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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Saint Seiya Hades Sanctuary: Legitimately Great... Or Just a Giant Nostalgia Bomb?

Ask any hardcore Saint Seiya fan and just about every one of them will likely say the same thing: 2003's Saint Seiya Hades Sanctuary is the absolute best of the anime productions. It has the (major) original cast returning to reprise their roles, is directed by the man who is given absolute love by the fanbase (though maybe too much at times), & adapts the most beloved part of the manga story. So, the question must be asked: Is Hades Sanctuary truly as perfect as the Seiya fanbase seems to tout it, or are they simply relying on those ubiquitous, rose-colored nostalgia glasses?

Not too long after the fight with Poseidon Gold Saint Libra Dohko, the Old Master at the Five Peaks, has a dream of Athena being killed by a demonic figure, which worries him greatly. His worries are true, though, as Athena's seal on Hades, the God of the Underworld, has finally worn off after being placed 243 years ago at the end of the last Holy War. Meanwhile, Aries Mu, guardian of the first temple of Sanctuary, is visited by a cloaked figure who emanates a familiar Cosmo. The figure is that of his dead master Shion, the previous Aries Saint & the Grand Pope who Saga killed 13 years ago. Shion has joined forces with Hades, being granted the body that he had during the prior Holy War & a dark-colored Aries Surplice (the armor of Hades' 108 Specters), and he's not the only one... All of the Gold Saints who died during the Bronze Saints' battle to save Saori Kido/Athena have done the same as Shion & joined Hades's side; they have 12 hours to kill Athena or else they return to the Land of the Dead. Doubting the true intentions of these revived Saints, though, is Wyvern Rhadamanthys, a Specter of Hades & one of the three Judges of Hell, who goes against the orders of Hades' representative Pandora and sends a small group of Specters to Sanctuary to make sure the job is done.

Before I get into this OVA series specifically, allow me to explain why this part of the story is so well regarded. First, compared to the Sanctuary Chapter, which started a little aimlessly before finding its path, & the Poseidon Chapter, which was mainly a little too fast paced, the Hades Chapter (at least this first third) is not just focused from a storytelling perspective but also paced much better. There are a few threads that combine together to tell a really nice story here: There's Seiya & the main Bronzes coming to Sanctuary to help in the fight, there's Gemini Saga, Aquarius Camus, & Capricorn Shura's journey through each temple to make their way back to Athena's side, & in the first half there's a focus on the meeting between Shion & Dohko, who were the only two survivors of the previous Holy War & haven't seen each other since then. In the first half the focus is on these three threads exclusively, with no Specters making an appearance at all outside of those at Castle Hades & one at the Taurus Temple. It gives this part of the story a more personal & developmental sensation to it, as it's nothing but Saints doing battle against each other, and in the end they all have a similar goal in mind. Right from Mu's first encounter with Saga & the others he can psychically sense tears of blood coming from them, showcasing that they hate being pawns of Hades, and their specific goal of going to "Athena's side" showcases that they don't intend to kill her.

Interestingly enough, Seiya & his brothers-in-arms are actually kind of shown off as being stubborn & nigh-suicidal in this story arc. Sure, they were always like that, but in the prior story arcs it was shown in a positive light, i.e. never give up because hope is always there, but their very behavior makes Athena ban them from Sanctuary in an attempt to let them live normal lives. Unfortunately, much like the Golds, some of the Silver Saints also return as pawns of Hades with the very intention to fight Shiryu, Hyoga, & Shun as a test to see if they were truly ready to protect Athena. These fights only give these characters drive to break Athena's edict & return to battle; Shiryu even ditches his girl Shunrei at the Five Peaks, choosing battle over love. Interestingly, their behavior is treated as foolish & dangerous now by the Golds, Athena, & even main Bronze Saint Phoenix Ikki. Seiya & the gang are even kind of shown off as almost helplessly single-minded in their ideals, fighting for & protecting Athena, to the point where they can't even figure out the reason behind the traitorous behavior until their outright told it. It's cool to see, from a storytelling perspective, Kurumada kind of showcasing the negatives of this kind of ethos of shonen action, because it gives characters reasonable flaws that help endear them to the viewers.

