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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Arc the Lad: Sing Me a Song of a Lad That's Wanted by the World!

While I wouldn't consider myself to be a truly identifiable "anime fan" until 2004, when I started following the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime via fansubs, I had already been a fan to some minor extent before then. I'd say that I first started knowing what "anime" was back when Digimon Adventure, Ultimate Muscle, & Escaflowne were airing on FoxKids & Kids WB, and I became more of a fan when I found Toonami via G Gundam in 2002. But it wasn't until 2003 that I decided that I really wanted to own an anime on home video, and much like how I originally got into JoJo's Bizarre Adventure back in 1999 because of the Dreamcast port of Capcom's 2D fighting game, my first anime DVD purchase was because of a video game.

When Sony debuted the PlayStation in Japan in late 1994, one thing the system needed in its home country was a killer RPG. That would come in June of 1995, when Arc the Lad saw release; it'd become the best-selling Japanese PS1 game that year, at ~1.11 million copies sold. What's most surprising is that it wasn't really a complete game, as developer G-Craft (Front Mission), later Arc Entertainment, had loftier plans, but knew that it wouldn't get the game out in time, so it was decided to split the game into two, with the first title really being more of a prologue to the REAL plot. Arc the Lad II came out in Japan November of 1996, also selling over a million copies, & told a truly epic (& tragic) tale that, sadly, didn't see international release at the time... Though not for a lack of trying. You see, as soon as the first game was announced, Victor Ireland wanted his company Working Designs to bring it over into English, but Sony Computer Entertainment of America played hardball, denying the idea because of how it was a strictly 2D game, which SCEA wanted to downplay in light of the PS1's polygon-pushing capabilities. In the end, it wouldn't be until April of 2002 that Working Designs finally released the game, but only as part of a giant Arc the Lad Collection that contained Arc I, Arc II, spin-off monster battling game Arc Arena: Monster Tournament, & 1999's Arc the Lad III.

At that time, the release was very hyped, & I made sure I got that collection as soon as it came out. I wound up loving the hell out of the release, though I never did finish Arc II (got to the final dungeon, though) or even play Arc III. Then, one day at my local Best Buy, I came across the anime section & saw a DVD boxset for an Arc the Lad anime; to say that I got excited about it would be an understatement. Anyway, this was a 26-episode TV adaptation of Arc II that originally aired in Japan throughout 1999 via satellite network WOWOW, and ADV would release the anime across six dub-only VHS tapes & six dual-audio DVDs throughout 2001, & the collection I saw came out in mid-2003; the Arc the Lad Collection was originally announced in 2000, so ADV likely tried to take advantage of that. As soon as I could save up the money, I bought that boxset & watched every episode, first via the dub & then about a year or so later via the original Japanese audio (with English subtitles, of course).

So now, roughly 15 years later, how will I feel about my first anime purchase? I still own that boxset, so it's finally time to take it off the shelf & pop those discs back in... They should still work just fine, right?

Who's a good monster dog?
Why you're a good monster dog, yes you are!

Elk is a young man who used to live in Pilka, a village that venerated the Spirit of Fire, but one day the village was attacked by forces, resulting in the death of everyone except Elk, who was in turn taken to a mysterious lab called White House, due to his ability to control fire at such a young age. After a few years, Elk escaped White House, only to be found in the desert by Shu, a for-hire "Hunter" who takes him in & raises Elk to become a Hunter himself. Now, five years later, Elk is assigned a job to rescue an airship from a hostage situation, only to come across a girl named Lieza, who can control monsters like the wolf-ish Pandit, and a mutated human called a Chimera that comes from White House. This marks the start of Elk's battle against an evil he had no idea even existed, putting him face-to-face with "Arc the Lad", a supposed terrorist who flies around in the Silver Noah, the airship that Elk remembers bringing destruction to his village all those years ago.

