Romeo X Juliet: Volume 1
The bane of my youth was Shakespeare's Animated Tales. Somewhere, my brain got the idea that if I enjoyed animation so much, maybe I could partake of the bard in that medium, and take a short cut to appreciating the depth and grandeur of his work. Nothing could be further from the truth. Shakespeare's Animated Tales weren't all that animated and the stories were delivered with dull, po-faced intensity, with the word edutainment tattooed on their metaphorical brows. So when I heard of the anime version of Romeo and Juliet, my heart sank faster than the Titanic. More poorly animated edutainment, but this time in Japanese. Then I learned that it was a Gonzo animation. Well-animated edutainment, in Japanese, with whopping great CGI robots! The operative word being edutainment, something that still terrifies me more than a sadistic PE teacher.
Then something happened last year. I saw a series called Gankutsuou, the Japanese anime adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, and Gonzo, those purveyors of eye-candy animated it. It turns out that while Gonzo can do pretty animation in their sleep, they can also do deep, thoughtful and complex storylines, nuanced characterisation, and make it intelligent and entertaining to boot, without a hint of po-faced seriousness, or well-intentioned educational sincerity. Not to put too fine a point on it, they tell a damned good story. Suddenly, I was practically salivating over the prospect of Romeo X Juliet, to see what they would make of the most famous love story in the English-speaking world.
Romeo X Juliet is set in a fantasy realm of indeterminate time period, where Neo Verona is the centre of a vast continent, floating high in the sky, and where noblemen travel in style atop Pegasus like dragonhorses. It was 14 years previously that the Capulet family, rulers of Neo Verona were brutally slain by the Montagues, who usurped their throne and began a reign of tyranny. Only one heir to the Capulet name survived that night, a young girl named Juliet, and now as she nears her sixteenth birthday, she hides among the citizens of Neo Verona, disguised as a boy, protected by the surviving retainers of the Capulet family. And while Prince Montague's grip on the city ever tightens, his son Romeo is about to come of age. These two young hearts are set on a tragic collision course.
In Regions 1 and 4, Funimation and Madman released Romeo X Juliet in 2 two-disc sets. MVM have opted for four single volumes, released at a disc a month. This first disc has the first six episodes, along with some extra features.
1. Two People ~When They Meet~
The Montagues now rule the floating continent of Neo Verona, and they do so with an iron fist. They also have a distinct fear that the Capulets will return, which is why the authorities seek anyone with a hint of Capulet ancestry. When one innocent girl is about to fall victim to the sword, it's the dashing young Red Whirlwind who comes to the rescue. Watching the drama unfold from upon high, young Romeo Montague is inspired by the adventure, and when it looks as if the Red Whirlwind has been cornered, he decides to save him. Gratitude isn't forthcoming though, indeed the Red Whirlwind is aggrieved that the young noble didn't help the falsely accused girl in the first place. The Red Whirlwind is actually a young boy named Odin, who lives in a theatre where his adoptive family insist that he keeps a low profile. Which is why when the Red Whirlwind returns home he's due for a scolding. But there are secrets within secrets, for Odin is actually a young girl named Juliet. Juliet can't remember her past, but has been promised that she'll learn everything on her 16th birthday. Before her birthday though, there is the Rose Ball at the Neo Verona palace. Odin's friend Emilia has been invited, but she wants company. Of course she can't attract any rich suitors if she's on the arm of a handsome young boy, so she insists that Odin 'disguises' himself as a girl. Juliet is unprepared for the memories that the palace will awaken, and she's really unprepared to meet Romeo again.
2. The Promise ~A Scent Remembered~
Juliet escapes from the palace after learning Romeo's name, but all he knows of the young girl is that she smells like irises. It's an unwelcome distraction when his father, the Prince of Verona has arranged the ball just to announce his betrothal to Hermione. The next morning is Juliet's birthday, and for one day, she wants to be herself, not Odin, and she wants to find some irises. Irises only grow in few places in the city now, and it's to one such place that Romeo is drawn, recalling the mysterious girl from last night. Their third meeting is short, especially as Juliet has a birthday party to get to. But any whimsical thoughts of the young Montague will be short lived, as today is the day that Juliet learns of her past, that her last name is Capulet, that she is the last of the Capulets, and that the Montagues murdered her family. And there are still people who are loyal to her name, and would like to see her on the throne of Neo Verona.
3. Love ~Cruel Mischief~
The rush of memories is almost too much to take, as are the expectations and hopes that have suddenly been thrust upon Juliet. Even what seems like a pleasant daydream threatens to turn nasty, when Cordelia warns Juliet away from Romeo, telling her that dallying with a noble will definitely blow her cover. Affairs of the heart have to be forgotten, when a local doctor is arrested for being an associate of the Red Whirlwind. It's up to The Red Whirlwind to rescue him before he is tortured to death. Breaking into the gaol is one thing, breaking out again is another, and the disguised Juliet is shocked to face Romeo atop the prison building. Worse, Romeo is the son of Prince Montague! Romeo's in for a shock as well, as crossing blades with the criminal terror that his father wants caught, he suddenly smells irises.
