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Knights of the Zodiac vols. 1-2
 Dave Merrill  rates it:    

Back in the 1980s - I know this is a clich├ęd opening, but it's ALL I GOT HERE, SO WORK WITH ME - after the Gundam franchise took a nap and before Nadia/Secret Of Blue Water made Gainax stars, Knights of the Zodiac was pretty much all we had. Of course we referred to it by the Japanese title, Saint Seiya, and we spent many a happy, pre-Internet hour translating dialogue and writing synopses of episodes. The show's blend of wild, faux martial arts action, Jack Kirby-esque cosmic drama, and manly male bonding appealed to the American anime fan, but the Japanese made it a bona fide hit. In short order Saint Seiya made waves around the world, especially in South America and Mexico, where Los Caballeros de Zodiacos penetrated the popular culture to such a extent that bootleg Seiya toys could be seen hanging, like executed banditos, from the fixtures of Tijuana street vendors. And now, years later, the show finally arrives on American shores.

But what is this Knights of the Zodiac, this erstwhile Saint Seiya? What made it a hit around the world? Well, when the weekly manga powerhouse Shonen Jump began publication, the editors conducted a survey of their target audience, Japanese schoolboys. The editors asked their potential customers about their ideals and their dreams and what they valued most; the children said they believed in friendship, perseverance, and victory. Of the many manga serialized in Jump, none exemplifies these ideals more than Saint Seiya, or, as we know it from DIC, Knights of the Zodiac. Masumi Kurumada's original manga betrays his stylistic roots- his characters feature well-defined musculature and flat, iconic faces, as if Tomorrow's Joe fought wearing a Halloween mask. It's a jarring look that is common to the Japanese comic world, but seems odd and unfinished to the Western eye.

Knights of the Zodiac is a cosmic drama of gods and goddesses, supernatural forces playing endless role-playing games, with human beings as their tiny lead figurines. Awesome, world-shattering forces are brought into play every time characters so much as blink, and when battling each other, the very fabric of the universe itself shudders with the force of their blows. Amidst all this portentious hoo-ha, our heroes struggle - five knights, each with their own fighting styles, tragic backstories, and rough-hewn friendships forged in the heat of battle. It's the kind of thing that 12-year old males think is cool, and 17-year old females write yaoi fan fiction about. Lots and lots of yaoi fanfic, and the pretty, pretty character redesigns by Shingo Araki aren't hurting things one bit.

Sometime in the near future, the entire world is absolutely crazy for a gigantic martial arts tournament, where armored fighters battle each other for what appears to be the privilege of winning a different set of armor. Seiya, a typically hotheaded yet brave, loyal, clean-living Japanese youth, is our once-titular hero. He's spent six years at the training center on Greece, learning to focus his cosmic energy and use it to pound foes with lightning-fast blows. Naturally he didn't enter the tournament simply to be the greatest - he's looking for his missing sister, and felt that worldwide fame and a killer right hook would help. He wins the final round of the qualifying tournament at his training facility in Greece, and is given the Pegasus Armor. Once in Tokyo, he meets the rest of his Zodiacal chums: Hyoga/Swan, who fights with the icy blasts of Cygnus; Shiryu/Dragon, a Chinese fellow with a helpful back tattoo that reveals his weak points; and Shun/Andromeda, an extremely girlish looking boy who fights with his Nebula Chains. All have varying hair colors, national origins, and different primary colored tights. As the series opens we're looking forward to seeing each one of them battle each other, but quickly the martial arts cage match aspect of the show is ditched for a much more satisfying storyline. Yup, it's Dragon Ball in reverse!

Even as our heroes battle each other for the top slot, a new drama unfolds - Phoenix, who may be Andromeda's brother, shows up with an army of Phoenix disciples, and instead of fighting for the prize like everybody else, he just steals it outright in a shocking display of unsportsmanlike behavior.

As it all turns out, the Knights' sponsor Saori is actually the goddess Athena, and only the golden Sagittarius armor can return her to her rightful throne as Goddess of Wisdom. Aligned against Athena and the Knights are Ares, the God Of War, and his own legion of Knights. As the show progresses, we meet more and more knights on both sides of the struggle, all with crazy looking armor based on zodiacal signs that might not even exist. New mythologies are strewn about the place as powerful objects are stolen, regained, stolen again, hidden, destroyed, rebuilt, et cetera. Once Ares is defeated, some Norse gods show up and the whole thing starts over. There are even Seiya films, one of which features the Discordian goddess Eris. Who knows if DIC will let things get that far?