For those curious, & going off of memory, the Arc the Lad anime adapts the plot of Arc the Lad II rather closely, hitting the major plot beats very accurately, but only up to a certain point. About a quarter (or third) into the game, the cast heads over to White House, which is the halfway point of the anime. At this point, the anime diverges into its own story, and aside from simply not wanting to outright spoil the plot of the game, I'd imagine that the change in story for the anime is mainly due to the tone of the game's story. You see, Arc the Lad II is not really your standard "save the world" RPG plot, in which the heroes take on seemingly insurmountable odds in order to protect the world from evil. Sure, that is the basic idea of the plot, but what the people behind the story of the game did was make the goal of "saving the world" truly herculean. For every step forward the heroes would make towards defeating the ultimate evil, they'd either wind up being forced to take another two steps back, or they'd nearly die or fail at their current mission, if not literally getting others (both allies & innocents) killed in the process. In fact, the ending of Arc the Lad II isn't exactly a happy one; at best, it's bittersweet. I'd imagine that, when looking to see how to adapt the game into an anime series, it was decided to move away from the consistently downbeat & dour tone, though it's not as though the anime suddenly becomes happy & always hopeful by any means. Whether or not that immediately ruins the anime is down to personal opinion, but I fully understand why it was likely done.

Yeah, I'd look like that too after puking, following
something horrific having just appeared in front of my face.

At the same time, however, Arc the Lad differs from most anime based on RPGs in one very notable way: It de-emphasizes action, & instead focuses on dramatic storytelling. This is not to say that RPG-based anime are primarily action-filled, but there does tend to be a larger focus on maintaining some sense of conflict, if not featuring an outright battle, in most adaptations, likely because battling is a notable aspect of most RPGs, regardless of whether a game utilizes a turn-based or real-time combat system. Even a series like Tales of Eternia the Animation, which focused heavily on episodic storytelling for the most part, still made sure that each episode had a climax that featured some sort of conflict that had to be dealt with. In comparison, Arc the Lad often has episodes that feature little to no action in them, instead simply dealing with the drama & character moments. While that does result in the anime feeling a tad slow at times, it also can result in some situations that stay true to the somber & tragic nature of the original game. Episodes 12 & 13 in particular, when Elk finally makes it back to White House, are an especially strong example of this, even executing an effective use of, I kid you not, puking for dramatic effect. I know that sounds a bit weird, but in proper context it makes perfect sense.

It's also notable to bring up that this anime doesn't really make it a priority to give major focus to every single character that can make up your party in Arc the Lad II, with only Elk, Lieza, & occasionally Shu being given the lion's share of attention. In comparison, supporting character Chante only appears in two episodes (& always alongside Shu), robot ally Gequbec & country leader Gruga literally only appear for a single episode each, with Gruga being effectively a completely different character & Gequbec's final form only seen as a silhouette, & country heir Sania isn't even seen at all, as her introduction happens after the point in the game where the anime diverges; doesn't stop Sania's country from being brought up at one point, though. In comparison, Arc & his allies are all accounted for, minus optional bonus character Choko, but aside from a short appearance early on don't play a major part of the story until they & Elk finally team up at the end of the first half. This results in the entire first half of the anime focusing solely on Elk, Lieza, & Pandit, which would help explain why action is de-emphasized, as only Elk is really a battle-capable character. though Pandit really doesn't get enough time show his ice breath ability. At least this does give us good time with the leads, showing Elk's dogged determination & willingness to see beyond a situation (expect for when it comes to Arc), Lieza's compassionate heart & willingness to put herself in danger if it's truly the only real option, & even Shu's selflessness, even if he's generally much more secretive than the others. Once the second half starts, the story shifts focus slightly to allow more time for Arc & his cohorts, so we start to see things like Arc's calm & benevolent demeanor, Toshu's strict but caring actions, Poco's never-ending kindness, & Kukuru's conflict between wanting to join Arc in battle & knowing that she has to stay behind to continue sealing the ultimate evil away.

As for the villains, we get a tale of two halves, with a third player slowly making his moves all throughout. The first half has Galuano, the mayor of Aldia who secretly started up White House & is obviously only a cog in a larger machine, though he has bigger goals of his own; he works fine for the episodes he's used in, but you can tell he's not a major player. The second half moves things over to Andel, the minister-turned-ruler of Sumeria who's Arc main villain, seeing as he's the man who killed the King of Sumeria, Arc's uncle, & branded Arc as a traitor to the country. Where Galuano is more of a passive villain, hoping to react to Arc's actions, Andel is definitely more calculating, creating situations that Arc has to respond to. Behind both of them, however, is the man who's really the primary villain of the anime, Clive. While technically playing the role of a supporting villain, Clive really is just using that position to make his moves in secret, especially when he's shown to have more abilities & talents than he's initially introduced as being capable of. To be fair, the anime does also feature more villains from the game, like General Yagun, but they only make occasional appearances & mostly just talk of doing things or are simply referred to by other characters. I get why they're included, which is to fill out the "Shitenoh/Four Heavenly Kings" concept for the villains that the game had, but to simply not use two of them in any truly notable way is a misstep, without a doubt.

