In my days modding for this very site, if I were to have caught anyone TYpinG LIKe ThiS, RANdomlY cAPitaliZING LetTERs, I would have had a great time handing out a once in a lifetime infraction to the culprit. Fortunately, the days where this was somewhat widespread online are long gone. So when I sat down to 'Tsubasa RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE' (also known as 'Chronicle of the Wings' in some countries), and wondered how I'd remember which letters to capitalize in the title, I must say, it was quite a blast from the (massively annoying) past.
Annoying title aside, 'Tsubasa' (to prevent confusion on my end, this will be the abbreviation used for the rest of this review) is an interesting anime series, not interesting enough to be a stand out. A fantasy/adventure story, 'Tsubasa' has a fun theme, that constantly introduces new characters, settings, and situations through a very smart narrative decision. Unfortunately, even with the constant changes of scenery and mood, staleness is an eventuality that comes on much sooner than later.
Young archeologist Syaoran has long had feelings for princess Sakura, who seems to feel the same way, though she is hesitant to let her feelings be known to him. When Sakura is drawn to the ruins where Syaoran is working, and a magical power strips her of her memories, they are spread through countless dimensions in the form of feathers (from the magic wings that she had sprouted). Seeing that the only way to keep Sakura alive and well is to hunt down each and every feather, Syaoran sets out through world after world, alongside the warrior Kurogane and magician Fai (and their guide, an animal-like creature called Mokona), encountering alternate versions of friends and foes, with drastically different worlds, with different plights that will play a part in the discovery of the feathers, which take on great magical powers, used for both good and bad, in these strange lands.
Debuting in manga form in 2003, 'Tsubasa' had a two year run (in other words, there is yet another season to be released on Blu-ray) from 2005 through 2006, and a series of five OVA (original video animation, spin off/extension movies) that have been released up to this year, a sign that the popularity of the show has not faded over time.
'Tsubasa' isn't the best anime I've ever sat down to watch, but it's far from the worst. It is, if anything, its own best friend, and its own worst enemy, all at the same time, a show that shows flashes of brilliance, then trips on its own feet into a pile of its own excrement.
The characters aren't exactly original or unique, as they all tend to remind one of past anime cliche, but they fit together nicely in this ever-expanding puzzle. Each of their individual quests work together as a whole, though Kurogane and Fai are vastly under-utilized, with their problems (including a curse on Kurogane that isn't ever discussed until it is revealed near the end of this first season, that lessens his strength with every foe he vanquishes, a punishment of sort for his aggressive past) thrown to the wind, their inclusion into the plight of Syaoran and Sakura assumed and immediately accepted, all too conveniently. The funny thing is, these two main characters have exact opposite goals, with Fai wanting to disappear and hide from the rival magician he imprisoned, and Kurogane wanting to return to his home land, yet they always accept their fates and move with the gang, hoping to find what they want with each new land.
The way the show jumps sub-genres with each new dimension is definitely its strong point, as it can reboot every time a situation can start to get stale or run its course. From lands where each inhabitant has an animal spirit of sorts and gangs fight turf wars based off their powers, to the world of a video game, or a land enslaved by an evil wizard, the situations presented our heros are diverse enough to keep interest high, though the amount of conflict and drama that would normally be raised, to reach a climax is nowhere to be found. The loss of Sakura's entire memory is a great driving point, with Syaoran's sacrifice of her memories of him (in a twisted deal with the devil sort of agreement that starts the dimension hopping tale) creating fun issues and conflict between the two would-be lovers. Their tale is that of a tragedy, where one is aware of the situation, the other utterly oblivious.
Despite the wide range of themes presented in 'Tsubasa,' its the storytelling element that throws a limb in this bicycle wheel. The constant reliance on flashbacks to flesh out situations gets old way too fast, a clumsy form of narrative that is more annoying than it is informative. Nearly every episode has a flashback of some sort, coupled with the fact that the first minute of every new episode is a recap of previous events (though with no "previously, on blah blah blah" intro), and it's just time spent in the past, rather than dealing with the interesting scenarios in the present. I get that this story is about memories, and the quest to prove one's love, no matter if it will ever be be reciprocated, but these "memories," if you would, drag down the entire show. The Mokona is also a waste, as the teleportation and sensing of feathers that it provides could have easily been put into a human character that has little to do, like Fai. The whole weird-little-annoying-creature-that-I want-to-see-killed-in-every-episode-vibe it has going on is a constant distraction.
