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Friday, July 11, 2014

Saint Seiya Soushu-hen: Burning Your Cosmo, the Cliff Notes Way

Naturally, it would be impossible to celebrate Masami Kurumada's 40th Anniversary without talking about Saint Seiya, so I've decided to save it for last by reviewing the entire OVA adaptation of the Hades Chapter. But first, let's talk about what came before these OVAs...

Boy, they're so happy to be fighting evil, aren't they?

Masami Kurumada debuted Saint Seiya in the very first (combined #1 & 2) issue of Shonen Jump for 1986 with the very intention of creating a mainstream hit after bombing hard with Otoko Zaka right before it. It was so immediately popular that Toei Animation wanted a be a part of the success & got the TV rights as soon as possible, debuting their anime on October 11, not even a year after the manga debuted. The anime, likewise, was a big hit, creating iconic roles for seiyuu like Tohru Furuya (Seiya), Hirotaka Suzuoki (Shiryu), & Hideyuki Hori (Ikki), making character design duo Shingo Araki & Michi Himeno veritable superstars in their field, giving music composer Seiji Yokoyama some real recognition, and has maintained popularity to this very day. Like many things, though, popularity waned over time and on April 1, 1989 the 114th, & last, episode of the anime aired, ending the Poseidon Chapter. The cancellation was obviously not planned, though, as Toei had started doing pre-production for the anime adaptation of the last story arc of the original manga, the Hades Chapter. Yokoyama even made an entire soundtrack for the adaptation, which would later be released as "OST IX", and an audio drama based on this work would be made in the early 90s.

What fans really wanted, though, was an actual anime adaptation of the Hades Chapter. Well, during the 90s Kurumada was all about B't X, which saw its own anime adaptation by TMS Entertainment, but their wish would finally be granted with the coming of the new millennium. Apparently inspired by a high-quality fan-produced adaptation that got traded around online, in 2002 Toei decided to dust off their pre-production work & finally do that Hades Chapter adaptation. After a preview showing late that year, Toei debuted the first two episodes of Saint Seiya Hades Sanctuary, Saint Seiya The Hades Chapter-Sanctuary if you prefer the Japanese styling, in early 2003 on Animax. Obviously, though, with a time span of about 13 years between episode 114 & the first OVA (considered episode 115), some fans might need a refresher. To assist with that, Toei included on the first DVD release a 25-minute special called Saint Seiya Soushu-hen/Omnibus, which recapped what had occurred previously in the story. So, before I get to reviewing those Hades OVAs, let's take a look at Soushu-hen.

In the Age of Myth the Greek Gods have always wanted to claim Earth as theirs, but continually in their way has been Athena, Goddess of Wisdom & Strategy, who leads a group of young warriors known as Saints. Each Saint dons an armor called a Cloth that is based on a figure or creature of mythology & a known constellation. Whenever the Earth is looking to be great peril Athena reincarnates & leads her Saints to victory. The present reincarnation is that of Saori Kido, who was adopted by Mitsumasa Kido of the Grande Foundation after finding her as a baby outside of Sanctuary, Athena's base-of-sorts, alongside Gold Saint Sagittarius Aioros. Aioros took Athena away from Sanctuary after seeing the Grand Pope, Arles, try to kill her & ordered for Aioros' head. A battle with Capricorn Shura has injured Aioros to the point of death, and Mitsumasa promises to take care of the baby & the Sagittarius Gold Cloth by raising a new group of youths who will act as new Saints to protect her. The attempted murder of Athena is only the beginning of the trials of Pegausus Seiya & his fellow Bronze Saints, as they will have to take on Sanctuary itself and, later, the Sea God Poseidon, who has been freed of the seal Athena put on him centuries ago.

[NOTE: There will be slight spoilers regarding certain parts of the Saint Seiya story... So fair warning.]