4. Bashfulness ~Beaten by the Rain
Now both of them are confused. Juliet is depressed at learning who Romeo actually is, and torn between what she wants, and what is expected of her. Her friends and advisers want her to depose Montague and take back the throne, but she wants no part of their vengeance. At the same time, Romeo's best friend Benvolio has to issue a stark warning when Romeo opines that maybe the Red Whirlwind isn't such a bad man. Once again, it's irises that draw the two together. Romeo's dragonhorse is drawn by the scent to a cemetery, where Juliet, this time in disguise as Odin, is trying to find clarity of mind.
5. Whirlwind ~Burning Resolve~
The secret is out, well one of them at any rate. Romeo knows that Juliet and Odin are one and the same, although he only suspects about The Red Whirlwind. But while they are drawn into their own little orbit, more worrying things are afoot in Neo Verona, particularly the intensification of the hunt for the Red Whirlwind. Martial Law has been declared, people are being paid to inform on their neighbours, and when that doesn't work. The arrested suspects are sentenced to death by immolation, in an effort to draw The Red Whirlwind out. At the last minute, the freedom fighter appears, agonisingly watched by Juliet from the sidelines.
6. Hope ~Tomorrow Entrusted~
The Red Whirlwind defeated! But a new seed of rebellion has been planted in the city. Juliet is tormented at having someone die in her stead, but Romeo is just relieved that his faint suspicion was unfounded, and Juliet is safe and sound. Until she tells him that she can't see him anymore. Worse is to come for Neo Verona, as Montague intends to expand the police state, clamp down even harder on the populace. In council, the only person who stands up to him is the Mayor, Benvolio's father, but for his defiance, he and his family are stripped of their nobility and exiled. As Romeo bids farewell to his best friend, Montague has already arranged their assassination. But news of the plot becomes known to Juliet and her allies…
Better get the usual out of the way first. Romeo X Juliet gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, which as usual is an NTSC-PAL standards conversion, with all the associated issues. In addition to that, with 6 episodes, plus extras on one disc, compression artefacts were a tad more noticeable, particularly around scenes with busy motion, cloudy or foggy scenes, or fade outs and fade ins. It isn't all that pleasant when noticed, but thankfully it can be ignored. Otherwise the image is clear and vivid enough, although there is an overall softness to it, which I believe is intentional. The animation is astounding, approaching theatrical quality in terms of detail and vibrancy. There are very few static scenes here, the camera is used effectively and the fantasy world of Neo Verona is brought to striking life, with Gonzo's usual efficacy when it comes to combining 3D CG and traditional 2D animation. Value for money has to be balanced with quality transfers, and the trend in recent years has been towards value for money, hence the high episode count per disc. This series may have been better served across 6 discs, but of late, Funimation have been bringing out their series on Blu-ray as well. Upscales they may be, but it may be worth seeing how Romeo X Juliet looks in higher definition, and Romeo X Juliet was animated in native HD by Gonzo.
You have a choice between DD 2.0 Japanese, and DD 5.1 English along with optional translated subtitles and a signs only track. I first opted for the Japanese track, and as usual found it to be more than acceptable. Admittedly the stereo is a disappointment; for a show this extravagant there really ought to be a surround track worthy of the name. Especially when you consider the music. The themes are a suitable moving ballad opener, and something more rocky for the end credits, but the incidental music is stupendous, given the full orchestra, and really feeling like a proper Hollywood picture of yesteryear, full of rousing themes and gentle melodies. There's more than a bit of action as well that really could be elaborated on.
Then I tried an episode in the English dub, and found a revelation. This is one of those rare anime where the English dub actually sounds better than the original Japanese, at least to my ears. I was interested to see which way they would go with this, and thankfully they've avoided the temptation to go for the full Shakespearean dialogue. There are hints of it in the more formal dialect of the nobles, and you will find more than a few Shakespearean quotes as well. More importantly, other than a few incidental characters, the cast really excel, as if they realise that they have to up their games to live up to something really special. On more than one occasion I noticed characters that actually felt performed better in English, the playwright Willy is a case in point. In the Japanese version he's a rather camp and effeminate stereotype, but in the English dub he develops a wicked way with the language, and a delightfully sardonic attitude. Maybe it's just that Shakespeare is best served in English…
You have a nice, easily navigable menu and your usual jacket picture, but for some bizarre reason, the episode titles differ from menu to actual programme.
The Making of Romeo X Juliet lasts 27 minutes, and is a preview show for the series. It's presented by the voice actors for Cordelia and Antonio, Miyu Matsuki and Ryou Hirohashi, and they offer clips from the earlier episodes, a background to the story, and how the adaptation differs from the original play, a background to the world of Neo Verona, and plenty of interviews with the cast and the crew. It's all rounded off with a trip to Australia, to see the orchestra record the show's soundtrack.
There is an Art Gallery to scroll through, with 47 images, consisting of Japanese DVD covers, concept art, and line art.
You get the textless credits, and trailers for the Gravitation OVA, and Daphne in the Brilliant Blue.
