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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Violinist of Hameln The Movie: Can an Anime Give an Encore?

Last year I celebrated Classical Music Month, every September by order of President Bill Clinton, by talking about a ton of anime OPs, EDs, INs, & BGM that doesn't get the appreciation that they deserve; it was kind of crazy to do. This year, though, I'll be celebrating this month of musicality by reviewing a series that is partially defined by it. Like I mentioned last year, however, I will not be covering any part of the Legend of the Galactic Heroes franchise; I reviewed the two movies & the Golden Wings OVA back in May of 2012. Luckily, there are other anime out there that utilize classical music, with probably the most beloved one (that got released in North America, at least) being Princess Tutu; maybe I'll do that one next year. For this year, however, I'm going to into the world of fantasy, a favorite genre of mine, and look at a certain group of instrument-toting warriors.

(The) Violinist of Hameln by Michiaki Watanabe (not to be confused with the anime music composer of the same romanized name [the sole difference in their names is literally a single kanji!]) was one of the first titles to appear in Enix's then-debuting Monthly Shonen GanGan magazine back in 1991, and it seemed to be an iconic title for the magazine's first decade as it ended in early 2001, lasting 37 volumes. The manga was a bit of an odd duck in that it was modeled as a fantasy adventure to save the world from destruction but the actual execution, at least early on, was almost a gag manga featuring a jerk of a hero & fourth-wall-breaking jokes. In 1996 the manga was adapted into a TV anime series that is notorious for changing the entire mood & feel of the story... But that's not what I'm starting with. A few months prior to the TV series debut there was a 30-minute theatrical movie that was part of the "GW Anime Festival '96" triple-billing with Mahoujin Guru Guru & Dragon Quest: The Emblem of Roto. This movie is more in line with the style of the original manga & generally gets ignored in place of the more-infamous weekly production. Let's see how it turned out.

The land is in turmoil due to monsters under the command of Hell King Bass. The kingdom of Antiphonal in particular is under attack by a squadron of skeletons & all looks lost. Luckily, the arrival of the legendary troupe of warriors lead by Hamel the Brave, who fights evil with the music of his gigantic violin, manage to drive away the monsters. The King & Queen ask Hamel & his friends Flute, Raiel, Sizer, & guide bird Oboe to rescue their daughter, who was transformed into a kitten & taken to the giant Medusa, the monster in charge of the area's demonic forces.

Hameln's movie is definitely short, but it manages to tell a good amount in the timeframe. In fact, it does make for an okay introduction for newcomers into how the manga likely works for the most part, as it introduces the main characters, the mission at hand, and an always entertaining journey into Medusa's castle. At it's heart though, among all of the fantasy elements & potential for action, Hameln is comedy because of one reason, and that would be Hamel himself. For someone who's been given the title of "Brave", our lead is more or less a selfish jerk & asshole. When the King explains their plight to the group Hamel is behind them, enjoying a massive feast with beautiful ladies, and even loudly wonders why he should help out such a downtrodden kingdom in the first place. He also isn't shy about insulting & abusing his own friends, such as poking fun at Sizer for falling down a pitfall, even though she has wings, and then kicking Raiel into the pitfall because he tired of Raiel's constant screaming for Sizer. Also, seeing as the villain here is Medusa, Hamel makes no hesitation towards using recently-petrified Sizer, Raiel, & Oboe as stone missiles to throw at Medusa's head.

Truly, Hamel is a constant treat to see in action. He's even a glutton for praise, debuting in the movie on top of a tower to showcase himself as a grand warrior... Only to have to slowly climb down the tower to get to the monsters because he purposefully climbed the tower solely to look cool; he also gets stuck on a loose brick while climbing down, looking helpless in the end. Flute is more or less the "straight man" to Hamel's "funny guy", constantly having to complain about Hamel's general jerkiness & even having to whack him with a giant cross should he go too far for a gag. Unfortunately, she's also, to put it bluntly, the "butt monkey" of the group, always being used for plans that put her into embarrassing outfits, like an abandoned dog alongside Sizer as a distraction for a guard (who decides to take in Sizer & kick away Flute), or even be manipulated by Hamel's "marionette version" concerto; the movie has her don a robot-esque outfit that Hamel dubs "Flute #28" & controls remotely via his violin. Raiel & Sizer, in comparison, are the two completely competent members of the group, with Flute even considering them the best fighters among them, but the movie actually makes it a slight focus to have them be as useless as possible. Sizer gets one kill during the beginning, but after that she & Raiel spend their entire time in the castle falling down the pitfall until they finally reunite with their friends for the final battle. I'm sure the manga gives them plenty of moments to shine, but their fate is more or less sealed as being actual warriors in a gag story, i.e. they get screwed over constantly. It's hilarious.

