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"Hero Tales" Volumes One & Two: Destined to Blow

Hero Tales is a fun little manga that was drawn by Hiromu Arakawa, and I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten more attention. It’s only five volumes long, has a few pacing problems, and doesn’t really break any new ground–even its name seems to imply a certain amount of predictability–but it’s well-drawn and quirky enough to be worth a read despite its flaws, and the complete lack of interest in the next project of the woman who gave us Fullmetal Alchemist is puzzling. Studio Flag’s behavior in adapting the series for TV is worse.

Where to begin? The show is visually barren. The backgrounds and settings all seem generic–if any of the painstaking attention to minute details that Arakawa mentions in the book was given, then it doesn’t show in the end result. Arakawa’s designs look good, but the animation is so limited that they seem sort of lifeless and vague most of the time. The best scene I can use to illustrate this is the one where the characters discover a terrible slum in the middle of the capital city. In the comic the sense of poverty, decay, and despair is palpable: you see dirty, animalistic children scrounging through junk and people shuffling around with cold, dead eyes. In the show, it just looks like a section of town where everyone has collectively lost a puppy and is really bummed out about it. The only energetic scenes are the fight scenes, and the only really impressive fight scenes take place in the first and last episodes. It’s a shame that a series who’s major selling point was its artist got so short-changed aesthetically.

The plot here is slow and uninspired, though to be fair, some of that was in the books too. The story is kind of silly, filled with clichés, and at times unbelievable. What makes it work is how likable the characters are and how fun it is to see them interact with each other–and, again, that shows up in the show as well. The best episode of the series is probably “What Echoes in the Gorge,” which is basically a comedic filler episode and is actually really fun. But that episode is largely the exception–due both to the aforementioned visual sparsity and the trouble inherent in making an adaptation, we just don’t get too many fun character moments in this series.

Instead, huge amounts of time is spent just moving the plot forward. It seems odd to say that a twenty-six episode series has trouble squeezing in the story of a five-volume comic, but that’s what happens–twists that were conveyed in a few pages are stretched out to entire episodes and the shows ends up skipping several key scenes, leaving many episodes with an abrupt, unfinished feeling and ending up with a product that’s pretty unfaithful to the source material. Additionally, it turns out that, when examined in thirty-minute chunks, those plot details that were clichéd and silly and unbelievable are also pretty boring. I’m way more interested in seeing the characters banter or fight than in watching a cartoonishly simplified political struggle.

And again, that was in the books too, but there was more to carry it there–we liked the characters more and there was more to look at. And before you accuse me of getting too hung up on differences between the books and the show, I should point out that when I started watching the show, I hadn’t even finished the manga series yet! There’s just obviously something wrong with it even without the context.

One thing I did like about these two sets were the extras. In addition to the clean opening and ending themes that have become standard with FUNimation, we get a pair of scenes with the Japanese cast, in which they goof around and draw pictures while occasionally talking about the show. It’s pretty slight, but it’s nice to have and, frankly, it’s more entertaining than the show itself.

My final word: the Hero Tales manga in severely underrated and you should check it out. If you really like it, you may want to check out this series, if only for the few scenes that it does get right. But for the most part, this is a really mediocre series that you should probably avoid.

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