Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight Review
A couple of months ago I did a write-up of the 13-episode 'Collector's Series' DVD re-release of Record of Lodoss War by Central Park Media (U.S. Manga Corps). This review will cover its sprawling, 27-part 'sequel', Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight (Lodoss-tou Senki: Eiyuu Kishi Den).
I say 'sequel' because RoLW has the curious distinction of being a fantasy universe whose various video adaptations are not consistent with one another. As discussed at greater length in my previous review, the original show only covers the events from the first of a series of extremely popular Japanese novels, and needed to change a few things around at the very end in order to reach a suitable stopping point. At the time (1990), there wasn't any expectation that a budget would materialise to carry the project beyond these 13 episodes, so the writers were making the best of a difficult situation.
However, both the show and the books were so warmly received by the Japanese public that not five years later a more extensive animated version of RoLW was green-lighted for television. (Isn't it always the way?) So now the production team had to face the fact that the modifications made to conclude the first OAV [original animated video] series made it impossible to tell the remainder of the epic storyline as described in the succeeding novels.
Their decision was extremely straightforward: handwave the discrepencies and start the new animé series ('Chronicles of the Heroic Knight', or CotHK) at a point five years on from the conclusion of the original show. As for plot-critical characters who inconveniently died during the first run... well, just pretend they never died and move on. No, I'm not joking.
Essentially, if you've seen the original RoLW, you'll have to think of it as an alternate history of Lodoss and be prepared to view CotHK as a 'true telling' of the events which followed. Naturally, some fans of the first show were unwilling to do this, which has resulted in a slightly mixed reception for its successor. In general, I've found that people whose introduction to the world of Lodoss was CotHK are a lot more forgiving of the discrepencies than those who saw RoLW first, although the series is still popular among both camps. At least, as there is no actual overlap between the two it's not as if you'll be retreading old ground. (Although there are a few 'flashbacks' in CotHK which put a different spin on scenes depicted in RoLW.)
But enough history. What is Chronicles of the Heroic Knight about? Well, the plot can be summarised as 'Lodoss is yet again threatened by evil forces from the dark isle of Marmo. A new collection of heroes bands together to forestall impending doom.' (So, yes, it's a lot like the OAVs.) One of the prime benefits of CotHK, however, is that it provides the viewer with a brand-new complement of protagonists to root for.
Although the first third of the TV series does in fact revisit the key players from RoLW (Parn, Deedlit, Etoh, Slayn, Leylia, etc.), it's from a fresh perspective of maturity and emotional growth. No longer are these characters the green novice adventurers we saw learning the ropes in the OAVs. Even the least competent member of the original party, the fighter Parn, now comes across as vaguely likeable, which is an amazing achievement in itself. As for level-headed cleric Etoh, he's been promoted to King! The sorceror Slayn ended up marrying Leylia (a priestess of the creation goddess Marfa), and the she-elf Deedlit is still inexplicably in love with Parn. What grates on most fans' nerves is that two likeable minor characters from RoLW, the mercenaries Shiris and Orson, are introduced in CotHK as if no one's ever met them before. On the other hand, they get a lot of screen time and vastly-improved character development this time around, which can only be a Good Thing™.
The last two-thirds of the TV series jump another decade into the future, and focus on a younger generation of heroes whilst retaining the traditional RPG [role-playing game] party composition of the original show: Spark (a knight-in-training), Leaf (a she-elf), Greevus (a dwarf), Garrack (a mercenary), Aldonova (a sorceror), and Ryna (a thief) pool their resources to escort Little Neese (the daughter of Slayn and Leylia, and a lynchpin character for the plot) on a mission to stop the forces of Marmo (including returning baddies Ashram and Wagnard) from resurrecting Kardis, the goddess of destruction. Everybody with me so far?
Although I'm sure this sounds dangerously like a retread of the OAVs, I'm pleased to report that this isn't quite the case... in fact, the new gang is a slight improvement on the old. First off, Spark (despite being burdened by a silly name) is a much more believable character than his childhood hero, Parn. Not only isn't he a gimp, but he's been working hard all his life to become a knight, rather than just dreaming about it and then being in the right place at the right time. Further, while he starts out similarly inexperienced, he's never a out-of-control hothead like Parn. Nor does he rise to fame and glory solely through the actions of those around him. (Mind you, often he's just as thick as Parn was, but in a sort of endearing way instead of a really irritating one.)
