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Monday, September 4, 2017

Saint Beast: Seijuu Kourin Hen: You Hooked? Now Buy Our Drama CDs, You Fanatics!

Even though he's been with JAM Project longer than Masami Okui & Yoshiki Fukuyama, Hiroshi Kitadani has often felt like a "secondary" member of the supergroup. This is not me ragging on "Dani", though, because his skills as a singer are right up there with his fellow JAM members. His trio of One Piece theme songs are all excellent & have more than given him a legacy on their own. Not just that, but his legacy of anime & game work as lead singer of the rock band Lapis Lauzli may be small, but their themes for Babel II: Beyond Infinity & the Tough OVA are both great songs, & their vocal covers of Guilty Gear X's soundtrack are absolutely amazing. That being said, Kitdani's only had a single "featuring" song with JAM Project (i.e. JAM backs him up while he sings lead) during his entire tenure so far, & his solo theme song catalog post-One Piece is mostly children's anime (Gaist Crusher, Daigunder, Transformers: SuperLink/Energon) or the occasional tokusatsu series (Kamen Rider Ryuki, Madan Senki Ryukendo), a.k.a. not much most anime fans would readily identify. In fact, one could argue that Kitdani's only other "iconic" solo anisong is for a series that's so obscure that more people would know of its source material than the anime itself!

In the Fall of 2001, a 13-episode series aired in Japan titled Fairy Tale Angel's Tail, better known internationally as simply Angel Tales. In that series, there was a quartet of characters named the Saint Beasts, men who were the reincarnations of the Four Symbols. These four men apparently became rather popular with fans, so when sequel series Angel Tales Chu! (which never saw international release) ran for six weeks throughout March & April of 2003, the Saint Beasts were nowhere to be seen, though they were at least referenced. Instead, following the end of that second season, production company Wonderfarm & anime studio Tokyo Kids (which made the prior two shows) debuted a six-episode spin-off anime series, Saint Beast: Seijuu Kourin Hen/The Descending Holy Beasts Chapter, that ran for the remaining six weeks in the time slot that Chu! was running in. While a spin-off, though, the Saint Beast anime took place in an alternate continuity from that of Angel Tales, so it's (theoretically) friendly for newcomers.

In what was truly an unpredictable move, however, streaming website Viewster announced at New York Comic Con 2015 that it would be offering both Saint Beast & its 2007 follow-up anime with English subtitles for streaming; Viewster also announced both seasons of Meine Liebe at the con. Therefore, to close out the Summer of JAM (later than I had planned, naturally), let's see if the first season of Saint Beast, which from here on I'll refer to under its subtitle, has anything to it... At least, it should have enough to it to warrant making me use my old Xbox 360 in order to watch this show legally, because the only console app Viewster ever put out was for that system.

Gou of the Azure Dragon, Rei of the Crimson Phoenix, Gai of the White Tiger, & Shin of the Black Tortoise are the four Saint Beasts of Heaven, the highest of all angels. When their Goddess senses a dark animal presence coming to Earth & corrupting the reincarnated guardian angels protecting humanity, she orders these four to descend & find out who the culprit is. While getting used to life amongst the humans & taking on angels who stray from the path of God, the Saint Beasts find out that the perpetrators are Judas of the Kirin & Luka of the Phoenix, two Saint Beasts who fell from the grace of God & were sealed away in Hell for centuries. Their seal has recently weakened, & with the help of Shiva, a recent angel who abandoned Heaven for Judas, have decided to get their revenge by corrupting all angels to follow them in place of God.

Since Seijuu Kourin Hen is only six episodes long, I'll give a quick idea of each episode first, since the show is actually semi-episodic. The first episode introduces the four Saint Beasts, explains the basic idea of the overarching storyline, and has them take on their first corrupted angel, Natsuki of the White Snake, who has a friendly past with Gou. Episode 2 has the team locate Kira of the Shooting Star & Maya of the Wind, half-angel brothers who left Heaven to find their human mother on Earth, even if she's since been reincarnated into another form, and assist Maya in making two sisters realize the truth behind what happened to them after their mother passed away. Episode 3 sees the team be given the task of finding Hiro of the Falcon, who's on the verge of corrupting himself due to his yearning to fly with his own wings, which he lost when he got reincarnated. The fourth episode is about Gai & Maya coming across Mio & Rio, the twin angels of Bambi, and having to deal with a mind controlled Rio when she gets corrupted. Finally, the last two episodes link directly together & involve Tsubasa, Ayumi, & Tamami, the three main angels from Angel Tales. Episode 5 has Shiva take advantage of Ayumi's love for Shin in an attempt to take his life, while the finale sees Judas & Luka take advantage of a festival that gathered together the guardian angels from around the area, which the three female angels were going to attend, in order to send them all to Hell & form a mini-army to fight back with.

