DVD £24.99; Blu-ray Collector's £54.99
14 Jun 2016
The war horns bay for blood as the kingdom of Brune has been invaded by the rival kingdom of Zchted, as nations seek the golden gleam of ever-greater glory against each other. It is a large campaign and troops are drawn from every duchy and county of Brune to defend against the chevauché, from the great ducal powers of Thenardier and Ganelon to even the insignificant farming counties like Alsace. Alsace is ruled by a young lord Tigrevermund Vorn ("Tigre" for short, as everyone struggles with that tongue-twister), who has only recently inherited his lands and while he is well-liked as a just ruler by his subjects he is still untested in battle - nonetheless he's still determined to prove his worth against allies who mock his nobility as the straw crown of some bumpkin hayseed.
The army of Brune departs with great pomp and circumstance, but Zchted isn't defended by a rabble of peasant levies but the mighty power of the War Maidens - seven female generals each imbued with the magic of ancient relic weapons, the Dragon Gear. The Brunish army faces off against the much smaller force of Lady Elenora, War Maiden and Wind Princess of the Silver Flash - and she shows off those grand titles by utterly annihilating the Brunish forces in a devastating rout. Lord Tigre survives the battle and while wandering through the devastation the following morning he espies Lady Elenora - deciding to make one last defiant spit in the eye of the foe, Tigre sends a volley of arrows at her.
Elenora survives the attack but impressed by Tigre's skill and fascinated by his dauntless courage, she doesn't just simply lop the enemy's head off his shoulders but instead takes him prisoner and, demanding a ransom she knows full well is far too high for Alsace to pay, then incorporates him into her retinue, a songbird in a gilded cage for her to enjoy.
There's little time to indulge in the spoils of war, though. The prince of Brune was killed in the battle and the king has gone insane with grief - with no heir and an incapable ruler Brune is about to descend into a desperate succession crisis. As the nobility begin jockeying for position, hapless Alsace has become an inviting target - kicking over a small and poor county is an inviting prospect for a number of ambitious Dukes seeking an easy victory to prove their might and thus right to the country. With no other way to defend his homeland Tigre has little choice but to appeal to his captor Elenora and offer Alsace to her as a gift for defending it - the peace of his people matters far more than the flag flying over them. Spoiling for a fight and still intrigued by the potential she sees germinating in this callow youth, Elenora readily agrees and marshals her army to Alsace's aid.
This act though is far more than a trivial border squabble. As armies cross lines treaties are broken and alliances are activated and as the repercussions cascade out Alsace, a tiny farming community out in the boondocks, is the first splinter of cracks that will run through the continent and break apart kingdoms. Can Tigre navigate the cut and thrust of both battle and politics to bring them together again at the end?
Lord Marksman and Vanadis is the 2014 anime adaptation of the on-going light novel series written since 2011 by Tsuka Kawaguchi, which also has a further manga adaptation which has been licensed by Seven Seas Entertainment but won't start appearing in North America until this September.
What is meant to separate Lord Marksman and Vanadis apart from the crowd of other fantasy adventures is that rather than being confined to the light skirmishing of an RPG-sized party it swells out into an awesome war epic with grand strategy over and above the swords and sorcery. It does so by accompanying the battles with maps showing the marching and wheeling of divisions around each other so you can appreciate the wider context of each clash and how their impacts ripple beyond the screen. It's a distinctive visual gimmick that isn't something I've seen done in other shows, and these sequences are actually quite a lot of fun - rather than being shuffling cards and arrows around a flat map the camera sweeps and pans over chunky 3D playing-pieces which surprisingly show a lot of energy and personality; they wobble a bit as they are placed down, they get knocked over and roll about like marbles as they clack against each other, and when a character moves from one sector to another her piece doesn't just slide across the map but hops and spins from square to square just how you'd imagine a gamer excitedly bunny-hopping across de_dust. It's good that these maps are enjoyable... because they are desperately needed to paper over the gaps in the rest of the battles.
The maps are an attempt to wring out every last penny from a limited budget and make it go farther - it's an ingenious and enterprising plan but it can only go so far, and as soon as you furl the maps and get to the actual fighting it becomes embarrassingly clear that Lord Marksman and Vanadis just doesn't have the ability to make good on its epic aspirations. Battles throughout are sadly just plain lame - a shot of crude, blocky CGI horses galloping across flat ground, a speedline-drowned fast-pan across a still image of some mooks shoved together, and maybe you'll get a cycle of one of the heroes swinging his sword at off-camera enemies. Characters tell us that so many thousands were killed here and so many thousands are wounded there, but studio Satelight's computers start to chug after drawing a couple of dozen, bless 'em. Surrounded by enemy soldiers in a pitched battle with no cover, Ludmilla and Tigre have a war council while the enemy stand a few feet away in the background repeating the same sword-swinging or spear-shaking animation cycle over and over. the It starts becoming awkwardly reminiscent of a 1970s mecha anime with its reused frames.
