Based on the Xbox 360 RPG, Blue Dragon branches out into animation. Manga Entertainment releases the first eight episodes in the UK, which are available to own now.
Released in the winter of 2006, exclusively for Microsoft’s Xbox360 console, Misterwalker’s Blue Dragon was met with fair reviews. I personally found it to be a solid and attractive RPG that did the job; nothing particularly demanding, but enjoyable enough to get me through 3 discs. Yet this was, for all intents, supposed to be a “Killer app”. The title was designed as a flagship for Microsoft, whose console sales were struggling in Japan, next to that of older generation Playstation and Nintendo hardware. What could have been more enticing than a role-playing game written by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and featuring character designs by Dragon Ball Z’s Akira Toriyama? Blue Dragon subsequently did enough business in the land of RPG lovers to meet sales targets, even if it still didn’t launch the 360 into the stratosphere; a problem not so much having to do with game quality, but unstable hardware, that even today leaves Japanese gamers apprehensive about parting with their cash.
Amidst the hype for the game’s release, a manga spin-off by Death Note’s Takeshi Obata and an animated television series from Studio Pierrot went into production. While the comic featured all new characters and storylines, the anime stuck a little more closely the game aesthetics, but offered an entirely new take on the original premise. It aired in Japan during the spring of 2007 and lasted for a total of 51 episodes; a year later a second series followed. For now Manga Entertainment sees us right with the first eight episodes of the series, so let’s see how it stacks up.
Legend has it that many years ago the world was split into two orders – that of Light and Shadow. Obviously they didn’t get along together very well and there was lots of fighting. To this day the fighting ensues, but there are forces for good who seek out a way of quelling the darkness once and for all.
Zola and Jiro are two such people. Tasked with searching for an ancient manuscript known as “The Book of the Beginning”, their ultimate goal is to locate the descendants of the once proud “Seven Soldiers of Light” and mobilise them against the evil forces of the Grankingdom Army, led by Lord Nene. Shortly after arriving at the village of Talta – its temple believed to house an ancient sealed power – the village is attacked by Nene’s fleet. Zola immediately responds and heads out to battle with her trusty follower. But these aren’t your average wanderers; Zola and Jiro are “Shadow Wielders”: masters of their own inner beasts which harbour enough power to level cities. They succeed in fending off Nene’s army, though curiously with the help of a young wide-eyed boy named Jiro, who might just be the next key in Zola‘s quest. The young and excitable lad immediately assumes Zola to be a Knight Master and it isn’t long before he’s convinced to join her small band, with the accompaniment of his female friend Kluke. What kind of adventures await young Shu as he strives to understand the power of the Blue Dragon?
Director Yukihiro Matsushita and Studio Pierrot (Bleach, Naruto) take on the world of Blue Dragon with a fine gusto. Our opening episode for instance wastes no time in introducing our primary characters and establishing that they need to rid themselves of the evil Nene as soon as humanly possible. Quickly dispensing with the welcoming gestures, the pacing turns fierce, delivering fast visuals as our heroes take on their first colourful villain – Dragon Ball stylee. And much like that series we come to realise early on that Blue Dragon is into its shouty-shouty prolonged fight sequences. Structurally the subsequent episodes pretty much echo the same formula; a bit of a search, some character interaction and an inevitable showdown featuring a baddie of the week. Regardless, these are handled tantalisingly enough and afford the animation team plenty of opportunities to expand upon the idea of Shadow Wielding, with a diverse range of spiritual monsters at hand.
Though that’s not to say Blue Dragon doesn’t care about its characters. Once its done the job of grabbing the viewer’s attention it does settle down from time to time to add a little humanity to our new friends. Though there does indeed appear to be an arc of some sort: Zola’s search for the Book of the Beginning; Nene constructing a robot army, and a bunch of shenanigans going down in Jibral, these opening eight episodes serve as little more than character introductions, which is perfectly fine given the series’ high quota of episodes, which should reveal all in time. Shu and company, at least at this early stage in the series, are nothing more than familiar archetypes though, and the writing staff rarely go out of their way to throw in any real surprises; perhaps the neatest addition is Shu struggling to control the Blue Dragon, which only ever manifests out of the boy’s sheer rage; unlike the other Shadow Wielders he cannot call upon his power at will. The team is gradually expanded with episode 4 seeing the arrival of the shamelessly perverted Marumaro who doesn‘t give poor ol‘ Kluke a minute’s peace, while episode 6 introduces sickly sweet and busty waitress Bouquet; she of the Ra Clan, not only a fellow Shadow Wielder, but who also happens to have the ability to turn invisible. This appears to round off the primary team of good guys, thus opening up further possible avenues to explore. Bouquet’s presence unsurprisingly foreshadows a potential love triangle (though at present she comes across as more of a stalker) which happens to involve Shu and Kluke, while Shu also has something of a rival in Jiro. Zola remains largely ambiguous for now, but clearly has the leadership qualities to keep everyone on the straight and narrow.
As this volume approaches its end and our gang arrive in the citadel of Jibral, we get more by way of permanent additions to the supporting cast. We meet Conrad L Lorentz – the most respected Knight Master in all Jibral, while on the side of Grankingdom there’s Doragnov who commands his own sea fleet. And that’s about it. The battle between good and evil is on. It remains to be seen if the following volumes can deliver the kind of epic storytelling that the series’ length would suggest.
Presented anamorphically at 1.78:1 the transfer for Blue Dragon does a great job in complementing a crisp and colourful anime. Colours remain suitably vibrant throughout and contrast and brightness levels are very pleasing. As per usual the NTSC-PAL conversion lets it down a little, with the picture exhibiting interlacing on HD set-ups. While the standards conversion isn‘t so easily helped, it’s a little more disappointing to see things like compression artefacts rearing their ugly head on discs containing just four episodes. By no means is Blue Dragon terrible in this department, but it does have a tendency to show a bit of noise during the major fight sequences when things get a little flashy with bright effects and quick editing.
The discs contain a choice of Japanese and English DD2.0 soundtracks. Both are excellent offerings, squeezing as much action as possible out of the front channels. Particularly notable is a fairly aggressive bass, which heightens the onscreen battles and gives precedence to the opening and closing songs. Dialogue is also well balanced, proving not to get drowned out by any loud happenings or ambient effects. As for the English dub itself, it seems alright. I can’t say I’m too keen on some of the more mature sounding voices, especially that of Shu, but I can’t imagine to many people complaining.
Optional English subtitles are of course included.
For an opening volume Blue Dragon ticks enough of the right boxes. Certain story elements are a tad ambiguous, that’s certainly to be expected for now, and there aren’t any great liberties taken with a rather stereotyped cast, but it does offer plenty of fun little moments throughout and keeps to a good pace. I should point out though, as a word of warning to parents, that these episodes, unlike the US Cartoon Network showings are fully uncut and contain humour of a sexual nature aimed toward questionably young girls, in what is otherwise a fairly light affair.
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