Soushu-hen is nothing more than a quick recap of the events that took place from episodes 1-114, true, but it does it in a way that does impress slightly. First of all, it tells the story completely chronologically, so instead of starting with the Galaxian Wars that Saori has the Bronze Saints fight in in order to "win" the Sagittarius Cloth the special begins with the clash between twin Gemini Saints Saga & Kanon, which is technically a flashback from the Poseidon Chapter. It then proceeds to talk about how Kanon unsealed Poseidon before going to the attempted murder of Athena & Aioros' sacrificial rescuing (a flashback from the Sanctuary Chapter); after all of that it finally gets to the main story. It's a neat way to go over what story had been told that also helps put some things into perspective, like how Kanon was essentially the man who started all of the conflict in the first place.

Another good part of this special is how it ignores almost all of the filler that the first half of the Sanctuary Chapter suffered from in the anime. Remember how I brought up that the anime debuted less than a year after the manga did? Well, due to that fast turnaround time, episodes 16-40 feature a fair amount of filler & little of it can be outright skipped because the anime incorporated the filler into the main story. In the original manga, after the battle against Phoenix Ikki & the Black Saints he lead the story went straight into the battles against the Silver Saints. The anime, however, delays the introduction of the Silvers, likely because the manga was still telling that part of the story when the anime finished the Ikki/Black Saint fights, & introduces brand-new villains that are sent by Pope Arles. To be quite honest, these filler villains aren't all that good. Hercules Docrates (eps 16 & 17) was average/watchable, at best, and the Ghost Saints (eps 18 & 19) were beyond boring (and are not only the only filler that's completely skippable but done better with the first movie!), but the other two notable filler characters were the worst of the lot.

First there was Crystal Saint (ep 21), who was not only bland as all hell but replaced Aquarius Camus as Hyoga's master (leading to a ridiculous case of "Since Camus taught Crystal Saint, he is therefore Hyoga's master too!" later on), but the absolute worst were the Steel Saints, who were meant to back up the Bronzes. These three characters, who aren't even worth giving their names, were literally nothing but anime sponsor Bandai wanting more money from toy sales, so they created the Steels & told Toei to put them into the story. The end result was that the Steel Saints would constantly interfere in fights against the Silver Saints & do nothing but showcase how pointless and pathetic they were. They weren't interesting in the slightest, they looked absolutely pathetic (created by toy makers, after all), &, worst of all, they interfered in actual manga story so much that you couldn't ignore them; they appeared from episodes 26-40! Sure, Crystal Saint altered story as well, but he was killed off before the Steels appeared & would only be brought up again during the Hyoga/Camus stuff. Luckily, Soushu-hen not only gives nothing more than one line about Arles' assassins, with a few seconds of footage as well, but it absolutely ignores the very existence of the Steel Saints, only showing scenes of the Silver Saints. Good job, there, special.

Now, to finish up this talk about early filler, I will give credit to the sole case of excellent filler in the Saint Seiya anime: The Ohko filler. This is a two-episode (eps 33 & 34) filler revolving around Dragon Shiryu, who lost his sight against Silver Saint Perseus Argol, & has returned to the Five Peaks, where he was trained by the Gold Libra Saint. There he encounters Ohko, who trained with Shiryu as a potential wearer of the Dragon Cloth, & not only is Ohko ashamed of what has become of Shiryu but he also wants to kill him & claim the Cloth for himself. This is extremely good filler, because Ohko is a compelling character, the story itself is very well told, & it actually doesn't interfere with the manga story at all; in fact, it adds to the story by giving Shiryu some extra development. There are also two instances of filler during the battles with the Gold Saints, but they're both short & mostly harmless. Anyway, from a recap perspective, it was neat to see Soushu-hen put the filler on the backburner & instead focus on the actual story.

Unfortunately, this ignoring of filler also extends to the only long-form filler that the anime had: The Asgard Chapter. Running from episodes 74-99, this anime-only story was a new take on what the second movie introduced by having the Bronzes fight against the God Warriors of Asgard lead by Hildegard, who was under the influence of the powerful Nibelung Ring. Due to the lack of watchable English subs after episode 73 I still haven't seen this filler, but I've generally heard nothing but praise for it & look forward to the day I can finally watch it. Soushu-hen does acknowledge the Asgard Chapter, because Poseidon is admitted to be the instigator of the entire conflict, but the special literally spends only 1 minute, 5 seconds on it before going into the Poseidon Chapter.

