Record of Lodoss War Anime Review
War Chronicle of Lodoss Island
US Release By
13 30-minute episodes
1990-06-30 - 1991-11-23
In the mists of legend the mythical island continent of Lodoss was torn away from the mainland during the war between Falis, god of light, and Falaris, god of darkness. But that peace, won at great cost in the distant past, is threatened by an evil force looming over the land. The evil rulers of the island Marmo are preparing their conquest of the peaceful kingdoms of Lodoss. But they are not the only threat--a mighty sorceress from a time long ago also has a hand in the dealings, and there may be an even more powerful force threatening all that is good. It will be up to a band of young warriors, misfits brought together by fortune, to find the source of the darkness and stop the evil that threatens Lodoss.
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Record of Lodoss War is almost a spectacular fantasy epic. It manages the epic scale, the plot is filled with war, heroes, and political intrigue, the art is beautiful, and the music is the stuff of quality fantasy. Unfortunately, even 13 OAVs wasn't nearly enough to complete the story, so the second half ends up being rushed and rather unsatisfying, the Dungeons & Dragons roots of the fantasy setting are all too obvious, the plot is almost devoid of surprises, and the animation is cheap at best, nonexistent at worst. Also watch out for the English dub--though not bad, it's rather flat, where the Japanese dialogue takes up some of the slack in otherwise lackluster scenes.
The bottom line will depend quite a bit on your taste; I found it watchable and at times good, but predictable, rather uncreative, a bit cheesy, and basically just not all that interesting. However, it is classic fantasy done to the hilt (pun intended), and it's hugely popular among fantasy fans, so if that's your cup of tea, or if epic scale, grand story, and attractive art sound worth it, you should give it a shot.
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Record of Lodoss War was very popular in Japan, and has also done well in the US, so I had fairly high hopes going in--if nothing else, a 13-episode epic fantasy OAV has a lot to work with. I was swept up by the opening credits--attractive visuals and a beautiful song full of wanderlust and journeys to distant lands. Unfortunately, pretty much everything from there on was downhill, so I'll warn you up front: I'm going to take an unpopular viewpoint when I say that I was disappointed. I've certainly seen worse, and there aren't many glaring flaws, but with the length and scope Record of Lodoss War has going for it, it could have been much better.
To start with, the setting is not exactly what you'd call original--based on a very popular (in Japan) series of novels, Record of Lodoss War is about as classic as fantasy can get, and not in a good way. A lot of the story is obviously based on Tolkien, and anyone who played the old Dungeons & Dragons game will be immediately at home in the land of Lodoss--there are clerics, elves, magic-users, fighters, thieves, dwarves, and dragons, and all of them behave exactly as you would expect them to. This is hardly a surprise, since the novels were actually an extension of some short stories that were in turn based on, yes, a D&D game.
This gaming-table-to-anime lineage has a certain amount of appeal for a fan of tabletop RPGs like myself, but the heritage is so obvious it borders on cheesy. You can practically hear someone saying, behind the character's voice, "Hi, guys, I'll be playing Parn the fighter." Again, that's not reason enough to dismiss it (some players may like it even more for that reason), but to me it felt a little flimsy.
The characters themselves are a likable bunch--some classic Dwarf/Elf antagonism, an antagonistic but sort of sweet romance between the hero and a spunky elf, and a tad more romantic depth behind the quiet wizard than I was expecting. Also on the positive side, the classic fantasy archetypes are by definition a little different from the standard anime fantasy mold--many of them are quite a bit more mature than the average anime hero. (Hey, and the cleric is a guy... not a very masculine guy, but still a guy.)
Along the same lines, the heroes tend to be less hot-tempered than anime-standard. Even Parn, though not what you'd call levelheaded, develops a bit of grit and determination eventually. It was also nice to see a real collection of heroes rather than one young studly guy with a bunch of backup. Parn has a few big hero scenes, but he isn't nearly the ultimate swordsman that a lot of youthful anime protagonists end up being, and many of the other characters (including some I wasn't expecting to do much, like King Kashue) play major roles in the story--a big plus.
Later in the series, there is some interesting interaction between a couple of the bad guys and some fairly good stuff involving a Berserker and his companion that get involved with the group. The banter also isn't bad, and keeps the mood light enough early on without getting in the way of the otherwise serious plot.
As for that plot, I'll give it a definite "not terrible." The first episode takes up a little ways into the story, and is almost laughably formulaic: Crawl through dwarven ruins, fight gargoyles, avoid trap, battle dragon, watch for falling rock. That out of the way, it gets much better--we go back to the beginning and a more leisurely plot-driven mode. The intent is basically a Hobbit-like story that starts small--with a few unruly adventurers--and builds into a grand battle between good and evil. As the title implies, the story is also built around a detailed fantasy war epic.
