Saturday, August 9, 2008

EP1 Analysis: Blue Dragon

When approaching a new series, the first impression is often one of the most important things in evaluating whether or not it is worthy of your time and/or money. With the proliferation of both new and classic anime and Western animation, it can be hard discerning which show fits personal tastes and deserves to be given a chance. While factors such as pacing and genre can greatly impact a first episode, they are generally perceived as an appropriate representation of the tone and expectations of the series as a whole. With that in mind, EP1 Analysis will be an on-going column that will review first episodes without prior knowledge of future events. The follow-up entry to Three Delivery will be the anime adaptation of the Xbox 360-exclusive RPG, Blue Dragon.

The original Blue Dragon game featured development by Final Fantasy creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi, composer Nobuo Uematsu, and Dragon Ball creator, Akira Toriyama.

Blue Dragon was one of the first traditional RPGs to come to the Xbox 360 as well the first game to come from Final Fantasy creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi's new studio, Mistwalker. With long time Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu creating the musical score and Dragon Ball creator, Akira Toriyama handling art direction, a team like this hasn't been seen since the SNES/DS RPG, Chrono Trigger. While there were mixed reactions to the game, most agreed that it handled traditional RPG elements very well. The story itself is also very traditional, as a group of heroes take on the evil Nene of the Grand Kingdom as they fight the on-going struggle between light and darkness. While the anime adaptation keeps the same overall look and backstory, the plots differ completely. And with a fresh new voice cast as well to start things off, only the English dubbed version is currently available in the US. The first volume of the dub-only DVD run is coming in September, but the series is currently airing on Cartoon Network. After getting some play time with the game and watching the first episode, the anime has an appropriately different feel while still staying true to the source material.

The anime design characters, from left to right: Shu (top), Zola, Bouquet, Kluke, Marumaro, and Jiro.

While Toriyama's art direction remains the same for the anime, it has a much different feel from shows like Dragon Ball because of the different director and studio. Headed up by Studio Pierrot, the show keeps that general appeal and atmosphere that made the game so traditional and universal. You immediately see how the story diverges, but the character personalities and chemistry are still as dynamic as ever. While the main characters are young children, the fantasy element and excitement still makes it fun to watch despite possibly being out of the target demographic. Shu, Kluke, Jiro, and Zola see most of the spotlight in the first episode and create a nice first impression. The mysterious power of the Shadows are teased as well as the bigger plot involving the evil Lord Nene, but most of the episode is used for introductions. The overall animation is very clean with a little more Western influence. The classic Toriyama design is a little jarring in the Blue Dragon anime, as it feels different from Toei Animation's Dragon Ball anime adaptation. But it still works well and manages to differentiate itself.

I have not heard the original language track, but the English voice overs give a strong performance that fits with the character personalities and the tone of the show. I actually preferred the English dub in the video game to the original Japanese voice actors, but the cast change isn't bad at all. The main characters reveal some interesting traits, as Shu's carefree, adventuring spirit and Kluke's more careful, technological personality bring some comparisons to DB's Goku and Bulma. Jiro's standoffish attitude hints at a tragic past while Zola is the older, wiser, and strong leader of the bunch. Nene only gets a brief cameo, but his army and evil intentions are felt. We get a preview of the power of the Shadows and some nice action, which should keep Blue Dragon fun and interesting. If that keeps up along with the strong characters, then things should be picking up pretty soon.

Whether you have played the game or not, Blue Dragon still looks to be a fun series to watch. The target audience may be skewed a little younger, but that doesn't take away from the enjoyment at all. The show's Western influence can be seen as well, which isn't a bad thing. It is really unfortunate that the original Japanese version isn't being made immediately available, but the first English-only DVD volume will be out in September. You can watch Blue Dragon on Cartoon Network and Toonami Jetstream.

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