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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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+