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"The Slayers": Welcome Back, Dragon Spooker

You know, out of all the genres that make up anime, fantasy seems to be the most underused. Sure, series involving magic have gotten a boost thanks to Harry Potter, but most are like Negima or Maburaho, taking place in the present day. Very few anime series are based on the classic sword and magic, Dungeons & Dragons/Lord of the Rings-style fantasy genre, and even fewer are actually any good. Even after all these years, there are only three series which are actually in the “must-see” category: Record of Lodoss War, The Vision of Escaflowne, and the goofiest of the trio: The Slayers.

In a world where magicians and swordsman are all over place, one of the most feared warriors is a wizard known as the Dragon Spooker or the Bandit Killer. The sorcerer? A fifteen-year-old flatchested little girl named Lina Inverse. One day, while robbing a bunch of bandits and taking their treasure for herself, Lina runs into a brave, but really dimwitted, swordsman named Gourry Gabriev. Gourry proclaims himself to be Lina’s guardian and promises to protect her, even after he realizes that she’s capable to destroying entire cities in minutes. The two eventually get caught up in a plot to revive the demon lord Ruby-Eye Shabranigdo, which will cause the end of the world. As if that isn’t enough, Lina’s also got to deal with a moody chimera man named Zelgadis, a rather insane holy man known as Rezo the Red Priest, and the hyperactive self-proclaimed Hammer of Justice Amelia Wil Tesla Seyruun. With all this craziness abound her, even with the extremely powerful Dragon Slave spell, Lina’s in line to get another ulcer.

I remember watching random episodes of Slayers and its two sequel seasons on VHS way back when Dragonball Z was still in syndication (wow, do I now feel old) and absolutely loved what little I saw of it. Eventually I grabbed the first season when Central Park Media put out their boxsets and experienced first-hand the first season’s problems. Still, I loved it and wanted to see more of Lina Inverse. However, when FUNimation announced they had acquired the license, I sold my original boxset in preparation, so it’s been years since I’ve seen the series. And you know what? It still holds up. Compared to all the other cookie-cutter shows from the mid-90′s (Lost Universe, Sorcerer Hunters, etc.), Slayers stands out in almost all fronts. It hasn’t quite the epic brilliance of Lodoss and isn’t anywhere near as hauntingly beautiful as Escaflowne, but Slayers is just pure fun, adding its own special touch to the genre that really doesn’t get explored too often.

It’s the characters that make the series so fun. Whether it be Lina’s drive for treasure, Gourry’s stupid observations, Amelia’s justice-filled speech, or Zelgadis’s calling everyone idiots, the four main characters all have excellent chemistry and bounce off one another extremely well. No matter how dire the situation, the characters will realize just how ludicrous everything is and make a cynical comment, usually resulting in a fun gag scene that lightens the show up a bit. With other series, this might be a distraction, especially when it comes in a very dramatic moment when, say, a major character is close to being killed off. However, Slayers manages to avoid that with some excellent writing that allows the jokes to fly even in the most dramatic moments without lessening any of the tension. The characters know that their setting is completely ridiculous and take full advantage of it.

Thankfully, the writers created some nice stories to take advantage of the wackiness. Whether it be the gang starring in a play about the evil demon Lina Inverse or fighting a gigantic transvestite dragon, the stories themselves allow our characters to go wild and just have some fun. Even the bad guys get in on the action. Vrumugun, a super-serious wizard after Lina, has some great chemistry with the Bandit Killer and even a few jokes at his expense, though the true hilarity comes from Zangulus, Gourry’s rival. The guy is a serious swordsman but is also extremely cheesy, often going for our heroes in the most direct way and falling flat on his face, such as when Gourry and the others are on a raft moving swiftly along a river and Zangulus jumps off a bridge to land on the raft, only to fall in the water well before he reaches our heroes. He’s actually kind of this series’ Yosemite Sam, only not quite as stupid.

