Review for Fantastic Children: Complete Collection
How low do you usually let the price of a show drop, before you take a chance on it? When it comes to anime, especially a sci-fi mystery anime, I'm pretty quick off the mark, which makes my purchase of the Fantastic Children boxset a little odd. It was only when I saw it on sale for around £10 that I pounced like an energetic lemur. This 2004 anime has been out for several years now in the West, and in the UK courtesy of Beez, the rather splendid thick card boxset collecting the six individual volumes was released back in 2008. Back when originally released, the single discs would have been R.R.P.'d at £20 each. Most anime series sell out, or are deleted long before they get as heavily discounted as I found it. That indicates that this show probably didn't perform as well as it ought to have, and I begin to wonder why. It's an original animation, not adapted from a manga source, but what is immediately striking is that the character design looks very old, heavily inspired by the period of Tezuka, when characters were short, round-faced, with small noses, with great design variation, and not nearly as stylised and as aesthetically singular as the current vogue is in anime. It's a show that doesn't appeal when taken at face value, and didn't appeal to me when it was first released. But, design choices aren't as important as the actual story when it comes to anime, and character design can be offset by high production values. I did wonder why I was so hesitant when this show was first released, and now that I have the discs, I realise just why. Old-fashioned character design is the least of Fantastic Children's problems.
Through history, for the last five hundred years, enigmatic white-haired children appear, searching for a certain girl. The Children of Béfort are cloaked in mystery, shrouded in tragedy, and apparently ageless, never older than around 11 years. And as they have appeared time and again, seeking the young girl, they have in turn been sought as well. In 2012, a young boy named Thoma, heir to the guardianship of a tropical island, encounters a young girl named Helga and her friend Chitto. Both have escaped from a neighbouring island orphanage, but Helga is haunted by an image that she keeps painting. It signifies a mysterious place that she is compelled to visit, and with Chitto's dubious help, she keeps escaping from the orphanage, only to be recaptured. Thoma's entranced by this mysterious girl, and decides to help her, only to be drawn into an amazing adventure. For Helga's destiny is intertwined with that of the Children of Béfort, and the fate of two worlds depends on what happens next.
The episodes are distributed as follows…
1. From the Edge of Night
2. Wayward Feelings
3. The Place I Want to Go to
5. Kokkori Island (Part 1)
6. Kokkori Island (Part 2)
7. The Children of Béfort
8. A Warm Family
10. The Ged Group
11. A Special Person
13. Memories of Greecia
14. The Path
16. Return, Into the Mist
19. The Vow
20. Revolving Lives
24. The Truth About Thoma
25. To The Zone
26. The End, And Then the Beginning
Fantastic Children gets a 4:3 regular transfer, which once you get past the disc authoring shenanigans is pleasant enough. It's clear and relatively sharp throughout, NTSC-PAL issues taken into account, and the show has a rather muted pastel colour scheme that brings forth just the right air of mystery and suspense. The world design is simple but effective, while there are touches of art and imagination that on occasion break free of the constraints of the animation. It's the character designs that are the most limiting and disappointing. Fantastic Children is apparently an original story from 2004, but the characters look as if they belong in an animation 30 years older. They are very much from the Osamu Tezuka school of character design, shorter, stockier, with very distinctive and simplistic features. Also, facial animation is quite limited, or rather the story doesn't call for a lot of variety of emotion, and there are moments when speech isn't even animated. That contrasts with an overall fluidity of character animation, with a much more modern sensibility. It's a collision of two styles that doesn't work as well as it should, and has done before in films like Metropolis.