Look, Judas is only healing a wound on Shin's finger using his
magically-healing kiss... Okay, that's obviously not the case.

While the anime's episodes are generally self-contained, the final two notwithstanding, there are still enough links between each to still create an overall narrative from start to finish. For example, after helping the sisters in Episode 2, the Saint Beasts, Kira, & Maya start living in the mansion the sisters had called home, making it a base of operations-of-sorts for the rest of the show. Really, though, the main focus in this short anime series is characterization, because the overall plot isn't anything special; therefore, let's just get the latter out of the way first. Simply put, this entire anime is nothing more than an extended prologue to the real story that likely got told in the later drama CDs. The development of the individual Saint Beasts is only done sparingly, the story in each self-contained episode is pretty basic & feature characters that are given barely anything to work with, and the finale is anything but final. While I'll refrain some outright spoiling how exactly this anime ends (because that's just how I roll), I will say that the Saint Beasts don't defeat or even fight Judas or Luka; hell, they don't even meet with each other in a direct face-to-face encounter! Not just that, but most of the backstory & reasons as to why Judas & Luka were even sealed away in the first place aren't explicitly brought up until the very end of the last episode, which is mind-boggling. It's obvious that this story is nothing more than set-up for what would come next, but that part of the story isn't animated. It's admittedly kind of interesting, because something like this usually happens with an adaptation that just doesn't want to reach a definitive conclusion, but in this case the anime came first; the drama CDs started coming out a few months afterwards.

That being said, there is still just enough in Seijuu Kourin Hen to not be a total wash; there is just enough in it for something to chew on. The Saint Beasts themselves are relatively simple archetypes, but there is something to be said for "tried & true" standards. Gou is the stoic leader, Rei is a somewhat effeminate & caring person, Shin is the calm & rational one, & Gai is overly-excitable & childlike in his demeanor, making him a perfect match for Maya's similar childishness; Kira, though, does next to nothing in the entire anime. Another bit of characterization comes in the form of some good-old boys love/BL (or shonen-ai, if you prefer), or at least the concept of young men caring for one another very, very strongly. This aspect is actually brought in after a couple of episodes, but becomes a bit of an important element for some characters. Shiva's entire purpose for joining the villains, for example, is simply because he's in love with Judas, which the latter outright admits to Luka is the main reason why he's willing to keep giving Shiva chances after constantly failing. That being said, though, Judas has strong feelings for Shin, which makes Shiva want to kill Shin specifically. In fact, Judas is often shown as being intensely benevolent  & caring to all in the past, like accepting Kira & Maya in Heaven when everyone else ostracized them, which makes all the heroes really want to doubt that he's the one behind the corruption of the guardian angels. The BL aspect is definitely the biggest appeal in the Saint Beast franchise as a whole for fans, and while it doesn't do anything for me, I will admit that it is easily the strongest piece of storytelling that it has, because it does give meaning to a lot of what happens.

Up until its dissolution in 2008, Tokyo Kids was more or less your standard anime studio, so it's not surprising that this series was directed by Harume Kosaka (Kaze no Shojo Emily, Gokujo!! Mecha Mote Iincho), who's an episode director more often than an overall director. The end result is animation that gets the job done & generally looks solid, but it's also easy to see where corners were cut & limited animation tricks rear their heads; nothing special, but nothing bad, either. Interestingly enough, though, Episodes 2 & 4 were storyboarded by Junji Nishimura (director of Ranma 1/2, Windy Tales); just a fun little bit of neat trivia, nothing more. When it comes to the writing's problems, especially when it comes to stuff like characterization & simplistic storytelling, we can easily put the majority of the blame on one person here. That would be Kei Arisugawa, a planner at Wonderfarm who was not only head writer for this anime (i.e. series composition), but is also credited as the "Original Creator" of Saint Beast as a whole. In that regard, I can only hope that this isn't a complete indication of Arisugawa's talent as a writer, because this franchise would wind up going for about a decade, so one would guess that there was something more to this than just BL to make fangirls squee (fangirls still "squee" all these years later, right?).