As for the rest of the recapping, it does so in a very basic, almost matter-of-fact fashion. Fights & the like are only acknowledged through the footage being shown, & only the most important of plot points are covered. Naturally, the Sanctuary Chapter takes up the majority of the special, which is fine because it took so many episodes to cover, but it would have been nice to see the Poseidon Chapter given a little more explanation; of the three manga story arcs it is the least focused on & acknowledged, after all. This is in no way a product for newcomers to see as their first encounter with Saint Seiya, as it's nothing more than the bone without any of the meat, but I can understand the idea behind it & it's admittedly not too bad as a quick refresher for those fans who waited more than a decade for more Seiya anime.

In terms of staff, I mentioned the names that become known from the success of the anime at the beginning. The team of the late Shingo Araki & Michi Himeno had done excellent work for years before this anime, but their work here was easily the most iconic. Himeno was even brought in to draw new artwork for the recent Blu-Ray release of the anime, and though her style is notably different than Araki's for males, it still fits excellently. As for Araki, Masami Kurumada's work made him legendary, so it was almost appropriate that his career & life ended with a Kurumada work, in this case 2011's Ring ni Kakero 1: Sekai Taikai-hen; Saint Seiya Omega credits Araki & Himeno, but that's likely only out of respect, like how Kurumada is credited. Seiji Yokoyama has mainly stayed a lesser-known anime music composer, with his only other "big" work being the original Space Pirate Captain Harlock anime, but his work on Saint Seiya is excellent & will likely be his largest & most iconic.

Handling the production of Soushu-hen from a directorial perspective was Shigeyasu Yamauchi (Casshern SINS, Dream Eater Merry, Xenosaga the Animation), who has since been given a little too much credit for his work on the original Seiya anime; even the recent DVD release credits him as series director. Yes, Yamauchi did work on the series, but only as a storyboarder & episode director for some of the Sanctuary Chapter episodes & one episode at the end of the Poseidon Chapter. Honestly, his style is likely more notable in the two movies he directed during for the franchise at the time, The Heated Battle of the Gods & Legend of Crimson Youth, but it is one that fits well for the franchise. In terms of new voice work only the narrator, voiced by Hideyuki Tanaka (Leo Aioria, Gilliam Yeager in the Super Robot Wars OG series), returns and, like most of the main cast, his performance is just as iconic & has stayed consistent for the entire history of the franchise (except for Omega, but that changed up everything except for bringing back Tohru Furuya to voice an adult Seiya). Tanaka's the only seiyuu to do that.

Saint Seiya Soushu-hen is an interesting product that was made for a very specific reason: To recap the original 114 episodes that were made in the 80s for fans who were buying the first DVD of the Hades Sanctuary OVA series. There really isn't much to talk about for the special itself, but I chose to review this partially to say my feelings on the original Saint Seiya anime, or at least what I have seen of it. I'll put it bluntly right away & say that Saint Seiya has its flaws. It has a pretty rocky start that doesn't quite have a real sense of rhyme or reason to it for a few episodes after the first; it's mainly fighting for fighting's sake because that's popular. When Ikki is introduced as a villain it starts getting more focused, but the filler kind of kills the momentum to an extent because of the wildy varying quality of each filler story, which are thankfully short but still take up a good series of episodes. Once the Silver Saints are introduced the story really gets going, though the Steel Saints instantly become an insane annoyance. This anime definitely requires dedication to get though the rough parts but there's tons of gold at the end of the rainbow, and that's because when this anime is good... It's really damn good.

