Orphen Anime Review
Black Magic Warrior Orphen
US Release By
Fantasy Action / Adventure Comedy
24 25-minute episodes
1998-10-03 - 1999-03-27
Rich business heiress Cleo has just returned home from boarding school to discover much has changed in her hometown. A great young wizard named Orphen, staying at a local hotel in exchange for taking the inn keeper's son Majic as his apprentice, has been watching her house on a daily basis. At first she suspects he's a peeping Tom, but thankfully he's not. He's just keeping an eye on a family treasure called the Sword of Baltanders because he hopes to use it to cure his old mentor/friend named Azalie who accidentally turned herself into a dragon known as "The Bloody Augest" during her magical studies at the legendary Wizard Academy known as The Tower of Fang. Isn't that a relief?
But just to make things interesting, it turns out the Tower of Fang is also interested in Azalie; interested in terminating her in order to avoid tarnishing the school's reputation if her true identity is ever revealed. Considering the task to be of the utmost importance, they have assigned their top professor, Orphen's old teacher named Childman, to the job, along with his apprentice Hartia, who used to be Orphen's good friend and classmate. Conflicted by dual loyalties to his old school and his best friend, Orphen sets out on a quest to cure Azalie, along with Majic because he wants to expand on his knowledge (turns out to be a wasted effort) and Cleo, because....um...she wants too. Also tagging along are Cleo's servants Dortin and Volkan because she wants them to carry the heavy sword. Wow, talk about the ultimate team.
Sigh... I really thought this was going to be a good show. It's fairly popular, and it has an interesting story centered around Orphen's loyalty to his former mentor (Azalie) overwhelming his loyalty to the Tower of Fang. On top of that, most of Orphen's rivals, such as his old master Childman and fellow Tower of Fang student Hartia, aren't really evil, they just seek a noble goal with methods that he doesn't approve of. As such, I enjoyed the conflict between people who know and respect each other and just happen to be torn by different agendas and loyalties. On top of that, the series has a sequel. So in addition to a potentially excellent story, I also had peace of mind from knowing I probably wouldn't have to worry about any open-ended conclusion or unresolved story issues. But sadly, those few sentences are about the only positive things I could find in the entire series. The bad consists of... well, just about everything else.
Any seasoned anime fan knows there is a lot of bad material out there, but what's really frustrating is that a lot of bad anime shows actually could have been pretty good with just a little more effort. Many times I'm left thinking, "if only it had better fight scenes," "if only it had a bigger budget," "if only it had a better central character," or "if only it had a better plot," then perhaps it would have actually been a decent movie, TV series, or OVA.
Orphen does not fall into any of those categories. This series never had a chance. It's so bad that no amount of effort could have made it decent, or even tolerable. Orphen is one of the rare TV shows I've seen when you can tell very early on it's going to be horrible. Right around episode six or so, reality sank in: The series is miserably flawed and nothing in the upcoming episodes will turn things around. Much to my disappointment, this interpretation proved to be correct. In fact, I could have stopped watching right there and written this same review word for word.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but I'll go ahead and start with the worst one, since it's so bad that this by itself would have ruined the entire series no matter how good all the other aspects of the show are: The characters.
To be brutally honest, Orphen has some of the worst characters I've ever seen. They're not just bad, they're downright unbearable and drain the life out every second they are on screen. Interestingly enough, the issue here isn't Orphen himself--he's actually okay. There isn't really anything special about him; he's a typical youthful, angst-filled hero, but he's somewhat charismatic and fairly skillful without seeming to be invincible. He's also got legitimate moral conflicts to deal with and a worthy central goal to accomplish. But, unfortunately, his main role most of the time is babysitting his "teammates," who are simply the worst, most useless, worthless, incompetent, and utterly pointless characters ever to disgrace the anime screen. That may seem a bit harsh, but the truth is that's actually the nicest description I could come up with. During every episode I kept thinking of new derogatory terms for them, and all of them would have accurately added to that description.
First we have Cleo, who is completely worthless and has no skills whatsoever to contribute to the team. She's a total damsel in distress and never does or learns anything useful in all 24 episodes (unless you want to count throwing a knife into the ground to distract an enemy, which she does once). She's supposed to be a potential love interest for Orphen, but that only made things worse, as there was no reason Orphen should have been putting up with her constant whining and devastating ineptitude, let alone have any romantic feelings for her.
Next is his "apprentice" Majic, who is also completely useless. On top of having no meaningful skills or services to contribute (he's the male equivalent of a damsel in distress), he's also the painful combination of a whiney little crybaby with possibly the most annoying voice in anime history and shameless bootlicker who worships Orphen as though he's the next messiah. Why Orphen ever took Majic on as an apprentice is probably the biggest mystery in the show. Granted, his father is supposedly paying good wages for his studies, but it's clear no amount money would justify any sane person having to put up with him. Maybe one reason he's so bad at magic is that Orphen is never shown teaching him anything, but considering how hard it is to put up with him under normal conditions, I really can't blame him for not wanting to interact with him more than necessary.
