Slayers: Return Review
With this release by ADV Films, avid Slayers fans in the UK can at long last get their fix. Slayers: Return, albeit the second of no less than five films based in this particularly wacky fantasy universe, marks the first R2 DVD release of anything Slayers-related. The good news for Lina and Naga aficionados is that the UK branch of ADV Films plans to follow the lead of its US parent company and is expected to release the final three OVAs [original video animations] – Slayers: Great, Slayers: Gorgeous, and Slayers: Excellent, respectively – to the British market in the relatively near future. Curiously, the very first film (Slayers: The Motion Picture, a.k.a. Slayers: Perfect) seems to have been deleted from ADV's back catalogue and I'm not certain whether they plan a re-release any time soon.
However, I may be getting ahead of myself here. While Slayers was a massive animé phenomenon back in the mid-90s, it has dropped off the radar somewhat in the intervening decade, so perhaps a quick recap is in order. Originally a set of manga [Japanese comics] by Hajime Kanzaka (whose second best-known work is Lost Universe) and Rui Araizumi, the story was quickly snapped up by TV Tokyo and made into a popular television series in 1995... which then spawned two more seasons of TV mayhem and the aforementioned gaggle of feature-length productions. The core concept is simple but appealing: 'Why should fantasy shows bother to abide by the rules of epic fantasy?' (In other words, instead of Excalibur, why not The Princess Bride?)
In many ways a direct response to the more serious style of fantasy animé being pursued during the preceding years (Record of Lodoss War being an obvious case in point), if Lodoss is akin to a heavy sesh of proper D&D, then Slayers is the same game after everyone's had a bit to drink, started cracking jokes at the host's expense, and more or less forgot the whole point of the current quest other than that it involved an elf named Egbert and a pair of dodgy enchanted knickers. On the other hand, while Slayers is comedic fantasy, it has its limits; though happy to tip over a few sacred cows here and there, the show doesn't actually explode them in the way that Shrek or Gokudo does. After all, however much slapstick the average instalment of Slayers is crammed with, at its heart Lina and Company really believe they are heroes. (So what if they're delusional?)
But just who are these people? OK, here's all you need to know to make sense of the Slayers films/OVAs: 1, there's this short, greedy, irascible, gluttonous, flat-chested, incredibly-powerful sorceress named Lina Inverse; 2, she gets saddled with a tall, greedy, self-aggrandising, gluttonous, preposterously well-endowed travelling companion named Naga the Serpent, who is also a sorceress (but one clearly not in Lina's league, despite Naga's convictions to the contrary); and 3, the two of them operate more or less as magical sellswords... but woe unto anyone who hires them, for Lina and Naga (in the time honoured animé tradition of such two-woman teams as Kei and Yuri of Dirty Pair) cause epic levels of destruction wherever they go, often laying waste to their employers' demesnes in the process of taking out whatever baddie they've been hired to deal with.
While most fans are of the opinion that the TV series is generally superior to the films, this is not to say that Slayers: Return isn't a fun little romp nonetheless. After all, there's a definite appeal in an encapsulated Slayers story that only lasts 60 minutes and is pursued with much higher production values than the TV series' budget would permit. More to the point, the movies are a great way to ease yourself in if you're a newcomer to the Slayers universe, as the cast is simplified to just a core dynamic between Lina and Naga and the one-off situations they find themselves in are pretty straightforward plots.
This particular instalment sees the gals trying to free the village of Biaz from the slavery of the, erm, two-man world-domination outfit of Zein (they summon huge demons to control the townsfolk, OK?). In case you're wondering, no, Lina and Naga aren't helping out of the goodness of their hearts. (Don't be silly.) As it turns out, what Zein – and, by extension, our favourite pair of sorceresses – is after is an ancient Elvish artefact buried nearby for centuries but recently unearthed by a landslide. I won't ruin the ending for anyone, but this artefact turns out to be a lot more than anyone bargained for... even the redoubtable Lina Inverse!
In the final assessment, however, I'm not convinced Slayers: Return really shines. While we do get to meet a few interesting 'throwaway' characters in this hour-long adventure, it's a bit of a shame that the last quarter or so is dominated by what is essentially a huge, semi-pointless chase scene. The laughs don't really come as fast and thick in this film as in the parts of the TV series and other OVAs I've seen, and while the actual story is somewhat better constructed than the average Slayers episode, there's essentially no character development to speak of. In fact, it's a little hard to imagine that this was directed by the same man who's helmed the likes of Video Girl Ai, Orphen, and the more recent King of Bandit Jing.