The second half is where the story goes into full gear, though, with the introduction of some named Specters, Deep Niobe, Papillon Myu, Cyclops Gigant, & Worm Raimi, which give Mu & Leo Aioria some neat battles. Then there's the big climax, where Virgo Shaka fights against Saga, Camus, & Shura on his own before the three traitorous Golds go up against Mu, Aioria, & Scorpio Milo. Shaka has tended to be one of the more intriguing Saints in the story, due to him being a reincarnation of Buddha & utilizing techniques based on Buddhist ideals, and his fights against the three definitely showcases why he's nicknamed "The Man Closest to God". Coming up to this fight the tension has been slowly building up & it's here where it comes to an absolute head when the Athena Exclamation, a forbidden technique due to how it requires three Gold Saints to attack a target in unison, which was considered shameful & "weak" to Athena. It lives up to the name & description, and it absolutely delivers on the emotion given at that point. The last three episodes do both an excellent job wrapping up this part of the story arc & leading into the next portion. Truly, the "Real Fight" is just beginning.

So, yes, the story is great & the anime executes it excellently, but one can't deny that this production isn't an outright explosion of nostalgia for old Seiya fans. This is obvious right from the start with the opening themes; yes, that's not a typo, there are multiple opening themes & not in a traditional way. In a move that screams nothing but "Hey, nostalgia!", right after the initial opening plays, which I'll talk about a little later, a second opening plays: "Pegasus Fantasy" by Make-Up. For those who aren't familiar with this, it is the first opening to the original Seiya TV series. In a move that I have never seen done before, and haven't seen done since, this anime features a second opening that plays right after the first opening, and there is no reason for "Pegasus Fantasy"'s existence in this OVA series other than nostalgia. That's not all, though, as when episode 1 ends you see "Eien Blue ~Blue Forever~" by Make-Up, the original ending theme. In fact, the anime only shows the new opening theme on every odd-numbered episode & the new ending theme on every even episode, while the original themes are shown on every single episode; only on the last three episodes are the new themes shown consistently. Now, to be fair, this matches the spacing of the original DVD release, which was two episodes/DVD (except for the last, which was three), and those songs are still great to this day, but the fact that the original themes are even a part of the production, let alone used for all 13 episodes, absolutely showcases how much Toei was banking on fans' nostalgia with this OVA series. Also, no respect for the TV series' second opening (outside of one use of Seiji Yokoyama's instrumental version at the end) & ending themes, huh? Oddly enough, though, this sense of nostalgia is kind of broken in two ways. First, the footage is creditless & the even looks kind of rough; the recent Cinedigm DVD release features better video quality than what's shown here. Second, "Pegasus Fantasy" is given new sound effects to go alongside the footage, which was never there &, honestly, kind of works against the opening as a while. It's weird to include something for the sake of nostalgia & then change it in some way.

But the nostalgia doesn't stop there because, as I mentioned at the beginning, Toei also brought back a fair amount of the major staff & cast of the original show. As I mentioned in the Soushu-hen review, Shigeyasu Yamauchi was brought in to direct this OVA series, and he definitely showcases his essential trademarks, especially his love of warping faces when characters are hit with a great force. Luckily, much time has passed since his trigger happy tendencies with the second movie, so the uses of facial warping are only used when truly needed & mostly saved for the last few episodes. Though Yamauchi is sometimes given a little too much credit when it comes to the Seiya anime (remember, Kozo Morishita & Kazuhito Kikuchi directed each half of the TV series, not Yamauchi), there is no doubt that he works very well with the series. Shingo Araki & Michi Himeno also returned, at this point only doing new work on occasion, and the duo work the same magic they had in the 80s. No series composer (Takao Koyama nor Yoshiyuki Suga) returned from the TV series, though, and in their place was Michiko Yokote (Air Master, Princess Tutu), a newcomer to the franchise; she would return to write the Tenkai-hen movie & some episodes of Omega. Overall, Yokote stays true to the manga, though there are some notable changes. First, and biggest of all, the story is altered slightly to make the main Bronzes more relevant. In the original manga, Seiya, Shun, & Hyoga appear only in the very beginning & end of this part, while Shiryu follows the Golds on his own. Naturally, considering the type of production this is, that had to get changed. Luckily, the change is mostly innocuous & in one instance near the end improves a scenes. The other change is about the direct end of this section of the story arc, mainly in removing the initial introduction of some Specters, which unfortunately removes any sense of anticipation that Kurumada obviously had planned. In general, though, Yokote does a good job here.