Romeo X Juliet joins a rather rare breed of show in my library. Like Berserk, I find it to be a show that I am very reluctant to watch. It's a chore to put a disc in my player, and an effort to press play, and I'll procrastinate like crazy when it comes to actually starting an episode. This may be for a completely irrational reason, or it may have some genuine basis. With Berserk, it was the age of the anime, and animation style that kept repelling me, with Romeo X Juliet; I fear it's that edutainment tag that still seems to persist. I feel that by watching something with the word Shakespeare associated with it, I ought to be bettering myself as a person. I say it's a rare breed, as while there are many shows that I am reluctant to watch, this one, like Berserk is one where if I start watching it, I simply can't tear myself away. MVM are surely onto a winner here, as it takes a monumental effort to balls up something as iconic as Romeo and Juliet. This has quality written all over it, and is probably the best show that they have released in two years, at least since Black Lagoon.
I think the story of the star-crossed lovers is so ingrained in British culture that it's hardly worth going into the central story. But what Gonzo have done is really quite smart, in that they've taken this central story, and built a whole new structure around it, and by doing so gotten shot of those inconsistencies that would most likely not play too well to modern audiences. This is a whole new world, a whole new back-story, and a whole new direction for the tale. Montague is now the prince of Neo Verona, having deposed the Capulets and killed the family. In a parallel to the story of the Russian Royal Family, Juliet is now the equivalent of Anastasia, the sole survivor, and the 'true' heir to the throne, hidden and protected for fourteen years by her few surviving retainers. Of course she knows nothing of her family's past. The Montagues are elevated to the leaders of Neo Verona, and the prince is a tyrannical leader indeed. His son Romeo is probably too young to know of the past, and other than his father's continued search for the one Capulet that got away, he has no reason to hate them. So it's actually a little more plausible for the two to meet and fall in love.
With the balance of power shifted, it becomes a story about an upright rebellion against a brutal tyranny, especially with Juliet donning the disguise of The Red Whirlwind and going out to fight for the common people. It becomes a tale of the state versus the freedom fighters. Montague is obsessed with garnering ever more power and maintaining his iron-fisted rule over the people. He elevates his toadies to nobility, and deals harshly with his critics, and passes ever more draconian laws to govern the citizenry. As the story progresses, we see the establishment becoming more and more arbitrary with the way it abuses its authority, we see spies within the populace, we see citizens paid to inform on their neighbours. Against such misrule, rebellious intent festers, and while at the heart of it, the Capulet family work to restore Juliet to the throne, gradually more and more figures in the populace turn to their cause.
Machiavellian machination and subversive politics are the rich backdrop against which the simple tale of two young people falling in love is told. It's a quirky, poignant tale as well, as both Romeo and Juliet are portrayed as likeable characters. Romeo obviously realises his father's excesses. He has a far greater sympathy for the people, and he's obviously trying to escape from the atmosphere of fear that pervades the royal court. He may be betrothed to the daughter of an influential family, but he only really tolerates Hermione, whereas he's first enthused by the heroics of the Red Whirlwind, and then entranced by the charms of Juliet. At the same time, Juliet has been raised all her life as a boy, told to hide her true identity, and to be wary of the world outside the theatre in which she has taken refuge. That she still stands up to tyranny, even if it is in the guise of the Red Whirlwind indicates the strength of her character, but it's when she meets Romeo that her world begins to change. All of a sudden, this tomboyish ruffian begins to blossom as a young girl, and as well as discovering first love, it's also as if she is discovering her true self for the first time. Of course the real world is never too far away, threatening to throw a spanner in the works.
If there is something that bugs me at this point, it's the polarisation of character. The Capulets as the aggrieved party are whiter than white, and as Juliet's protector exclaims, their purpose is not one so petty as simple revenge. They will right a wrong and bring peace back to the people of Neo Verona. Far more annoying to me is the portrayal of Prince Montague; an utter bastard of a villain if ever there was one, and how he manages to refrain from twirling his moustache is an enigma. If there is one thing I dislike, it's villains who are villainous for no real reason. It seems that at any moment, he threatens to laugh maniacally and stroke a white cat, and that would be that. Fortunately, there are still eighteen episodes to go, eighteen episodes in which dimension and depth could be given to either side. I suppose this is the greatest distinction of all, one that truly separates it from the original play, and probably the change that will make the show most amenable to modern audience sensibilities. We young-uns like our good guys and bad guys so we know who to root for. And with such a drastic change so early on, maybe they've changed the ending as well… Naah, they wouldn't do that… Still, if you are aggrieved by this departure from the original text, there is always Basilisk, also from Gonzo and MVM, which is a far more faithful retelling of Romeo and Juliet, albeit with ninjas.
Romeo X Juliet is a rousing start to 2010 when it comes to anime. Despite its flaws, it's a rich and lush animation, a wonderful fantasy world brought to vivid life. The storytelling is sublime, it's thrilling, enthralling, entertaining and enchanting. It promises to be an outstanding update of a classic love story, and judging by this first volume, it really should be on every anime collector's shelf.