The battles against the Gold Saints, though sometimes paced extremely slow due to the production obviously not wanting to catch up to the manga, are still some of the most enjoyable & fun fights to be seen in anime. They showcase the great sense of imagination that Masami Kurumada has & there's good reason why fans of the series will generally tell newcomers to stick with the anime. For years ADV's unfinished release, covering only the first 60 episodes due to DiC not licensing the entire show, was the best we could do with. This past April, though, Cinedigm/New Video Group released all 73 episodes of the Sanctuary Chapter on DVD under their Flatiron Film Company label. The set obviously used subs produced by Toei themselves, though, as (through spot-checking myself) the first DVD's subs are watchable but rough; the translation is fine but the timing isn't ideal by any means. Thankfully, the subs improve as the show goes on & each DVD is progressed through, and by the time you hit Disc 9, which ends with episode 61 (the first "never-before-seen" episode) the subs are just fine in both translation & timing (some rare instances aside that are more nitpicky than anything). Also, those last 13 episodes have excellent pacing to them, due to the manga finally having gone past that story arc by then. It's a big release, but considering that places like Amazon often sell it for ~$50, or ~$0.69/episode, I say it's definitely worth a purchase. Hopefully Cinedigm decides to continue releasing Saint Seiya and give the Asgard & Poseidon Chapters subs that are actually watchable.

Still, if those issues with the subs I brought up bother you, then there are still options. First, Cinedigm put those 73 episodes up on Amazon for download-to-own & after the DVD release have fixed the subs. If you don't want to go that way, though, Cinedigm has literally put the episodes up on Hulu just a day or two ago, complete with the fixed subs! Finally, if you do want the anime on DVD but want the fixed subs there's a chance you can get that, too. Cinedigm has released big, "complete series" sets before for titles like Digimon & Yu-Gi-Oh! in the past & then offered smaller sets that split up the shows in more palatable ways, wallet-wise. In the case of Digimon, the first season's complete dub collection didn't feature closed captions, which some fans complained about, but the smaller sets for season one added in the closed captions. Therefore, considering that the Seiya DVD cases have "Vol. 1" & "Vol. 2" on the tops of their spines, Cinedigm may release each half of the Sanctuary Chapter individually in the near future, and more than likely these new releases would feature the fixed subs; all you'd be missing out on is the nice little artbox to hold them in. I had talked about what I call the "Kurumada Curse" in the past, but Cinedigm's DVD release may be the first real step to finally breaking it... Let's not mess this up, everyone.

1 comment:

  1. I have one issue with this recap special, and it's the completely nonsensical way it explains the transition between Popes Shion and Arles. Head writer Takao Koyama made things needlessly confusing by coming up with that plotline that never existed in the manga, but when Saori and the Bronze Saints speculate about the Pope's identity while flying to the Sanctuary in episode 41, she mentions the possibility that the Arles and the supposedly dead Pope who awarded Seiya with the Pegasus Cloth are actually the same person: a Gold Saint with "two faces". And she turns out to be right when Arles is revealed to be Gemini Saga.

    However, instead of running with that, this recap special states that the Pope we see in the first episode was actually Shion, and he only got killed by Saga/Arles some time before episode 16, and not 13 years ago as in the manga. That's just completely dumb and absurd. First of all, if Shion had been alive all this time, why didn't he do anything about the fact that Athena was missing? Why didn't he realize Saga was posing as his brother Arles? Why would Mu and Dohko cut ties with the Sanctuary if their friend Shion was still the Pope? None of that makes sense, but somehow it became "canon" for a significant portion of the fandom thanks to this special.

    In my head, the only explanation that makes sense is that Pope Shion did get killed by Saga 13 years ago, just like in the manga. After that, Saga spent years posing as Shion until some time before episode 16, when he decided to take a hardline approach against his enemies. However, because he knew people would be suspicious of his sudden change of attitude, he spread the lie that Shion died of illness and started to pose as his successor Arles instead. Yeah, it's convoluted, but it still makes more sense than Shion being a chump who spent 13 years pretending Athena was still in the Sanctuary, while doing nothing against the guy who tried to kill her and killed his brother.