Master storyteller Osamu Tezuka amazes with this anime anthology.
What They Say:
Throughout time, mankind has chased after the dream of immortality. The Phoenix, in the form of a bird of fire, is said to hold the key to eternal life. Great warriors, greedy princesses, ambitious scientists and ordinary people desire its power. Great wars are fought in a vain attempt to possess it and, as a result, civilizations rise and fall. Phoenix is a collection of five stories from the past, present and future. Many will perish because of their desires, and they are the lucky ones. True pain comes for those who find immortality and experience the burden of living forever.
What We Say:
Phoenix is decked out with not one, not two, but four audio tracks: English 2.0 and 5.1 and Japanese 2.0 and 5.1. Although I was impressed by the selection, I primarily listened to the English 5.1 for the purposes of this review. The track wasn’t exactly dynamic but Phoenix isn’t really a dynamic show. Bass is pleasing and the rear speakers are put to use to enhance the traditional score and background sound effects such as light wind and birds chirping in outdoor scenes. The only minor complaint I had with the soundtrack was a stylistic choice as one story featured heavy use of echoing to fit the paranormal theme. Overall the audio fits the source material, and you can’t really ask for more than that.
Originally produced in 2004, Phoenix is presented in its OAR of 1.78:1 and enhanced for anamorphic playback. Although the show retains a simple character design, it also features many lush backgrounds and vibrant colorful effects. The Phoenix itself is always surrounded by an aura of every color under the sun. The effect is impressive and if the transfer weren’t handled properly, the legendary beast would turn into a wonderfully vibrant mess. Fortunately, Anime Works has handled this transfer expertly. The video was virtually spotless with frequent explosions of color and no bleeding. The only minor complaint is some sequences seemed a bit washed out but that really seems like it has more to do with the source.
This boxset features at once some of the best and worst design choices I’ve ever seen. Each of the three discs has its own sturdy book-like case which are housed inside a very thin box. First, the good: each solid case features a foil design and, as we all know, humans like shiny things. The backs of the box and cases are also well designed with choice shots and well-written descriptions of both the show and its creator. Unfortunately, the front designs don’t fare as well with each and every one using a shot of the phoenix. The bird is quite impressive in the show but without the digital effect that always accompanies it, these up-close shots look somewhat common and a bit more childish than the show is. The other problem with the box is so obvious that I’m surprised it was overlooked- the paper-thin box isn’t stable enough to support the thick cardboard cases it houses. (The box was already slightly warped and suffering wear when I got it.) I don’t hold out much hope for the cases themselves either since the similar book-style Blu-rays that Warner Bros. puts out are susceptible to shelf wear as well.
The main menu features a picture of the phoenix with feathers floating down the screen and a piece of the orchestral score playing over it. Menu options are arranged well on the screen and it’s easy enough to see what is selected. The audio loop is short and features no fading in/out however. It also restarts with every selection so the constant cuing up of the track can get a little grating if you use the setup menu for audio and subtitle selection. Scene access is also a little irritating since each episode features its own page. The pages only feature “back” and “next” commands so the viewer will have to scroll through the pages until they get to the desired episode. Fortunately, the viewer can zoom past these annoyances as the access times are fast.
The first disc features textless opening and closing credits and… that’s it for extras.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Legend has it that a there is an immortal creature with unimaginable powers and once caught, can bring immortality to mortal men. This phoenix is witness to the best and worst aspects of humanity as it effortlessly passes through time. A young boy who’s witnessed the destruction of his village, an amnesiac who’s fallen in love with a scrapped robot, a princess longing for vindication, a prince given the face of a wolf and a man granted immortality in the midst of armageddon: Even though they’re all separated by time and space, every one of them will have their lives changed by the phoenix.
If there is any problem with Phoenix, it’s that it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. This seems like a minor complaint since this is an anthology show, and variety is always welcome. The stories have wildly different tones though, and it doesn’t flow at all despite narration which constantly states the contrary. In the end, the only link between all stories seems to be the phoenix itself which acts as a jumping off point.
