Adaptations of classical literature are hardly unheard of when it comes to anime, the two immediate examples that come to mind being Romeo x Juliet, a 2007 series which shockingly enough adapts Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and Gankutsuou, a 2004 series which adapts the French classic The Count of Monte Cristo (and which is in fact my second review ever, if you have any interest in seeing that).
So today we have Zetsuen no Tempest, or Blast of Tempest, a 2012-2013 series which adapts a manga which itself heavily draws on (but is not, I believe, precisely an adaptation of) Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Tempest. I say “I believe” because, and you’ll have to forgive my failure to appreciate the classics, but I have practically zero familiarity with the stories of these two plays (aside from “Alas, poor Yorick!”), so my perspective on this show will simply be how well it stands on its own, as a solitary experience. I mean, that worked fine with Gankutsuou, so the hope is that it will here as well.
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
Takigawa Yoshino is visiting the grave of his dead girlfriend, Fuwa Aika, when he is approached by an attractive woman of the men-in-black variety. Not planning to be taken without a struggle, Yoshino fights back, and is ultimately saved by the timely appearance of his best friend, Fuwa Mahiro, who (as his name would imply) is the older brother of the dead girlfriend, though Mahiro does not know that the two were ever dating. That sounds like a superfluous detail, but it is not, it becomes very relevant.
Anyhoo, Yoshino is shocked to see Mahiro, as he has not been heard from since the death of his sister, apparently having decided to set out on his own and exact revenge on her murderer. And as it turns out, Mahiro can use magic now, too. Why? Well, over the course of his journeys, he happened upon a doll in a bottle, which acted as a communication device between him and a powerful mage trapped on a deserted island. This mage, a teenage girl named Kusaribe Hakaze, is more than willing to help Mahiro find Aika’s killer, if he will in return do a favor for her.
Hakaze, you see, has been ousted from her clan of mages, which worships a deity known as the Tree of Genesis. Her exile was a coup of sorts, having to do with an opposing entity called the Tree of Exodus, which is on the verge of awakening. The Tree of Genesis is responsible for all of Hakaze’s magical abilities (and by extension Mahiro’s), so Hakaze plans to send her new compatriot on a mission to prevent the Tree of Exodus’ revival. Since Yoshino has now been dragged into the fray, he and Mahiro set out with their goals twofold: to find Aika’s killer, and aid Hakaze in her quest, no matter which other mages or government officials stand in their way.
That might have been a lot to take in, and it may have even sounded overstuffed, but that’s more my fault than the show’s. It’s easier to follow in context, I promise
A Fitting Score
I noticed that for no particular reason, I tend to start these reviews by talking about the story and characters before moving into the technical or artistic merits of the music and animation, but today I want to change things up so we’ll start with the soundtrack. Crazy, I know.
Tempest’s soundtrack caught my attention almost immediately actually, and my early random guess at the composer was Yuki Kajiura, more or less entirely due to a heavy use of violins, but this was incorrect. In actuality the series composer is Michiru Oshima, who I am most familiar with for her fairly good work on the original Fullmetal Alchemist. Oh, but I wasn’t joking about the violins, if anything the music goes a little overboard with the violins, but this is in fact in service of a point. It’s meant to sound like outright classical music, to fit the Shakespearean inspirations and riffs of the story.
And on top of that, according to MyAnimeList, some tracks were not actually Oshima at all, but Beethoven, which is cool, but seeing as I haven’t brushed up on my Beethoven in a while, I can’t honestly say for certain where Oshima ended and Beethoven began. Either way, Tempest’s musical score was always just right at heightening the drama, making the important moments feel important. It’s not exactly the kind of music I’d want to listen to on its own, simply because I don’t really listen to classical music, but in context, it’s great at setting the mood.
Openings and endings, though, no particular thoughts. First opening’s performed by Nothing’s Carved in Stone of Psycho-Pass, so you’ll get some nice Engrish, but otherwise nothing worth calling out. Fine, functional themes, but not something I remember with much clarity at the time of writing, which has been only a couple weeks after seeing the show.
Compelling Visuals (At Times)
Now the studio behind Tempest is a little one you might have heard of called Bones, and Bones does good work. They’re doing Mob Psycho this season, and that looks incredible. I recently watched Sword of the Stranger for the first time, and that looked really incredible (granted it’s not entirely comparable, being a movie, but still). Y’know, Fullmetal Alchemist, Space Dandy, Kekkai Sensen, that Bones. And then we have Tempest, which looks fine. It does not look bad, no no no. Fights are well-animated, with decent effects, but something about them lacks punch. It was a show that I was happy to look at but not something I’d ever be drawn to specifically for the visuals (like a ufotable or KyoAni show, for instance). This is compounded by the fact that, as most series do, Tempest does lose some of its visual flair over time, presumably as the production schedule got tighter, but it never devolves to the point of compromising the experience, even when they do start throwing in some not-great CGI.
