A while ago I was able to read some of the Hero Tales manga and was fairly impressed. It's a collaborative effort between Huang Jin Zhou (A unit composed of Hiromu Arakawa, Genco and Studio Flag) and was illustrated by Arakawa. Arakawa, as many of you may know, was the creator of Fullmetal Alchemist. The simple fact that she was involved in Hero Tales drew me to it. Now that the anime has been released in the States, how does it stack up?
Hero Tales has been licensed for Region 1 by FUNimation. Produced by Studio Flag, Hero Tales was released in Japan in 2007. The 26 episode series has been broken up into two releases, with six discs in total (four for the show, two for bonus features).
The series takes place in a world similar to wuxia China, where martial arts rules the land. There are also heavy fantasy elements and the show has its own vibe for the most part. The action takes place at a point where astrology controls the fates of everyone, and the stars of the Big Dipper are born into human form. Becoming a star of destiny, these people control the lives of others and live their lives according to celestial mandate. It's said that the two biggest stars, the Alkaid and Dubhe, decide who rules the empire, while the others, known as the Five Divine Warriors, act as breakwaters for the two big ones.
What does all that mean? Well, basically the story follows the life of a young man named Taito, who possesses the Alkaid star. At the beginning of the series he clashes with Keiro, who is a fearsome, bloodthirsty general of the Dubhe fame. Keiro wants to rule the world with blood and power, and naturally that doesn't sit well with Taito. At the beginning of Hero Tales, Taito is a brash teenager with no real power or maturity. Sure he's good at martial arts, but he's quick to anger, and most of the time he's uncontrollable. He doesn't stand a chance against Keiro, so he sets out on a journey with his friend Ryuko, who happens to be one of the Divine Warriors, and his sister, Laila.
The early parts of the series, as seen largely in this first half, are symptomatic of a traveling buddy show. Taito, Ryuko, and Laila go from one village to the next in an episodic pattern, and along the way they befriend townsfolk and learn a little about themselves in the process. They also have fateful encounters with other Divine Warriors, such as the overbearing Hosei, and sea-faring bandit Koyo. After a while the show really starts doling out the fate of the Dipper Bearers. Taito is preached to incessantly about his role in the fate of the world and through the journey and being forced to, he eventually begins to mature.
The first half of Hero Tales is very entertaining. The show has a way of taking episodic pieces of the puzzle, and tying them together to make a larger picture. Character motives are also solid, and we get a good sense of purpose from the protagonists of the series. Ryuko's loyalty starts to waiver due to a certain event, and that adds a layer of complexity to his character and possible direction for the show. For this first half, I will say that the antagonists come across as rather dry. The evil spirit Shimei has a purpose, but it's not really explained, and Keiro is unilaterally hellbent on killing people and gaining power, and that seems to be it. It just leaves the series feeling a little unbalanced in the first half.
Hero Tales also has some pacing issues. The episodes kind of stall out once Taito and the gang make it to the capital. The series seems content on meandering about at this point, though there are some learning experiences for Taito at this point. Thankfully the show eventually gets over this hump and moves forward in very dramatic ways. The second act of the show is much more climactic than the first, and that's a saving grace. Ultimately Hero Tales is something to consider. It's not the most unique show out there, and ultimately it feels kind of fluffy, but it's packed with action, has a good sense of humor, and there's plenty of charm so it squeaks by. A recommended show, but not an epic by any means.
Hero Tales is presented on DVD with its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and has been enhanced for anamorphic playback. The series looks decent on DVD with mostly smooth animation, though there were some corners cut in production. Design elements aren't always solid and there are times where characters look strange, as though a section was rushed through. Still, the show as a whole has a good sense of design. The transfer for this DVD isn't entirely perfect either, as grain, line noise, and color banding appears here and there. There's nothing about the DVD that breaks the experience, but it's definitely not going to leave a super positive impression.
The series is presented with 2.0 Japanese and 5.1 English for its sources of audio output. Considering this is mainly an action release, the sound direction is a bit on the underwhelming side. Effects are often flat and front-centric, so there's really no sense of immersion in the heat of battle. Dialogue is good on both accounts, though I found myself leaning towards the Japanese audio more in that case.
The third discs that's included with this release packs in some decent bonus features. Sure the release includes trailers and clean animations, but FUNimation also included two round-table discussions with the original Japanese cast. In total both of these features last roughly 45 minutes and are mostly fluff, but they are worth checking out regardless. The cast has a good time and there's a lot of joking, but much of the conversation is kept on their experiences working on the show.
Hero Tales Part One is a worthy introduction to the world that Arakawa helped to create. While it's not really anything special or unique (we've seen how many "destined hero" anime before?) it is a lot of fun. When the series works, it works, and when it doesn't it feels a little boring or stretched out, as is the case when it focuses on events in the capital. Still, the show has potential and it's entertaining as a whole. I'd call this one recommended, but it's not a super strong recommendation.