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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Fantastic Children: Magnificent Excellence Wrapped in Plain Clothes

I've compared The Land of Obscusion before to digging for rare metals & the like. In any sort of mining you get a lot of dirt, the occasional small find (which alone may not be anything special, but when gathered together is worth it), and then you get the big one... The literal "diamond in the rough". Upon first look it's nothing more than large piece of dirt, generic & unassuming, but by breaking apart that outer shell you slowly uncover something valuable. Similarly, I have reviewed many titles that are enjoyable to watch, with a stinker every now & then. But then I see something that astounds me, something that's completely unassuming at first glance and even when you start to watch the first couple of episodes it seems interesting but not anything special... But then you watch more of it. You keep watching more of it & soon enough you realize that what you're watching is something beyond your expectations. In fact, it smashes them & you start wondering how it all falls apart at the end... And then you reach the end & it never implodes. Instead it does everything it set out to do & stays in your memories forever. This is one of those shows.

"Don't Judge a Book By It's Cover", indeed.

The Children of Béfort: Aghi, Soreto, Hesma, Tarlant, Hasmodye, Palza, & Mel. A group of young children, all with white hair & blue eyes, that have been spotted throughout Europe ever since the late 1400s, named after a town in Belgium where they were first seen. They all leave their homes with no word, seem to be looking for someone named Tina, and they all die by the time they hit 12 years old. In the early 1900s, photographer Bob Cooks was able to take a picture of the Children before they died shortly afterwards; there were only five of them, with Palza & Mel missing. It is now the year 2012 (you know, the future) & Thoma, a young boy who lives with his parents on Papin Island, meets Helga & Chitto, two orphans who continually run away from their orphanage in an attempt to find the place Helga always draws, though she doesn't know where the place is. These three will become involved in an adventure that brings together the Children of Béfort, the mysterious Ged Group lead by Professor Gherta Hawksbee, & Detective Cooks, the grandson of Bob Cooks who voluntarily took on the job of finding the Children who ran away from home five years ago.

Fantastic Children is an epic. The show follows many themes, such as adventure, romance, reincarnation, the dark side of scientific discovery, mystery, revenge, & the concept of "playing God", among many other themes. The cast of characters is large, yet the story knows how much importance each of them have in the overall scheme. The story has many intricacies & though the main story takes place in 2012 it has an important history to it that spans hundreds of years, due to the many incarnations of the Children of Béfort. The story continually gets bigger & bigger in the first half before it slows down to focus on one specific piece of history at the start of the second half. Following that, the story comes to a head in a final meeting that brings everyone together & decisions are made. In true epic fashion, when you reach the climax, the story has transformed into something very different from what it started as & the conclusion brings everything back to its initial style. It's a natural ebb & flow that grows with each ebb & every flow crashes down with an important impact.

Fantastic Children is a science-fiction story. Science plays an extremely important role in the story, with it being the simple reason why there's a story in the first place. From futuristic-styled ideas of being able to experiment with the "Zone", i.e. the dimension of death, to even having the discovery of x-rays by W. Conrad Rugen (the real man's name was Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen) be an important story element, science is the focus here. The Children of Béfort's existence, their reason for their mission, & their conflict with Dumas, a similarly white-haired, blue-eyed young man, is due to & done by science. Their reincarnations are artificial, their memories are stored in crystals so that they don't forget their mission, & they even have access to flying discs for transportation, as well as a flying robot named Wonder that Tarlant controls. Like any good sci-fi story, though, the battle between science & nature is a sub-plot, with the Children of Béfort continually having to fight off dark beings called Enma that try to make them embrace their former lives so that they can be killed.

