Fushigi Yugi Anime Review
Fushigi Yûgi: The Mysterious Play
/ TV Series / Drama / 13-up
Has a lot of flaws, but a decent story within its genre.
...Sailor Moon meets Magic Knight Rayearth.
US Release By
Geneon Entertainment, Pioneer Animation
52 25-minute Episodes
1995-04-06 - 1996-03-28
What's In It
- Modern Schoolgirls in Ancient China
- Helpless Protagonists
- Cross-Dressing Pretty Boys
- Not-Cross-Dressing Pretty Boys
- Comedy And Tragedy Playing Tag
- Violence: 3 (significant)
- Nudity: 1 (mild)
- Sex: 2 (moderate)
- Language: 1 (mild)
Miaka is a more or less average junior high school student, trying to do well enough on the entrance exams to join her top-of-the-class best friend Yui at a prestigious school. But when the two of them wander into a restricted part of the library and stumble upon an ancient book called "The Universe of the Four Gods," everything changes. You see, this book is actually a portal into ancient China, and its story--the story of the Priestess of Suzaku and her quest to gather a group of seven holy warriors and bring peace to the land--is about to be written by none other than Miaka. Thrust into another reality and faced with a series of challenges and the affections of more than one of the seven warriors she's trying to gather, Miaka will have to find the strength to live up to her new role. And worst of all, Yui's trip into the story won't be as kind as Miaka's...
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Fushigi Yûgi takes an entirely generic girls' anime storyline and gives it a bit of a schizophrenic twist, swinging violently between silly comedy and various degrees of tragedy almost constantly. On the whole, despite being unevenly put together, emotionally confusing, a little too soap-operatic, and rather obviously laid out, there is enough humor to make it enjoyable, enough dramatic twists and relatively believable emotional wrangling to make it interesting, a fair amount of reserve showed on the romantic end of the story, and strong enough characters (and performances) to hold it all together. The visuals aren't much, and the ancient China of the series looks like a stock fantasy locale, but neither is a huge issue.
It's a decidedly uneven series that's definitely most likely to appeal to younger teen girls (its target audience), but it offers enough interesting situations and occasionally involving storytelling to make it stand out in the genre as at least reasonably interesting to a broader audience.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Fushigi Yûgi takes an entirely generic shoujo fantasy storyline and gives it a bit of a schizophrenic twist, constantly swinging violently between silly comedy and various degrees of tragedy. It's a decidedly uneven series that's definitely most likely to appeal to younger teen girls (its target audience), but it offers enough interesting situations and occasionally involving storytelling to make it stand out in the genre as at least reasonably interesting to a broader audience.
The most distinctive feature of Fushigi Yûgi is its downright confusing mood. The series is composed of roughly equal parts very silly comedy and heavy drama, with a liberal seasoning of sappy romance and a dash of action. It's hardly the only series made with that formula, but it willfully mashes completely serious scenes and completely silly ones together with absolutely no segue at all. At times this works to enhance the tragedy of a situation by lulling you into a good mood before springing something dark, but for the most part it just left me wondering whether I was watching a comedy or a drama and wishing it would make up its mind. It's not that the funny parts aren't--the humor is basic, but effective--nor that the drama isn't dramatic, but it dilutes both by forcing such an abrupt change of emotional gears several times during the span of almost every episode. It wasn't bad enough to ruin the series for me, and I'm sure some people will enjoy the approach, but if you're the type who isn't likely to, you've been warned.
As for the story itself, Fushigi Yûgi is about as standard as shoujo adventure anime gets--you've got a cute but rather unimpressive school girl who gets thrown into an alternate world and given the responsibility of saving the land from something bad. There are, of course, a couple of really studly guys who fall hopelessly in love with her (despite the fact that she has no obvious charm). As things go along, her trip is fraught with peril, adolescent angst, and drama, and she ends up gaining self-respect, confidence, some new friends, and of course a handsome boyfriend. In the second half it pushes deeper into shoujo territory, layering tragedy upon tragedy as it builds to an inevitable conclusion.