I honestly don't know how well Knights of the Zodiac will appeal to 21st century audiences. It's a simplistic show where every defeated villain leads to another defeated villain, where every hero's powerup is trumped by another powerup, which is in turned trumped by yet another powerup. The animation - typical Toei television animation of the mid 80s - is serviceable without actually being anything special. However, even the most by-the-numbers animation of the 1980s seems to have more life and movement than the television shows of today, which seem to be nothing more than a collection of long shots, slow pans, characters in shadow talking to other characters in foreground - in short, anything except actual animation. Zodiac's characters actually move, and while the movement may be clunky and sort of stiff from time to time, it's at least honest.

The exception to this is episode 5. One thing I've noticed from watching a lot of TV anime is that occasionally the studio will pick one episode to really go nuts - either they hire a new director or the budget gets temporarily raised, or something. Whatever the reason, episode 5 looks great. Zooms, close ups, figure animation that actually moves, characters that shake their heads and blink and sweat, and lots of anime-character cameos in the crowd scenes - all this makes episode 5 my favorite.

Still, there have been some changes made in the world of Japanese animation since Seiya and the gang first premiered. Kurumada's harsh angular look has been softened somewhat for television, but it's still a singularly flattened vision and one that's a lot less "cute" than the Japanese animation style of a Dragon Ball, much less the ultra-cutesy shows of today. The seriously dated clothing and hairstyles aren't as dire a handicap, but honestly, you can't look at Andromeda's jeans-and-suspenders combo or Seiya's sleeveless T's without wincing.

Knights of the Zodiac Knights of the Zodiac Knights of the Zodiac

However, Zodiac's most appealing visual aspect remains untouched; the way the entire universe trembles whenever characters fight. Seiya throws a punch and galaxies whirl in the background; Dragon smacks some hapless lackey while planets explode and stars collapse. Our heroes are tied into the very life force of the universe itself, and when they battle, the fabric of space-time itself begins to warp and buckle. It's both inherently silly and awe-inspiring on some sort of primal, sub-adolescent level.

I'm sure Seiya purists are waiting for me to mention the dubbing. Ah, the dubbing. I'll give it points for resisting the urge to give all the characters funny accents (Hyoga was just begging for a few Minnesotan "don't ya knows" or "you betchas"), but on the other hand, the aggressive sameness of the voice talent fails to distinguish any of our heroes. They've all got this hyper extreme sports Mountain Dew commercial enthusiasm, punctuated with large doses of modern slang and flippant witticisms. While that may very well appeal to the crazy kids of today with their hair and their clothes, it's hard to get into seeing somebody unleash a punch that destroys entire buildings, while the script has them mouthing wisecracks. It's more Stan Lee than Jack Kirby, more Spider-Man than The Mighty Thor.

The jury is still out on some of the more creative changes to Seiya: the violence has been left more or less intact, with one change; what used to be healthy all-natural red blood has now been changed to some sort of unidentified blue substance. What this is supposed to accomplish is anybody's guess. DIC has also seen fit to add transitional elements - when a scene changes, a fake-looking Knight helmet zooms across the screen and is destroyed by Seiya's fist. This is just plain annoying.

Knights of the Zodiac Knights of the Zodiac Knights of the Zodiac
What I really miss about this version of Seiya is the music. Saint Seiya had a fun rock/orchestral soundtrack, a theme song with guitar solos and a driving beat that helped to sell the entire idea of young fighters with bad hair feeling their cosmos. Knights of the Zodiac replaces this with a hepped-up version of the Flock Of Seagulls hit "I Ran." While perhaps this may be a nod to the show's 80s roots, in practice this song does nothing but elicit double-takes from the over-30s and shrugs of indifference from everybody else. The original music is fine, thank you.

I was curious how this show would translate into the American scene; I watched a lot of it in the 80s, and while enjoyable, without translations it begins to wear thin. My expectations were pretty low for the DIC version, but I found myself surprisingly entertained by the show all over again. The things I enjoyed about the series - brave youths struggling against the odds, loyal friendships, the ambivalent gender of some of the characters, and the downright nonsensical universe full of gods, semi-gods, and increasingly outlandish armor- are all still there, and the gosh-wow dubbing, blue blood, and terrible theme song can't take them away. There's a wacky charm in a show that combines convoluted mythology with elaborately baroque character designs. None of it really makes much sense, but that's part of the appeal.


Added:  Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Related Link:  ADV Films
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