Fantastic Children is an opera. Everything builds upon each other in dramatic fashion, all with the intent to let it all out at once. In the first half, there are a number of stories going on: Thoma, Helga, & Chitto's meeting & initial interactions, the Children of Béfort's search for Tina, the results of the dark experiments Prof. Gherta & the Ged Group have done, & Detective Cooks search for the Children of Béfort. At first these stories are working mostly independent of each other, but as the episodes go on groups start interacting with each other, usually in small ways. This all comes to a head in the latter part of the first half, where Kirchner, one of the Ged Group's voluntary "pilots" who participated in the experiments, appears with unknown abilities. The Enma even get involved, trying to erase Kirchner from existence due to him becoming an unnatural anomaly. At the end of this half, all of the parties have properly met up & the stories become intertwined (nearly all, since Cooks never meets Thoma & the gang). The second half brings all of the lead-up to its climax, where the truth behind the Ged Group's existence is shown in full, the reason for the Children of Béfort's search for Tina is revealed, Cooks finally encounters those that he has been searching for, & Dumas makes his move, all with Thoma, Helga, & Chitto being the way the viewer sees all of this.

With any sort of operatic storytelling the characters are just as important as the story, and Fantastic Children has an amazing cast of characters. Thoma is a simple boy who follows his convictions & wants to help Helga out of nothing more than an initial feeling, but as he comes to know Helga & Chitto his conviction become stronger & his resolve more sturdy. Chitto is the most innocent of the cast, wanting nothing more than to help Helga on her search for happiness; his young exuberance makes it hard to dislike him, especially since he never gets annoying. Helga starts off introverted & only talks to Chitto at first, but as the story continues she opens up slowly, and though she does keep some bit of her quietness she becomes just as strong as Thoma, just in different ways. Cooks, & his partner Alice, get the least amount of development, but that works simply because they end up becoming the relatively "normal" people whose investigation becomes a part of a larger story. Cooks, though, does have a strong element of Inspector Zenigata from Lupin the 3rd in him simply by his sheer dedication & straight-mindedness when it comes to finding the Children of Béfort, and that makes him always entertaining to watch.

Prof. Gherta first comes off as a shadowy figure of evil intent, but as the story goes on you realize that she's simply a scientist that is doing nothing more than following her gut & her love of scientific discovery, even if that puts her in potentially "wrong" paths. Dumas is similar to Gherta in that he also debuts as a true shadowy figure, but when his goals are revealed even he is shown to be more of a "grey" figure. Finally, there's the Children of Béfort, all of which have their own personalities & ways of doing things, with their goal of finding Tina being what keeps them together. The best part about the Children is that, due to their lives as normal kids before being reminded of who they are, they are in constant combat with their emotions & memories. The Enma uses this weakness to make them consider giving up & forgetting who they originally are, instead embracing their present incarnations. The only one who doesn't waver in his identity is Hesma, whose own pride & love of science becomes his character flaw, as he definitely comes off as the most unemotional & inhuman person in the group. But it's these flaws that make these characters so identifiable & enjoyable to watch. In fact, the whole concept of reincarnation that the show follows results in some characters being flawed due to events that happened in their past lives, i.e. things that their present selves had no control over.

It is important to mention that Fantastic Children is the creation of one man: Takashi Nakamura, normally a key animator (he did the excellent OP footage for Hareluya II BØY), animation director, & character designer (Akira, Tetsujin 28 [2004]), but he was also the director of titles such as the "Nightmare" portion of Robot Carnival & the movie A Tree of Palme. Nakamura created & directed the story, wrote all of the scripts (alongside Hideki Mitsui), did some of the storyboards, & even drew the character designs. Sometimes, though, a personal creation where one man put himself in charge of so much results in an overambitious idea that winds up becoming a mess of a creation. Luckily, and thankfully, that never happens to this show. There is no plot point that doesn't become useful, no plot hole that isn't filled, and even ideas that you think wouldn't have been thought of when a situation happens actually are used. Without a doubt, this is a story that Nakamura had planned out for years, covering every detail he could think of & leaving no stone unturned (I don't have proof that Nakamura took years planning out this show, but I doubt it was all done in a short amount of time). It's rare that a title like this is made, and it shouldn't be ignored when it does come about... So why is this show unheard of?

