Reign: The Conqueror (Volume 1: Ascension) Review
I'm honestly not sure what to make of this show. For one thing, the actual story is built around a very bizarre admixture of sub-genres, including - but hardly limiting itself to - historical, martial, fantastical, sci-fi, and metaphysical. (Which lets you know from the very start that the production team was extremely ambitious, as it evidently believed it could succeed on all of these fronts simultaneously.) The problem inherent in this kind of motley approach is that you run the very palpable risk of losing your focus... and shortly thereafter, of losing your audience as well. The creators' enthusiasm for the project is unquestionable... however, their wisdom is left a little in doubt.
Let's examine each aspect of the series individually and try to work out its strengths and weaknesses. First off, there's the aforementioned storyline. Although it isn't always advisable to gleefully mix actual historical events and persons with a completely fantastical narrative, it's been known to work on occasion and I'm tempted to say that it works here as well. Reign has a nice, sinister feel that's reinforced by the endless undercurrent of court intrigue it's couched in.
The core plot is easy enough to state: 'On the day his son (and only heir to the throne) is due to be born, King Phillip II of Macedonia discovers that his wife Olympias has made an appeal to the pagan gods regarding their child. The prophecy that comes into play at that moment foretells that Alexander will destroy the world.' There seem to be a number of interesting sub-plots already in development by the time we reach the end of this first disc, but they all tie back into this main one and are subordinate to it.
Slightly dodgier are the characters themselves... especially as regards the naming conventions used in the show. As far as I can tell, Reign's writers decided, 'If it's a famous Greek name, we'll use it!' Certainly, there are places where the names mirror the actual history of the person. (For example, the real Alexander the Great was in fact tutored by Aristotle, as depicted in the animé.) However, for each of these there are twice as many examples of a name being plucked randomly out of another time or place... or worse, from neither, in the case of those nicked directly from Greek mythology. (Case in point, Cassandra, who turns out not only to be the niece of Aristotle but one hell of a fighter as well.)
For the moment setting aside this minor quibble - which more often than not merely results in unintentional comedy - what are the characters actually like? Well, not to bandy about the word 'Machiavellian' or anything, but these simply aren't nice people. As befits the kind of political machinations you'd expect during that period of history, almost everyone we meet: 1, has an angle of some sort; 2, has dirt on someone else; 3, is scheming to advance their station by some (generally) unpleasant means.
This holds true for the King and Queen of Macedonia, the King's advisors, the daughter of one of the King's advisors, Alexander himself, his tutor Aristotle, Aristotle's mentor Plato, the followers of Pythagoras (whose work influenced Plato), Darius III (the new King of Persia), the Athenians petitioning him to join forces against Macedonia, right down to the average Joe on the street. No one has anything good to say about anyone. Even the relatively guileless companions of Alexander (like Ptolemy, whose sole purpose seems to be a relatively weak form of comic relief based, in a mean-spirited way, upon his cowardly nature) aren't particularly likable. They're just there... and follow orders, of course.
Nor do Alexander's love interests stand out as being very alluring personalities. On this disc, we run across both Hephaestion (who seems to have deliberately been drawn to look like a woman... but as the real guy was supposedly very beautiful, this may not be the dodge it appears to be) and Roxanne (whom Alexander manages to run across bathing in Babylon). Of course, there's only the subtlest hint of mutual affection shown between the two men... but then again, Alexander doesn't seem all that interested in Roxanne when catches her in the buff, either. At least Hephaestion smirks a lot and seems self-satisfied... whereas she's just bland by comparison.
The actual setting of Reign: The Conqueror also feels somewhat confused; it's never entirely clear whether or not this is supposed to be an alternate history rife with magic, gods, and conveniently-transposed historical figures... or some far-future version of the events surrounding Alexander's rise to power, in a world replete with amazing technological marvels and eye-defying architectural feats. (And when I say 'technology', I'm not even talking steampunk here, despite the fact that the actual Hero of Alexandria did essentially invent the steam engine in the first century BC. No, I mean culture-defining high-tech.)
