ADV Films // 1999 // 650 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // December 9th, 2004
The complete mission from start to finish!
Soul Hunter is like the anime version of really, really cheap vodka...it might taste a bit funny at first, but keep drinking it long enough and you stop noticing. You might permanently lose the ability to hear and taste, of course, but at least you have a good time in the process.
Combining hundreds of years of Chinese mythology and ghost stories into a fantastic tale of magic and action, this monstrous six-DVD set contains all 26 complete episodes of Soul Hunter, and is certain to delight fans of the quirky off-beat epic series.
In the 11th century, the Yin dynasty thrives on planet Earth, and has become so skillful in battle and prolific in the arts that it attracted the attention of the gods above. An evil demoness named Dakki has enslaved the mind of the honorable Emperor Zhou, bending his will to her own evil desires, causing abject chaos, poverty, and destruction across the land. In response to this growing evil, Heaven decides to send a warrior to earth with a mandate to destroy the souls of 365 demons, including Dakki...Project Soul Hunt! However, rather than send an experienced, responsible, capable warrior, the deities decide to send somebody naïve, childlike, and a bit on the stupid side...Taikoubou. At least the gods still have a sense of humor!
As the evil Dakki tries to secure her power across the land, those who still remain honorable in the kingdom of Yin begin to band together and rise up against the corrupt Emperor, unable to stand idly by and see the corruption of the land continue. Meanwhile, realizing that his charge is far too great a task for him alone, Taikoubou begins to recruit like-minded magical individuals to assist in his effort to complete his Soul Hunt mission and defeat Dakki. Under assault from both the kingdoms of man and Heaven simultaneously, Dakki seems to remain in calm and confident control as her plan slowly begins to unfold...
Soul Hunter makes absolutely no sense at first. None whatsoever. It begins completely without sense, and then slowly starts to add sense back into the program, so that at the midway point, you have a rough idea of the goings-on. But considering that the anime spans the historical fall of the Yin dynasty in China in 1000 BC, the bewilderment is understandable. It has a lot of ground to cover in twenty-six measly episodes. Rumor has it the manga from which Soul Hunter is based took four years to compile and write. Yikes.
So here we have Soul Hunter, this wildly ambitious anime that attempts to compress hundreds of years of Chinese history and mysticism into an action-packed anime full of likeable characters, wacky adventures, thrilling escapades, and dramatic storylines. On paper, it is a winning formula. In anime form...well, it hits and misses a bit. The show does some things very well, no doubt about it, like balancing sobering historical drama alongside comedic events, mixing and matching the action and the laughter. It swings back and forth between somber Chinese mysticism and historical drama and ridiculously silly slapstick comedy with expert skill. It also manages to avoid the terrible pitfall of the "enemy a day" formula of so many other anime; the long-winded political machinations run throughout the series and give it a solid foundation without the need to ever resort to the dreaded Power Rangers cliché. These are all cool things.
Unfortunately, Soul Hunter also falls prey to all the other little pitfalls that plague and pester conventional anime, and as such may have a hard time distinguishing itself from better examples of the genre. There are a lot of anime out there, and standing out from the pack is not easy. Overall, Soul Hunter is enjoyable and entertaining, with a winding plot, likeable characters, and decent style; it simply fails to differentiate itself from the massive flood of anime counterparts in any meaningful way.
For example: like every single anime protagonist character, Taikoubou is absolutely ridiculous, silly, stupid, and clumsy, but manages to be confident, serious, and tough when the chips are down. He can take on entire armies of demon immortals single-handedly, but seems incapable of walking without falling on his face, or operating a hammer without slamming it onto his thumb. Watching Soul Hunter was the first time I realized how clichéd this anime archetype had become.
The action in Soul Hunter is full of neat tricks, special magic powers, apocalyptic confrontations that take episodes to unfold, and all that good stuff. But in the end, the action isn't really all that impressive. Though the characters themselves are endearing and multilayered, the actual character designs seem lifted straight from other anime like Fist of The North Star, Slayers, and even a villainous monster plucked directly out of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Considering all the hoopla surrounding the apocalyptic battle sequence, the fight sequences seem a bit on the tame and uninspired side. The show has more or less all the right moves...but so do a lot of other anime out there. Know what I mean?
Despite these problems, I genuinely enjoyed Soul Hunter. The characters are clichéd, sure, but also downright enjoyable, and I especially dug the tantalizing and dense storyline, with its two intertwined casts of characters -- the humans and the immortals -- that eventually converge about halfway through the season. On the one side, Taikoubou and his band of immortals seek out and capture the souls of the evil demons across the land, while Kou Hiko and Bunchu, the Emperor's loyal commanders, plot the destruction of Dakki and the return of the Yin dynasty to glory. The episodes divide the time equally between the two, going back and forth between the storylines until the characters begin interacting with one another, merging the storylines in a way that feels totally natural. It is a well-written and crafted anime from start to finish.
Of course, not everything is so well thought out in Soul Hunter. Time seems to pass in an odd fashion -- it is difficult to determine whether days or entire years have passed between episodes, and the show itself cannot seem to decide either. The relationship of the immortals and mankind is muddled as well. It seems that humans can go to Heaven in order to train their magical powers, so it gets confusing trying to figure out who is human, who is immortal, who the humans with immortal powers are, and who the reincarnated lotus flowers in human form are. (I swear this is true.) Considering the show seems to place such influence on the relationships of power between the humans and the immortals and control of their destinies as a central theme, you would think this would be clearer. These issues do not get addressed until the final two episodes, and I use "addressed" in the loosest sense of the word. I am still trying to wrap my head around the finale, which is confusing to say the least! But I always enjoy a challenge.