It all tends toward the soap-operatic and obvious, but still makes for a pretty good yarn. Fushigi Yûgi does an above-average job of holding interest over such a long series by keeping the individual episodes tied into the main plot, giving a sense that it's heading somewhere. The length also allows for a lot of breadth and leisurely character development, although it has the unfortunate side effect of making it rather obvious that every time the story appears to be building toward a conclusion something has to go wrong. This cyclical pattern of drama is also evident in the rather obvious episode design--each starts with a recap of the previous episode and builds to a dramatic peak just before the midpoint commercial break. The recaps get particularly annoying when you're watching several back to back on video.
Another odd side-effect of the leisurely story progression is the way the series presents its many plot twists. You definitely don't see most of them coming at a distance, but the set-ups and foreshadowing are so blatant that you've got a clear view of almost every curve by the time you get to it. That doesn't make the plot any less engaging as a whole, and in fact most of the particularly dramatic episodes are well enough executed that I found the tension level fairly high, but don't expect to be shocked much by the revelations.
The story accounts for a lot of the appeal of Fushigi Yûgi, but the characters are even more important, and are good enough to carry the series. On one hand, a few are quite likable for their humor value and quirky personalities (Nuriko, and Miaka to a lesser extent). On the other, some (particularly the apparent villains) are effective on a more dramatic level, with a bit of real depth. In a couple of cases (Tamahome and Chihiri), there's even a little of both. Plus, since there are a lot of them and the series is long, there's ample opportunity for a variety of character interaction, although I actually think the series could have done with more (the focus is unfortunately heavy on Miaka). The real standout in the lot, though, is Yui, but it'd be a shame to tell you why until you've seen the first story arc, so trust me and skip the next paragraph if you haven't.
Yui is an impressive character for her ability to be both an effective villain (one of the few real surprises the series offers) and a sympathetic character at the same time. Although her transformation from high school friend to nearly-sadistic evil priestess is unrealistically extreme even given the circumstances, it also isn't entirely unbelievable, and her character is written with enough depth to make me simultaneously hate her as a villain and feel genuinely sorry for her. That kind of depth in a "bad guy" is hard to come by, and I definitely wasn't expecting to see it in this series. It also does a lot for enhancing the tragic overtones of the story later on.
As for Miaka, she's about what you'd expect in this sort of thing. I'm not personally too fond of her, mostly since she's a little too un-heroic. She's also a slave to the plot in that she repeatedly falls into despair, gets pulled up by one or more of her friends, and vows to get stronger... only to repeat the process again and again. She also makes a rather unbelievable match as one corner of the love triangle that dominates the early part of the series.
Speaking of which (and despite the mismatch), the romance is executed with a fair amount of reserve, and I enjoyed it more than I expected to. Although plot-fitting makes it obvious what the end result is going to be, the main triangle provides a decent sense of drama on account of the external pressures on the relationships, and I found the romantic emotions fairly effective (even Miaka's on occasion). Another strength is that all three characters seem to know where things stand, but still wrestle internally with the situation. The characters are rather over-dramatic about the situation, but they are all teenagers, so that's not unrealistic.
Visually, there really isn't much worth noting. The character animation is good enough to support the emotion, not otherwise noteworthy. The decent-looking action scenes are brief and sparse. The character design is pretty good, though, with a few likably humorous faces and a couple of classically studly shoujo-type guys (who thankfully aren't too effeminate, and there's even a joke or two along those lines that I really appreciated). The character art is also pretty good, and a few of the fancy costumes are nicely detailed.
Unfortunately, the backgrounds are disappointingly bland, a symptom of a sad lack of creativity in the world itself. The story is set in ancient China, but there is almost nothing that makes the setting seem any different from the generic ancient Japan of most anime, or any other generic fantasy setting for that matter. With the exception of some architecture, a few costumes, and a mention of the government exams, the China of Fushigi Yûgi is more of a convenient label than a setting.
The music is similarly underwhelming. The few background themes tend to be very repetitive--they use the same theme at the same time during every episode. On the bright side, there are a couple of nice flute tunes that tie into the story, and the opening theme is a cool rock song with a bit of an exotic twist.