Of course, if you think that's distracting, you should see the outfits everyone in this alternate past/future wears. The women seem to wear as little as possible... and the men even less. (You only think I'm joking.) Reign definitely isn't the kind of animé that's afraid of showing some skin. In fact, it goes well beyond that; this show doesn't seem afraid to depict overt sexuality of any stripe. (Which probably goes some ways towards explaining TOKYOPOP's rating label of 'Older Teen, Age 16+' on the DVD case.)
For an example of this, you need look no further than the first few minutes of the show, where we see the nude Olympias doing something very dodgy with a huge snake in the birthing pool just prior to Alexander's arrival. (Alexander himself feels he's overdressed if he goes out on the town in more than a codpiece and some body paint. Oh, alright... it's body 'armour', but seeing as it leaves most of his body uncovered, I don't see much point to it.) Here really is a series that revels in its own salacious nature. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing... but it is a bit giggle-worthy when you have a show that is taking itself so seriously plot-wise only to have practically every character - right up to the King - prancing about it next to nothing.
Simply titled Alexander in Japan, Reign: The Conqueror was based upon a novel by Hiroshi Aramata entitled Genso Kotei - Alexander Senki. The series itself was produced in 1999 by a collaboration of famous names in the field of animé. Producers included Haruki Kadokawa (Harmagedon, Neo-Tokyo), Masao Maruyama (Cardcaptor Sakura, Trigun), and Taro Rin [Rintaro] (Metropolis). The striking - and downright odd-looking - character designs are the hallmark of Peter Chung (Aeon Flux), while the actual animation was executed by the well known Madhouse studio (Devil Hunter Yohko, Trigun, Vampire Hunter D).
However, despite the participation of all of these luminaries, this may well be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. The fact is, there are many levels on which Reign utterly fails to appeal. Visually I'm unconvinced that the look of the show is all that amazing (more on which in the 'Picture' section), it's extremely difficult to develop enthusiasm for any of the more or less unlikeable lead characters, and the hodge-podge use of Greek names and pseudo-historical references are frankly a little off-putting.
Episode Guide (with Potential Spoilers)
1: 'A Prophecy Born This Day'
The prophecied 'destroyer of worlds' is born to Olympias, Queen of Macedonia. Earning marks for 'one of the stranger ways to begin a pseudo-historical drama', we find her, ahem, entangled with a god in the form of a gigantic snake. King Phillip II foolishly tries to intervene and gets an eye bitten out for all his trouble. And so it begins. (You see why it's a little hard to take seriously.)
We immediately pole-vault about nineteen years into the future. (At least, that's when it would be if the creators wish to claim historical accuracy.) Alexander's grown up and seems restless, while some of his father's advisors are trying to ensure they retain control of the realm. One in particular, a guy named Attalos, is attempting to poison the King's mind against his son.
There's a lot of other backstory set up during this first episode as well: the relationship between Alexander and Aristotle is established early on (as is the suggestion that the latter has schemes of his own); some early attempts on Alexander's life are made by shadowy phantom assassins which turn out to be followers of Pythagoras; and Alexander is seen assembling a set of loyal retainers who will accompany him in future episodes. (Oh, and let's not forget that he just walks right up and tames Bucephalus, a man-eating horse that's been snacking on the peasantry of Macedonia lately.)
2: 'The Thunder of Battle'
And so we come to the first full-scale battle between Macedonia and its many enemies. With the Greek army marching on King Phillip II's infantrymen, the latter is naturally concerned that Alexander not only takes his time bringing the calvary (of which he has been placed in command) to the battlefield, but also that he seems unwilling to send his horsemen in at the same time as the King's forces are deployed.
However, this is all just an early inkling of Alexander's legendary reputation as a tactician, for he waits until precisely the right moment to exploit a weakness in the ranks of the Greek attackers, and turns the tide of the battle with his calvarymen alone. While this earns him the praise of the Macedonian populace, the King is displeased that his son refused to obey his direct orders, and Attalos begins to turn this to his own advantage.