Though I rarely spend time commenting on packaging, Soul Hunter comes in one of the oddest looking DVD cases I have ever seen -- a freaky, overstuffed, overgrown, growth-hormone-infected five-hinged affair; basically, a black jewel case two inches thick. Opening it is akin to thumbing a paperback novel -- imagine six regular-sized DVD jewel cases glued together, back-to-back. The entire affair feels overwhelming and awkward in the hands, like you could lose control of the thing and have discs go tumbling out in all directions, and is needlessly difficult to keep closed. It makes you understand why studios opt for the foldout or ultra-thin cases in box sets. Thumbs down on the packaging.
The video quality of this DVD is perplexing. The image quality staggers like a drunk man, going from sharp contrast, nice colors, great black levels, and clean transfers in one sequence, all the way to washed-out muted colors, a hazy indistinctness to the image, and muddled and grainy transfer quality in others. I have a feeling this has to do with the CGI-enhanced sequences. It seems the sequences that contain some sort of computer manipulation (effects, background, and so forth) look the nicest by far, though they do suffer from jagged edges and shimmering. In comparison, the hand-drawn sequences look pretty fuzzy and outdated, with muted colors. Considering that it feels like the DVD was edited together from two separate source materials, it is hard to get a bead on this DVD. But overall, it seems Soul Hunter has a nice clean transfer, with decent colors and respectable black levels, especially during later episodes where the CGI-enhanced sequences become more prevalent.
The English and Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks both sound reasonably nice, but there are differences in the tracks. The Japanese dialogue is much more amplified and in the high range, with louder dialogue. By comparison, the English track sounds muted and quiet, with a more conservative mix and better balance between the dialogue and music. Bass response is relatively minimal on both tracks, and the music levels seem identical between the two dubs, so it will come down to a matter of personal preference on which one sounds better to your ear. The soundtrack is a cheesy synthesized affair, very videogame-circa-1980s type stuff -- terribly lame, but at least the audio quality is good.
The English dub is not terrible, but it is awfully corny, and the voice actors ham it up all over the place. I admit that I have some problem with some of the translation in the English dub, since it seems to add some sexually suggestive innuendo that's absent from the subtitles, along with some suspect interpretations of the Japanese. I'll give you an example: One character accosting another, trying to goad him into action, says, "Surely, you cannot say that you are not capable!" written in the subtitles translates roughly in the English dub to...making chicken noises. You know: "bawk bawk baaawk." Maybe it just me, but this seems to lack some of the subtlety and sophistication of the original Japanese.
Considering the usual crap doled out by anime companies, Soul Hunter offers up a half-decent collection of extra features. Nothing too substantial, mind you -- you get the standard trailers, clean opening/closing credits, and voice actor profiles that come with most ADV Films releases -- but some of the included features here are useful enough to warrant special mention. We get detailed historical background information, a glossary of terms, translation notes, and a character relationship tree for the Soul Hunter universe on each disc, all of which are invaluable in understanding the subtle historical cultural references and keeping track of the ever-growing and expansive cast of characters. These may be simple little features, whimsical in comparison to the big-league features you find on many DVDs, but they are undeniably useful and surprisingly detailed and verbose. You can scroll through the relationship tree and select the characters with your DVD controller, and listen to a narration of the character's voice actor going through background information on the individual. Pretty nifty. Considering that most anime box sets provide little to nothing in the way of supplements, I am not complaining here.
Perhaps the trickiest problem (and the hardest to pinpoint) is how Soul Hunter schizophrenically tries to move in two directions simultaneously in an attempt to appeal to both adult and child alike. Clearly an anime marketed for mid-level children, Soul Hunter has no choice but to remain relatively cute, sweet, and violence-free in order to appease its targeted demographic. However, the show seems to yearn to break out of this confining mold and expand upon the complex and weaving storyline, the ambitious battle sequences, and the grim emphasis on the deeper Chinese mysticism backstory. All these elements seem to scream out for a more adult, more mature anime to fully express its complex ideas and issues. Sadly, we get something that never reaches its full potential.
Soul Hunter is a show constantly slowed down and simplified, made clean and simple and friendly for the wee ones, stuck in a cycle of self-censoring. What really would have made Soul Hunter great is having the same material targeted towards an older audience, giving its ambitious ideas free reign to do whatever they want, rather than having to constantly rein itself in.
Soul Hunter may be a mess at times, but it is something of an enjoyable mess, full of ambition and good intentions. I quite enjoyed it despite its flaws. Overall, the show is cohesive and entertaining, sure to be a treat for fans of the Slayers series and similar anime. And if you are going to give the show a try, without any doubt, Soul Hunter: The Complete Collection is the way to go about it. Not only is this box set reasonably priced (a mere sixty dollars for all twenty-six episodes!), but having all the episodes in one place right in front of you is so much more preferable than fussing with single discs. Trust me -- it makes the show far more enjoyable to take in and easier to appreciate.
Though there are many small things wrong with Soul Hunter, the court had an enjoyable time watching it, and hereby drops all charges. Not guilty!
Review content copyright © 2004 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Running Time: 650 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Historical Background Information
* Voice Actor Profiles
* Character Descriptions
* Relationship Tree
* Glossary of Terms
* Translation Notes
* US Trailer and Teaser
* Clean Opening/Closing