Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
I’d be lying if I said that William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is my favorite piece of literature ever, or even my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays (that honor goes to Titus Andronicus). Still, there’s something to be said for a story of tragic love that has so completely diffused itself into popular culture. That, coupled with the fact that Valentine’s Day recently passed, led me to look into Gonzo’s anime adaptation of the play: Romeo x Juliet.
If you don’t already know the plot of the original Romeo and Juliet, then I worry about the state of your education, but the anime takes a slightly different route, one that is simultaneously darker and more fantastical. Juliet is the last surviving member of the house of Capulet, once the rulers of the floating city, Neo Verona. Hunted down and decimated by the lord of the Montagues when Juliet was only a child, the few surviving Capulets flee into the city’s depths in an effort to hide and regroup. Fourteen years pass, in which Juliet lives a relatively comfortable life disguised as a boy named Odin, occasionally doling out justice as her alter-ego, the Red Whirlwind. Across Neo Verona, Romeo of House Montague has also grown up in comfort and style, with a sense of fair play surprising in one raised by a tyrant. A chance encounter between the son of Montague and the Red Whirlwind lights the spark that erupts into an all-consuming blaze of love and revolution.
Needless to say, this isn’t the most faithful interpretation of Shakespeare’s treatise on doomed love, but I’d be willing to argue that a number of the changes are actually for the better. Before Shakespeare loyalists and literature purists come beating down my door, allow me to explain: my gripes with the original Romeo and Juliet are undoubtedly born from being a modern woman raised in a modern age, but I never felt in any way connected to a hero and heroine who so self-destructively set out in pursuit of a love-at-first-sight that is literally no more than a few days old. Furthermore, while Juliet in the play certainly has her moments of personal strength and independence, she always felt very much as though she were moving from reliance on her father to reliance on Romeo. The feminist in me that hates that I [enjoy High School of the Dead] also rebels at the idea that I should sympathize or associate myself with such a character.
In the anime, Juliet is very much an independent woman: she dons the cape and mask of the Red Whirlwind and seeks to right the wrongs of a corrupt city, even before she is made aware of her true identity as the scion of the house of Capulet. She knows her way with a sword and is unafraid to charge directly into danger. This is not to say that she is simply a man who happens to have breasts; rather, she also has a feminine tenderness in the way she cares about her loved ones and her unwillingness to shed blood if it is anything less than absolutely necessary. This is a Juliet that I, as a woman, can very much get behind. (Romeo, however, is still a bit of a wimp, so be aware of that.)
Other characters have been shifted about as well, with the greatest changes falling on Mercutio (once a loveable jokester, now an unrepentant schemer) and Tybalt (once Juliet’s ill-tempered cousin, now Juliet’s ill-tempered ninja). Having liked both Mercutio and Tybalt in the original play, I was dissatisfied by the changes to the former and pleased with the changes to the latter. I would have liked Mercutio to have retained more of his original personality, but any changes that allow Tybalt to get more screen time are welcomed by me.
Finally, some of the biggest changes are made to the ending of the series. After all, the anime needed to last for twenty-four episodes, or roughly twelve hours, rather than the play’s two or three hours. I must again plead spoilers, but know that the ending gives the decisions made by Romeo and Juliet a much more life-and-death, world-shattering feel to them than that of simply being unable to be together.
Lovers of Shakespeare will either love or be enraged by the mish-mash of his plays that Romeo x Juliet ultimately becomes. A number of incidental characters in the anime are named after the heroes and heroines of Shakespeare’s other plays. Cordelia, Ophelia, and Reagan are just three such cameos, and William Shakespeare himself makes an appearance as the son of a noble house who has spurned much of his wealth and status to pursue a career as a (failing) playwright. The anime’s William is a likable character who acts foppish and airheaded by is actually privy to a keen eye and keener mind. I suspect Shakespeare himself might not have been offended by this particular portrayal, but who can truly say?
I also think that Romeo x Juliet is a well-paced show – it never feels as though the plot drags, and something of importance takes place in every episode. You never reach the ending credits and feel as though you have wasted a half hour of your time. Furthermore, the show has a good sense of humor and knows when to break the tension for a bit of comedic relief. If every anime could achieve that sort of consistency and balance, I would be a very happy fan indeed.
But enough about the story and its population. An anime, after all, needs to be able to stand on its animation as well. Romeo x Juliet fares well on this front. I have never before seen a show that takes such obvious pride in animating things that blow in the wind: hair, capes, feathers, flower petals – all dance about at even the slightest hint of a breeze. Fight scenes, though usually brief, are fluidly animated. Characters are almost always on-model. The quality does drop off a little towards the end, especially with crowd scenes. There was one scene in particular that irked me the wrong way: a crowd on the verge of revolution, a great cry going up in the city! The accompanying image, however, was a static shot of people standing around doing nothing much at all. This still image technique was seen a lot in older shows (Berserk comes to mind), but at least they usually drew their crowds to look like they were at least a bit excited. Romeo x Juliet also uses a bit of computer generated imagery. Most of it blends well enough with the rest of the show, but it occasionally looks clunky and outdated.
This isn’t Studio GONZO’s first foray into adapting famous properties into anime: in 2004, they released both Samurai 7 and Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, the former based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and the latter, naturally, based on Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo. All three shows share a similar art and animation style, and all three are warped visions of their inspirations. Just as Samurai 7 was Seven Samurai with robots and Gankutsuou was The Count of Monte Christo with aliens, Romeo x Juliet is Romeo and Juliet with flying dragon-horses and world-sustaining trees.
Ultimately, Romeo x Juliet isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Shakespearean fanatics will probably spurn it because of the changes, and those who hate the source material will probably avoid it out of fear that it will just be more of the same. I recommend it, however, for anyone who has an adventurous spirit: watch it and see how things have been changed and see if, perhaps, you might have liked Romeo and Juliet after all had Juliet just been a little bit more badass.
P.S. This is one of the few shows that I chose to watch as a dub rather than subtitled, as it’s one of those rare instances where the names and places are easier to pronounce for the English cast than for the Japanese. There are a few stilted performances in the English version, though these are mostly limited to supporting and incidental characters. Brina Palencia as Juliet does a better job pretending to be a boy than did Fumie Mizusawa.
P.P.S. I’ve already talked about my love for Romeo x Juliet’s [opening theme], but the endings bear mentioning as well. “Cyclone” by 12012 is a rock anthem whose lyrics fit the show perfectly, but whose driving guitar riffs and Visual Kei aesthetic are a little at odds with the softly dramatic endings of episodes. The second closer, “Goodbye, Yesterday” by Mizrock is less memorable as a song but fits the show much more closely.
P.P.P.S. Here’s a challenge: name some other shows that seem to be loose interpretations of Shakespearean plays! I put forward that Code Geass is really just Hamlet with a larger cast, mech battles, and mind-controlling magic. What do you think?