Fushigi Yuugi (TV)

Sit down, everyone, because I'm going to tell you a story.  Long ago in the dark days of the mid-90s, if you wanted to enjoy a bit of shoujo in the United States you had to work for it.  Sure, there was Sailor Moon on TV, but if you didn't go for magical girls your options were mostly limited to whatever VHS bootlegs you could get your hands on.  Even the manga world didn't have much to offer until Mixx Magazine came along.  Knowing that, it's pretty easy to understand how a series like Fushigi Yuugi could get popular. It was a series about a girl getting sucked into another world and having adventures with a bunch of pretty warrior boys. With elements of fantasy and romance, it was all but made for teenage girls to throw money at it.  Teen girls did indeed throw lots of money at it, which not only proved there was a market for shoujo in the States, but made creator Yuu Watase a wealthy woman in the process.  For many years Fushigi Yuugi had a reputation as one of the go-to titles for introducing people to anime, much less shoujo anime. 

I was not one of those girls, though. Having gotten into anime in 2010, I knew Fushigi Yuugi only from its reputation.  It was that reputation that led to pull this series and its two OVAs up on Crunchyroll one dull day.  That dull day turned into many days, considering that I had 52 episodes to cover and 13 OVA episodes on top of that.  Nonetheless, I preservered in watching the entire thing.  Having watched the entire franchise now, I'm honestly baffled by its past popularity.  Were shoujo fans truly so desperate for material that they would get invested in such a cheap, schlocky, convoluted, and downright offensive show like this?
The franchise stars one Miaka Yuki, a ditzy 15 year old girl with dreams of love, food, and getting into a prestigious high school alongside her best friend, Yui Hongo.  A study session at the local library leads them to an old Chinese book, The Universe of the Four Gods.  Upon reading it, the two are sucked into its world, only for the two to get quickly seperated.  Miaka is forced to team with a local rogue by the name of Tamahome to survive, and the two soon discover that they are part of a far larger destiny.  It seems that Miaka is the prophesized Priestess of Suzaku, and she must gather seven divine warriors to help her summon the god Suzaku to protect the kingdom.  Along the way, they must fight back against the forces of Nakago, who himself has recruited Yui to summon the opposing god Seiryu for his own purposes.  All the while, Miaka and Tamahome must fight against the strength of their own growing feelings as the completion of their quest might separate them forever.

That sounds perfectly fine as a premise on paper, but it doesn't take many episodes to see that there are some major flaws.  First and foremost amongst those flaws is Miaka herself.  Even fans of the series rarely have a kind word for Miaka, as she's the sort of hapless, helpless shoujo damsel that mostly went out of style in the new millennium.  She constantly wanders into danger without a thought for herself or others and thus is constantly dependent upon someone else to save her.  From the moment that her love interest Tamahome enters the picture, he becomes her entire world and remains so for the rest of the franchise.  Worse still, the plot encourages this at every turn by handily pulling solutions to her problems firmly out of its ass, all under the name of True Love and/or Friendship.

Her obsession with Tamahome is so great that it frequently derails her from both her sacred quest and her efforts to save Yui, which is a big reason as to why this premise was stretched out for 52 episodes.  Why would she worry about getting back to her world or saving her supposed best friend when she can instead fret for the 23rd time if Tamahome truly loves her or not, despite him making his feelings quite clear on the matter?  To Miaka, every moment with Tamahome is pure bliss in her eyes (and pure tedium for the audience), and the mere prospect of being apart from him is enough to turn her into a weeping wreck. The worst part is that Miaka never grows as a character.  She never gains any courage, inner strength, perspective, or any sort of real trust in her non-romantic allies.  All she does is become utterly dependent on her boyfriend, and is rewarded for this from beginning to end.  Who needs character arcs when you can get yourself a man?

The guys aren't much better handled than Miaka is.  Tamahome is meant to be a charming rogue with the oh-so-laughable quirk of being greedy.  Of course, he turns out to have a noble cause, even if said cause is eliminated rather dramatically midway through.  All of this is mostly forgotten once he and Miaka become a proper couple.  At that point, he becomes the blandest romantic hero you could possibly imagine.  He also picks up some bad habits from Miaka, as he starts to run away from Miaka for dramatic purposes all the time too.  He's pretty much a teenage girl's fantasy of what a boyfriend is like: strong, handsome, committed to you no what sort of stupid stunts you might pull, and will endlessly shower you in love and compliments because you have nothing in common other than your mutual love for one another.  Maybe that's super dreamy when you're 15, but to this 32 year old woman it comes off as ridiculous.

