Sunday, September 12, 2010

El Hazard : The Magnificent World (1995)

Back in 1992 Japanese animation studio AIC and Pioneer combined to make a fun and clever sci-fi romp called Tenchi Muyo!: Ryo Oki. It was a hit and propelled a similar concept, but this time with a bent more toward fantasy. The result was a series that surpassed its inspiration, but never really was as popular as its creators hoped.

One night a strange woman appears in the bizarre ruins recently found under a Japanese high school. She speaks to student Makoto Mizuhara (Eddie Frierson) and tells him that she’s slept for thousands of years only to awake at this moment to see him again and send him to El Hazard. Before Makoto can ask her what the heck she’s been smoking, the woman blasts the entire school with a blue beam of energy. Makoto finds himself in another world along with his teacher Mr. Fujisawa (Michael Sorich). The two are picked up the royal family of Roshtaria, and soon find themselves on a quest to save the kingdom. Along the way they find that two other students have been transported over. Nanami Jinnai (Lia Sargent) is grateful to be alive and with her friends. But her brother Katsuhiko Jinnai (R. Martin Klein) has joined the enemy and is bent on domination of El Hazard. Adventure and antics quickly ensue, and each of the earthlings finds that they have some special power to use. But will they ever be able to return home from El Hazard: The Magnificent World?

Good Points
  • Keeps a spirit of fun and humor throughout
  • Has one of the funniest dub scripts written for a 90’s anime
  • Lots of female anime gals in skimpy clothing
Bad Points
  • Suffers from padding in certain places
  • Some of the sex jokes and cross dressing can get old
  • None of the characters ever get fully fleshed out
El Hazard: The Magnificent World is one of the most fun and entertaining anime series of the 90’s. Most of that has to do with the hilarious dub script and actors who are up for it. Everyone gets into the parts and throws themselves in with Klein nearly stealing show as Jinnai. A clever final act twist adds a bit of poignancy to the series and gives it a good ending. While not a sterling example of Japanese animation, it is always entertaining and knows exactly how to deliver the goods.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Music: 3
English Voice Acting: 5
English Script: 5
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total: 5

In Depth Review

I’ll admit right away to having a certain bias toward the show. It was one of the first anime series viewed when I delved back into the medium in the mid 90’s. So it generates a lot of nostalgia. However, I can say that every time I watch it, I find it almost as entertaining and fun as the first time I popped it into my VCR. These days, I see that the show is out of print on DVD in the U.S. and hardly anyone talks about it. Part of that is because of the dismal sequels and spin offs that followed the first series.
In many ways El Hazard isn’t groundbreaking or new. The concept of humans being pulled into another dimension and attempting to survive has been around since the early days of fiction. Japanese animation went to this story well numerous times, with another successful series in the 90’s called The Vision of Escaflowne. But what makes this series so entertaining is the combination of script and voice acting. Just watch the Japanese dub to see what I mean.

The world design of the series is a unique combination of Arabian Nights, meets giant bugs, meets energy weapons, swords and sorcery. There are robots and technology, but no one on El Hazard really knows how to use it. Most of the combat is hand to hand or magic based. This type of world is very popular in Japanese animation and video games. Not only do you get our robots and laser guns but you get magic and marital arts. It works here a bit better than other incarnations I’ve seen. We are told that the world of El Hazard was technologically advanced but destroyed itself with its super weapons: The Eye of God and the Demon Goddess. The survivors abandoned the technology and embraced magic.

However there are certain deign elements that aren’t so interesting. The Eye of God is basically the Death Star from Star Wars with a few more protrusions and not filled with Stormtroopers. Some the vehicles are also inspired by George Lucas’ famed trilogy. It doesn’t help that the production company seemed to mine Skywalker Sound for many of the sound effects used in the series. The costumes are designed around the lines of Arabian Nights with that special anime ability to show off enough curves and skin for the females to keep male viewers drooling. It gets a bit gratuitous at times, but the creators knew who would be watching.

The music takes the Arabian Nights theme further sounding like it could have been composed for The Thief of Bagdad in places. It’s all done on synthesizers and sometimes gets into a droning style for suspense moments. The mixture works really well at times and less at others. The two end themes will test the endurance of even the most ardent fan of Japanese pop. They are performed in English but go from annoyingly cute to gratingly shrill.