The first story spans the first four episodes and plays out fairly well. Set during ancient times, the audience is privy to a virtual genocide at the hands of a vain ruler and then watches as the remaining members of the tribe struggle with plots for vengeance and repopulation. The politics found in this story are fascinating and the characters are believable, but the lightning-fast pace and long gaps in the tale don’t leave much room for deep characters. This wouldn’t pose much of a problem but the frequent death scenes seem over-the-top since the audience is likely not as invested in the character as the writer would have liked.
The second story follows an amnesiac who falls in love with a robot he finds in a trash heap and attempts to run away with it while piecing together his past. The story presents a nice message on perception along with a well-structured sci-fi tale of intrigue. Spanning across two episodes, this is one of the strongest stories and really has no problems in the plot.
The third single-episode story features a young princess raised as a prince with a dying father. A mystic assures that she can heal the ailing ruler much to the chagrin of the princess who wants the man that ruined her childhood dead. She decides the death of the mystic is warranted if it means she can be free of her father. Part horror story, part mystic tale- this is probably the most blatant morality tale of the bunch and features an engrossing plot with an ingenious twist. Unfortunately, the twist is ruined when it is revealed with a minute-long speech that overexplains everything with some of the most cliché theatrics you can imagine.
It was at this point that the show began to feel more like The Twlight Zone than ‘Classic Literary Tales’ and I welcomed the change since the stories, although shorter were more engaging. This comparison to Twilight Zone was no doubt assisted by story introductions featuring the cosmos and omniscient narration that would make Rod Serling proud… or sue for theft of intellectual property.
It was somewhat disheartening to see the next story arc about a brutalized prince given the head of a wolf was three episodes long and went back to some of the epic themes of the first story. Fortunately, this tale is far more original and contains many interesting ideas involving mysticism and religion. It also appears the most honest in its moral message and contains impressively fluid animation when battles emerge.
The final two-episode story arc focuses on a man who witnesses the death of humanity which has relegated itself to three underground cities after ruining the surface of the Earth. Unfortunately, the man is then granted immortality and lives a lonely existence trying to bring back life to the scorched Earth. Of all the parables presented in the series, the final episode offers the strongest statements about life and society from over-reliance on technology to the wasteful nature of humanity. The romantic relationship, oddly enough, is the most engaging even though it’s given the least amount of exposition. Scenes of sacrifice and symbolic images manage to convey the connection far better than any of the slight back-stories contained in the previous episodes.
If this review is a bit random, it’s because that’s precisely how the show hit this reviewer. Fortunately, every tale of morality is engaging in its own way and manages to provide a lesson worthy of the Bible without being “preachy.” I’ve always admired Tezuka’s story-telling abilities but had a problem with some of his simplistic or outlandish character designs. The biggest hurdle I faced while watching this show was accepting these fairly dark storylines with traditionally “cartoonish” characters. After a while, I was caught up in the stories though, and although the tone is often dark, hope can be found in every part of these statements on life and its difficulties.
Several stories had me wishing they were their own series so they could be longer and more fleshed out. Even though that might seem slightly negative, any show that leaves you wanting more can’t be that bad. Although the concepts aren’t entirely original, the stories are well-constructed and each is memorable in their own way.
Phoenix features an assembly of stories that showcase a master storyteller at work. Although the individual pieces of each story couldn’t be called original, they are all woven together to present a series that feels fresh and offers incisive moral messages without speaking at its audience. The only minor problem the show faces is that it doesn’t flow well from story to story. This wouldn’t usually be a problem for an anthology series, but the show is presented like its creators had higher ambitions. The video and audio on this release are both well above par, but the packaging is a bit problematic with poorly conceived artwork and a flimsy box. Still at such a low price point, Phoenix is well worth a purchase for those interested.
Japanese 5.1 anguage, Japanese 2.0 Language, English 5.1 Language, English 2.0 Language, English Subtitles
37” Olevia 16:9 LCD HDTV, Sony Playstation 3 (upconverted to 720p through HDMI), Yamaha YSP-900 Digital Sound Projector