Strange Dawn Anime Review
US Release By
Schoolgirls in a Pint-sized Alternate World
13 25-minute episodes
2000-07-11 - 2000-10-02
Yuko and Eri are two average high school girls with a big problem: a princess in a mysterious world populated by tiny people has summoned them as "Great Protectors"--magical giants of legend who protect the land in a time of strife. And a time of strife it is; the kingdoms of Gliania and Valgidan share a hostile border, with the smaller kingdom of Tingle caught between the two.
The two girls, discovered by the people of an isolated village on the border, set out on a mission with a group of warriors from the village to find out what power brought them here and what might return them home. But there is a war brewing, and these two Great Protectors, like it or not, are the political tool that every faction lusts for to rally the people to their side.
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Strange Dawn is indeed very strange. On the surface it looks like any of a dozen fantasy-transplant-type anime series, but it's presented in an utterly straight-faced manner, with as much realism as the odd premise permits. The girls are thoroughly modern, disinterested, and have no special abilities whatsoever, the cute little folk have a wide variety of nuanced, well-developed personalities and plenty of very adult problems and flaws, and the world is on the brink of a war between several different factions with no clear good or bad guys. It's an odd idea, but the juxtaposition gives viewpoints easily dismissed as simplistic and childish more weight than those of leaders and warriors, shining light on how equally petty and silly both modern teenagers and adults, with all their layers of deception and tradition, are. Creative touches abound, from the design of the world to the fine art to the beautiful soundtrack. It's just a shame it ends by completely (and intentionally) dropping the plot in a maddeningly frustrating anti-climax just as it seems to be getting going. The only other rough spots are the information overload of the multitude of subplots, and a bizarre English dub with a mishmash of accents--stick to the Japanese version.
Strange Dawn is a fascinating series, and not for the children's audience Urban Vision apparently decided to (mis-)target it at. It's too offbeat to be for everybody, the non-ending is maddeningly abrupt, and it takes some getting used to, but as a fan of creativity and colorful, detailed fantasy worlds and cultures, I couldn't have enjoyed it more for as long as it lasts.
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Strange Dawn may sound generic, but this backhandedly clever series is anything but. A fascinating, involved allegorical drama with a complex, all-too-human cast, it is uniquely engrossing right up to the maddeningly abrupt end.
The series' insulting anticlimax colors the entire experience of watching it, but creator-director Junichi Sato is doing, and saying, so much that I want to walk through what makes it riveting before coming back to its one spectacular, catastrophic flaw.
An allegory of complexity
Strange Dawn is, boiled down, an exploration of human complexity disguised as simple fantasy, and it's an impressive disguise. Despite the tired concept--high school girls get sucked into fantasy world filled with pint-sized people who think they're saviors--it declares right out of the gate that it's not going to play by the rules. It immediately throws its pragmatic, uncomfortably modern protagonists into the middle of a Byzantine web of politics, religion, and military ambition.
The two humans alone would be enough to set the series apart from its fantasy-transplant kin. Lacking any special abilities other than being relatively large, the two are ill-equipped to deal with the mess that their status as religious icons has thrust them into.
Meek Eri is at least nice enough to want to help, but she's almost paralyzed by timidity and indecisiveness. The problems are so far beyond the scope of her experience and ability that this actually works for a change. Yuko is the polar opposite--abrasive, harsh, and more concerned with the fact that her cell phone doesn't work than helping anybody. She's extreme enough--yet all too believable--that she's somewhere between a villain-by-apathy and an anti-hero.
Their relative realism is both entertaining and appealing--everything from culture clash to usually ignored things like what to do about feminine hygiene if they're going to be stuck there for a while.
Munchkin culture shock
Contrasting with these two are the munchkins that inhabit the world and revere them. They look cute, but it quickly becomes apparent they're anything but--we're introduced to realistic culture, sexual taboos, international politics, and looming war. Once you manage to get past the fact that the only thing funny about them is the way they look, the exploration of a well-realized fantasy world and large cast of colorful characters is thoroughly entertaining.