I could more or less say the same about the direction. I am rarely attentive enough to notice direction quirks unless those quirks become the overbearing focus, as can be said to be the case with the Monogatari series or (a non-anime example for once) Mr. Robot, which should not surprise you since I don’t often call out a show’s direction at all. That said, Tempest’s premiere actually made me take notice. It wasn’t off-the-wall or out-of-this-world, but it definitely felt inspired. There was something unique in the shots and the composition that I’d... probably be able to elaborate on further if it didn’t fade out of the series by the very next episode, to become something a bit more typical and mundane. There were still some nice visual flourishes scattered here and there, like the repeated flashback of Aika’s death with its weird intricate blood-trail design, but after that point I never got the impression I was seeing, and that’s literally seeing, something I’d never get anywhere else.
Unique Characters (Eventually)
So that done with, we now come to the material itself, the story and the characters, and I’ll be blunt: at the beginning, and for approximately the next five episodes, I didn’t really like Tempest. It felt boring and typical and just unimpressive. It had some interesting takes on traditional concepts, such as a system of magic comprised only of defensive spells, but never really ran with these concepts to a point that I felt justified my time. I didn’t think that things were moving with enough momentum to keep me invested, and likewise the characters (Mahiro, Yoshino and Hakaze) bordered on insufferable. I didn’t care about their goals or their stories because I didn’t care about them... but this changed. We were simply in a warm-up period.
For one, almost everyone in this show is, strange as it sounds, refreshingly selfish, and in that way more believable. They don’t care about the world per se, they care about just their own friends and their own vendetta, everything else be damned, but at the same time, everyone is also so refreshingly reasonable. Yoshino is the logical type, Mahiro the emotional thug, a classic duality, but both are still rationalists. Both feel like actual people that are swayed by reason, not emotional urges produced for the sake of the plot. Perfect example of this attitude, the first climax of the series is not a battle, but a debate, a logical debate with a group of people trying to verbally convince each other of different things in order to forward their own agendas without ever actually coming to blows, and I really like that. It’s awesome to see events ruled by reason rather than emotion, because the latter is usually all you ever get in shounen anime.
As such, Yoshino and Mahiro will often try to suppress their ingrained response to events and delay their emotions when they know getting upset or sad will change nothing. They think to themselves “if you have the time and energy to throw a fit, it’s better to turn that energy towards progress”, which may not be the most healthy attitude for relief of mental stress, and the show addresses that, to the point that some characters do see others as slightly unstable.
While the main three had to grow on me throughout the series, there is one character I enjoyed for the whole of their screentime, mostly, and that is Aika, the dead girlfriend/sister. Yes, the girl who dies before the story even begins is my favorite character of Zetsuen no Tempest, and the reason for this is very simple: she was awesome! Aika’s personality is this fascinating mix of cold rationality yet childlike whimsy. Very strange, but very interesting.
Oh, and if you hear that and have some concerns about the direction of the plot, as in “how could Aika be a significant character? it’s not like the mom in Fullmetal Alchemist is anyone’s favorite character, sh-she’s a plot device”, I’ll tell you now: no, Aika does not come back to life through some contrivance or deus ex machina nonsense. She’s gone. The entirety of her character work is done through flashbacks, but there are more than enough of them to paint a very complete and very memorable picture of her personality, and one which ultimately made me just as saddened by her death as our main characters. (Well, ok, that’s a slight exaggeration, but it sounded snappy.)
An Unpredictable Journey
The plot itself, to be fair, is no masterpiece of writing either, but once it got over its initial hump, it had no problem holding my attention. The story gets twisty after around episode five, which it desperately needed to since, as I said, up to that point things were getting stale. Of course, as always, my dwelling on the substance of these twists will probably for you ruin the twists, but suffice it to say that I never felt like they were unfair developments, that these things that happened were completely implausible or out of the realm of believability. There are some coincidences, sure, as with almost any story imaginable, but I never felt things were being made up as they went along, which is exactly what you hope for.
But that is certainly not to imply that the story’s unpredictable nature is its only selling point. It has a touch of genericism or over-simplicity at its beginning, yes, but it does come into its own. I always like a conflict without clear good guys and bad guys, and while that is not what Tempest sells itself as initially, that is ultimately what it becomes. For instance, Mahiro is ironically (at a certain point in the story) the most ruthless, destructive character on the show, much moreso than any of the supposed “villains”, more than willing to destroy the world if it means destroying Aika’s killer, which doesn’t actually please the “villains” at all.