Beez being a European company, it's no surprise that you have more of a choice here than with the usual anime distributor. You can choose from English, French, and Japanese DD 2.0 stereo audio, with optional translated French and English subtitles. I went with the Japanese audio with English subtitles quite naturally, and found it to be acceptable, although this isn't a story that demands too great a range from the actors. There's a lot of pensive, and a lot of stunned, and plenty of gasps of disbelief. The theme songs are very evocative, and suit the story down to a tee. The opening song is rousing and invigorating, if a little generic, but the end theme from Origa has an ethereal wonder to it that really captures a mood. Unfortunately the same can't be said of the incidental music, which is tedious, plodding and repetitive. I did notice an occasional typo in the subtitles, but nothing too egregious.
I know I usually avoid English dubs, preferring just to sample them and comment on how acceptable or not they may be. I have something of a scale of good to bad, but Fantastic Children's English dub is off the scale, it's excruciating, it redefines bad to a whole new level. The reason of course is that Bandai didn't commission a new English dub when they bought the licence, they just used the existing one, recorded by a company in Singapore for the Far Eastern market. When you are selling a series to a large, diverse, multilingual region as in South East Asia, it's convenient that English is everyone's second language. That also means that no one speaks it all that fluently, at least in comparison to UK or US audiences. What is passable for them isn't even tolerable for us. At least what I heard of the French dub at least sounded as if actual actors performed it.
All six individual volumes are collected into a sturdy card construction, a really quite attractive art box depicting the show's characters and scenes. It opens at the middle, with the top half sliding off the bottom and allowing access to the individual Amaray cases. There is a blurb sheet slipped under the cellophane, and the BBFC rating is attached as a sticker that is easy to peel off.
If the dub isn't bad enough, another reason why this series may not have found many to appreciate it, may be that the discs are authored by the hard of thinking. A normal disc would just have the episodes on it sequentially ordered, and you could just play all the way through. Not here. Someone has decided to split everything up. The episodes proper are all in one chunk. The opening credit sequences are in another chunk, the closing credits are in yet another chunk, and the previews in another, with the extras bunched together after that. Playing an episode involves jumping forward to the opening credits, jumping back to the episode, jumping ahead to the end credits, jumping elsewhere for the preview… As you can guess, there is a whole lot of disc crunching and grinding involved. It's even worse if you select Play All. Only someone had the half-baked idea or running the episodes through like a movie, but only omitted the opening credits after the first episode, all the end credits and previews are still in there.
As always, I was watching in Japanese with the English subtitles, but in five out of the six discs, the subtitle stream automatically switched to French after the layer change. Normally I'd just select Play All and sit back, but these are discs that instead of keeping the Play All option on the front menu screen, sticks it with the episode select, and it's actually more convenient with all the grinding and clicking, to watch each episode individually. Note that you can't just go to episode select, go straight to the chapter listing and play the first episode on the disc, you have to go through the rigmarole of actually selecting which episode you want to watch first, otherwise you get a black screen and the disc hangs.
As Beez is a European company, inserting the discs start you off with an option of English and French menu screens. The animated menus that the discs get are quite splendid, although the transitions get long pretty quick. The one disc that didn't have the subtitle swap nonsense, disc 4, actually hangs on the main menu screen when it gets to the end of the music loop, you can't select any of the options or navigate the disc, use any other of your remote buttons until you press play and start the menu screen loop again.
The extras on disc 1 include the textless credits, a Production Settings slideshow art gallery that runs for just under 4 minutes, and trailers for other Beez product, including .hack//Legend of Twilight, My Hime, Panda Z, and Wolf's Rain. The French menu offers you the trailer for Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig (released in the UK by Manga), instead of that for Wolf's Rain.
Volume 1 also offers an 8-page booklet that offers character descriptions and an insight into the show's story. It's well worth leaving this till the end of the series, as it offers far too many spoilers in my opinion.
Volume 6 offers a six-minute epilogue to the story, which is a must watch as it resolves the few remaining loose ends when it comes to the show's characters.
You'll also find trailers here for Mobile Suit Gundam Seed Destiny, Eureka Seven, My Hime, and .hack//Legend of Twilight, while the French Menu offers trailers for Midori Days, Wolf's Rain and Witch Hunter Robin instead.