Naturally, the first thing that comes to mind is to offer up his daughter Eurydice to the King for... well, the usual... seeing as his wife Olympias clearly isn't 'meeting his needs'. Of course, when Phillip II likes the arrangement enough to get around to divorcing Olympias, this only succeeds in provoking Alexander's wrath.
3: 'A Failure of Diplomacy'
At this point in time, the kingdom of Persia is the centre of the known world, and one possessed of a much vaster and better-developed capital city (Babylon). When Alexander and his newfound friends catch wind that a group of Athenian envoys are being sent there to secure a Persian alliance against Macedonia, he and his team disguise themselves as slaves on a trade caravan and sneak into Babylon for their own reconnaissance mission. (This serves a handy dual purpose, actually, as Alexander is also keen to avoid the minions of his father, who are searching for him with probably not the warmest thoughts in mind.)
Managing to stir up enough trouble to sabotage the envoys from Athens, he also has time to get a cuddle in with Roxanne and have a close encounter with Darius III (the new king of Persia). Of course, not all is happiness and light, for Ptolemy gets himself captured and has to be rescued.
4: 'Ascension to the Throne'
Despite his mother's insistence that he do something in retribution for her being kicked out of the palace and him being deprived of the throne, Alexander seems to be biding his time for some reason... so Olympias instead cuts loose with a series of nightmarish visions she sends directly to Eurydice, convincing her that there are snakes in her baby's crib, etc. (Oh, didn't I mention? Time flies when you're making babies... Eurydice has already borne Phillip II a brand-new heir and Attalos is one happy man.)
So's the King, by the way. At the upcoming celebration of the Macedonian victory over Aigai, generally the statues of the 12 Olympian gods are paraded through the square… but Phillip II has decided to add a 13th statue of himself (because that's likely to go down well with the public), and at the same time make the announcement of his new heir to the populace.
Alexander shows up at the event, having made various overtures of non-hostility to dear old dad, who is thinking that maybe he'll be able to use Alexander after all. A double assassination attempt is made on the King's life, and while the first one is thwarted by Alexander, the second succeeds. In the meantime, Eurydice and her infant son are struck down by a curse cast by... well, not really hard to guess, is it?
The actual video quality on this DVD is quite good, which comes as little surprise considering that four episodes on a dual-layer disc leaves plenty of elbow room for a high bitrate encode. Still, it's not quite perfect and certainly nothing I'd call 'reference' quality. (For an example of some seriously crisp, 'sharp as a tack' video even in the face of blindingly-fast fight sequences - which Reign lacks, by the way - take a look at another of TOKYOPOP's properties, Real Bout High School.) The only thing that really stands out as a (minor) problem in the picture department was an ever-present background grain... and somewhat more than is usual for animé as recently produced (1999) as this is.
The animation quality is a horse of a different colour. It's not so much bad as weird-looking. For any of you who have seen Aeon Flux (Peter Chung's previous major foray into the public eye), you'll have an idea of what to expect. Namely, it's animé that doesn't quite look like animé. The character designs aren't exactly what you'd describe as beautiful... we're talking stretched, wiry people with impossibly wedge-shaped torsi and chiseled, angular facial features.
On the other hand, aspects of the animation that genuinely could have used a bit more work include the very limited amount of detail applied to both people and buildings, as well as the prevalence of static pans (a sure sign that this project wasn't given a particularly big budget). Also, most of the time the show seems to suffer from a very flat colour palette... but this last may have been a deliberate stylistic choice in order to affect a 'Graecian period feel'. Unfortunately, it usually comes across looking a bit drab.