This is why. Takashi Nakamura went with a very old-school style when it came to the character designs. Faces are simple in design, the major cast is made up of mostly 11 year-olds, and instead of looking like a show from 2004/2005, it looks like something that would have aired back in the 1960s, let alone the 1970s. The look of the show is not what usually sells in terms of anime nowadays or even nine years ago, when this show aired on TV.  It's a very "childish" look, where even the adults have a youthfulness to them, and to most people they'll simply think, "This is a kids' show", and not give it an honest try. That is a shame, because behind this simple look is some of the most serious & dark storytelling that anime has seen in the past decade. The look is similar to that of Osamu Tezuka & Shotaro Ishinomori, who had simpler designs & drawing styles, at least compared to some artists now, but told complex & dark stories that required readers to dig deeper.

It may look like it's made for children but it's filled with elements & concepts that are definitely made for older audiences, at least in their teens. There's a fair share of blood that can be shown at times, one of the characters in the past goes insane from his research regarding the Children of Béfort, the storytelling gets very heavy the further it goes, the scientific concepts become a growing importance, and there's the constant idea of children dying due to the Children's reincarnations. In fact, even the Children come to realize what they're doing when it's pointed out that their former selves die upon their artificial reincarnation. Death, and the importance of life, becomes a very heavy focus in the end story, which is something that most people seem to want to keep their children from understanding. I give Bandai Entertainment all the respect for licensing & releasing this show here in North America, but there was absolutely no way it was going to sell with that look. They couldn't even find visually appealing artwork for the covers of the DVD singles (the two above are the best-looking ones & the complete collection cover art outright shows a major spoiler!).

Adding to the masterful storytelling & intensely memorable characters are the production values, which are simply amazing. Animation-wise, the show looks excellent, with an amazing use of color that makes the world of Fantastic Children feel like it actually exists (though it takes place on Earth, the "Mainland" it takes place in is fictional). It also manages to very rarely (and I mean VERY rarely) re-use animation for later shots, instead having each shot be its own thing. How Takashi Nakamura was able to not only tell his own story but also get the budget that allows the show to look as amazing as it does is an astounding mystery to me, but I'm glad he was able to. The music was done by Kouji Ueno (Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise), and it is an excellent mix of orchestral & symphonic songs, plus a good number of piano pieces as well as some experimental tunes, such as the theme for the Enma. It all ends up being another excellent part of the show as a whole, and I'm glad Bandai offered the OST with a special edition release of Volume 1.

The best themes in the show, though, come from the opening & ending. The opener, "Voyage" by Inori, is true to the operatic style of the show and sets up excellently for each episode. "Voyage" is actually heavily heard throughout the show for important scenes in numerous variations, such as a cello version, a strings version, and even an arrangement called "Voyage... Meguru Toki no Naka de" (both with lyrics & an instrumental version) that manages to be even greater & more beautiful than the original version. The ending, "Mizu no Madoromi" by Russian singer Origa, is also simply described as beautiful, both in its original Japanese as well as a Russian version heard for three episodes in the second half. Please note that I don't normally include links when I talk about the opening & ending themes... These songs are just that beautiful.

Normally I cover the voice cast in detail, but with such a giant cast of characters it would be impossible to cover all of the major players in length. Thankfully, the Japanese cast, made up of the likes of Junko Minagawa (Thoma), Shiho Kawaragi (Helga), Kei Kobayashi (Chitto), Yuu Urata (Aghi), Shinpachi Tsuji (Cooks), Yuki Kaida (Gherta), & Eiji Hanawa (Dumas), among many others, keeps up with the excellent production by having all of them deliver high-quality performances. Unfortunately, I can't say the same of the English dub. Bandai, in an attempt to still deliver a dual-audio release while keeping costs down, sent this show over to Singapore-based Odex Private Ltd.; Geneon did the same around this time, too. While there are a few solid performances in the dub, there are simply too many performances that come off as the actors simply "doing their jobs" or even being miscast; Gherta is in her 50s, yet her dub voice sounds like she's half that age, for example. Also, most actors try to hide any sort of accent they have, but a few, like Thoma's Mother or Dumas, feature very heavy British accents, which really clash against the accent-less performances of the rest of the cast. If the dub in general tried going for accents then it wouldn't be a problem, but this dub really doesn't sound like it has an idea of what direction it's going for. It's a shame for dub fans, but for this show just stick to the original Japanese with English subtitles.