Additionally (I don’t consider this a spoiler because I shall be vague), there is a major paradigm shift at the halfway point of the series, one which significantly changes the trajectory of the plot and the role of more or less every single character. Something like that can flop (even Gurren Lagann fumbled with such a transition), but here I felt it entirely works, which isn’t easy to pull off.
Aside from the really unimpressive start, which I’ve probably mentioned more than a few times now, Tempest’s other problem also lie in its story, whether it be how that was written or how was it was presented.
Firstly, the show can be a little too ridiculous or far-fetch’d for its own good. I know I said the twists make sense, and they do. The twists are fine! This is more a case of things that just happen off-the-cuff stretching believability. Here’s an example. We have a skeleton. We have a character that doesn’t know whose skeleton this is. They pick up the skull, and “on instinct” (that’s a direct quote) they realize whose skeleton this is, just from holding that skull. Ultimately, this was a small event in the scheme of things, but the devil is in the details and if details like that feel so cheesy, I can’t help but be taken out of the experience.
Likewise, other slightly larger details, particularly involving the Trees of Genesis and Exodus, don’t entirely land. It’s like the show came up with the equivalent of a conspiracy theory, just pure conjecture, and expected us to roll with it as fact, because no other answer will be given. You could say ambiguous or under-explained stuff is intentional, and in some cases it can be, but here I feel like they didn’t know how to explain something and felt a need to, when they really didn’t have to.
Secondly, we have the classic writing problem of telling instead of showing. I’ll do another example here. At one point in the series, a major disaster occurs, lots of people die, supposedly, but we are shown only a very localized loss of life, not the massive amounts that apparently actually died, and in fact are not even aware how many have actually died until it is offhandedly mentioned several episodes later, and that leaves me flabbergasted. If you have a big event, but fail to communicate how big the big event actually is, well then you have failed period. Come on, this is something that could have been fixed with like two shots of global disaster.
Thirdly, the show likes to get tangled up in this subterfuge between Yoshino and Mahiro, in that (if you recall) before she died Yoshino was going out with Aika and never told Mahiro, so Mahiro is always wondering to this day “who is Aika’s boyfriend? I need to know because I love my sister even though I don’t realize I do”. Putting the pseudo-incest aside, I hate characters, especially good friends, keeping big things from each other. It always feels so manufactured and pointless, especially if it results in major complications that could’ve been avoided with just a talk. Thankfully this doesn’t happen in Tempest, and the deception doesn’t hang around long enough to create unrectifiable problems. The way they handle the ultimate reconciliation is surprisingly painless even, but the fact that they resorted to such a tired plot device in the first place is disappointing.
Lastly, and this has more to do with the dialogue than the story itself, these people quote Shakespeare way too much. I get you’re trying to make your characters sound “intellectual”, and that can work to a point, but if you overuse it, the effect is entirely lost. I counted, out of my own curiosity, how many episodes of Zetsuen no Tempest saw a character quote Shakespeare, and the answer was 13, over half the series! That’s not as bad as, say, Ghost in the Shell 2, where you’d be dead of alcohol poisoning by the halfway point if you took a shot every time a character quoted philosophy, but it is annoying. I get that your show is literally drawing inspiration from Shakespeare, but directly quoting the man every other episode only makes you seem like you’re trying to effect an air of faux intellectualism. Don’t be Bartender; don’t try to be smarter than you are. No one’s happy in that scenario.
There are a handful of other unrelated but no-less-weird lines too, such as this gem: “Aika’s murder was senseless. Magic is senseless. Put them together, and everything starts to make sense.”, as well as just general magical babble that talks around key plot points, but honestly... that’s just anime for you. That stuff didn’t bother me as much as the Shakespeare. I love intellectualism, but I hate pretension, and all the “intellectualism” here sadly seemed to fall into that category.
Despite its issues, overall Tempest was a fun time. Not a great time, not a “you need to watch this now” time, but a reasonably well-produced, well-composed and entertaining time. If you are in the market for just a story of good vs. evil with some decent characters and unexpected twists, I don’t think you would go wrong. There’s better stuff out there, certainly, but not everything has to be the best to still be worth watching.
So, after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S… Zetsuen no Tempest is a firm B. It’s a series I generally look back on fondly, and wouldn’t say to avoid if you’re interested in it, but it’s lacking enough that it’s not the cream of the crop and an instant recommendation. Like I said, it’s just fun. A show doesn’t need to have big goals to work.
Therefore, at the time of this writing, if you so desire you may watch Zetsuen no Tempest on Crunchyroll and Hulu, subbed. I don’t believe there even is a dub for the series, but when the Japanese cast includes Kana Hanazawa, Miyuki Sawashiro, Junichi Suwabe and Rikiya Koyama, that’s not an issue.
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