The last thing to cover is the acting, vitally important to the melodrama. In Japanese, neither the casting nor acting is what I would call memorable, although I like Nuriko's gender-bending voice a lot, and I'm also fond of the way Yui sounds. The acting is solid, both comedically and dramatically, which is actually pretty impressive--Tamahome in particular pulls off studly and silly equally well. The notable performances come from the three main characters--Miaka, Tamahome, and Hotohori--emotionally effective and fairly believable (not just in romantic situations), if occasionally a bit over-the-top. But, yet again, Yui is the real standout, with a very effective performance--entirely believable and with a surprising amount of emotional force.
I can't say much for the English acting either way--I only listened briefly, and it didn't strike me as particularly bad or good (though Yui is effectively cast and acted).
All in all, I'd say Fushigi Yûgi is unevenly put together, emotionally confusing, a little too soap-operatic, and rather obviously laid out. But, there is enough humor to make it enjoyable, enough dramatic twists and relatively believable emotional wrangling to make it interesting, a fair amount of reserve shown on the romantic end of the story, and strong enough characters (and performances) to hold it all together. Don't expect much originality, don't expect it to be deep, and don't come looking for a setting that actually has anything to do with ancient China, but it's above average as a shoujo drama-comedy-romance, and despite not being the sort of anime I usually enjoy, it was good enough to keep me interested.
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This series bears some resemblance to the Sailor Moon series, as well as the Zodiac-themed (but more down to earth) Fruits Basket. Its blend of comedy and romance also reminded me of Kimagure Orange Road, though the story is completely different. For similar girl-in-fantasy-world stories, Magic Knight Rayearth and the somewhat-related Tsubasa are a couple of options. There are also a couple of direct sequel OAV series.
Notes and Trivia
Fushigi Yûgi is based on (and parallels in story) a long-running shoujo manga series of the same name by Yuu Watase, though the creator didn't have a particularly direct hand in this production. The manga is available in English from VIZ.
The circumflex u is one way of writing the long vowel in the title, which Pioneer standardized on; it can also be written Yuugi.
In addition to the original manga and anime adaptation, there is a series of thirteen light novels written by Megumi Nishizaki (Yuu Watase supplies the art), all but two of which focus on backstory of the various characters. The other two are a something of a sequel/epilogue that were later adapted into the Eikoden OVAs. The novels aren't available in English as of this writing.
Speaking of sequel OVA series, there are three: A three-episode series set a year after the TV series ends and a follow-up six-episode continuation of that story, both of which were combined for English release by Geneon, plus the four-episode Eikoden set several years later.
US DVD Review
The two DVD sets, which cover the first and second season (26 episodes each) of this series are fine productions, among the best Pioneer had done at the time. To start with, they're packaged slickly in Pioneer's early for sets--a clear slipcase containing a (very nice looking) fold out case holding four discs and an informational booklet that provides a character rundown and one-sentence episode synopses. The discs themselves have very nice video, so-so audio (the Japanese digital tracks aren't terribly even, switching between a poorly-separated 4-channel track and a 2-channel one), and simple menus providing access to the expected features and a few goodies. The on-disc extras include stills, character sketches, text interviews with the creator and director of the series, and (rather surprising coming from Pioneer) some translation/cultural notes on each disc. Episodes are broken up into opening, first half, second half, and end theme.
There was a later re-release on eight individual DVD volumes; the content of each disc was presumably similar.
A few mature themes and an occasional bit of violence or nudity make for about 13-up on the whole, though many episodes are suitable for more ore less all ages.
Violence: 3 - The violence is sparse, but serious when it occurs.
Nudity: 1 - Brief and non-detailed.
Sex/Mature Themes: 2 - Generally mature themes, and some non-explicit physical activity.
Language: 1 - Fairly mild.
Available in North America from Geneon on two hybrid DVD box sets as well as a re-release on 8 individual volumes; all went out of print when the company shut down. Was originally available on 16 dubbed or subtitled VHS volumes.
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