Still, Tamahome's handling is positively lavish compared to the development that the rest of the Suzaku Warriors get.  Most of them get their own mini-arcs to establish themselves, and from that moment their characters are set in stone.  Tatsuki will always be the hot-headed comic relief.  Chichiri will always serve as the resident deus ex machine, all while spouting his stupid vocal tic of "no da"/"y'know."  Hotorhori will comment on his own beauty, even as he tries desperately to win Miaka over.  Mitsukake will be mostly silent until someone needs healing.  Chiriko will be...well, he never did much other than serve as the token shouta of the group. 

The only one to get anything resembling an actual character arc is the super-strong Nuriko, and even then it comes with a lot of caveats.  She's initially introduced as a wedge to keep Miaka and Tamahome apart.  The complication comes from the fact that Nuriko is biologically male but presents as a woman.  These days most people would recognize her as a transwoman, but the writers never quite settle on whether she's meant to be that or a gay transvestite.  Sadly, her gender/sexuality issues are mostly used as fodder for a bunch of homophobic jokes early on, and once the story starts exploring Nuriko's backstory it writes off her gender issues entirely.  Still, she grows from a catty rival to the voice of reason in the group, especially where Miaka and Tamahome are concerned.  Unfortunately she falls victim to the same fate as most of the Suzaku Warriors: to die to show that the situation has gotten truly serious.  It seems that was the true purpose of Miaka's little reverse harem: not to serve as romantic rivals, but as cannon fodder.  It becomes such a frequent trend that you start to dread learning their backstories, as it becomes the dramatic equivalent of a movie cop announcing they have only two days until retirement.

I haven't even touched upon the problems of the actual plot!  The biggest problem is that Fushigi Yuugi cannot sustain a dramatic arc to save its life.  Every twist, be it big or small, is seemingly resolved within two or three episodes, so Watase & Co. have to keep throwing new complications and hurdles to be overcome.  This is doubly true for Miaka and Tamahome's romance.  While I am thankful that they did not stretch out the will-they-won't-they nonsense for the series' entire length, I do believe that they made a grave error in bringing the two together as a couple before the first cour was over.  In doing so, they had nowhere to go with these two dramatically, so all the writers could do was find increasingly new and stupid ways to tear them apart and reunite them.  This turns what is meant to be a touching romance into an exercise in frustration, making every declaration of love feel all the more hollow.

Then there's the main villain, the scheming opposing general Nakago.  He's meant to be this great mastermind who starts a war, overthrows another emperor, manipulates Yui into serving Seiryu, and hunting down his own band of celestial warrior all in the name of obtaining ultimate power and taking over both realities.  Aside from the fact that his ultimate goal is incredibly generic, the problem is that we're never shown a moment of Nakago being truly clever.  Instead he mostly stands in place and announces how every stupid plot twist is all part of his plan.  It's hard to believe that this guy, out of the entire cast, is reputedly Watase's favorite character.  You'd think she would make her favorite far more intimidating or charismatic.  The closest he comes to cleverness is when he tricks Miaka into coming to him with the intention of raping her, and even then he completely bungles this by faking it instead for incredibly petty and mind-bogglingly dumb reasons and flat-out telling her what the real deal with Yui is.

Rape is a common threat in the world of Fushigi Yuugi.  Indeed, you have to wonder just how bad Hotohori must be at being emperor when his own kingdom seems to be overrun with wandering rape squads ready to threaten strangely dressed young ladies at the slightest provocation.  The power of the priestesses is contingent on their virginity, so rape seems to be the only way the writers can threaten any notable woman in the cast.  It seems that the show can't go more than half a dozen episodes at a stretch without threatening Miaka with rape.  A rape threat ends up being one of the major factors behind Yui's turn to the dark side.  Rape even ends up motivating the villain, as the show hints that Nakago was raped by the evil emperor as a young boy.  This is yet another artifact of the show's age, as many notable shoujo manga of the time also used rape threats indiscriminately in the name of drama.  Nonetheless, few of those contemporaries can be said to have used rape as frequently or as casually as a plot device as Fushigi Yuugi.