For the most part the series director keeps the story moving along. There are a few moments of padding here and there, but nothing to stop the story cold. The first episode takes a little time to really get going, but be patient. The second episode hooks you with the adventure and comedy blend.

In Japanese El Hazard is a fun adventure with some humor, mostly mined from the fact that Mokoto happens to look just like the missing Princess Fatora. After some negotiations, he masquerades as the princess. The idea of a young Japanese man dressing as woman and pretending to be a princess holds a lot of humor to a Japanese audience as opposed to an American one. We see it as funny, but not in the same way a Japanese audience might. When you watch it in its original language the jokes center around the fact that he’s in drag. That’s it.

Another element of comedy comes from Fatora’s servant girl Alielle. Turns out she’s more than just a servant; she was Fatora’s lover. With Fatora gone Alielle is… well horny. She ends up hitting on and groping all the women she encounters. Again most of the jokes center on Alielle saying “ooh she’s cute” and then grabbing the woman’s breast. Some of it is funny, but most of it just kind of sits there.

Then there is the romance angle. Mokoto is a nice enough guy and this causes a few of the gals in the film to fall for him. Back on earth Nanami has a few lines about how she likes Mokoto. But there is also the fire priestess Shayla-Shayla, who has conflicted feelings about Mokoto. And then there is Ifurita, the deadly weapon. She’s a machine in the shape of a women (of course) who can blow up cities with a single well placed burst from her staff. But Mokoto, who’s special ability is to be able to operate El Hazard technology is able to understand her. And this creates a bond between the two, something that drives the finale and creates a very cool twist at the end.

Now usually I’m all for a direct translation of a Japanese script into English for anime. Get it as close as you can and keep it understandable. But with comedies, I’ve found that Japanese humor doesn’t always translate, especially the dialogue. So I’m willing to let the English dub get a little more freewheeling. It worked well from Ranma ½ and it works wonders here.
In English Mokoto’s discomfort dressed as Fatora is very funny with his voice actor Eddie Frierson capturing all the angst and embarrassment with his voice. His struggle to stay in character even when things are going horribly wrong is played with great skill. He even allows the character to show a bit more emotion when he discovers the only way to save El Hazard from destruction. It’s a powerful moment and Frierson really gets into it with his voice.

Alielle also gets a lift with her dialogue. When she first sees the priestess Shayla-Shayla standing on the cliff in kick-ass mode, in Japanese she said… “cute”. In English she purrs “Ohhhh, red hair!” This turns into a joke later when Fatora asks if Alielle has been faithful to her. “What about the red head?” she asks, as if this has come up before.

Those are the most basic examples and I could go on and on. Mr. Klien’s performance as Jinnai trumps his Japanese counterpart easily. He adds an extra bit of insanity to the voice and the laugh, transforming the young man from a power hungry jerk into a deranged nut job. It actually fits the animation of Jinnai a lot better and creates some hilarious moments all based on the over the top performance. Anyone who’s seen this series will always remember Jinnai and that laugh.

I also love Lia Sargent as Nanami. She’s got a very cute voice and she gets some hilarious lines when she deals with Mokoto and her brother Jinnai. Sargent worked on anime voice -overs for years and she’s always excellent, usually conveying innocence, kindness and perkiness just with her voice. Nanami isn’t her juiciest role, but it’s one of my favorites by her.

Last but not least is Michael Sorich as the drunken schoolteacher, Mr. Fujisawa. He gets so many good lines and delivers them with energy. He practically steals all the scenes he’s in and maybe one of may favorite comic characters in anime. Again, his acting seems to fit the character animation better than the Japanese voice actor and just elevates the humor to a new level. Great stuff.
You’ve got a great combination of adventure and comedy. They mix well and even when things get serious in the final episodes, the writers don’t forget to have Fujisawa or Jinnai get a couple good lines in.

I see some mediocre reviews for El Hazard and it usually turns out that the reviewers watched the Japanese version. I can see how it just doesn’t have the same appeal. Some of the animation isn’t the best. You get that panning over still frames that anime uses so often. You get reused power-up scenes for the priestesses. And some of the battle scenes happen off camera. These flaws melt away when you see it in English and it fires on all cylinders.

If you can rent it or find it, give the series a try. I hope it becomes available again, with that dub, because it still remains one of the most entertaining concoctions in anime and one of the reasons this medium flourished in the 1990’s.

And because I didn't have enough to say - check out my Nostalgia Nugget about the demise of the this show due to poorly executed sequels.

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