So, even though we are into 2009, there are some shows that have had a bit of a delay in their release. These shows I have nicknamed the “Geneon Orphans.” That is because it looked like they would be orphaned when Geneon went into their coma at the end of 2007. Fortunately for us all, the Genon Orphans were rescued when FUNimation stepped in and arranged a distribution deal with Geneon to see to the release of the remaining volumes of these shows.
Among these orphans are two shows which are now either continuing or have just completed their releases here in DVD Region 1: Rozen Maiden Träumend, and the next three volumes of the Story of Saiunkoku, which are being released as a set only. While these two shows are rather different in terms of style, characters, settings, and…well…just about everything, they do share one thing in common: they are both ensemble pieces.
That is not to deny that they also have strong lead presences, whose work is very important in establishing the general tenor, mood, and tone of these shows. Yet, these two shows also rely quite heavily on their supporting casts to achieve their objectives. If the supporting players were not voiced well, one’s enjoyment of these shows might be seriously affected.
Fortunately, that is not the case for either show. Both of them have good performances in both the lead roles and the supporting players.
Rozen Maiden Träumend
Dubbed by BangZoom! Entertainment, Burbank, CA.
Directed by Alex Von David.
While this dub has not received too much attention, those who are now appreciating Mr. Von David’s work with Lucky�Star should consider checking out this earlier directorial effort of his.
For those who might be unfamiliar with the first season of Rozen Maiden, the main protagonist, Jun Sakurada (Mona Marshall), a young traumatized shut-in, acquired a rather unique ball-jointed doll one day among the strange assortment of things he bought off the internet: this was the doll Shinku (Mela Lee). What made her unique was that once he had wound her up, she did not just repeat some set recorded phrase, but started to walk and talk as if she were a living being. That is because she was no ordinary doll. She was a Rozen Maiden, one of a legendary group of dolls made by the skilled dollmaker Rozen. I will not summarize the entire first season at this point. You can do your own research (such as reading the Mania reviews for the first three volumes: Rozen Maiden Volume 1 Rozen Maiden Volume 2 Rozen Maiden Volume 3)
Life in the Dollhouse:
While Jun and Shinku are the leading characters, they are not the only characters, and much of the action, especially in this second series, Träumend, involves the other characters as much as the lead pair. As the leads, however, Ms. Marshall and Ms. Lee provide well balanced and well executed performances that continue to capture the basic natures of these two individuals. Jun is furnished with the right amounts of frustration, exasperation, indignation, and long-suffering acceptance caused by the crazy antics of the Rozen Maidens, while balancing that with an honest and sincere concern for their wellbeing which comes out in the finely tuned deliveries given by Ms. Marshall. I would especially like to draw attention to some of the work she did in the final episode of the show, but I cannot point out too much in the way of particulars, since it might be consider a spoiler.
Ms. Lee maintains her air of self-assurance and confidence, traits very apparent in the first season, yet also manages to weave in some material that shows Shinku’s softer side at times. Especially when she begins to become more defensive about wishing everyone to continue just as they are, and not allow themselves to be sucked into the fight to the death contest that the Alice Game (the competition to see who gets to meet Father and become a real girl) is revealed to be. In episode 5, she gives a very good dramatic speech, perhaps a little overdramatic in delivery, but it is just about right in terms of emotional feel for that scene.
For the twins Suiseiseki (Reba West) and Souseiseki (Julie Ann Taylor), we also hear a continuation of what came before, but with a few twists, as Suiseiseki starts to show her softer side a lot more. I especially liked the way she delivered the obviously rather loosely adapted line “That’s right. Dance you monkey! Dance for me, you!” in episode 3. There was a real glee to it that was very fitting. In episode 5, she seems to be in full tsundere mode, going back and forth between the harsh and tender moments in her behavior. The much more subdued Souseiseki has her moments as well. As early as the second episode, Ms. Taylor has a serious and dramatic speech to make to Shinku about the Alice Game and the effect that it could have on their, at the time, seemingly idyllic existence. From both “Seki” actresses, we get to see the two play well off of each other in episode 8, especially from Ms. Taylor, who manages to infuse her deadpan delivery with the essence of Souseiseki’s feelings at the time: dogged determination, mixed with a sense of sadness and regret. That is not to say it is perfect. On occasion, both actresses seem a little too over the top in their deliveries, but on balance, they are fine.
There are a number of new characters that make their appearance in this second season of the show, several worth commenting upon.