Outside of that there isn't too much else to the movie, honestly. Still, it's a fun little treat to watch & some of the comedy isn't solely from Hamel, such as when Flute points out how strong Sizer is. She gets flustered & tries to sound tough, prompting her friends to applaud (kind of sarcastically, actually), and she gets even more embarrased to the point of not even being able to start a proper sentence until she hits the pitfall. There's almost a sense of condescension in Hamel's group, like each of them are secretly trying to prove how much better they are than the others, but Hamel's too self-serving, Flute's the butt monkey, Sizer's shyness is hidden behind her tough demeanor, & Raiel's essentially useless (in this movie, at least). In fact, Oboe is the only normal person in the entire group, and he's a bird. Also, in case you haven't noticed yet, just about every character is named after a musical instrument or mythological being (Raiel may be a corruption of the Japanese Lyle guitar) & every kingdom is named after a musical term (the fansub called the movie's kingdom Antifarna, but I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be Antiphonal/Antiphon). Seriously, it's really cool to see Watanabe stick so rigidly to music for this world, and it definitely helps make everyone easy to remember among other fantasy characters & worlds. Still, I'm sure it will only get even crazier when I get to the TV series...

The movie was animated by Nippon Animation, with Takashi Imanishi (Gundam 0083, the Sonic Boom Squadron portion of The Cockpit) handling direction & scriptwriting duties. Imanishi does a great job here, with a consistently moving pace and a script that's constantly funny & entertaining. The character designs & animation direction were handled by Hiromi Kato (Kobato., Needless), and both the characters & animation look really great & seemingly accurate to Watanabe's original artwork. In fact, Watanabe himself even did some key animation for the movie, which is pretty rare to see in an anime based on a manga. Finally, the music was done by the iconic Kouhei Tanaka, mixing in some original works as well as a couple of new arrangements of classical music like portions of the Can Can Dance & Franz von Suppé's "Light Cavalry - Overture"; we'll be hearing more of Tanaka & classical music in the TV series. The opening theme here is "Mae o Muite Arukou" by KUKO, which is a high-energy & cheery song that fits the fantasy world Hameln takes place in excellently. The ending theme, "Ame Nochi Hareruya ~Taiyou ni Nageru Kiss~" by Yokoyama Hot Sisters, is a similarly cheery-sounding song that also fits the sillier nature of the movie, but isn't anything especially special; at least the OP sounds really cool.

As for the voice cast, there's one performance that absolutely steals the movie; Kazuki Yao as Hamel. Much like when he voiced Dark Schneider in the Bastard!! OVA series, Yao simply delivers a perfect take on the character, making Hamel sound just as cocky, rude, uninterested, & even slightly evil as he comes off as; this type of character is simply a perfect match for Yao's specific voice type. The other main character performances by Chisa Yokoyama (Flute), Rei Sakuma (Sizer), & Toshihiko Seki (Raiel) are also very fitting, whether it's Flute's ability to go from kind & sweet to threatening, Sizer's bluntness, or Raiel's purposefully grating screams of worry. The rest of the movie's cast is rounded out by the likes of Chafurin (the King), Masaharu Satou (Oboe), & Mazue Komiya (Medusa).

The Violinist of Hameln movie is honestly nothing more than a short production made for existing fans of the manga, with the partial intent of getting people interested in reading it. Still, it's really, really entertaining, regardless of if you are familiar with the manga or not, and the story it tells is simple but highly effective in getting its message across. It did receive a VHS & LD release in 1996, followed by a DVD release in 2001. Unfortunately, one can't exactly watch the movie in the same way moviegoers in Japan got to see it, as it was made in the widescreen format. While it's understandable that the VHS & LD releases had to be letterbox, it's sad to look up info for the DVD & find that it too is presented in letterbox format. It would be cool to see an anamorphic transfer done for this movie, especially since the fansub that is available is obviously taken from a VHS source (I remove the black bars for my screenshots to maintain the sense of how it should truly look). Anyway, this 1996 movie must have gotten people interested in seeing more Hameln animated, because later that year a TV series would be aired, though the final product is most definitely the polar opposite of this movie from a production standpoint.

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