Why this image wasn't used for the Complete
Collection DVD boxset confounds me...

Fantastic Children is an epic science fiction opera that is proof positive of the adage "Don't Judge a Book By It's Cover." At first glance, it may look like nothing more than a kids' show, but when you watch it you realize that it's "childish" look is more of an old-school stylistic choice, and hidden within is an ambitious story filled with amazing, flawed characters who all learn from their mistakes & in the end the show manages to succeed in all ways. For all intents and purposes, an idea this ambitious & personal should have failed, but instead it does the opposite, becoming a journey for the viewer that is, well, fantastic. I have purposefully mentioned as few spoilers as I can in this review because I feel that, even with the show nearing ten years old, it should be something to be watched, because it's truly something special. It's shows like this that make me love going through that mine of obscure anime, because it truly showcases the fact that many excellent titles get left to the wayside as time goes on. For those who want to buy this show on DVD, it is still fairly easy to get, as the singles go for a few dollars each, and the complete collection boxset can be bought for roughly $30 or so. You better buy it quickly, though, since with Bandai Entertainment now gone who knows how much the prices on these DVDs can skyrocket, and the chances of this show getting licensed rescued are likely very low. Don't miss your chance to get your hands on the kind of show that rarely comes about & succeeds in everything it wants to do.


  1. I recall noticing while finding out about the show a half decade ago through a podcast review noting it was made by Nippon Animation, the same studio responsible for the familiar "World Masterpiece Theater" series of shows and other literary-based classics over the past nearly 40 years. I suppose I expected this to be great and it delivered. I only watched it subbed (and from shadier means), yet it's a shame Bandai cheapen out on using a foreign English dub to market this than go out of their way to get a crew in the country to do it. Oh well, I suppose they didn't want to spend more than they have to get it it out on the shelves at Best Buy.

    I haven't seen it more than once, but someday I'll go back and watch it again to take in the story once more, I recall the first time thinking the detective trying to follow along the kids and the situations happening around him seems to be left in the dust at the end, but perhaps that was necessary. I guess I expected more out of him than what I was given, but the story wasn't going that direction anyway and reveal much to the 'outsiders' in the vicinity.

    Fantastic Children is an epic science fiction opera that is proof positive of the adage "Don't Judge a Book By It's Cover."

    Unlike a certain podcast reviewer I know who would say the opposite when it comes to what is often known more in anime simply by Google Image searching it. It's true where anime has headed these days and those designs don't always appeal to me at all. I'm glad for what Fantastic Children did to retain a look and feel I liked from classic shows myself. It's a shame to think how much that sort of thing is a turn-off to a generation that hasn't grown up on those classics like Astro Boy, Gigantor, Star Blazers and the like. It's probably also the same reason we don't get the good stuff like "Future Boy Conan" on DVD yet over here, since I'm sure that would sell big simply because of Hayao Miayzaki's involvement despite the 'dated' nature of said animation. People need to learn that adage you said above and I wish Japanese studios would listen too.

  2. Wow, thanks for posting this! I lost my "to watch" list a while back and I just remembered that this was on there. The character designs don't put me off at all; they remind me of some of the wackier ones from Giant Robo. Considering the cheapest Amazon sells it here in the UK is £50 for a used copy (about $80), I may have to wait a while.

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  4. This is definately one to watch, I stumbled apon this little gem while searching through some anime websites and wow the story is just really compelling, leaving you wanting to watch more and more. I didn't want the show to end, It's such a great anime.