There are Mani and Reca, two headstrong village girls; Shall, a once-proud warrior who has fallen from grace for the sake of love; Shall's icy brother Shura; the good-hearted but bumbling Beret and his nonchalant sidekick for comic relief; two manipulative military leaders intent on fomenting a boarder war; a drunken, self-serving general and his army; and the blindly ambitious head of the village guards. Each has their own motives, and the variety of individual ambitions intertwine to make a complicated web of relationships and intrigue, on both a personal scale and in the tides of war.
One of the pervading themes--probably the central one of the whole series--is the complexity of human nature. None of the characters are simply good or bad, and even the heroes are flawed, many deeply so. This means that the main characters, particularly Yuko, aren't what you'd call likable. It's hard to call it a fault, since their frustrating and abrasive personalities are a big part of what makes the series fresh, realistic, and unpredictable. The only real negative is that the characterization suffers a bit from lack of time; it's easy to miss the subtleties unless you pay close attention or watch it more than once.
Also hiding in plain sight is the reason it makes itself work so hard just to make you take the cute little people seriously. The series runs on the juxtaposition of big, normal-looking kids with their narrow, simple worldview and little, silly people with big, complex problems. It serves as a clever way to draw into sharp focus both childish innocence and adult problems.
Through the humans, it puts the words of children into the mouths of gods, making their simple, obvious wisdom seem more important than adult pretense and all the trappings of society built up around it. Conversely, it implicitly bemoans the shallow, self-centered behavior of modern youth.
And, through the locals, it challenges the viewer to take "simple" people--little, primitive critters with silly religious beliefs--seriously. They have big, complex problems, and real, human desires and personalities. Simultaneously, on the flip side of that, it reduces big, complex situations--wars and political power-grabs--to the absurdity they are, by casting them as little things fighting each other over inflated pomp.1
Basically, it's a series that manages to both deconstruct and pay homage to childishness and adult responsibility, all without a single monologue or out-of-character speech. It also examines the often sad reality of how religion is used and abused, without insulting it; some follow unswervingly, some question it, others manipulate it into a tool of control.
For all that sociology, it's truly impressive how well everything comes together as a story--the collection of characters with their various motives and flaws, the political drama, the detailed presentation of a different culture, and intriguing hints of some greater power at work.
The message is the problem
But there are two problems caused by the series' devotion to its message, one moderate and the other huge.
Once it gets going, there are usually two or three parallel subplots underway, amid a glut of characters and intrigues packed with subtext and detail; the information overload makes it easy to get lost. A bit of the blame falls on the flow of the story, which stumbles in places and rushes very good scenes elsewhere. Mostly, though, it's a necessity to get at what the series is saying; the two strangers in a Strange land aren't following the details closely, either, and I expect we're supposed to join them in feeling lost amid all these little folks and their big problems.
The brick wall at the finish line
That actually worked for me. The real issue is how it ends. Or, rather, how it doesn't. Strange Dawn spends a full season establishing the multitude of players and a sprawling web of interesting, intertwined, seemingly intractable problems, plus hints of whatever supernatural force set everything in motion. Then, just when things are about to really get interesting, you realize there's exactly one episode left in which to wrap it all up. One episode that, unsurprisingly, is a chaotic jumble that ends even more abruptly than the series started. It doesn't just drop sub-plots, it drops the plot, full-stop, and leaves about a half dozen major things previously hinted at completely unexplored.
You could charitably call this frustrating, but it's more accurate to call it a maddeningly inconclusive narrative punch in the face. If an open-ended finale is like a meal without dessert, Strage Dawn is like watching chef Junichi Sato prepare a fabulous feast, then having him close the restaurant right before the main course is served to make a point.
Incredibly enough, Sato did this intentionally.2 In the ultimate statement of Strange Dawn's backhanded creativity, the non-conclusion is part of its message: There simply are no easy answers (perhaps no answers at all) to the big questions.