First and foremost, we get two new dolls: the perfect comic foil that is Kanaria (Cristina Vee), and the cold and evil plotter, Bara-suishou (Tara Platt). Ms. Platt is the one who has less work to do. Bara-suishou is a rather one-dimensional villain, very flat and calculating. Ms. Platt more than ably handles the character. Kanaria could not be more different. While she might at first seem to be a new antagonist for the Rozen Maidens who are living in the orbit of Jun, instead, she is quickly revealed to be a comic foil. A bit of a high pitched crybaby in the mold of Hina-ichigo (Digression: Hinaichigo is well-voiced by the actress who plays her, but since she prefers to remain uncredited in this production, I will not openly discuss the performance), Kanaria has many an unfortunate, but laughter-inducing event happen to her (the gags involving her and food are particularly amusing). Ms. Vee does an excellent job of playing up the inherent silliness of the role. It is all too easy to get it wrong, but she does everything to get that silliness just right on many an occasion.
Along with new dolls, we do get new owners. Kanaria’s owner, Mi-chan (Jean Brown), is incredibly hyper and obsessed with the cuteness of the Rozen Maidens. Ms. Brown seems to enjoy playing the broad stereotype of her character, painting her in broad strokes that manage to make her vaguely interesting when she is really little more than a one-note character. The other new owner, whose doll I will not discuss for the moment, is the sad, sickly girl Meg, played by Erica Weinstein. Meg has a serious illness, one she has had since birth, which has warped her sensibilities to some degree. She has a deadly gallows humor that she unleashes on the nurse who often attends her, and says things that you would not normally expect from a poor, sickly girl lying in a hospital bed most of the time. Ms. Weinstein does a very good job, however, of making that dark personality sympathetic, not creepy.
Finally, we have the spoiler warning portion of the review. For those who have not yet seen the first season of Rozen Maiden, skip to the next paragraph. As those who have finished the first half of the franchise know, the main antagonist of the first season was a Rozen Maiden with a bad attitude by the name of Suigintou. Played with devilish delight by Mia Bradly, we thought we saw the end of that mean spirited little doll. But it was not the end. For it appears that Father has brought her back to life, or at least some one has, so that she might again wreak havoc in the Alice Game. Yet, something has happened to Suigintou. Something has changed. She can remember being made into “junk” by Shinku. It eats at her. Suigintou, largely a one-note villain in the first Rozen Maiden series, develops a deal of complexity. Do I smell a personality change? Well, not quite. But she develops into a far deeper and more nuanced character, and Ms. Bradly’s performance follows her changes very well. While Ms. Bradly has a talent for villains (see Last Exile), she has a much greater emotional range than the simple, preening venom that so many anime villains exude in place of any deeper characterization. While there are many occasions here where she will revert to her base type, especially in episodes 9 and 11, she also does a very good job of conveying her character’s hesitation and feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, combined with rage and resentment, as she comes to terms with her having to admit that she was defeat by, of all the dolls, Shinku. It is a very good performance that embodies the changed circumstances and conflicted feelings within the character.
The combined effect:
Which brings us to how to approach the dub as a whole. When breaking down a dub into its constituent parts (the roles), one can lose sight of how the dub works as a unit, which it most certainly is. There is great interplay between Jun and Suiseiseki; between Shinku and Suigintou; between the Seki Twins; and between all of the major characters as a group. While English dubs are recorded individually for the most part, the mark of a competent director is to give the appearance of those performers actually speaking to one another, not just into a microphone in isolation in a booth. Mr. Von David does a good job of that, as one gets a sense of these characters working together as a group, not just as isolated individuals.
A female-dominated ensemble is fairly normal for most anime. The vast majority of roles are females, reflecting, perhaps, the overwhelmingly male demographic of anime fans, especially in its homeland of Japan. On occasion, however, we get a show where the gender imbalance is tipped completely in the other direction. Ouran High School Host Club is an example of this. So is Death Note. Not anywhere as popular or high profile as those two titles, the Story of Saiunkoku provides us with yet another example. One, however, that is rather different from the two examples just cited. What it shares in common with them, and in a tangential way, with Rozen Maiden, is that it is also a show that depends heavily on the successful performance of the cast as an ensemble.
The Story of Saiunkoku, Part 2 (Volumes 4-6)
Dubbed by Ocean Productions, Vancouver, Canada.
Directed by Keith Goddard and Marc Matsumoto.