Seiji Yokoyama's music also returns here, complete with the music he had made for this arc back in the late-80s but was never used with animation. It's still great to this day, and this series actually tends to keep the music saved for major moments, which helps give these compositions more importance. The new opening theme is "Chikyuugi" by Yumi Matsuzawa, which is an absolutely lovely ballad that actually fits this series very well. There's a great sense of sadness, acceptance, & moving on going on in this song, and it's definitely one to listen to on its own. Unfortunately, the constant appearance of "Pegasus Fantasy" right after it kind of makes it lose some of its feeling & I think the song has essentially joined "Saint Shinwa ~Soldier Dream~", the second TV opening, as a kind of forgotten Seiya theme. This extends even more so to the new ending theme, "Kimi to Onaji Aozora" by Yumi Matsuzawa, a really nice, soothing song that works really cool as a winding down piece after the intense & emotional events that happened.

Finally, to truly hit home the nostalgia, Toei brought back the original cast for the five main Bronzes: Tohru Furuya (Seiya), Hirotaka Suzuoki (Shiryu), Ryo Horikawa (Shun), Kouichi Hashimoto (Hyoga), & Hideyuki Hori (Ikki). They all deliver great performances & it's obvious that they were all happy to return to one of their repsective iconic roles, but there are two things to bring up. First, Ikki wasn't involved in this part of the story in the original manga, so his involvement in the anime is literally only a few minutes long, resulting in Hori getting barely any lines at all. Second, it's obvious that every one of these seiyuu aged during the years. Giving credit where it's due, Furuya's voice is mostly eternal & he can still deliver a fairly young voice extremely well. Also, Horikawa tries his absolute hardest to have Shun sound the way he did in the 80s. That being said, every one of these people deliver deeper-sounding performances. Hell, Suzuoki & Hashimoto don't even bother trying to hide how much deeper their voices had gotten at that point, making Shiryu sound much older than he should be & Hyoga only slightly less; even Hori's few lines show some signs of age creeping in. I truly admire the effort that these five men gave in this OVA series & the Tenkai-hen movie the following year, and I would have been perfectly fine if they had continued to voice their characters, but there's good reason why Masami Kurumada felt that his leads needed recasting after 2004. The absolutely hardcore seemed to take this as a personal assault on what they love, but it wasn't meant to be anything like that; sometimes, nostalgia is truly blinding. Regardless, recasting would have been needed as Hirotaka Suzuoki unfortunately left us all on August 6, 2006 due to lung cancer; the similar-sounding Ken Narita has since taken on many of his roles, including Shiryu in Omega.

Considering how much talk is given about who voices the main Bronzes, though, it's shocking how little talk is given about the other returns & replacements that were made for this OVA series. Yuji Mitsuya (Shaka), Hideyuki Tanaka (Aiolia), Keiichi Nanba (Pisces Aphrodite), the late Kouji Yada (the Old Master), Mami Koyama (Ophiuchus Shaina), & Ryouichi Tanaka (Cancer Deathmask & Musca Dios) all reprise the roles they had in the 80s, and every one of them would return for all future Seiya productions that needed them, with Koyama being the sole exception (she would return for Omega, alongside Furuya). Why are they allowed to stay around, while the main Bronzes get recast? Well, they all voice older characters compared to the Bronzes, so their aged voices still sound fine; also, they aren't as important. There was some recasting done already, though, with Takumi Yamazaki (Mu) & Ryotaro Okiayu (Saga & his twin Kanon) taking the place of Kaneto Shiozawa, who passed away in 2000, & Kazuyuki Sogabe, who retired in 2000 & passed away in 2006. Meanwhile, Shunrei is given a guest voice (Eriko Satoh), while characters like Unicorn Jabu (Hideo Ishikawa) & Hydra Ichi (Masaya Onosaka) get brand new voices that would stick to this very day. Finally, I'll give credit to Kenyuu Horiuchi & Nobuo Tobita, who voice Dohko & Shion respectively, because both give exquisite performances, especially Tobita.

Saint Seiya Hades Sanctuary is interesting in that both sides of the argument are essentially correct. From a production standpoint it is extremely well done & does many things better than the original TV series, especially from a pacing perspective; 13 episodes covering four volumes is a good pace. At the same time, though, this OVA series absolutely makes no attempt at hiding the fact that it was made to give existing fans of Seiya a heavy dose of warm & cuddly nostalgia. From bringing in their favorite director to reuniting all of the original main cast, plus a fair number of the secondary characters as well, Hades Sanctuary was most definitely banking on nostalgia. The hardcore fans reacted with jubilation & celebration... And then felt betrayed when their nostalgia was fought against two years later. As it is right now, 11 years after its debut, Saint Seiya Hades Sanctuary could very well be the best Seiya anime production out there, regardless of whether a nostalgia filter is used or not; that cannot be denied.

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