Having a truly likeable lead protagonist helps, but wait... there's more. Leaf isn't nearly as bland as Deedlit was, and proves much more interesting to have around. (OK, so she's a half-elf, which may explain how she's allowed to have a feisty personality and funky druid spells.) Likewise, Greevus isn't a run-of-the-mill hack-and-slash dwarf, but rather a dwarven priest brimming with wisdom and good counsel for Spark. Garrack has a more complicated background than he at first lets on, and Aldonova actually has deeper motivations for joining the party than Slayn's 'Nothing's on the telly, so I'll just tag along then.' As for Little Neese... well, she starts out seeming rather insipid (with her 'how quickly can I hand myself over to the dark forces of Marmo' mentality), but fortunately she has a destiny that the whole series hinges on, so let's just say she improves (a bit) towards the end.
Beyond this, the selection of antagonists is as rich as ever, and in fact is made all the better by solid characterisations across the board. Wagnard is still more or less the guy he was in RoLW, but Ashram and Karla in particular receive excellent character development, which goes a long way towards escaping the stereotypical 'they're doing it because they're evil; what more reason do you need?' trap that many such genre shows fall into. As for their various dark henchmen (Groder, etc.), even they have a few surprises up their sleeves.
Overall, I think the story is a modest step up from the OAVs. Not only does it adhere more closely to the novels and manga on which the animé is based, but more air time is given to characters I was actually interested in. (Of course, if your fave character in the original show was Parn, then you'll probably be disappointed at how he becomes a background character during the last 19 episodes... and I doubt you'll be a big fan of Spark, either.) That said, RoLW was a formula fantasy series, and CotHK is no different in this respect... you will see a lot of the same sorts of situations as before, but with a new cast. So it's all going to hinge on whether or not you fancy the new gang.
You may be aware that animated TV shows are generally made on a lower budget than OAVs (which in turn have a smaller budget than animé films)... and that this generally impacts negatively on their production values. Well, in that vein there's good news and bad news as regards Chronicles of the Heroic Knight. The bad news is, the animation quality of this 27-episode (620-minute!) series is not quite up to the same standard as its predecessor. Not only are the character designs vastly simplified, but there's a dearth of fully-animated battle scenes (as well as the usual superfluity of static pans, though this is also somewhat true of RoLW).
The good news is, the video quality is about the same as before - although this does mean that there is the same sort of background grain throughout, as well as scattered instances of rainbowing and macroblocking. Obviously we'd like it better if a show that aired in 1998 didn't look exactly like one made at the end of the 80s... so, reluctantly, I'm docking its video score to reflect this. However, it's hardly an eye-punishing experience... just not what most people have come to expect from late-90s animé.
Setting that aside for the moment, there's a lot to be said for the wonderful opening and ending segments that frame each episode. The truly spectacular animation seen there pretty much outdoes anything you'll see in the show itself, and CPM has again left the entirety of both sequences intact with their original Japanese credits, foregoing the usual English hard-subs or overlays that often mar OP/ED bits.
The audio fares considerably better, being easily of the same (or higher) quality as that presented in RoLW. Still offering a basic Dolby 2.0 (stereo) mix in both the original Japanese and the English dub tracks, CotHK nevertheless seems to exhibit a fuller, richer sound than that found in the OAV series. There's excellent use of ambient sounds and atmospheric music, and I believe more stereo directionality than before.
When it comes to the music of RoLW and CotHK, there are a number of key similarities and differences between the two scores that should be mentioned. First off, both shows benefit from 'character themes' that kick in when one of the heroes/villains becomes the focus of a particular scene. In the original show, these all had a vaguely neo-classical Renaissance feel to them. Very unlike those OAV compositions by Mitsuo Hagita, however, the soundtrack of the TV show (composed by Kaoru Wada, famous for Ninja Scroll) is very modern and employs a full orchestra.
The end result of this is that it sounds magnificent. Also a highlight is the gorgeous opening theme song, 'Kiseki no Umi' ('Sea of Miracles') composed by the talented Yoko Kanno (whose name has become pretty much synonymous with quality animé songs, having also worked on Cowboy Bebop, Escaflowne, Jin-Roh, Macross Plus, and Please Save My Earth). Both this and the end titles song, 'Hikari no Suashi' evoke a great fantasy mood for CotHK.
One word of warning, however... even dub fans may want to give the English audio track a wide berth. (Yes, it really is that bad.) Although I come down more often than not on the side of subtitles, I am willing to admit when an English dub is OK. This isn't one of those times. Save your sanity and stick to the original Japanese.