Although the two facets of the story work well together, it only partially succeeds on either level. On the successful end, the war story has the sort of political details, interesting villains, and collections of heroes, both small and large, that add up to an interesting tale for those who enjoy that sort of thing. The epic hero half features a decent assortment of characters brought together for a collection of adventures, and an appealing sense that they're only part of a much greater whole (as I mentioned above, a lot of non-central characters do important stuff).
There are plenty of negatives to go around, though. For one thing, none of it is original; again, it owes a lot to RPGs which are in turn heavily influenced by Tolkien, for both good and bad. With the exception of that initial bout of non-linearity, the storytelling is very straightforward and the attempts to be deep or clever seem forced (or at least overwritten) more often than not. The motives and power struggle among the villains provides some mystery, but in the entire series there is a grand total of one properly surprising plot twist, and maybe three lesser ones.
The series has a hefty 6 hours to build up momentum, but that ends up being both and advantage and a disadvantage. It provides plenty of time for leisurely development, but I found it a bit tedious after a while, and if the plot doesn't hook you, it could get downright boring. Worse still, the story was cut short anyway; the second half of the OAV series drastically compresses the original story in an attempt to wrap everything up. This results in a rushed closing half and a vaguely unsatisfying ending.
The ending is unsatisfying because it wasn't really supposed to be the end, and that's where the TV version comes in. The beginning of the TV series re-tells a somewhat different version of the second half of the OAVs, then continues on to the "real" end. It's confusing no matter how you cut it, and if you wanted to get the best of both worlds you'd probably want to stop watching the OAVs at the halfway point and switch to the TV version.
Getting back on track, I'm willing to give predictable and unoriginal fantasy a lot of leeway if it's visually impressive, but sadly the visuals are Record of Lodoss War's weakest point. The character designs are quite good--Deedlit and most of the female characters have sharp, attractive features, and the more aged male characters--Slayn, for example--are equally appealing. The character art is certainly no slouch, and there are some creative backgrounds and nice one-shot visuals (a slow pan away from a pensive dragon and priestess early on, for example). Unfortunately, most of the backgrounds are generic, a lot of the minor characters and monsters are average at best, and some of the dragons come across as chunky and rather stiff.
Those last complaints are all symptoms of the tragic lack of budget that Record of Lodoss War suffers from. The chopped-up endgame is another symptom, but the most disfiguring effect is the animation--it stretches the budget of two or three pricey OAV installments over a 13-part series. Honestly, the amount of motion ranges from so-so (in some of the first episodes) to absolutely abysmal, and it robs the grand story of much of its impact. Early on, the lack of animation could be overlooked as an attempt to be artistic, but as the scale of the story grows it gets harder and harder to ignore. It's frankly kind of sad when you see a climactic dragon battle coming and you just know that the animators didn't have the budget to put anything exciting onscreen. The quality art is nearly enough to pick up some slack, but the scale of the story demands exciting battles and lush visuals, both of which are conspicuously absent in all but a couple of scenes.
So we've got a grand but not-terribly-clever story, decent but not-terribly-deep characters, and visuals that don't manage to compensate for either. What tips the balance one way or the other is the acting.
In Japanese both the casting and acting are solid. If you ignore Takeshi Kusao's over-the-top performance as Parn, the vocals carry the series--the acting makes the characters feel more three-dimensional and keeps the drama relatively engaging.
The English dub is not on the same level. The casting matches up well with the Japanese (particularly Slayn) and the acting isn't bad, but the dialogue is a bit awkward and the general lack of force behind the performances accentuates the weaknesses in the rest of the production. In some cases, where a scene doesn't have much else going for it, the dubbed version feels rather flat, while the Japanese acting is good enough to make it interesting. Basically, the English version doesn't do any damage, but the Japanese version is good enough to bring the whole thing up a notch.
The music is the series' other strength. The beautiful opening theme, written by Akino Arai and sung by Sherry, captures more of the spirit of adventure than anything else in the production. Sherry also sings the appealing, slightly melancholy end theme, which is accompanied by attractive, storybook-like visuals. Mitsuo Hagita's classically-inspired background score is nicely orchestral and a perfect fit. Unfortunately, the background music is repetitive--one dramatic theme in particular is used over and over, so even though it's good it gets rather wearing after about the twentieth time you hear it.