While I can appreciate the artistic concept, it is a terrible idea in a series so intricately constructed. It's frustrating enough to get a bunch of tantalizing hints about future twists that don't happen, and downright insulting to make a viewer invest that much effort following a plot that gets abandoned halfway through.
Subtly exotic art and music
At least it looks great, right from the beautiful opening credit sequence. The character art is attractive on the two human girls, and although the rest of the cast are intentionally simply drawn, they make up for it in personality and interesting design features. The background art, depicting a mostly-Earth-like but slightly alien world, is gorgeous--despite being painted loosely, it feels rich and subtly exotic. The animation, which isn't terribly expensive, is the closest thing to a weak point, but thanks in part to well-done character animation and the quality of the artwork, it isn't a noticeable issue.
The uniformly spectacular soundtrack is by Kaoru Wada, the composer of the equally lovely Record of Lodoss War TV series soundtrack. The rich score has a slightly exotic lilt and haunting vocalizations that match the scenery and setting perfectly. The beautifully lyrical opening, sung by the late Eri Kawai, deserves a place among Wada's epic fantasy songs for the Lodoss series. The only blemish is a lame end theme sung (badly) by the two female leads.
The acting in Japanese is mostly solid. The weak point is Eri, the first and (perhaps unsurprisingly) only voice role by Shouko Enomoto; she does well at sounding meek and hesitant, but is also a bit too stereotyped, and some of her emotional scenes are very flat. Her counterpart, the talented Kaori Shimizu as Yuko, makes up for it by being surprisingly abrasive. The rest of the large cast is consistently well-voiced, though there aren't any particular standouts.
The English dub is... well, strange, and not in a good way. Made up entirely of voice-acting unknowns, most of whom sound Australian, the casting is uneven at best (gruff Beret apparently voiced by a woman?), and the editing and dialogue are awkward. The mishmash of accents is another issue. For example, of the two girls from the same small village, one has what sounds like a French accent and the other sounds like she might be American, except she pronounced "hostages" in what I can only assume is the British way ("hoe-stages" instead of "haw-stages"). Yuko is the worst of it, though--voiced by singer Donna Burke (the only person in the cast I'd heard of), I couldn't get past the fact that she sounds about three times older than the character onscreen. The only notably good performance is Rob Narita, who gives Shall an even, appropriately stoic voice. The overall effect is sort of bizarre, and I really don't recommend the dub for anything other than a laugh.
In all, Strange Dawn is a strange but fascinating series. It's too offbeat to be for everybody (certainly not the children's audience Urban Vision decided to (mis-)target it at), and the conclusion is maddeningly abrupt, but as a fan of creativity and colorful, detailed fantasy worlds and cultures, I couldn't have enjoyed it more, right up to the botched end. It takes some getting used to, and the non-end is a crying shame, but it's an impressive work that deserved a lot more attention than it garnered.
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Twelve Kingdoms, though darker and more overtly supernatural, is in ways the closest parallel; it has similarly realistic main characters, a very different and highly unfriendly but equally realistic alternate world to transplant them into, and a lot of political intrigue. There are dozens of other fantasy shows with the same premise, but none really have that much in common; the closest matches would be the similarly good-until-the-end Vision of Escaflowne and the really bad Garzey's Wing. To a lesser extent there's also some similarity with classic fantasy shows like Record of Lodoss War: Chronicle of the Heroic Knight.
Notes and Trivia
Strange Dawn is an original idea by Junichi Sato. While Sato is a veteran director with a broad resume, this is one of the few series he also developed the concept for; the other, one of his best-known projects, is Kaleido Star. Series composer Michiko Yokote also has a colorful resume, having written or scripted everything from Genshiken to Bleach to You're Under Arrest. While there was a single novel of a side-story, written by Hiroshi Ishizaki to coincide with the TV run, there has sadly never been any manga adaptation (or other continuation of any sort).
Notably, Sato said that the cut-off-in-the-middle plot was entirely intentional. Fan reaction in Japan was predictably mixed, with a few people accepting the symbolically unfinished story, and a lot more (like myself) being rather upset about the narrative insult of it.
