantity.). Both refreshingly funny, and breathlessly retro (the original manga was serialized in the mid 90s-Yes.), the comedy plays like an X-Files parody, with a dose of GTO-like shonen energy for good measure. It is especially fun in how the interplay between lead protagonist, Yukitaka, an ordinary boy who’s prowess in baseball has led him to a potentially exciting new life in a new town, and hopelessly irritating alien prince Baka works. It’s a simple, and yet effective take on the classic straight-man, and the spoiled fool, made all the funnier with the erstwhile prince’s appearance as a strikingly effeminate pretty boy. Add the classic 90s hard manga art style, and the whole package thus far is quite promising. Studio Pierrot (Click Me.) and David may have themselves a memorable little hit on their hands if they continue to expand the world, and drag poor Yukitaka along for the ride.

Level E is available via Crunchyroll (Members now, but free within days!).

Second is clearly on a much more familiar stage, and pays homage to two generations of anime fandom, and as such could be a more dicey project. I write simply about Yutaka Yamamoto’s big-scale NoItamina project, Fractale, which plays like a Greatest Hits compilation of not merely anime favorites, but potentially as contemporary metaphor. In the idyllic fantasy world that resembles an Irish isle surrounded by deceptively analog trappings, where youthful wanderer, Clain seems to live amongst virtual citizens called “Doppels”, his seemingly peaceful virtual life is thrown for a loop when he encounters a mysterious girl on a glider chased by roughs in an airship. So already, this should sound terribly familiar. Right on down to the design aesthetic, we are in a post-cyberpunk take on Miyazaki (or Nadia, pick your poison), complete with simple attractive leads, silly, ineffective villainy, and a love of quiet, open space. But knowing that this is being filtered through the minds of both Yamamoto, a director with a full understanding of the form, and noted critic & writer Hiroki Azuma, this is sure to take come interesting turns as we come to learn more about Clain, Phryne, and the world watched over by the mysterious Fractale system.

The problems with this show are evident in presentation, since it depends so much on either full knowledge of the inspiration, or completely new perspective which can either help or cripple the series as a whole. Long and short, this series, while having a promising debut episode needs to gather steam quickly to fully work. So while some critics may find this inexcusably trite and hopelessly post-modern, perhaps this is only the beginning of a unique exploration of anime fandom as well as the increasing allure of insular living. The show seems to definitely be going in this direction. Here’s hoping they find something truly new and exciting along the way.

Fractale is available via Funimation & Hulu!

And lastly, it should be noted that of all the new shows out this season, the one I’m most hopeful for is AIC Classic’s visually rich & utterly fascinating adaptation of Takako Shimura‘s Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son). Telling the take of young middle schoolers, Nitori, and Takatsuki, a boy and girl who share a secret of wishing to switch genders, the story is told with sensitivity, and a truly unique visual style. So much more interested in letting the lives of the two leads take the forefront, rather than going for the cheap and easy trap route is a bold, and human turn in a medium that is often more restrictive of such notions. Right away, the visuals(much like a watercolor storybook come to life) offer the promise of something altogether new. In fact, bold doesn’t begin to describe it.

If there are any true problems with the debut episode, it is that we are thrust in several volumes into the story that was likely an episode count issue, and could very well make or break the series as a whole. We are given glimpses into their respective lives, but it makes the viewer wish for a much smoother means to get to know them. And as a show with a slower pace than others, it would likely benefit from less compression. But given the presentation, this was likely an impossibility. So the mix can be a bit of a  conundrum by design. And yet despite all this, a show focusing on issues of gender identity, and the pangs that come with being young makes for potentially important viewing. There is a lot of emotional truth to all of this, something that can go a long way if Ei Aoki & crew stay the course.

Hourou Musuko is available via Crunchyroll (Members now, but available free in days!)

So with these new shows in the ether, ready to take on a potentially evolving landscape, here’s hoping fans all over are equally as prepared for change as this new year starts off full throttle. I know I am.