That's far from the only way Fushigi Yuugi mishandles its female cast.  It seems that Watase believes that the only way two women can interact is to be openly or secretly jealous of one another over a man .  This is what motivates Miaka and Nuriko's initial rivalry, as Nuriko is interested in both Tamahome and Hotohori.  It's also what ultimately drives the rivalry between Miaka and Yui once the two are reunited.  That's right, it's not driven by Yui resenting that Miaka has generally had an easier time of things inside the book or by Yui misplacing her anger and resentment under Nakago's guidance.  Nope!  She's simply jealous that Miaka has Tamahome.  She totally met him at the same time and spent all of five minutes with him!  Therefore he should be in love with her!  There are not enough facepalms in the world to convey just how jaw-droppingly insulting this is as a motivation.

Mind you, it's hard to believe that these two are meant to be the best of friends considering that every glimpse of Miaka's home life shows her to be constantly mocked by all of her friends for her stupidity and gluttony.  Still, it makes the nominally brainy Yui look no brighter than Miaka herself.  It's also terribly telling of what Watase and the other writers think about the intelligence and loyalty of their own audience.  It's telling that the only committed friendships we see are those between the Suzaku Warriors and between Miaka's older brother Keisuke and his pal Tetsuya, who follow the events of the book for much of the show's run.

All of these flaws would be easier to ignore if the show had any sort of visual flare or something nice to listen to, but this show fails this on nearly every front.  Studio Pierrot has never been known for lavish animation, and Fushigi Yuugi was no exception to their output.  It cuts corners all over the place, as nearly every action scene involves panning over stills, reusing footage, or features montages of barely animated heads.  Only the occasionally moody background paintings bring any sort of visual relief.  The score is shockingly minimal and out-of-place for what is meant to be a romantic fantasy epic.  This is the sort of story that begs for a full orchestra, but instead we get a few pieces reissued over and over.  There's a wacky bit of synthesized nonsense for the comedy scenes, a hilariously mismatched sax solo for some of the dramatic moments, the weirdly peppy coda that leads into each episode's ending, and many a supporting character's death is underscored by their own image song.  The only piece that worked for me was the opening, or at least the first half where the song tries for an ethereal, exotic air. 

The voice acting is a different matter altogether.  The original Japanese cast is fairly archetypical and even in quality, but it's studded with seiyuu that were just as notable then as they are now.  I particularly liked the suitably girlish tone of Kae Araki's performance as Miaka.  In all fairness, she was already used to playing annoying shoujo characters having spent many years playing Chibi-Usa on Sailor Moon.  The only notable cast member that felt off was Tomokazu Seki's weirdly pitched take on Chichiri.  Also, despite the protestations of many older reviews, Chichiri's vocal tic isn't any less annoying in Japanese.  It's simply less noticeable to English-speaking teens.  It's probably the best way to watch the show, but I mostly soldiered on with the dub.

The English dub is also full of familiar names (even if most of them are using their non-union aliases), but it's a far shoddier affair that serves as a reminder of what a lot of anime dubs were like at the time.  Bridget Hoffman is a notable dub actress in her own right, but Fushigi Yuugi marks only one of two times she was called upon to adapt and direct a dub and her inexperience shows.  Most of the performances are broad or horrendously flat.  Nakago's dub actor in particular sounds so robotic that you could have easily convinced me that it was actually performed by a digital speech simulator.  What's truly shocking is how bad Hoffman herself is as Miaka.  She plays the character as loud and shrill.  She improves some as the series progresses, but never to the point where it starts to sound good.  The only saving grace of the dub is Tamahome.  I'm fully convinced that fangirls of this show back in the day weren't in love with Tamahome per se, but instead with David Hayter's take on Tamahome.  His is by far the best and most natural performance in the dub, and he lends Tamahome all the charm and heroic stalwartness he's meant to possess.  It's a shame that he couldn't stick around for the entire franchise, as the role was recast in the final OVA and the change is a jarring downgrade.