While easily dismissed as a “reverse harem” show by the ignorant, Saiunkoku is actually a complex political tale of ruthless backstabbing and intrigue, that does, yes, occasionally have some elements of reverse harem in it, something that is inevitable when you have a single attractive female surrounded constantly by a bevy of bishounen.
The King, his brother, and his one-time consort:
Brad Swaile continues to present us with the flip side to his evil Light Yagami from Death Note, getting to be the noble hero of the piece, King Ryuki Shi, except that his role is much diminished from the earlier set of episodes, though he is still present throughout most of these run of episodes. The silly, feckless boy is all gone now, however, replaced by the somewhat lovesick, yet intelligent and at times quite hard-headed ruler who must do his best for the country of Saiunkoku. He gets his best work in during episode 19, where he finally makes the rather bold move of openly confessing his feelings to Shurei Hong (Kelly Sheridan). There is yearning, there is sad resignation, but it is not dripping with maudlin overtones, nor is there any hint of histrionics. The presence of the latter might have ruined the tender emotion of the scene.
As his dashing older brother who is still hiding his true identity, Seiran Si, Andrew Francis, who recently won the ADR Award for his performance in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, does well in exploring more of his character’s backstory in these episodes, as we learn that his past, before he was taking in by the Hongs, was not a simple and straightforward path. Especially when we get into the travel episodes and then the incidents that occur in Sa Province, where bits of information seem to haunt Seiran, Mr. Francis does a good job of conveying his character’s discomfort along with his anger and rage against those who apparently treated him quite badly in the past. We do not yet get the entire backstory even in this set of episodes, so I look forward to learning more, though the major outlines of the story have been told.
I know it might seem odd to turn now to the true star of the show and center of attention, Shurei Hong, who continues to be given a lively and spirited portrayal by Kelly Sheridan, but that liveliness and spirit shows up best when placed next to the male performers who surround her. That is not to say that she does not have her individual standout moments. In episode 17, early in the first disc of this set, Ms. Sheridan gives a very powerful performance when she delivers a speech decrying her status as a sheltered princess. She ably manages the transitions between confidence and worry that she must navigate in that slew of words. Listen to the range of emotion she brings to her character. A couple episodes later, in response to that declaration of love from Ryuki Shi, Ms. Sheridan responds with the right amounts of both excitement and fear, as her character is both deeply moved, but also strongly unsettled, by the whole event. In the later episodes, she continues to provide Shurei Hong with the right amounts of spiritedness, but also confusion and anguish, as her character goes through a number of tense situations.
It is very hard to go through the whole thing role by role when you have a cast as large as this. So, I am going to briefly look at the dub as a whole now. Overall, the roles are well executed, even into the minor and incidental roles, a notable feat in a show that has this many male roles, and very few females (Chantal Strand returns from the first third of the series as little Korin, as cute as ever, even if she is not so innocent as we once thought; Janyse Jaud briefly appears again as the sexy bordello mistress Kocho, who is very good at being menacing when needed). If I do not really have too much more to say, it is because not too many other things struck me as I was watching. This might sound like a bad thing, but really, it is not. It speaks of the high overall quality of the show, and how seamlessly the actors inhabit most of their roles. As new characters and voices come into play with the ones already established in our minds, they come not as intruders, but merely new pieces of a larger puzzle that has some hint of a definite shape.
Even with directorial changes here (Karl Willems directed the earlier episodes; Keith Goddard and Marc Matsumoto handle most of the episodes from this section), Saiunkoku flows along well, without any real bumps along the journey. The line reads are smooth and natural. The emotional delivery is appropriate for the situations.
Saiunkoku is very much an ensemble piece. While the main leads may stand out a bit in our consciousness, the show itself would not work half as well if it was not for the whole galaxy of supporting players, whose efforts are what make it possible for the leads to shine.
In shows such as these two here under review, we sometimes fail to acknowledge how well integrated they are. We, the listener, are often on the lookout for the standout single performance. The one dramatic scene that wrests our attention and makes us bow before its power. Shows that do not have as many powerful moments, but instead present us with many smaller instances of competent artistry, we can often pass by without recognizing how well they are doing the job they have set out to do. So the next time you watch a show which appears to lack in bold, powerful set piece performances, go back, watch again, and try to find the little moments that make the entire production work as a whole.
Next time on Eigo Kudasai (English, please), we will be taking a look at several recently released dubs in our Monthly Roundup. See you then.