The remaining discs just offer textless credits and trailers for Wolf's Rain, Mobile Suit Gundam Seed Destiny, Eureka 7, Witch Hunter Robin, Planetes, Stratos 4, Yukikaze, s-CRY-ed (replaced by Hare+Guu in the French Menus on Volume 3), .hack//Sign, Panda Z, IGPX (with Candidate for Goddess and Midori Days in the French Menus for Volume 4), and My Hime.
Spoilers! Everything about this series screams spoilers. What I am about to write here will no doubt spoil much of the show for people, the little synopsis I wrote at the top of the review is probably about five sentences too long. The booklet slipped inside Volume 1 gives far too much away. Even the blurb on the back of the DVD cases, even the artwork on the cover drops massive hints about what lies within, hints that if you are aware of, diminish your appreciation for the revelations when they do come. It got me wondering just why this is so. Other series with similarly enigmatic plots get along just fine with promotional material and reviews going into some of the intricacies of the tale. With detective mysteries, it isn't that the butler did it, it's how and why he did it that are more important. So why the disdain at even the slightest hint or clue to the mystery of Fantastic Children? It then dawned on me; with Fantastic Children, the mystery is all that there is. Take that away and you are left with very little. Other series have character development, subplots, story arcs, swimsuit episodes, but Fantastic Children is all about, indeed only about the mystery, and without it, it's a very thin and unsatisfying series indeed. Fortunately, the mystery is more than enough to hold the attention, it's downright compelling to boot. You'll be "just one episode more"-ing your way through the collection before you know it.
The problem with Fantastic Children is that it isn't just the character design ethos that is archaic. The animation may have 21st century sensibilities, is fluid and blends well with 3D CG elements, but the simplicity of the story, the lack of character development, the reliance on grand melodrama instead of subtlety of emotion, and the prevalence of archetypes instead of characters all speaks to an earlier, simpler age. This is storytelling from the fifties and sixties, and it may appeal if you have a sense of nostalgia, and appreciation for all things Astro Boy or similar shows from that era. Some of its concepts do feel modern, based on a more recent sci-fi worldview, and its idea of parallel worlds, the afterlife, and reincarnation do somewhat blend physics and metaphysics with a certain appeal. But then it will throw an element of far-fetched nonsense that comes from yesteryear, shrink rays and giants harking back to the Zentradi of Robotech, even while visually cribbing off the Contact movie. It's a melange of future retro that doesn't always work in my view.
The melodrama too gets strained at times, and it often appears as if the characters spend more time goggle-eyed, gasping in disbelief, than they do actually doing something. It became pretty comical at one point. But by the end of the show, the emotional bombardment and sheer stress actually pays off, as the show hits the perfect note for its conclusion. Fantastic Children may not have been the most diverting of rides to get to its finale, but that finale does make the ride all worthwhile. You even forgive all the contrivances and coincidences. It's almost as if the show has kicked, dragged, and beaten you into submission, to elicit the suitable emotional response at the critical moment. And I certainly don't begrudge it that, especially as it leaves on something of a high.
It may seem as if I have been unfairly harsh on Fantastic Children, but it's easy to talk about the negative sides. The positives about the show are the story, and the mystery, and if I even scratched the surface of those aspects, the show is then spoiled, and you may as well not bother with the discs. Fantastic Children is thin, exceedingly thin, but it manages to stand up well regardless. It's twice the length it really needs to be, some of the secondary characters that could have been developed more in the runtime, simply aren't, but taking the time out to watch the show is all justified by the conclusion. And even with all the spoilers and whatnot, I still found at least one genuine, unexpected plot revelation to appreciate. The trouble is that it's a one time only deal. The first time may be a blast, but I can foresee that re-watching Fantastic Children will be a severe disappointment. Fantastic Children is definitely worth renting. With discs authored this poorly though, and a rather flawed execution of a fascinating premise, I wouldn't recommend a purchase.