Unfortunately, no series is perfect and Slayers is no exception. You’ll notice I’ve been raving about the second half of the series, but what about the first half? Well, it’s nowhere near as good. Dubbing issues aside, the story is just not a good introductory piece into the world of Slayers. Sure, if you’re familiar with the various OAVs and the novels the beginning won’t be as hard, but those who have never seen anything involving Slayers might get lost soon after the first episode. We’re introduced to this great mythology about the various gods and demons of the world, but with no real backstory to put anything in context. Yes, everything is eventually explained in Slayers Next, but for now, we’re just kind of thrown into a story that should have had twenty or more episodes of build-up. As a result, the first half feels disjointed and you never really get a sense of the impending doom, even when all the main characters’ attacks don’t work. The story does pick up when Amelia joins the group at the end of Disc 2, as it focuses more on comedy than action at this point, but it still doesn’t feel right until the big change-up starting with episode 14.

While Slayers might have had better writing than other series of its ilk, it unfortunately shared the same quality of animation. It’s not quite as drastic a difference as, say, Lupin III is to IGPX, but the animation simply does not compare well to most anime of today. Sure, there are a few nice stock scenes where the animation is fluid and sharp, but much of the series is animated rather cheaply, with not many frames used between movements and fluidity a mere pipe dream. This results is that few serious action scenes are truly excitng, especially when the gang battles Shabranigdo. At least the visuals do have the spells going for them. In the various movies and specials they didn’t have much variety, but in the series each spell has its own visual, giving the series a nicely distinctive flair and making the battles just a little bit more interesting. For instance, it’s nice to see that the Dragon Slave actually look like it could mow down a city, instead of just being a random beam of light.

When Central Park Media initially dubbed the series, Daniel Cronin and Joani Baker played the roles of Zelgadis and Amelia. Cronin was too bland and Baker was too shrill. Thankfully, Crispin Freeman and Veronica Taylor played the roles in the second half of the series, instantly lifting the dub and actually making it respectable. When FUNimation grabbed the license, one of their intentions was to redub the first half of the series so that Freeman and Taylor would be consistent with the rest of the Slayers dubs. Unfortunately, due to the state of the original Japanese masters, FUNimation was unable to redub the series, so Cronin and Baker are still there.

But what about the rest of the voice cast? Many people find Lisa Ortiz’s Lina to be highly annoying, but I think she eventually gets into the role and works out great and she’s infinitely better than Cynthia Martinez, who plays Lina in ADV’s dubs of the OAVs/movies. Eric Stuart is great as Gourry and easily captures the character as soon as he appears. Of course, this was back when Stuart was sane and could act, so it’s no surprise. Ted Lewis is a bit shaky as Zangulus, but more often than not works, while Jimmy Zoppi plays Vrumugun using a voice that those used to his work on Pokémon may find alarming. Unfortunately, the other characters aren’t quite as cast as well as the above characters. The most notorious of the horrible voices is Stacia Crawford’s Sylphiel, who just plain reeks, though Rezo’s voice actor, Charles Rolfe, has some horribly acted scenes as well, especially during the final few episodes. The Japanese cast, led by the legendary Megumi Hayashibara, has no true bad spots to speak of and is actually quite charming and enjoyable, which is something I haven’t heard much of in many recent anime series.

True, FUNimation couldn’t get the materials to redub the series, but that’s no reason the extras have to be so shoddy. All we get are textless songs, trailers, and an alternate edit to Episode 1. The text interviews that were in the Central Park Media set are gone and there isn’t even a retrospective or featurette or anything. Considering that ADV practically worshiped Crispin Freeman when he recorded Slayers Premium, the lack of extras here from the usually extras-rich FUNi is rather annoying. Even the packaging is lacking, as the front image is extremely blurry (as if they had to blow it up to fit the size of the cover) and the digipak packaging is extremely bland. It’s almost as if once FUNimation realized that they couldn’t redub the series they just decided to make some quickie boxsets on the cheap and get them out onto stores. I’m not asking that FUNimation put as much effort as they put into, say, Trinity Blood (though it would’ve been nice), but surely they could’ve done better than this.

Overall, if you’re hungry for some fantasy anime and are bored of Escaflowne and Scrapped Princess, give the first season of Slayers a try. Just try to think of it as a prequel to Next and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.

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