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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Tales of Eternia the Animation: Padding, Padding, Paaaadding... Padding, Padding, Paaaadding!

With the departure of Rica Matsumoto back in 2008, Masami Okui is now the sole female member of JAM Project, but in some ways is actually the most prolific of them all. Aside from having been in the anisong industry since 1993, though she wouldn't get an iconic (solo) anime until 1997's Revolutionary Girl Utena, Okui has also worked on theme songs for a bunch of anime that she didn't even sing for. Titles like Grenadier, Solty Rei, Ayakashi (the visual novel adaptation, not the horror anthology series), & Kanokon all feature songs that Okui either composed, wrote the lyrics to, or did both for, not to mention that she's done the same for a good majority of JAM's own songs; she's likely done more than Hironobu Kageyama, in fact. Back during JAM Project March I decided to review Ray the Animation, which was the first & only time Masami Okui has ever composed the entire soundtrack for an anime (an experience that she wouldn't mind doing again one day, she admitted). For the Summer of JAM, my choice for review isn't quite as extensive with Okui's musicianship skills, but it's still an example of Okui (more or less) making her own theme songs.

Tales of Eternia was the third main entry in the Tales Series, & fourth entry overall, debuting in Japan on the PlayStation on November 30, 2000. It eventually saw release in North America the following September, where it was renamed Tales of Destiny II (after the prior console entry), supposedly due to the worry of Mattel potentially suing over the use of the term "Eternia", which is the name of the world in the Masters of the Universe franchise; this wasn't a problem in Europe & Australia when the PSP port would be released in 2006. This SO wouldn't cause confusion when Tales of Destiny 2, the actual sequel to ToD, would see release in Japan in late 2002 on the PS2; note the use of an Arabic numeral, because it's literally that important for differentiation. Anyway, Eternia was a notably successful entry in Japan, because just two months after release saw the debut of a TV anime based on the game, simply titled Tales of Eternia the Animation. Unlike later anime takes on the Tales Series, though, the Eternia anime was a side story that didn't interfere with the game's overall story in any way. Considering how intertwined this RPG series has been with anime, is the first Tales anime a good first step, or is it just as superfluous in the grand scheme of things as its plot?

Inferia & Celestia are two worlds mirroring each other, with the vast sky between them. Ever since the "Aurora War" ended 2,000 years ago, the two worlds have had no contact with each other, but some have noticed that the two worlds will come crashing together; the event is called the Grand Fall. With Inferia taking it as a threat of war, Reid Hershel, Farah Oersted, & Keele Zeibel, three Infernians, along with Meredy, a Celestian who crashed landed on Inferia to warn of the Fall, have taken it upon themselves to make it to Celestia to stop both war & the Fall. During their journey, though, a bounty hunter named Marone Bulkarno has kidnapped Reid & taken him to Verka Island, a tropical land that Marone has a personal connection with. Though starting with simple intentions, the truth of the matter is that Reid & his friends have been brought to Verka by fate, as they must find out how the island relates to a mysterious group of worshipers for Nereid, God of Destruction, & a Celestian machine called "The Chain of Existence".

Since I haven't played the original game, after checking a FAQ it looks like Tales of Eternia the Animation takes place about 1/3 into the main game's story, as the party has Undine, Sylph, & Efreet with them as summonable Greater Spirits (Craymels in the official game translation), and they're heading to Mt. Farlos in order to make the trip to Celestia. In order to acclimate newcomers who are going into the anime relatively blind (*raises hand*), the first three episodes do feature flashbacks that introduce how everyone met up & why they're on their adventure via short dream sequences, which actually are done fairly well & don't really intrude too much. The anime also doesn't try to simply rush into the main story revolving around Verka, instead focusing first on one-&-dones that do help give some character development for the main cast, like Reid's aloofness, Farah's straightforwardness, Keele's inability to handle the female form, or Meredy's sheer innocence. It likely isn't much for those who played the game, but it's welcome for anime-first journeyers.

