Dec 19, 2009
Spookt (All reviews)
Fantasy is all about adventure. It’s about going outside of your comfort zone, seeing a new place and a new facet of yourself, and being changed by the time you return home. Anime like that is filled with believable cause and effect. And then there’s The Sacred Blacksmith.

The series opens with Cecily Cambell, a newly trained knight charged with the protection of the Third Independent Trade City. She is an excitable girl, stubborn, and full of bravado. She wishes to help people, but has little actual competence. The broken sword of her family is as much a symbol of her own need to be tempered as anything. Towards those ends she pursues the services of Luke Ainsworth, a standoffish blacksmith with little patience for Cecily’s immaturity. Joining them are Lisa -- Luke’s pint-sized and spunky assistant -- and a woman with a mysterious and tragic past named Aria.

Dark events soon push them together as tenuous companions. Some figure in the shadows is collecting Demon Swords, powerful remnants from the great war that ended forty years ago. The City is threatened and Cecily and Luke have their own reasons to stand against it.

The setting and plot sound clichéd because they are. This is well-trodden ground. The first few episodes promise to offset that imbalance with the characters, but sadly that’s where things start falling apart. As our protagonists quickly find themselves thrown headlong into one problem after another, their relationships become secondary. Instead of friendships blossoming from shared duress, they just seem to ‘bond’ because they shared the same scenes.

Part of the problem is in Cecily’s characterization, which puts light on the deeper issue of Sacred Blacksmith’s incorrect focus.

Two of my favorite moments are when Cecily realizes that her desires and willpower are not enough to become the best she can be and then, later, when she uses that deficiency to overcome a seemingly insurmountable object. That was when the story shined and I thought “yes! -this- is what this show is supposed to be.” Cecily is our protagonist in all her inept glory. Watching her stumble towards being a skilled knight is where the show -should- be focused, how each tiny victory and tiny defeat magnifies her growth.

Admittedly, there are times when Cecily sheds her armor and shows some vulnerabilities in a realistic light, but usually she merely sheds her armor so someone can joke about how wonderfully large her breasts are. I like running gags as much as anyone, but Sacred Blacksmith never really earns the right to do so. They would be complementary features in a series less problem-ridden; instead they merely draw attention to themselves and make it difficult for a reviewer to be objective and not single them out for one whole paragraph. It gets to be a little bothersome when they just pop up out of nowhere.

And, no, that wasn’t a boob joke.

It isn’t that the foundation here is weak, but that it’s uneven. There are some really exciting and insightful moments and yet they are surrounded by plodding uninteresting plot and cloying melodrama. It sometimes feels like a writer du jour was invited on board each week to pen the script. The story is disjointed, populated with mini-arcs that hardly elucidate the main arc at all. Challenges seem incidental. Character development unearned. And then everyone dresses up like a maid.

If that last sentence seemed to come out of nowhere and confused the hell out of you, it was supposed to. That’s exactly how I felt.

The most irksome problem is pacing. The main story arc only gets underway late in the series, ending up rushed. Halfway through the series our cast of characters effectively doubles, but we have no time to get to know them beyond their two-dimensionally flat personalities. Worst of all, two battles are halted in their tracks while our heroes take a break to lollygag. Oh, I mean, “work slowly at making a weapon to continue the fight after all the scene’s original tension has been obliterated”. It felt more concise to say lollygag, though.

Aside from that specific editing choice, the battles are actually engaging. In fact, my greatest praise is what weaponry gets used. For all the adherence to the conventions of the swords-and-sorcery genre, there are some uncommon armaments here. I can’t describe enough how visually refreshing I found this, to see different weapons and fighting styles. Like all the other good bits in the show this too doesn’t last long, but it helps break up the “This is a fantasy; we need more swords!” mentality that plagues the genre.

Overall, the art and animation is of consistently high quality. The city is a vibrant place. Manglobe’s attention to detail in creating a living, breathing setting is laudable and effective (something I personally found lacking in their earlier work, Ergo Proxy). There’s an idyllic peace in the city when all hell isn’t breaking loose and a gritty immediacy when it does. That the city is built at the foot of a mountain covered with an ominous and never-moving cloud is a fantastic addition. The characters too are well-designed and have outfits that are intriguing albeit sometimes impractical. If only they were as cool as they look.

I couldn’t help thinking back to last season as I watched this. CANAAN showed how to put together a compelling ensemble cast, while Spice and Wolf II showed how to dramatically weave the complexities of a relationship about two protagonists. Both lessons are lost on Sacred Blacksmith. There is neither a group dynamic nor a fully realized pairing. The one great friendship we do have between Cecily and Aria gets lost in the shuffle of events and hardly has the emphasis it deserves.

What disappoints me most is what Sacred Blacksmith fails to do. It fails to do anything exciting with fantasy. It fails to test its characters’ resolve with any meaningful challenges or anguish. It presents so much magic… yet fails to capture any wonder. Once we understand more of Aria’s nature, for instance, a wild world of possibilities opens up. How does her nature impact the way she interacts with the city she lives in? The people she calls friends? Her own inner turmoil? Instead, her character development seems to have the same tedious trajectory that everyone else has: at least one episode devoted to mental struggles, a resolution easily attained, and a sanguine outlook the rest of the time.

The music is a good analogy for the show as a whole. The OP starts strong, is rather catchy, reasonably dynamic technically speaking. The score of the series is standard fare medieval fantasy (recorders, lutes, tambourines, and the like) and other more traditional orchestrated pieces that are apt, but not spellbinding. Finally, the ED is the most randomly bright and unbelievably saccharine thing you have ever heard. While I freely admit my personality isn’t morning glories and sunshine, this outro is so distinctly misplaced and just one more example of Sacred Blacksmith’s disjointed elements.

So who is this anime for? More forgiving viewers, I imagine. The series isn’t high art and let’s face it: it’s not trying to be. It doesn’t want to be a humble, little fantastical tale, but a brief little epic about a lot of different things. About companions trying to help each other, faltering romance, sociopolitical intrigue, freaky monsters, black villains, sleeping horrors. By including too much its scattershot attention span shows, but if you can overlook that and the other systemic problems, want a light-hearted romp with a peppering of drama, or happen to be a fantasy junkie, you might have fun with this.

If there is a second season I can only hope they strip away the extraneous parts, peel back the deeper layers, and leave what remains proudly exposed and naked for all to behold.

And, yeah, that was kind of a boob joke.