The Arc the Lad anime was the second ever production lead by Bee Train, the anime studio founded by Koichi Mashimo which made its debut with 1998's Popolocrois Monogatari, & seeing as its third anime would be Wild Arms: Twilight Venom, the studio kind of got its start doing RPG adaptations. Unfortunately, Bee Train has never been known for delivering stunning animation, and this anime shows that it was always like that for Mashimo's studio. While it's never downright embarrassingly bad, there are plenty of moments where a character gets an awkward-looking face, usually from further than close range, and the fact that the story de-emphasizes action kind of inadvertently results in most action scenes being only decent, at best. Another notable aspect of the visuals are the character designs by Yoko Kikuchi (Noir, El Cazador de la Bruja), who actually made her design debut with this anime. In particular, Kikuchi's style has an interesting way of drawing noses, where from a side profile they look easily defined (& rather pointy), but from a straight forward perspective are actually more defined by their shadows than anything, well, nose-like. As Kikuchi would go on to work on some more well known anime during the 00s, her design style went on to become a bit of a divisive one, but personally I don't mind it. At the very least, it does keep the shows she worked on at the time easily identifiable, and today she's refined it more to the point where the "defined by shadow" aspect has been lessened drastically.

Ah, Celendia, I see you're a fan of "Casual Gunplay".

The anime also marked the TV directorial debut for Itsuro Kawasaki, an animator, storyboarder, & episode director who had previously only been in charge of two short OVAs (Slime Daibouken & Jikuu Bouken Nuumamonjaa) up to this point. Twenty years later, Kawasaki has become a relatively consistent & reliable director, mostly recently directing The Morose Mononokean II this past January & set to direct the upcoming Shin Chuuka Ichiban! anime, and he does show that potential here. Even with the animation sometimes not elevating beyond average at times, & the pacing sometimes feeling a bit slow, the storytelling, framing, character moments, & drama manage to rise above all of that, with Kawaski's direction, the writing lead by Akemi Omode (Android Kikaider the Animation, GetBackers), & the music by Michiru Oshima (Fullmetal Alchemist [2003], The Tatami Galaxy) all working in concert rather well. This doesn't make the show a "classic" by any means, but it is a better whole than you'd think; also, props to the final episode for pulling a fun ED sequence fake-out. The opening theme is the same as the video game's iconic theme song composed by Masahiro Ando, the leader of jazz fusion band T-Square also known for doing the music to every single Arc the Lad & Gran Turismo game, which honestly just works extremely well as the theme song to a TV series; it is worth nothing that the anime's arrangement is based on Arc the Lad III's opening, not Arc II.

As for the two ending themes, they're both done by NiNa, a very short-lived multinational J-Pop group featuring vocalist Yuki Isoya (of Judy & Mary), backing vocalist Kate Pierson (of The B-52s), bassist Mick Karn (of Japan), Takemi Shima & Masahide Sakuma (of The Plastics), and legendary session drummer Steven Wolf. First theme "Happy Tomorrow", which was also the opening theme to J-Drama Kanojo-tachi no Jidai the same year, is a bit of a more upbeat song, which actually clashes well with the basic footage it's matched with, which shows Elk, Lieza, Kukuru, & Arc either downed or bloodied & just barely able to stand after a hard-fought battle. Meanwhile, second theme "Rest in Peace" is an interesting song in that it's spoken-word elegy for the verses, while traditional ballad for the bridge & chorus; if nothing else, it fits the general mood of the second half rather well. It's always interesting when American & English music artists get involved with anime in some fashion, and the fact that NiNa had such an eclectic mix of people makes it kind of sad that the group only ever produced a single album in 1999.