When it comes to character designs & music, the anime bizarrely doesn't go the traditional route like most productions. Instead of an actual "character designer", it instead only credits manga artist & illustrator Sakura Asagi (Shonen Onmyouji, Gundam Wing: Frozen Teardrop), who did the original design work for the characters; whether or not she actually adapted them for animation is a complete mystery. As for the music, the anime outright doesn't credit anyone at all, but by finding the OST's listing over at Amazon Japan I was able to discover that it was done by Yoshinobu Hiraiwa (A.D. Police [TV], Cosplay Complex), who also did the music for the first season of Angel Tales. I have no idea why his work isn't credited in any way, but it's more than decent for the show, with a nice mix of instruments to help give some variety, and some appropriately angelic-sounding songs, too; not a truly memorable soundtrack, but it's not ill-fitting in any way, either. The opening theme is "Seinaru Kemonotachi" by Hiroshi Kitadani, which is a honestly the gem of the entire soundtrack, with a great sense of grandeur to it that helps make the Saint Beasts themselves come off as impressive & great. The fact that Hironobu Kageyama composed it no doubt helps, too; this song was made after Kitadani joined JAM, after all. For the ending theme, the anime does something interesting by having a different one for each episode. In turn, the songs used are simply the character songs for each of the Saint Beasts as well as Kira & Maya, and they run the gamut from fast-paced rock songs to slow & impassioned ballads.

Obviously, with this meant to help promote (then) upcoming drama CDs, the voice work would have to be top notch, as that's the entire purpose of a drama CD, and the anime does deliver on that note well. Gou is voiced by Toshiyuki Morikawa, whose deep voice fits the leader of the Saint Beasts well; he's a perfect stoic lead. Rei is performed by Kouki Miyata (Nataku in Soul Hunter, Terufumi Sugimoto in Yowamushi Pedal), and his higher-pitched performance matches the effeminate nature of the character, though his serious moments don't falter in any way. Gai is voiced by Hiroyuki Yoshino (Okuyama in Ajin: Demi-Human, Heisuke in Hakuoki), and his high-pitched, yet notably gravely, voice not just fits his character well, but also helps make him the most memorable in terms of vocal identity. Finally for the leads, Shin is voiced by Takahiro Sakurai, who delivers his usual performance, and it fits for the calm, cool, & collected member of the group. Kira & Maya are done by Takahiro Sakurai & Kenichi Suzumura (Okita in Gintama, Shinn in Gundam Seed Destiny), respectively, and while Sakurai's performance is so subdued that I almost mistook him for Takehito Koyasu (it doesn't help that Kira says so little in this show...), Suzumura is a good fit for the younger & more childish Maya. Finally, the villains are rounded out with Shinichiro Miki (Luka), Akira Ishida (Judas), & Kousuke Toriumi (Shiva), who all do solid jobs, as well; it is rare to hear Ishida voice a villain, which is neat.

The anime DVDs only feature two characters
at a time, so here's the fan disk cover art.

An anime that doesn't have a conclusive finale to it due to it catching up on the manga, or the companies involved were hoping to simply make a second season, isn't exactly surprising or impossible to happen; it's not ideal, but it's always possible. Saint Beast: Seijuu Kourin Hen, though, is most curious about executing itself like this, simply because this was the very first production. While it is a spin-off of Angel Tales, this is an alternate continuity, so it has to manage to stand on its own, while also doing its job as a an extended prologue to the main story that the drama CDs would go on to tell. In those regards, this Saint Beast anime manages to do a bit above average, because its concept as a prologue is a little too awkwardly done, and some more bits of character development would have been welcomed, not to mention simply throwing the basic backstory of the villains at the very end. That being said, it's still not terrible, as the Saint Beasts themselves have good chemistry, the villains have an interesting relationship & backstory to them, & the BL elements actually help give the most interesting bits of character development, as little as there is.

Sadly, one can't advance further into the story without relying on the drama CDs, which is just not an option to most international anime fans, myself included. Still, we can go back into the past & see if we can find out just how everything got to this point, because the other two Saint Beast anime that were produced are both prequels. Up first is a two-episode OVA that, sadly, Viewster did not get a hold of for streaming, so look forward to that review.

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