The anime also utilizes a group of original characters to help establish the "world" of Verka (& it's capital Verkaniu) & tell it's main story. Marone is easily the best of the cast, and maybe a little too much of an ideal character, having both Reid & Farah's special attacks (plus a couple of her own), her own tamed dragon, & even a killer singing voice for one moment. Still, she's instantly likable & she does mix in with the main cast well. Colina is a (less-than-stellar) bard who is similar to Meredy in how honestly innocent she behaves, but overall is more or less just a minor comic relief. Then there are Excia (the leader of the island), Platia (owner of the inn the heroes stay at), & Minima (a merchant who sells next to anything, seemingly), whose involvement helps out for things like explaining Verkanian culture & adding some noteworthy characters to help save, though they do have more importance in the second half. Luckily, the anime-exclusive characters help give this side story just enough more to keep this from feeling completely superfluous.

Now I did mention the "one-&-done" stories that the anime utilizes, but this show takes the use of them to a bit of a ridiculous extreme, because the actual story doesn't really start up until past Episode 8. Before that point are a scattering of moments that do vaguely hint at there being an actual trio of antagonists, & Episodes 6 & 7 do at least give the main story a small push towards moving forward before finally starting up for the rest of the show, but there's no denying that the Eternia anime has a major problem with padding. To be fair, this isn't wasting time on the level of something like AWOL, but this is actually somewhat similar to the experience I had watching Gni-Iro no Olynssis, which likewise had a first half comprised of mostly just dawdling around, with some minor overall story development, before suddenly moving into the main story. Thankfully for Eternia, this anime manages to still rise above Olynssis for two main reasons. First, the characters actually have personalities & are enjoyable to watch, even if the episode itself contributes next to nothing in the grand scheme of things; for example, seeing Farah & Marone actually become friends over time is nice & believable. Second, Eternia's climactic storyline actually has gravitas & a real sense of importance, tying this into the backstory of the game's world nicely, & the character revelations make sense; okay, Colina's importance kind of comes out of nowhere, but that's really it. Still, this anime likely would have flowed more smoothly & focused had it been a shorter OVA series, but what's done is done.

Tales of Eternia the Animation was actually a co-production between Xebec & Production I.G., so it's no surprise that the show directed by Shigeru Ueda (Elemental Gelade, RIN - Daughters of Mnemosyne) honestly holds up rather well visually to this day. Though there is an episode or two where the characters' faces are a little dodgy (mainly for the incidental ones, however), overall the show has plenty of very nice animation & feels like it was given some nice care & attention. In terms of the writing headed up by Hiroyuki Kawasaki (Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Gundam X), it's generally solid, keeping the leads likable & relatable, & though the padding is a bit much there isn't really a "bad" episode among the bunch. If anything, I would have liked to see some bits of character development for the anime-exclusive characters interspersed throughout the series, instead of being saved all for the climactic episodes. The game's character designs were done by Mutsumi Inomata, and for adapting into animation the job was given to Meiju Maeda (Love Hina Again), who does a good job, & I do wonder if Inomata initially designed the Verkanian characters, because they mix in just fine visually.

Similarly, the game's music was co-composed by Motoi Sakuraba & Shinji Tamura (both Tales standards), but the anime gave the reigns over to Takanori Arisawa (Digimon Adventure through Frontier, 90s Sailor Moon). The end result is, from what I can tell, a mix of original compositions & new arrangements of some of the game's music, and this results in a bit of a clash. Arisawa's original songs are nice & very fitting for the setting & moments they're used for, but the best pieces from the anime's soundtrack are the arrangement of Sakuraba & Tamura's music. Nothing against Arisawa's style, but he clashes greatly against the game's duo, which in turn kind of makes the anime composer's work feel comparatively "standard" when put alongside the game's more fast-paced & exciting tracks. Another change comes in the form of the theme songs, as the anime does not use the game's themes, which were opener "flying" by Garnet Crow & closer "eighteen" by New Cinema Tokage (which was replaced by an instrumental version of "flying" for the PSP port). Instead, we have Masami Okui's contributions, opening theme "Sora ni Kakeru Hashi" & ending theme "I'd Love You to Touch Me", to which Okui did the lyrics, composition, & performing herself; the arrangements were done by other people. Simply put, they're both very good, with the OP probably being one of Okui's most underappreciated theme songs ever, possibly even being better than the game's OP. The ED is a much simpler ballad, but being put to footage highlighting Farah's slow-to-move romantic feelings for Reid is a nice touch.