Now to be fair Lord Marksman and Vanadis certainly isn't the only fantasy show that has struggled with the fundamental limitations of anime television budgets that pay for the drawing of school blazers more than plate armour, but older shows like Berserk still manage to look more impressive even without the modern convenience of CGI thanks to their evocative painterly harmonies - something that Lord Marksman and Vanadis with its cleaner, brighter, smoother and digital anime moé style just can't do. Fatally it also can't commit to its own concept of strategic warfare - despite all the promises it's made to give us smarter, more studied and sophisticated combat, they ring disappointingly hollow as most of the battles still ultimately come down to nothing more than two heroes standing in an empty field and shouting energy beams at each other. When Tigre and Elenora confront the Knights of Navarre there's a weak gesture at strategy when a voiceover tells us that our heroes diverted a river to turn the field into a quagmire and bog down the cavalry-focused knights, but that scene is hastily flashed over in less than ten seconds and didn't have an effect anyway because what makes the knights surrender is their leader with his big jewelled girder of a Buster Sword and Elenora ah'ma firin' mah lazors until he's decided that he's grunted and scowled enough for one scene. The most flaccid attempts at strategy crumple completely in a later battle where Elenora is fighting a rival War Maiden, Elisaveta - they go off on their own to have a bit of sisterly Shoop Da Whoop and the battle they split off from is completely and utterly irrelevant. One battle's won by a literal deus ex machina as Tigre goes wandering off into the woods and stumbles across the magical temple of the Death Goddess who grants him a special power. I'm sure that Richard III would have found that handy while he was looking for his horse at Bosworth Field.
I suppose the particle effects for all this magic are quite pretty though.
As Lord Marksman and Vanadis fumbles its war strategy, it also struggles to keep a grip on political strategy. The show's sausage-fingered flailing at courtly intrigue is unintentionally hilarious - following the Amazonian attack of the War Maidens a character is assassinated by a deadly bee weapon. An observer speaks admiringly of how the victim kept his dignity even in death... before cutting to a shot of this peerless lion of noble mien and statuary poise, inflated from stings like a balloon animal. The show does a bit better when a neighbouring kingdom launches slave-raids into Brune - they're allowed to rampage in the border provinces unimpeded because the major players in the succession crisis are concentrating their armies around the capital to control access to the king. That on its own is a decent point, but it's only half-baked when the only hero willing to stand against the slavers is Tigre. I guess he does this because it's the sort of things that heroes do, which is fair enough, but as much as Tigre fulfils his duties as the Designated Protagonist you have to ask given the show's love of map control, how did Tigre the pariah with a price on his head manage to march his small band from the north-east to the south with no-one getting in the way? While that's admittedly a relatively minor quibble, it does unfortunately set up an absolute howler for the final climax via a reveal intended to reflect on Tigre's virtue that instead tarnishes him by making his whole struggle an utterly pointless waste - which might be a fair comment on war itself, but not what I think a tale of heroic knights and bold champions was going for.
The two pillars that bear up the gates of censorship are sex and violence, and in addition to the bloodletting Lord Marksman and Vanadis also does offer you a side-order of cheesecake. The skimpy outfits of the War Maidens respect the finest and most honoured traditions of the chainmail bikini and seeing how these straps and skirts wrap around each other to expose navels while armouring their feet is always worth a chuckle. While the girls' measurements tend towards the busty (even Ludmilla, mocked for being ' flat-chested', sports a C-cup) interestingly they've got a bit of volume and sag rather than just being balloons sellotaped under their chins, which does make the designs stand out a bit. There are a few bath scenes scattered across the series but the water is tepid - steam-clouds and long hair mean that there's not a lick of nudity and even when Tigre faithfully abides by anime convention and walks in on girls changing nothing actually happens. Scriptwriters, we say that we're fed up with the trope of the quivering milquetoast anime protagonist who melts into a shivering blancmange at a glimpse of girl flesh, but this doesn't mean that we want him to have no reaction at all. Multiple encounters like this fizzle out with not so much as a spark of sultriness - Ludmilla tries to tease Elenora by creeping into Tigre's bed and so scandalise her when she walks in - only she's fully dressed while doing so and when the event does happen they just stare wordlessly for a second and we cut to the next scene with no reaction. Even the skinship occurs off-panel. The utter sexlessness of it all makes you wonder what the point of it in the first place of it was - suffice to say we're still some way away from the anime Game of Thrones.
Meanwhile, the dub for the series is a bit odd. I like the adjustments in the script made for the English version: as an early example, some of Tigre's allies in camp are mocking him for being a backwoods hick and one of Tigre's retainers shoos them off - in the sub he just blandly says "they're handing out the wine ration, please have a drink" but in the dub gives it a more laconic edge of "after all that bragging, you must be thirsty". However much the script has been punched up in English, though, the actual delivery of it is weak and limp - the cast are almost all flat and dispirited, and the narrator who talks over the map sections sounds monotonously bored - it's actually very hard to listen to. However, this changes in the series of chibi omake shorts included in the second disc's extras - these have been dubbed as well and in them everyone sounds a lot more animated and expressive with the actors showing a lot more range than in the actual show, and they're actually quite good fun and genuinely amusing. The weak dub then seems to have been a undermined by bad direction; in the main series with all its war and politics everyone is encumbered by an overbearing need to be grim and serious, which doesn't weigh them down in the extra content.
The music isn't bad, with a suitable if predictable arrangement of martial marching themes, but what really stands out is the opening sequence - the animation itself is unspectacular but the music is absolutely brilliant with a rousing call to arms that whips you on and bursts out the gate at a full delirious gallop; it really does charge you up for jumping into the coming adventure. While I was unimpressed by the character animation, I must say that the background art is genuinely beautiful with grand imperious castles and rolling unspoilt landscapes alike.
I've put a lot of criticisms in the previous paragraphs and I wanted to finish up on some positive points above because I feel bad for putting down Lord Marksman and Vanadis. It does make a great effort to offer you something more than the usual swords and sorcery and it deserves recognition and appreciation for aiming high, but as many shots as you fire they're useless if they don't hit the target. The original light novels are an on-going story - if there ever was a second season which could inject more scope and scale into its battles then I would definitely be interested in coming back to Lord Marksman and Vanadis, but while you can enjoy this version with the pride of the underdog punching above his weight, there's just not enough strength behind those punches to win through.