As for the North American release, what was Urban Vision thinking?! Seriously, this has to be one of the most badly botched US anime releases since Warriors of the Wind. Ignoring the bizarre dub, the biggest and most baffling problem is that Urban Vision apparently decided that, instead of marketing Strange Dawn as the complex allegory it is, they'd market it as a kids' show.
Never mind the fact that the cheerfully colorful box art is about as unrepresentative of the plot and mood as any I've seen, or that kids will likely be utterly and completely lost by the political story. Or, for that matter, that most of the themes (rape, realistic violence, sexual taboos, the corruption and breakdown of religion in the face of reality, and subtle romance) aren't exactly standard Saturday Morning fare. Urban Vision even went so far as to create a whole new label, "Lil' Vision," to cover this inappropriate marketing. A label that they've never released anything else under.
Great plan: Let's market it to kids so we can confuse the living daylights out of them, or encourage them to laugh at things that really aren't funny.
As if this gross mishandling weren't enough, they only released the first two of four discs in the series, leaving the few people who actually bought it high and dry waiting for the rest. I can only guess that this insult-to-injury release schedule is the result of predictably poor sales of the first two discs, and have no choice but to desperately hope they'll eventually get so bored with other projects that they finish their release (they didn't, incidentally, respond to a request for any sort of a release schedule, although one of the handful of questions in Urban Vision's official company FAQ does include a mention that it's still theoretically going to be released some day when they have time).
After many years, it was eventually fansubbed; normally I'd consider that inappropriate, but after that kind of neglect from the licensor it's hard to feel like it was anything but deserved.
The inappropriately cute box art Urban Vision used on their DVDs came from the Japanese VCD release; the Japanese DVDs have much darker-looking artwork far more representative of the show. That said, the Japanese DVD covers similarly depict things that never happen in the series as-produced.
On a totally different note, Urban Vision's translation is shoddy as well. The English dub takes a lot of creative license with the dialogue, and the subtitles, while more accurate, are poorly written and have several obvious translation mistakes. The most glaring was that they actually botch Eri's name for the entire first disc, translating it as "Emi" (it's correct in the 2nd disc). There are other situations where translations are loose at best, or figures of speech were incorrectly translated literally. For example, when Eri tries to make a friendly comment to Yuko outside the cave in the 3rd episode, Yuko's dismissive comment was translated as "It's cold," when she actually meant "that was a bad joke"--a far more unfriendly remark.
In Japanese the two girls are referred to as "majin" (written "魔人", literally "demon person") a relatively generic word for humans or human-like beings with supernatural power. While it often refers to demons or similar evil magical beings, it can (as in this case) be a more positive term.
Footnote 1: You could even interpret it as a subtle commentary on the maturity of aboriginal people despite the dismissive way they're viewed by the "modern" world, though I doubt that was intended.
Footnote 2: Junichi Sato explicitly said on his blog that the non-end was intentional, not the result of the show being cancelled halfway through.
US DVD Review
Urban Vision's inappropriate-looking DVDs are basic but functional--the bilingual audio is crisp and clean, the semi-accurate subtitles (not dubtitles, though some of the dub dialogue is awkwardly close to the subtitles) can be turned off, and the video looks bright and relatively crisp. Extra features are, however, essentially nonexistent, and the end theme changes on the second disc to a weird acoustic piece, which wasn't in the original.
Though Urban Vision rates it as "for most audiences," there is enough violence and mature themes that I'd call 13-up more appropriate.
Violence: 3 - There are several large battles and people die, although it's not very bloody.
Nudity: 1 - Nothing past some underwear while washing clothes, though a big deal is made of exposed feet.
Sex/Mature Themes: 3 - General mature themes, attempted and implied sexual violence, and some strongly implied physical relationships.
Language: 1 - The dubbed version seemed clean, though Urban Vision's subtitles are a bit rougher.
Available in North America from Urban Vision on their short-lived "Lil' Vision" label on two bilingual DVDs spanning the first half of the series, currently out of print. The second half has not been released as of this writing.