The cast brings back the game's cast for the main quartet, so Akira Ishida, Omi Minami, Soichiro Hoshi, & Yuko Minaguchi voice Reid, Farah, Keele, & Meredy, respectively. In turn, they all fit their characters perfectly, delivering plenty of personality, though having already gotten used to the characters through the game helps a lot. Following them in sheer quality of performance is the legendary Megumi Hayashibara, whose Marone is absolutely pitch perfect & gives the bounty hunter the style & panache she is meant to have. Colina is voiced by the well-versed Yui Horie, who makes the obvious comic relief amusing but never truly annoying, even with the character's constant use of the super-polite "desu" at the end of every sentence she says. The rest of the major cast is rounded out with Kotono Mitsuishi (Excia), Rumi Kasahara (Platia), Tomoe Hanba (Minima), Tetsu Inada (Efreet), Miki Machii (Sylph), & Eiji Maruyama (Narrator), all of which sound fine. In fact, Maruyama's narration is interesting because he finishes out each episode with essentially a "tune in next time!" sound bit, which rarely happens in anime, especially after 2000.

Finally, to end with a fun bit of trivia, Tales of Eternia the Animation was in fact licensed back in the day, but never actually came out in North America. I covered this way back in 2012, but Media Blasters actually announced at Anime Expo 2002 that it had plans to release the anime, alongside announcements for titles like Seven of Seven, Iria - Zeiram the Animation, Space Pirate Mito, & Gun Frontier. While all of those series eventually saw release (& all but the first I listed have since been license rescued), nothing ever came about for the very first Tales anime. While there has never been any sort of reason given as to why the release never happened, it's very likely that MB didn't want to change the name, unlike what Namco had to do with the game. To be honest, I can completely understand that, because calling the game "Destiny II" already made it sound too related to the prior game, which is wasn't in any way (minus the staff), and that would only be compounded by having to use that name for a release of the anime side story. It really does help give some clout to the theory of Mattel's trademark for the term "Eternia" screwing over the game's title, and it could have very well halted the anime's release. Even today, with the Tales Series being a rather successful franchise outside of Japan now, I doubt we'll ever see this first anime be given a second attempt, though we never did receive the various Tales of Symphonia OVAs, either, and that game was highly successful.

Similar to éX-Driver, Tales of Eternia the Animation was an early anime fansub for me, it was in fact one of my earliest, so I was curious to give it another go for the Summer of JAM. Also similar to that anime, my feelings towards it are more or less the same as they were over a decade ago; it's decently enjoyable, but not exactly a "classic". When the Eternia anime gets to the second half & tells its main storyline, it's honestly fairly good, with a likable cast, fitting music, & a proper escalation of stakes. It's admittedly a bit standard & easy to guess certain elements, but I'll always argue that there's nothing wrong with executing a predictable story well; just because it's different & "original" doesn't mean that it's automatically better. Unfortunately, you have to get through the first half to get to the main story, and it's sadly just a strong amount of padding out the runtime. That being said, though, I'll take Eternia over a series like Gin-Iro no Olynssis, because the padding still involves good characters taking part in mostly fun & enjoyable (if, again, a bit standard) one-&-dones. Sure, the writing could have doled out the development for the anime-exclusive characters, especially Marone & Colina, in bits & pieces during the first half, instead of holding it all for the last few episodes, but at least there's still something to chew on, even if it's on a diet level. Following this anime, future Tales anime would either directly adapt the specific game (Phantasia, Symphonia, the Abyss) or act as direct prequels (Vesperia), so one can at least argue that lessons were learned from the Eternia experiment.

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