This review is dedicated to Imaoka Sumiyo, better known as Kurimoto Kaoru, the author of Guin Saga, who passed away in May 2009. Few can come close to matching what you have achieved as a writer and author.
As a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I'm always on the lookout for enjoyable stories, and this is one of the reasons why I'm such a fan of anime. Imagine my surprise then, when I learned that a series that I've only ever managed to read parts of (and small sections they were too), and that I have tried on numerous occasions to find in English, was being adapted for anime.
Guin Saga is, first and foremost, a series of heroic fantasy novels, written by Kurimoto Kaoru, that began publication in 1979. Unlike many other fantasy series though, Guin Saga never ended publication, and upon her death Kurimoto held the record for the longest continuing single writer's work in the world. At an astonishing 126 published volumes, 21 side story volumes and two manga adaptations, it's fair to say that Kurimoto's vision for Guin Saga was of truly epic proportions.
The anime begins with the invasion of the city of Parros by the Mongaul army. The King and Queen attempt to save their children, the royal twins Rinda and Remus, by magically sending them to the nation of Argos where their aunt is queen, however something goes wrong and the twins find themselves in the Roodwood. Here they meet a man with no memory and no home, but who has the bearing of a king and the skills of a warrior born.
He is the leopard-headed Guin, and his destiny will shake the world.
The one big complaint that many people have about this series is that, come the end of the 26th episode, there are simply too many parts of the plot that have not been explained or fully realised. In all honesty I have to agree with this sentiment, as the series introduces many themes, characters, ideas and concepts that are never fully explored. However, while there is a very clear argument to be made for the lack of completion in terms of the plot, one has to remember that the anime can only cover so much of the tale, especially as the novels continue on for another 100 or so volumes.
In terms of what is there though, the show has a depth and complexity that is rare in fantasy anime. While many aspects of the plot are never completed, there are enough elements that do reach a conclusion to make this show not only watchable, but enjoyable as well. The pacing is good throughout, however many people find the latter half of the series to be less enjoyable due to the fact that the action takes more of a backseat, and all the plots and political shenanigans come to the fore. To be honest, I enjoyed both aspects of the series, especially as the latter part of the show was more character focused than the series had previously been.
One thing that really stands out about Guin Saga is how it looks. The backgrounds and settings are varied and interesting, but above all, highly detailed and impacting. There are some moments when the scenery will take your breath away, and the influence of various real world civilizations is prevalent in many of the towns, cities, buldings, character designs, and even clothing. The characters are very clearly individuals, and have been designed with this fact in mind. Each is facially expressive, even if that expression is generally a stern one, except for Guin, however this only adds to the mystery surrounding him.
Animation-wise, Satelight have really pushed the boat out, not only in terms of standard animation, but also with its application of CG. The characters, monsters and animals all move in a very natural manner, although there are some odd occasions when the choreography seems a little off (Guin's mouth movements when speaking being the major one, but given his leopard's head this is understandable). CG has been incorporated very well, adding to the overall quality of the series' visuals and enhancing some of the backgrounds and settings.
Guin Saga is a little bit special in terms of its music as it is the first full anime series score composed by none other than Uematsu Nobuo. Fans of the Final Fantasy series will recognise the name as Uematsu is responsible for the music on most of the games, as well as a number of other titles by Square-Enix. The OP, Theme of Guin, has an almost heroic feeling to it that manages to capture the essence of the titular character. The ED, "Saga ~ This is My Road" (performed by Kanon), is a haunting, melodic track that has overtones of determination, resignation, and the bittersweet nature of the journey. The rest of the muic used throughout the series is well choregraphed and, in Uematsu's own inimitable manner, adds depth and atmosphere to any given scene.
While the music for the series may verge on excellent, the same, unfortunately, can't be said of the acting. Although the seiyuu generally deliver some fine performances, especially Horiuchi Kenyuu as Guin, and Nakahara Mai as Rinda, there are some telling moments when the characters appear wooden. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between, and for the most part that seiyuu portray their characters well.
Guin Saga has a plethora of characters, many of whom are fairly prominent in the series. One of the apsects of the series that I enjoyed most was the fact that, on many occasions, the titular character was not central to the action, and while Guin himself is an imposing figure in the beginning, the series also shows him as a friend, guardian and mentor to both Rinda and Remus. The characters themselves develop fairly well over the course of the show, with the most development being on the part of Amenlis, the Mongaul Princess. Remus, Rinda and Istovan also show a good degree of growth, however this is mainly because of their association with Guin.
And what of the titular character himself? Well, as characters go, Guin doesn't really show any real development or growth, however while Guin may have no memory or past to speak of, he is portrayed as a fully realised character, with his own sense of justice, his own ideals, his own honour, and this fact is demonstrated time and time again throughout the show. So the question becomes, does Guin need any development? Aside from finding out who he is, where he comes from, and why he has the head of a leopard, there doesn't actually seem to be any real need to develop him further, at least, as far as the anime is concerned.
I will admit that I was intrigued by this show, especially as I know something of the stories behind it. That said, I didn't actually hold out any real hopes that it would be good, especially given the amount of source material that would need to be packed into 26 episodes. Thankfully Wakabayashi Atsushi, in his first full time at the directorial helm of a series (he also produced the storyboard for the anime), and writer Yonemura Shoji, chose to adapt only a portion of the story so far. Because of this, the anime adaptation of Guin Saga doesn't feel the need to cram everything into one season, and this allows the story to progress and develop in an almost natural manner at times.
Guin Saga is very much an old style heroic fantasy like Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and The Lord of the Rings, and it bears all the hallmarks of one too. Fans of Seirei no Moribito, Berserk, or any other heroic fantasy anime should really give this series a try as it is a singular example of the genre and has the potential, should the series continue into two or more seasons (and oh, how I hope it does), to rival the mighty Legend of the Galactic Heroes in terms of plot development, character growth, complexity, and worldbuilding on a grandiose scale.
While many may be disappointed at the final few episodes, it's worth remembering that the story continues even after the anime ends and, if you're like me and you want more Guin Saga, then you can either find the books or hope that a second season is produced. Granted there are flaws in the show, however many of these stem from the fact that the story is incomplete, and the anime should be recognised for its achievments, rather than derided for not putting forward a complete tale.
Comperessing 126 novels into 26 episodes would have made a mockery of Kurimoto Kaoru's life's work, and I for one am glad that only part of the tale is told here.
And should anyone from Satelight read this review, more Guin Saga please :)