Like most popular shows of the past and present, Fushigi Yuugi's financial success was all the motivation the production staff needed to create some sequel OVAs.  Technically there are three of them, although the first two were stitched together and marketed as one.  You'd like to think that the show's success would mean that the production team would take their time with the story or spend more money on the visual.  You'd be sadly mistaken, though, as the first episode of the first OVA was released within six months of the series finale in Japan and the rest were churned out regularly over the next couple of years. 

The two OVAs cover nine episodes total that are loosely and clumsily tied together.  It starts with Tamahome getting sucked back into the world of the book, where Miaka, Yui, and the Suzaku Warriors must team up to fight Tenkou.  It's not explained well until the very end, but he's an angry god who tries to reboot the cycle of priestesses to take over the world of the book.  Miaka is forced to part from Tamahome, but this sacrifice lasts all of a few minutes as she immediately meets up with his real-world reincarnation Taka.  The second OVA has Taka sucked into the world of the book yet again, where he has to go on a quest for special soul gems tied to each Suzaku Warrior that will restore his memories as Tamahome.  This quickly devolves into a convoluted plot where Tenkou returns to challenge most of the warriors by setting both living and dead loved ones up as demonic challengers, leading up to a fight with Tamahome himself.  While the first OVA shows some promise on the animation front, it quickly reverts to the cheap standards of the series proper and most of the faults of the original are still very much alive and kicking here.

The Eikoden OVA, based on a couple of light novel spinoffs by Watase herself, was the last installment of the franchise, debuting at the tail end of 2001.  Reviews and comments from the time suggest that the fandom were far from fond of this installment, but truthfully I thought it to be the mostly solidly constructed of the OVAs.  It certainly helps that the story isn't about Miaka (who spends most of the story in a coma), but instead the villainess.  Once more, Taka is sucked into the world of the book, but this time the cause isn't a god, but instead a high school girl named Mayo Sakaki.  She's a 16 year old girl with a lot of family drama and a deeply misplaced crush on the now very married Taka.  The book shows her the events of Miaka's time there, and she uses this information (along with Miaka's magically transporting fetus inside her) to try to turn herself into the new Suzaku priestess, with Taka by her side. 

To the OVA's credit, it makes no bones about the fact that Mayo is not meant to be a good person.  She's spiteful, jealous, and manipulative even as she's being manipulated by forces far greater than her own.  Mercifully, most of the cast is not willing to play along with her power trip, as Taka and company have to set off to find the remaining reincarnated Suzaku warriors and save the world YET AGAIN.  Still, Mayo has a focus of purpose that few other characters in the franchise possess.  Unlike the other villains, her motivation is clear and her story arc is well-defined.  Mayo is ultimately forced to confront the consequences of her actions and repent, and it's handled in a way that's not completely awful for once.  If she weren't so thoroughly unlikeable, I'd argue that she was one of the best characters in the franchise!  Eikoden even improves ever so slightly on the animation, although it suffers from some laughably bad CGI in places and every frame is coated in the tackiness that can only come from the era of early digipaint.

Some older anime franchises can withstand the passage of time and stand proud as true classics. Fushigi Yuugi is not one of them.  It's a dinosaur of a series, a fossil of a far more melodramatic time in shoujo and one that bears little resemblance to its modern descendants.  It's weird to think that this show aired in the same year as the second season of Magic Knight Rayearth and the Super S season of Sailor Moon, yet those shows have held up for the most part when compared to this one.  Even some of its imitators have held up far better.  For proof of that, look no further than The Vision of Escaflowne, which aired just a year after Fushigi Yuugi.  The two share a basic premise, if not much else, but Escaflowne has more nuance (and budget) than Fushigi Yuugi could have ever dreamed of.  Most of all, watching this series now makes me truly thankful that shoujo fans no longer have to settle for crap like this just to get their fix.  Nowadays, no one would argue that there isn't a market for women in the world of anime and manga.  It might not have as many crossover hits as shonen does, but it lives and thrives even today.  That means that modern shoujo fans, be they anime watchers or manga readers, can be more discerning about their media choices.  They can sit down and enjoy similar concepts done better in works like Escaflowne, Yona of the Dawn, The Story of Saiunkoku, and many more.  Like most fossils, Fushigi Yuugi spawned a legacy that lives on to this day.  It's just a legacy that has far outgrown its predecessor.

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