Overall, Record of Lodoss War does a passable job at what it's trying to do, and it does its darnedest to work with a low budget and not enough length to complete the story. Unfortunately, it suffers from a lot of mediocrity and definitely doesn't live up to its hype or potential. That said, there are a lot of people who like this series a whole lot more than I did, so I think it's safe to say that if you are a diehard fantasy fan, and can overlook the cheap animation, you'll probably love it. For some others, the epic scale, grand story, attractive art, or good Japanese acting might make it worth a try. Otherwise, I'd say it's too long and just not exciting, attractive, or satisfying enough to be worth the effort.
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First of all, there is the Record of Lodoss War TV series, Chronicles of the Heroic Knight, which greatly fills out and completes the story started in the OAVs. The Legend of Crystania movie and OAV series also take place in another part of the same world as Lodoss Island. Lodoss War is also somewhat similar to the more shoujo-flavored Heroic Legend of Arslan, which is generally better. The solid and amusing series Rune Soldier Louie has a similarly classic RPG feel (and the same creator), but with a humorous lean; Gestalt is another fun comedy take on the same material. And there's the video game based Fire Emblem, which, although somewhat cheesier and never completed, actually has some budget. Finally, Escaflowne, though it involves many semi-sci-fi things, is still an appealing mostly-fantasy epic that shares some themes and flavor.
Notes and Trivia
Record of Lodoss War is based on a series of novels by Ryo Mizuno, with illustrations by Yutaka Izubuchi. If you go back to the root, the novels were based on "replay records"--essentially a book-form transcript of an actual tabletop Dungeons & Dragons game, in which Ryo Mizuno was the DM. The novels also spawned a number of manga adaptations, available in English from Central Park Media until that company's demise.
The story after the middle of the OAV series diverges somewhat from the original in order to make it fit into 13 episodes. A more faithful version is taken up in the 27-episode Record of Lodoss War TV series, which begins by retelling the second half of this series for its first few episodes, then jumps forward several years and continues on.
In addition to the manga adaptation(s) and the mostly-sequel TV series, there were also a number of rulebooks and supplements for tabletop RPGs, several video game adaptations ranging from the PC98 through the Dreamcast, a radio drama, and assorted artbooks, sourcebooks, and soundtrack and image albums. Of all these, only the Dreamcast game ever saw release in English. The earliest video game, interestingly, predates the anime adaptation by a couple of years.
There is also the Legend of Crystania movie and 3-episode OAV series, which are essentially a spin-off sequel following a couple of characters to another land elsewhere in the same world. Rune Soldier Louie is also by Ryo Mizuno, and despite being a comedy apparently is supposed to take place in the same world, somewhere far from Lodoss Island.
The opening and end themes, Adèsso e Fortuna and Fantasia of the Wind, are both credited as being sung by Sherry. That was a pre-debut pseudonym for the prolific J-pop singer Izumi Katou. Adèsso e Fortuna was her first single, and the only work sold under that name. The opening was written by singer-songwriter Akino Arai, better known for her own etherial singing. Arai even performed a version of Adèsso e Fortuna on one of her albums.
After Central Park Media went bankrupt, Media Blasters announced that they had obtained the rights to both Lodoss War anime adaptations. Sadly, they never actually released either; a reason was never given.
Among the bonus materials on the DVDs (also on the first VHS volume) is a live action short chronicling the premier of the first OAV installment, shown in a theater as a promotional gimmick. Though interesting, the reverential comments that the fans leaving the theater make strike me as a little blinded by fandom given the relatively mediocre first episode they'd just seen.
US DVD Review
USM's original DVD set was minimal but a good deal--you got the entire series on two DVDs that come in a nice little outer slipcase. The discs feature fairly good video transfers (particularly considering the older source material), decent audio in both languages, a subtitle track, and nothing else. There aren't even any previews in the menus--just a chapter index. A minor annoyance was that the episodes were put together in the same way as the VHS tapes; that is, you only see the opening/ending credits after every 2nd or 3rd episode (although all the previews are there). They also lack Japanese casts, as usual for USM's early DVDs.
The remastered "collector's series" version is an improvement, with a full compliment of extra features: Japanese promotional videos, an art gallery, "meet the heroes," scripts, cast list and credits, comics, and more.
Some violence, and generally serious situations putting it in at least the 10-up range, though I'd say 13-up.
Violence: 2 - A lot of war, but nothing very graphic.
Nudity: 1 - A loose outfit now and then, and one brief scene early on.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - Nothing of note.
Language: 1 - Some light profanity.
The 13 OAV episodes were available in North America from the late US Manga Corps on a remastered 2-disc collector's edition set. There was also an older 2-disc set with fewer extra features, and prior to that the series was available on six subtitled or dubbed VHS tapes.
All of the above are out of print now, but both DVD releases were easy enough to find at a reasonable price used on Amazon at last check: Record of Lodoss War - The Complete Series (Collector's Edition) and Record of Lodoss War - The Complete Series (original release)