The menus on these DVDs are all very professional-looking, although they don't push the technical envelope in any way. Each disc loads with a pan across a storm-tossed landscape filled with the series' characters, which is transformed into the main menu by a strike of lightning that cues the symphonic opening theme music (see above section). After that, it's all subtle background animation behind mostly static sub-menu screens. Access times are nice and fast, but one serious problem with the 'Scene Access' menu is that there are only two (!) chapter stops per 25-minute episode... one at the beginning of the opening theme song (which means you can't easily skip the OP segment and get to the start of the action) and the other at the beginning of the omake sequence (more on which below).
When it comes to the on-disc extras, it makes a huge difference this time around whether or not you actually have a DVD-ROM drive in your computer. If your only way to play these discs is through a stand-alone DVD player, then the extras are going to be a disappointment, as you'll only be able to access a few static pages of special features. These include some cast credits, a couple sample pages of CPM's English version of the manga, and a small gallery of character sketches.
On the other hand, if you do have a DVD-ROM drive, there's a fair whack of content to be accessed, including: 1, the complete (English) scripts for all 27 episodes; 2, an art gallery and character sketches gallery, each with between 80-90 images; 3, about 10 sample pages/covers from CPM's line of English RoLW manga; 4, a complete cast list for both the Japanese and English voice actors; and 5, a 'guide' section which features a lot of explanatory material regarding the background of Lodoss as well as missing/changed story events (although much of this text merely duplicates the content of the printed booklet found in the case with disc 1).
CPM may wish to reconsider this policy of shunting the vast majority of a DVD's special features off onto the DVD-ROM-only section of the disc, as I suspect the bulk of animé fans do not yet own DVD-ROM drives (and even those who do may greatly prefer to view the extras from the comfort of the TV in the lounge rather than booting up the computer). It is definitely true that certain types of content can benefit greatly from a DVD-ROM presentation... for instance, anything involving large amounts of text will be easier to read on a monitor than on a TV. However, if things like image stills are going to be locked away in DVD-ROM format, then there should be some recompense for the inconvenience. (For example, if the image galleries were available in a high resolution, like 1024x768 or better, then it would be well worth having to view them on the computer. As it stands, the Central Park Media DVD-ROM application seems to assume that the customer will be running Windows at 640x480, which is actually a step down from DVD resolution.)
Anyway, minor kvetches about accessibility aside, it's not a bad selection of extras. More entertaining, however, (and available to anyone with a DVD player) are the brief omake [bonus] segments at the end of each episode. These feature cute SD ['super-deformed'] versions of the show's various main characters acting out goofy skits and subjecting the audience to lots of bad puns. The colour palette has been opened way up for these bits, giving them a real 'cartoony' feel. (See the below picture to get an idea of what I'm talking about.) Although some die-hard fans who want to appreciate Record of Lodoss War as a serious fantasy epic may find the rampant silliness unappealing, I've always loved Japanese omake specifically because they provide a light-hearted complement to a dramatic storyline. Regardless, because they've been given their own chapter breaks, you can skip them (or skip to them) easily enough.
Finally, on the 'bordering on extras' front, there are 'Sneak Peeks' for five of CPM's other animé titles included on each disc. (Strangely, the exact same five previews appear on each of the four discs in the boxset, rather than the large selection you might otherwise expect.) More importantly for those of you without multi-region DVD players, CotHK is region 0 (all-region), so no worries there.
Anyone familiar with Central Park Media's earlier VHS release of Chronicles of the Heroic Knight will be gratified to learn that the company has carried forward all of the gorgeous artwork from that packaging and reworked it for the DVD boxset. Consisting of four Amaray cases enclosed in one of those ever-popular cardboard slipcases, everything is themed in deep red and burgundy. The slipcase cover is illustrated with a melange of six characters, broken equitably into two old heroes, two new heroes, and two 'baddies'. Frankly superior to this is the cover art for each individual Amaray case, each focusing on different key characters: Deedlit and Parn; Kashue and Ashram; Greevus, Garrack, Leaf, and Ryna; and Pirotess. Really splendid packaging all around, and more durable than a gatefold presentation.
Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight in my opinion achieves a successful continuation of the epic timeline begun in the OAV series. Despite the various plot discrepencies between the two shows, it remains an enjoyable watch... although very much in the same vein as its predecessor. (Which is to say, if you saw RoLW and didn't like it, you're probably not going to like CotHK either. So be sure that D&D-style fantasy appeals to you before shelling out the dosh.) In terms of production values, the animation (not picture) quality's a bit worse than the original series while the sound is definitely better. Nice packaging rounds out a solid product, although the special features are lacklustre unless you have a DVD-ROM drive.