Last of all we have the midget brother and sister duo of Dortin and Volcun, who are... get ready for it... completely worthless and have no useful skills whatsoever! At this point you've probably noticed almost every sentence in these character descriptions contains the words "useless," "worthless" or "no skills," but I can't help it, it's just how the creators made them. I mean, what on earth were they thinking? Two useless characters weren't enough? They needed more? Is there some critical shortage of useless, incompetent buffoons in the anime universe they thought had to be rectified? It defies rational explanation. It seems almost pointless to go on, but I still feel the need to point out that Dortin and Volcun are also sniveling cowards and endless whiners, with Volcun always complaining about Orphen and Dortin always complaining about Volcun. It's obvious they are supposed to be comic relief characters, but their notion of "comic relief" involves endlessly complaining, screwing up, and suffering the consequences. Far from funny, it's just boring, pathetic, and infuriating.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is our entire team (with the addition of a wolf puppy later on who also serves no real purpose): One competent character babysitting a bunch of useless, good-for-nothing wimps! And character development? That can be summed up with three words: There isn't any. They all remain pathetic and degrading throughout the whole series, without the slightest hint of change. I just can't overemphasize what a terrible concept this is. The director might as well have replaced all the "support" characters with a big pallet full of anvils that Orphen has to drag around. It would serve the exact same function, and would be much less painful to watch.
As I said before, the character problems alone would be enough ruin the series, but unfortunately they aren't the only glaring flaws. Two other big ones are the soundtrack and animation. The character models are actually fairly good, but the background artwork is horrendous. The backgrounds lack detail and are virtually lifeless. It's rare to notice anything moving, even in crowded cities. Other times I saw things that made no sense, like a scene where a guy at a wedding party is seen wearing what is clearly a modern business suit. Quite often it seems like the characters are standing in front of watercolor paintings, and other times it's like watching a live-action movie using an obviously poor quality green screen. On top of that, most of the environments are pretty dull. Standard castles, ruins, towns and forests are about all the cast ever visits, and even the Tower of Fang was disappointingly bland. You would think the top Magical Academy in the land would be an exciting place full of wonder, but it's about as simple and dry as everything else in the series.
Then we have the action scenes. They aren't as bad as many of the other problems in the show, but are certainly below average. The biggest problem I have is that Orphen, the supposed master sorcerer, doesn't have any interesting spells in his arsenal. His moves mostly consist of using energy shields, throwing light beams at his foes, and using light beams as swords. Once again the lack of effort is apparent. Really, I could find more interesting spells in an 8-bit Nintendo game, or even a board game. Oddly enough, many of his opponents had some pretty cool powers. That, along with the uselessness of Orphen's teammates, usually had me rooting for them instead of him.
As for the soundtrack, it's boring and repetitive. Nothing in the entire series stood out, and I found myself fast-forwarding through the beginning and ending themes nearly every time.
But probably the biggest problem besides the characters is the poor attempt to combine serious drama with fantasy comedy. The comedy doesn't work because none of the humor is funny--the "jokes" mainly consist of the support characters endlessly screwing up and suffering for it. The serious drama doesn't work because the characters are so bad they are impossible to take seriously. For example, one part tries to show tension building between Orphen and Cleo, culminating with Orphen lashing out at her with a tirade of insults and verbal cruelty. I got the impression I was supposed to be shocked or angered, but all I felt inclined to do was cheer him on. After all, since Cleo is a useless, spoiled, rich brat who has no reason to be in the series all, I found myself doing nothing but thinking of new insults whenever she's on screen, and it really made wonder how Orphen was able to hold back for so long.
As if all that weren't enough, the series is riddled with filler episodes. In a series with a decent plot but horrible characters, the last thing I want to do is focus solely on the unbearable characters while the much better central plot stands still, especially when the characters don't develop or even show the potential for doing so.
In the end, Orphen stands as the perfect example of how NOT to make a fantasy anime. It's got humor that isn't funny, serious drama ruined by the poor quality of everything needed to sustain it, bad animation, boring music, tedious action scenes, and some of the worst characters in anime history. On a more personal level, it felt like punishment for all the times I've ever complained about main characters being too good or a series being too short. Instead, I got stuck with characters who are totally useless, and a virtually unwatchable show that has 24 episodes and a sequel. Clearly this is a series in which 24 episodes is exactly 24 episodes too long.
This is so bad I can't think of anything like it, at least not in the fantasy genre. For much better fantasy comedy, check out Louie the Rune Soldier or Ruin Explorers. For much better fantasy drama, check out Record of Lodoss War.
Notes and Trivia
Orphen started out in 1994 as a lengthy series of light novels by Yoshinobu Akita with illustrations by Yuuya Kusaka. A second series of novels joined that one a couple of years later, and in 1998 the story was spun into a larger franchise including a medium-length manga series, this anime series, and the sequel anime series, "Sorcerous Stabber Orphen: Revenge," and a video game released in 2000 for the PS2. The video game was available in the US, as was the manga.
The original title, Sorcerous Stabber Orphen, was shortened by ADV to Orphen at the request of the Japanese licensors, supposedly so it would help build a stronger bond to the PlayStation 2 video game. Probably not the greatest strategy on the part of the Japanese, as the PS2 game was rather poorly-received over here.
Nothing really bad about this series. There are some deaths and nudity, but neither are particularly detailed. There is also an also some gender switching.
Violence: 1 - About as little as you'll ever see in a fantasy anime.
Nudity: 2 - Some nudity, but not very detailed.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - Just the slightest hint of romance between a few characters.
Language: 0 - None.