The good news is that animation in Slayers: Return (and, for that matter, in all of the films/OVAs) is certainly of higher quality than what I've seen of the original TV series, which doesn't exactly come as a shock, considering that these productions always have a larger budget than television shows. The video transfer here is pretty solid, with vibrant colours (during the daytime segments, at any rate; the darker scenes come across as a bit murky) and only extremely rare instances of rainbowing or aliasing. Nor does macroblocking rear its ugly head anywhere, although there is a persistent faint grain which is thankfully easy to ignore.
There's a bit of bad news, however. First, this is a 1996 production and as such doesn't have all the bells and whistles of more modern animé. Also, while the film is provided here in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, no anamorphic print exists, so what we have on this DVD is a letterboxed presentation with fixed black bars matting it out to full frame (4:3). Those of us who have the option of using the 'zoom' feature on a widescreen TV in order to crop out the black bars need to be careful, as the subtitles are actually positioned half-over/half-off the animation, so zooming in will result in losing some of the text. (Though this won't be an issue for those who listen to the English dub with the subs off.)
Overall no serious complaints here... it looks as if the production team had the sense to use their budget wisely, reserving the real effort for the high-motion sequences while applying a somewhat more cost-conscious approach (read: 'many static pans') to animating the earlier segments of the film, where there is more dialogue and less action.
The sound quality on this disc is unremarkable, being neither poor nor excellent. The major audio bonus of purchasing animé on DVD continues to be the fact that most discs are bilingual, and this one is no exception. ADV have given us a perfectly acceptable English dub to go along with the original Japanese soundtrack, both presented in fairly-standard Dolby 2.0. Even with its occasionally-madcap levels of action, Slayers simply isn't the kind of show that takes great advantage of stereo separation or left/right directionality, but that's OK; it still sounds fine without the sonic frills.
If you tend to prefer animé in the original Japanese language, then you're certainly in for a treat. Lina Inverse is voiced by the incomparable Megumi Hayashibara, who has played lead female roles in many truly iconic productions (a very brief sampling of her roles would include girl-Ranma in Ranma ½, Faye Valentine in Cowboy Bebop, Haruka in Love Hina, Rei in Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ume throughout the Project A-ko films, Tira in Sorcerer Hunters, Ai in Video Girl Ai, Lime throughout the various Saber Marionette series, Musashi in Pokémon, Pai in 3x3 Eyes, and Nuku-Nuku throughout the multiple incarnations of All-Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku).
On the other hand, the news for fans of the English dub may be good or bad, depending upon whether your first exposure to Slayers was the TV series or the films/OVAs. You see, while ADV Films bought the Western distribution rights to the films/OVAs, Central Park Media has licensed the TV series... and as such, the English dubs don't use the same cast of voice actors. This isn't a problem, of course, but if your only experience with Slayers was hearing Lisa Ortiz' rendition of Lina Inverse (in the TV series), you may be slightly taken aback by how different Cynthia Martinez' approach to the same character is. However, if you love Cynthia's voice acting, then you'll be pleased to know that she (and Naga's VA, Kelly Manison) reprise their roles for ADV Films throughout the films/OVAs.
There's not a lot to report regarding the menus or extras on this disc, because it's all very basic. The main menu is a not-particularly-attractive static screen (which doesn't even feature the title of the film) accompanied by a very short clip of the show's music looping underneath. As for bona fide special features – well, there aren't any. There are, however, pseudo-extras in the way of trailers for other upcoming ADV Films releases, including King of Bandit Jing, Martian Successor Nadesico, Sakura Wars, Zaion... and all of their Slayers properties, of course.
If you've seen any of the other Slayers films/OVAs, you'll know what to expect from Slayers: Return; it's certainly an enjoyable way to spend an hour (and doubly so if you prefer the solitary Lina/Naga vibe to the party dynamic found in the TV series). This particular story starts off well, and even if it does more or less fall apart at the end, it's a rollicking good ride while it lasts. Finally, the video and audio quality of this disc are perfectly satisfactory; about the only drawback for the die-hard animé fan would be the lack of any real special features, making this essentially a bare-bones DVD.