(SPOILERS AHEAD) The dialogue can also be quite annoying, as in the video game world, where the four nomadic heroes become demon hunters to earn dough, in possibly the most interesting subplot presented yet in this program, the difference between PC and NPC is explained. Defined, actually, as multiple characters jump in to describe what a playable character, and a non player character is. It's just ridiculous, coupled with the "there's no reset button now!" jargon thrown out to raise the stakes, and becomes laughable. The entire dimension, which amounts to nothing more than one humongous dream sequence, is the point at which I found myself wondering how to score this show, based on potential and premise, or the random letdowns that never cease to pop up. (END SPOILERS) If anything, this anime is recommendable for its brilliant score, but there's far too much compost surrounding that beautiful flower to recommend this show to anyone but otaku.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Tsubasa' arrives on Blu-ray in a three disc set (all BD50 discs), by way of FUNimation. The first case houses two discs, while the second holds disc three. Both disc cases fit into a standard slide out box, like most other FUNimation anime series. Each disc has a single pre-menu trailer (detailed in the extras portion of this review), that is skippable through the menu button, but not chapter skip. Episodes 1-9 are on disc one, 10-18 on disc two, and 19-26 on disc three (a slight move from the ten per disc from previous releases).
With an AVC MPEG-4 encode at 1080p in the 1.78:1 ratio, 'Tsubasa's video quality is damn near exact in strengths and weaknesses as the previous FUNimation release, 'Witchblade.' Perhaps the extra room per disc created by less episodes per didn't provide that much breathing room, after all.
The first noticeable video quality is the appearance of the opening credits, which appear to have been made at a different frame rate than the show, as it stutters drastically.
From the very first moment a solid green cloak appears on screen, artifacting and color banding is evident. These issues do not let up, through the entire run time of the program, with light and dark colors (including whites and blacks) all showing these issues. Some moments, later in the show, with a weird green "lighting" aesthetic make skin tones appear to contain digital noise, but it is only an illumination of the dancing artifacts that are not anywhere near as noticeable on exposed skin at any other time.
Black levels are a hair too bright, never reaching a desirable inky depth. There is a constant halo around characters that is much like color bleed, which may be an aesthetic choice of the show, but it doesn't help the video. Slow pans and fades reveal jagged lines and aliasing issues, while backgrounds can appear blocky and blown up from a lower resolution often. Macroblocking is evident in this pile of problems, to boot, especially in the edges of any darker magical swirl.
Despite the laundry list of complaints concerning the video qualities of 'Tsubasa' on Blu-ray, colors are very strong and vibrant, detail is fantastic in foregrounds (backgrounds suffer from the blocking, and are nowhere near commendable), and the animation never feels cheap or lazy. Certainly not the best anime can look, 'Tsubasa' is promising, but ultimately troubled.
"The dream is ending. The nightmare is only beginning."
The audio for 'Tsubasa' is where the conflict comes into play, and what a conflict it is. Much as this show shares the strengths and weaknesses of 'Witchblade,' it also contains the biggest complaint any fan can make. The discs in this release default to the English dub (with subtitles turned off, save for on-screen translations of text), presented by way of a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix, while the natural/native Japanese track only comes by way of a Dolby Digital Stereo track.
Despite my feelings on viewing shows and films in their natural language, the obvious discrepancy between tracks forced me to jump between language tracks to get a basis for each.
The English track is the obvious winner, as 'Tsubasa' sounds quite nice with lossless surround sound. Bass levels are on display from the start, with a great pulse, and are evident to nice effect in nearly every episode. The bass is never overpowering, but it can be quite heavy, accenting the show nicely for dramatic effect, and can even shake the entire room at a few points in the show. The score hits every channel nicely, with instruments spreading across the room to nice effect...what better way to showcase the perfect beauty that is the music from Yuki Kajiura? This track can sometimes overpower the dialogue in the show, bringing even emphatic yells and screams to whimper volume), which is the only real downside to this mix.
Dialogue is clear and comprehendible for the most part, though some moments of introspection and thought could have been a hair louder. There is some feedback in the voice for the promos for the next episode teases, but that really doesn't affect my feeling on the show itself. Mokona teleportation effects bring out some great movement effects, which are light in the show otherwise. Atmosphere is also light, but is often present, including some great harsh winds sweeping through the entire soundscape, putting one in the middle of the barren lands. The ending of the first episode has an increasing volume level on rain effects that does not match the static rain on screen, but that is somewhat a non-issue. If this track were for the Japanese release, the score for the audio would have been much higher.
A tragedy it wasn't. The natural Japanese track, in comparison to the English dub, lacks any dearth and emphasis. Dialogue is very clear and clearly prioritized, though again music can be louder, creating a slight mess, while bass levels that were once thunderous, well, aren't there. Ambience is overpowered, and feels unnatural and forced. Movement is nearly gone, a shame as there are some sequences that came to real life in the dub. If the Japanese track got the same treatment as the dub, rather than being shot in the metaphorical foot, this would have been an amazing audio release. As it is, It's a mixed bag.
Despite how bulky this list appears, it is all paper thin, hence the low score for these extras.
'Tsubasa' may be one of the most frustrating shows I've watched in some time, as it hints and teases with flashes of brilliance, but meanders and throws out some random cliche tripe instead. The Blu-ray set has nice video, great audio (if you like watching your shows with an inauthentic track...if you prefer native tracks like me, prepare to be let down, especially by comparison), but sparse extras. The set has a low price for a show of this length, though, convincing me to recommend users give this one a look.