Finally, there's the questionable application of CG [computer graphics] effects throughout the series, always to the detriment of whichever scene it's used in. Particularly jarring is the prologue to each episode (not the actual intro segment with the theme music). These have been completely computer-rendered and don't really match the look of the rest of the show at all. A weird choice, really. Other places where the computer animation really sticks out like a sore thumb are in any shots that take in vast numbers of combatants, be they marching or on horseback. Those jerky, synchronised repetitive motions look, well, bad.
The audio quality on this first volume of Reign is excellent. Both the original Japanese track and the English dub come across crystal-clear, with a nice and broad forward soundstage. Sound effects and music take full advantage of stereo separation and provide sufficiently room-filling sound.
A definite highlight is the English dub itself, which is really nicely executed by its North American voice actors. (Yes, yes, I know... this is the second English dub in a row that I've actually liked almost as much as the Japanese dialogue; if I carry on like this I'm going to lose my reputation as a subtitles girl.) Particularly good are King Phillip II (played by John Di Maggio) and his circle of advisors, including Aristotle (John Rafter Lee). Andy Philpot doesn't do a bad job as Alexander either... which is a Good Thing™ since he's the protagonist.
On the other hand, Julia DeMita goes way over the top playing Olympias, and with the English dub in general a lot of the dialogue's been shuffled around and changed in subtle and not-always-good ways... but you can't win them all.
On the music front, this is another show that has received a new opening theme song for its English language release. The interesting thing about the one on Reign: The Conqueror is that the English song is not simply a translated version of the original Japanese intro; it's a completely different tune.
More to the point, it's a vastly-superior song to the original. Whereas the one you'll hear if you play the Japanese audio track is your bog-standard fantasy pop ballad and not very memorable, hit that AUDIO button on your DVD remote and suddenly you're greeted with the lyrical and haunting melody of the song 'Worthy of Your Soul' (DJ Milky and b-nChant-d, featuring Rachel Pollack). In my opinion it's worth listening to the show's intro sequence in English for this reason alone.
Alas, there's no such reprieve from the bland and 'computery' ending credits music, which sounds very much like someone put it together on his nephew's synth in about half an hour.
The disc menus are functional but nothing revolutionary, featuring various clips from the show playing on a continuous loop behind a pair of top/bottom screen frames. Menu options include 'Play', 'Scenes' (providing four chapter breaks per episode), 'Setup' (which offers the usual dual toggle approach (English/Japanese language, subs on/off), and 'Extras'.
Speaking of which, the special features on this DVD are no slouch. The generous selection provided on volume 1 include:
- the original Japanese theatrical trailer
- the original Japanese TV spot
- the TV commercial promoting the Japanese DVD release
- the MIPCOM promotional trailer
- an interview with the producer and supervising director of the show
- interview clips from the Japanese production press conference focusing on executive producer Haruki Kadokawa [about 6 minutes long]
- interview clips from the Japanese production press conference focusing on character designer Peter Chung [also about 6 minutes long]
- an art gallery containing about 10 images
- previews for five of TOKYOPOP's other properties (GTO, Initial D, Real Bout High School, Vampire Princess Miyu, and their '100% Authentic Manga' line)
Oh, and lest I forget, one page of the liner notes booklet that comes in the DVD case is devoted to a pictorial relationships chart of the show's characters for easy reference.
I guess the words 'highly experimental' apply to this series. It's early days yet, so I'm hesitant to hand down a verdict of 'not quite my thing'. The fact is, there's nothing inherently wrong with the storyline (despite the silly naming conventions). The dialogue is reasonably well-written and the background plots develop logically enough (albeit a bit predictably). However I find the ridiculous costumes and uniquely-Chungian character designs to be a little too distracting for my tastes... my gut reaction is to laugh even when events in the storyline have grown quite dark.
My advice would be to 'try before you buy', unless you are already a big fan of Peter Chung's previous work (Aeon Flux). Once you've seen an episode or two of Reign, you'll know whether the animation style is going to be a plus or a minus to your personal enjoyment of the series. From my understanding, this show is currently being broadcast on the Cartoon Network, so that may be a 'sneak peek' option for some.