Fairy Tail - Part 4 Review
By the time we get to Part 4 of Fairy Tail, the series is just about near-unrecognisable from the one that started out as a nice little kiddies' fantasy anime series. The overall tone is much darker and serious, the villains are more evil and threatening, the formerly fun adventures have been surpassed by global threats that are close to apocalyptic in scale, the battle sequences are longer and more life-threatening. There's no longer any guarantee - as was hinted at the beginning of the latest extended story arc - that all our heroes will come through the latest challenges unscathed. With the quality of the animation - already quite impressive in earlier episodes - jumping in leaps and bounds to meet the demands of the developments in the series, everything about Fairy Tail in these latest episodes is bigger, better and badder.
What has changed the most however is the expansion of the Fairy Tail world of Fiore way beyond the preoccupations of the individual members of the little guild of wizards. Up until the last collection with the series getting into its mid-30s episodes, it was still pretty much a case of regular battles with rival guilds as a means of exploring the backgrounds of each of the characters, giving them the opportunity to develop their apprenticeship skills in the use of their magical powers. At the start of the fourth collection (episodes 37 - 48), taking up the storyline left over from the preceding collection, there is evidence of a much more powerful struggle going on the world at large that extends far beyond the small agricultural and traditional crafts-based medieval-style rustic villages where the earlier adventures took place. In order to stifle the ambitions of Jellal in his attempt to revive a powerful demon Zeref, the council have been persuaded by Jellal's twin brother Siegrain to unleash a weapon of devastating power, Etherion, against his Heaven's Tower construct where Natsu, Happy, Erza, Gray, Lucy and some figures from Erza's childhood are currently engaged in battle against Jellal's Death's Head assassins. The consequences could be catastrophic and there's no time to waste.
Rising to meet the challenge of the greater stakes that have been waged, the Heaven's Tower episodes take place in a far more technologically advanced society than the one we have been familiar with up to now, one depicted here in a more detailed, complex and visually imaginative science-fiction/fantasy environment of breathtaking and sometimes dream-like vistas. The nature of the battles continues to evolve also - the influence of Dragonball-Z becoming ever more apparent on the progression of the series - with the series continually developing new and more colourful villains, each with more and more imaginative power abilities. The animation also continues to evolve to meet these demands impressively, with spectacular use of CG effects, but also through the thrilling action sequences that are clearly well-planned and storyboarded. Really, the series looks just incredible.
It's also a series that never really stops to take a breath, moving on after one fast-paced, explosive, extended storyline straight into another. Initially the opening episode for the second extended story arc 'Battle of Fairy Tail' does give the impression of it being a downtime filler episode, the battle in question seeming to be nothing more than a Miss Fairy Tail beauty contest between the beautiful belles of the guild, giving viewers the opportunity to see them stripped down to bikinis (or Gothic Lolita outfits - whatever takes your fancy). Sticking to the continuity however and the fact that the Fairy Tail guild hall has recently been almost entirely destroyed by the Phantom Guild, and that its strongest members have just come back weakened from perhaps their biggest battle so far, with the master Makarov's position also looking vulnerable, there is a serious and unexpected challenge to the leadership of the guild from within that leads to …well, more explosive fights obviously, but again these are taken to another level entirely.
This return to inter-guild rivalry (and internal guild rivalry) seems to mark evidence of a predictable pattern forming, with revelations about characters and conflicts between them showing them to have troubled backgrounds and hidden reserves of powers that come out in the spectacular demonstrations of strength during the ensuing battles. The trajectory of Fairy Tail however doesn't appear to be so much cyclical as spiraling, the series continually finding ways to keep the ideas fresh, continually introducing new characters and continually revealing that there is often more than one side to people (and, in some cases, a side that isn't to be trusted). If the method of resolving these conflicts is somewhat inevitable - involving them hurling magic bolts of power against each other and causing enormous destruction to the immediate environment - the animation is at least up to the task of advancing to new levels and at least giving the impression of keeping everything fresh.
At the stage we are left here then, at the end of Part 4, there is certainly evidence of some limitations in the series' repetition of one extended battle sequence leading on to the next one, with barely a pause for breath. Like Dragonball Z however - the model the series is clearly following - Fairy Tail manages to continually keep things interesting through the escalation of hostilities, while at the same time managing to develop characterisation and keep a refreshing variety of tone through the vast range of characters that appear. Humour is still very much in evidence and fits in well with the overall tone, as are the underlying themes of friendship and working together as a team to achieve your own individual potential. Most importantly, considering the vast amount of battle and action sequences, the animation is simply stunning, keeping you glued to the screen. I'm not sure how long Fairy Tail can manage to keep this pace up and retain this standard of thrilling, incredibly dynamic and constantly evolving animation, but at the moment, there appears to still be plenty of life and excitement yet in this impressive series.
Fairy Tail - Part 4 is released by Manga Entertainment on DVD only, consisting of 12 episodes on two dual-layer discs. The set is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2. As with previous releases in this series, the 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer, coming from Funimation, is of the usual excellent quality, properly standards converted. There are few noticeable issues other than some minor colour-banding, the image is perfectly stable, brightly coloured and pleasing to the eye, the animation flowing smoothly.
The available audio tracks are the original Japanese track in Dolby Digital 2.0 and the English dub in Dolby Digital 5.1. Preferring the Japanese track throughout the series to this point, I haven't really explored the English dub to any extent to be able to judge how well the voice-acting matches the characters, but all the usual Funimation people are involved and are fairly reliable, even going as far as overdubbing one of the songs sung during the series. From what I've picked up, the audio quality on both tracks is excellent. Subtitles are yellow, are generally clear and easy to read, even if they are yellow. They are not dubtitles.
Again there's nothing of major interest in the Extra features. There is a Commentary from the Funimation crew on Episode 39 and Episode 45. Textless Opening and Closings are also there.
Having started out like a nice little fantasy anime series aimed at a younger audience with no great originality, Fairy Tail has developed into a compelling series in its own right. The necessary ingredients of solid scripting, strong characterisation and an abundance of incident are all there, but what lifts the series here is the brilliance of the animation from the A1-Pictures studio. Whether it can keep up this standard remains to be seen, but this far Fairy Tail has just continued to go from strength to strength.