"Jyu-Oh-Sei" is Pret-Ty Good
You can compare FUNimation’s newly released boxed set Jyu-Oh-Sei to Fox’s 24, in that both are blood-soaked, highly addictive television series, even if characterization is thin and they grow more preposterous they go on. Jyu-Oh-Sei also turns out to have more recycled content than it would seem at first, although by the time this becomes evident, the series is over.
On the futuristic space colony of Juno, young Thor Klein and his brother Rai come home from school one day to discover both their scientist parents murdered. Immediately afterwards, they are gassed into unconsciousness and wake up on the savage penal colony planet of Chimera and rapidly become the newest prey for the alien world’s killer plant life and the hardscrabble human communities known as “Rings.” Before long, Thor is swept up in the kill-or-be-killed world of Chimera, showing a surprising ability for survival in both hand-to-hand combat and the political intrigues of the Rings. His only hope for discovering why he was dumped on the planet and why his parents were killed is to become the “Beast King” by bringing all the Rings under his control. Doing so will grant him access to the Dagger Pagoda, with its transportation system back to Juno and, hopefully, to some answers.
Apparently, Jyu-Oh-Sei was based on a 10-volume manga, and the animated series seems to do a pretty good job of compressing the depth that the manga’s increased length probably afforded. The anime hits the ground running and wastes a minimum of time in exposition as it introduces both the world of Chimera and a surprisingly large cast. It doesn’t take very long to get thoroughly engrossed in Thor’s struggles to survive, as the series is perfectly paced to maximize the effect of the cliffhangers at the end of each episode. It’s quite easy to find yourself swallowing up huge chunks of the series at a stretch, and finding yourself at the end of the 11 episodes far more quickly than you’d think you would have. Despite its science fiction trappings, the show also freely borrows mythic elements from fairy tales, with Thor taking on the trappings of a “chosen one” destined to become the Beast King despite all the machinations of those standing against him. In fact, some of those machinations backfire quite severely, making it even more evident that You Can’t Fight Fate.
It is one of the show’s strengths that it continues to be quite addictive even as its flaws become more evident. The coherence of the series starts to slip noticeably in the concluding episodes, which mixes up “Everything You Thought You Knew Was Wrong” plot twists with conspiracy theories and good intentions gone horribly awry. Watching the series descend into cliché is a bit of a let down, but it keeps its head above water long enough for a reasonably satisfying conclusion. The more serious flaws center on characterization, which is thin and has a nasty tendency of making the characters seem really stupid. Thor’s behavior continually earns him a punch in the face in the best case, or challenges to the death in the worst case, and yet he still acts surprised every time it happens. It turns out that there’s a reason why he can survive despite being such a dumb-ass, and his knack for survival despite his best efforts to get himself killed also reinforces the “chosen one” aspects of the plot. Even so, we figure out the rules of Chimera so much further ahead of him that it’s hard not to think that he’s really dense. His brother Rai is even worse, acting like a moaning, whining, helpless wimp well after the seriousness of their situation sinks in. The lead heroine Tiz starts off as appealingly spunky, but turns out be far too passive and a lot less cool than she seems to be at the start. Indeed, Thor and Tiz turn out to be a lot less interesting than the cool and enigmatic “Third,” so named for his position in the hierarchy of the Ochre Ring, and Chen, the tough leader of the Sun Ring who wants to be Third’s wife.
The most glaring flaw of Jyu-Oh-Sei lies in its gender and sexual politics, which run from the interestingly odd to the bewilderingly bizarre. Early on, Tiz informs Thor (and us) that women get to pick their mates on Chimera, and that a man refusing a woman is unheard of. However, it’s a little hard to take her seriously, considering that every single woman in the entire series repeatedly flings herself at a male character, only to be spurned for the skimpiest of reasons. This refusal of otherwise highly desirable women and the rather androgynous character designs of the men end up accenting the homoerotic undertones between the men of the show, which often turn into weird power-play games. It’s a peculiarly singular achievement that Jyu-Oh-Sei‘s relationships can be equally dysfunctional no matter what your sexual orientation may be.
The animation by Studio Bones is quite good, especially considering its TV budget. The world of Chimera is vividly realized, and the strong sense of place is easily one of the best things about the series. The character designs and costuming are quite creative and stay remarkably consistent throughout the entire series. The two-disc DVD series is packaged in two thinpak cases and an art box, and presents the image in a sharp enhanced widescreen. The English dub comes in 5.1 Dolby Digital and it’s the usual high-quality dub from FUNimation. The original Japanese soundtrack is only in 2.0 stereo. Episode 6 gets a mostly frivolous and not terribly informative commentary track by the English voice actors, while the second disc comes with the original Japanese TV commercials (mostly an exercise in combinatorics as they rearrange the same scenes in a different order), textless songs, and a handful of trailers.
Despite the many criticisms above, I’d still recommend Jyu-Oh-Sei in the end. It’s a solidly animated, generally well-done show that mostly hits what it’s aiming at, and the addictive nature of its entertainment is undeniable. Releasing the entire boxed set in one sitting is a bit of a gamble on FUNimation’s part, since it’s asking potential viewers for a pretty steep up-front commitment sight-unseen. Luckily, Jyu-Oh-Sei ultimately proves worthy of that commitment, even in the face of its flaws.