As for the Japanese voice cast, while a trio of seiyuu returned from the video games, it's mainly filled with brand new recastings. In terms of reprisals, Arc is voiced by Hiro Yuuki, Toshu is voiced by Nobuyuki Hiyama, & Shu is voiced by Shuicihi Ikeda, and all three fit their characters well, from Yuuki's calm & wise leader to Hiyama going a bit against type with a generally deeper vocal delivery (though his iconic voice comes through during battle) to Ikeda's signature voice conveying both experience & mystery for the ninja-like Hunter; if you want to be picky, Cara Jones also "reprised" her role as Chante's singing voice for one early episode. As for everyone else, Elk is voiced by Daisuke Namikawa, in what is one of his earliest leading roles, though his performance here shows that his voice has been the same ever since the beginning, making it sound familiar to anyone who would watch this anime today. Similarly, Lieza is played by Yui Horie, in what is one of her earliest leading roles, and she's likewise easy to recognize & fits the character well. Finally, for the major heroes, Kukuru is voiced by Yuko Mizutani, and while she's not mainly seen until the second half, she does a good job showing the conflict in Kukuru's heart, & a knowledge that makes her a wise maiden. As for the villains, we have Hiroshi Iwaski (Bacchus in Rage of Bahamut) as Galuano, Katsuhisa Houki (Paragus in Dragon Ball Super: Broly) as Andel, & Nobuo Tobita as Clive, and they all deliver fitting performances for each of the them, matching their own individual personas well. The rest of the Japanese cast is rounded out by the likes of Rika Sugimura (Chante), Wasabi Mizuta (Poco), Hiroshi Naka (Gorgon), Shinpachi Tsuji (Chongala & Spirit of Flame), & Takeshi Uchida (Paundit).

The English dub, however, is notable for being one of the very few times ADV Films ever outsourced its dubs, with Arc the Lad being done by Bang Zoom! Entertainment. Because of this, though, the dub is actually filled with numerous iconic voice actors who worked (& still work) in the California area, making it considerably different in feel than your usual ADV dub of the time. Elk is voiced by Joshua Seth (Tai in Digimon, Joe Shimamura/009 in Cyborg 009 [2001]), and his easily-identifiable voice works well for the lead, to be honest. Lieza is played by Dorothy Elias-Fahn, who fits even better than Seth does for Elk. Meanwhile, Arc & Kukuru are performed by Steve Staley & Wendee Lee, and they likewise do good jobs, even if Lee is only heard so often, even in the second half. The iconic Steve Blum is also all over this dub in various secondary & bit roles, like Iga, Elk's Father, & even Pandit (which just makes me imagine Blum being stuck in a booth for multiple takes, being told to deliver dog sounds better). Dave Mallow voices Shu, and while his performance here feels a bit stiff at times, the voice itself works just fine. The dub also features other legendary voice actors, like Barbara Goodson (various bit roles), Mona Marshall (Poco), Tom Wyner (Chongala & Andel), Derek Stephen Prince (Gene), the late Tony Pope (Galuano), Kirk "Sparky" Thornton (Toshu), Lex Lang (Jack), & Beau Billingslea (Spirit of Flame). Of course, since this wasn't a union dub, that means that a lot of the cast performed under their aliases, so Blum is David Lucas, Staley is Steve Cannon, Elias-Fahn is Dorothy Melendez, etc., & even the late Bob Papenbrook had a bit role under his legendary John Smallberries name.

Remember when anime DVDs only had 3 episodes on them?
Yeah, that's what the first two DVDs for this anime had... 2001, people.

Some people, whether on purpose or by accident, wind up putting some of their earliest experiences with something on a pedestal, letting their nostalgia for it take over whether or not it was actually any good. I've actually made an effort to go back to some of my earliest anime that I saw after really getting into the medium & give them reviews with fresh eyes (like Tales of Eternia the Animation, B't X, & Eat-Man), & I plan to continue doing that with time, because I think it's fair to see how I've changed. Luckily, I haven't changed too much (i.e. I guess I'm a pretty boring guy), so I remember when a show wasn't anything amazing or when a show was amazing, but at the same time I don't ignore when something admittedly isn't anything on the whole, but has lots of potential. In the end, that's how I feel about the Arc the Lad anime, as its visuals aren't anything to really write about, while as an adaptation it really stops trying to be that around the half way point, and even before then de-emphasized certain characters to the point where they're just cameos for fans of the games. That being said, the anime still is notable for focusing primarily on the dramatic, rather than the action, with the writing generally being solid, the music very fitting, and overall it does manage to rise (enough) above its flaws. I'm not saying that Arc the Lad is anything amazing or a "hidden gem", but I still had a generally good time giving this anime a new re-watch after ~15 years, and I'm still happy to have that ADV boxset in my collection.

Yep, the anime's last shot is to hint for a second season
that never got made... Oops.

If nothing else, watching this anime has made me want to give the games another go... Which I'm sure was the entire intention of the anime in the first place, so bravo; mission accomplished.

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting article, as always. I agree that your earliest experiences do often end up being put on a pedestal, but hey, as you said sometimes they still hold up.