Let us journey across space to reveal the mystery!
Based on a popular manga (published briefly in North America by Dark Horse), Spirit of Wonder is a collection of stories loosely tied together by hopes and dreams and tremendously whimsical things.
Spirit of Wonder is rather cute and awfully sweet, but not the most terribly interesting anime around. Unless you are a fan of the manga, this DVD offers very little in genuine entertainment or enjoyment; instead, it offers a whole lot of boring.
Facts of the Case
The manga, and the original OVA from the early 1990s, and this DVD set (which is something of a re-visiting of the Spirit of Wonder world rather than an official sequel), are all centered around the seaside town of Bristol, on the Prince of Wales Island in coastal Europe. In the original manga and OVA (way back in 1992), the main protagonist is a young woman named Miss China, who coincidentally dresses in Chinese gowns and owns a Chinese restaurant. She is also the proprietor of her establishment, and the upstairs is rented out to two scientists, both of them mad.
Dr. Breckenridge is a crazy inventor, whom among other things invents ways to travel to the moon, teleport, and do other wacky things that cause havoc for everyone in the town, especially Miss China, who more often than not, has to hand out some serious beatings.
The other scientist, Jim, is also mad—mad about Miss China—and cannot articulate his feelings for her properly, but that's okay, because she love him too, and can't articulate her feelings either. Sound familiar?
This anime, rather than being a direct sequel to the previous Spirit of Wonder OVA, offers an expansion upon side tales and alternate storylines from the original manga, rather than a direct sequel to the Miss China storyline. The main feature, "Scientific Boys Club," also takes place in Bristol, but on the other side of town, with different characters. As young boys, Cooper, Gordon, and Shepherd were enchanted with the notion of life on the planet Mars, and made a secret pact to somehow, someday, travel there. Now, as older men, they are closer than ever to achieving their goal. With the help of Gordon's daughter, Windy (who, coincidentally, looks very similar to Miss China), and the real scientific brains in the family, and her husband Jack (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jim), the question remains: can they draw on a lifetime of work to ultimately fulfill old promises to one another and make it to the dusty surface of Mars?
Two short vignettes are also included that jump back to more familiar ground and revisit Miss China and her wacky adventures, which involve being shrunk to miniscule proportions (and then expanding exponentially in reverse, with no clothes on) and her adventures traveling to Mars.
This is a slightly bewildering DVD to pick up and watch without understanding the manga, or having seen the original OVA. Being the token anime female character, it makes sense to center short episodes around Miss China, since the male characters have absolutely nothing of interest going for them.
For a second, I even considered that the target market for this disc were females. Despite the complete abundance of men in the story, the women are the ones at the heart of Spirit of Wonder. Miss China kicks ass, frankly, and is far more amusing a character than anybody else, and Windy is the scientific brains behind the family, despite being vehemently opposed to the idea of her husband gallivanting off in space.
But I rejected this hypothesis. In terms of anime traditionally appealing to women, this disc seems far too atypical and scatterbrained and obsessed with old men lifting up skirts. Frankly, I have no idea what demographic is being targeted by this. At times, it feels like an animated version of The Shipping News, which, if you think about it, is a very confusing notion indeed.
The majority of the disc is taken up with the "Scientific Boys Club" story, which is about old friendships and ambition and drive and of course, going to Mars. It is tremendously whimsical (which is a nice way of saying "cute, but kinda crappy") and very wishy-washy, offering very little in the way of dramatic tension, science-fiction action sequences, or intellectual stimulation. These stories, rather than being entertaining, feel more symbolic and truer to the Spirit of Wonder manga stories themselves, which involved seemingly unconnected stories about humans, and the wonders that they can accomplish through technology and magic and love.
Two "Miss China" vignettes are included on the disc, which help to round out the content slightly, and appease hardcore fans of the manga. The "Shrinking of Miss China" segment feels more like an excuse to take off Miss China's clothes and make her grow to the size of a house than an actual worthwhile piece of animation, but ironically, it is the cutest and most entertaining segment on the entire disc. Go figure.
The animation is quite sharp, actually, and special attention is made on character facial expressions, which are surprisingly affective and realistic. Despite being slightly dull and expressionless in terms of story and pacing, the animation is first-rate. The visual quality of the DVD is quite good, and the colors have a pleasant cool quality, with blues and grays being chilly and well represented. Greens also come across quite mellow. The detail is sharp and crisp without ever degenerating into sharp edges and artifacts. At least Spirit of Wonder is quite pleasing to the eye, if not to the sensibilities.
The audio suffers a bit on the native Japanese dialogue track, but this is common for American-produced DVD releases. Emphasis is placed on the English dubbed track, which sounds punchier and well rounded and full of tonal "oomph." In comparison, the Japanese track sounds tin-cannish at times. Both sound good overall, but the English track is full of ambient noises and tiny details not present on the Japanese track. The quality of the dub is passable, and though it borders on the corny at times, it is on par with the quality of Bandai dubs.
The music is well done, and alternates between traditional Chinese melodies (during the sequences at Miss China's restaurant) and classical guitar jaunts, which has the effect of temporarily transform your living room into a medieval renaissance festival.
The subtitles are fairly competent, but occasionally spew out grammatically challenging sentences, such as, "how could we know that if we were not man?" and the like. Having dealt with fansubbed anime for years and years, this does not bother me in the slightest. No marks deducted for this.
Extras include an art gallery, a Miss China mini fold-out poster (what are people going to do with this?), and previews for other Bandai products which, by the looks, all seem to be more action-packed, more entertaining, and more interesting than Spirit of Wonder. The saving grace of the DVD set is the interview collection, which offers insightful glances into the creator of the manga, production staff, and so on, and fills in a lot of blanks and unanswered questions for those unfamiliar with the manga. An excellent segment, and if you get your hands on the disc, it is a must-see.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have to admit, the storyline for the Spirit of Wonder manga sounds quite sweet, and I would be lying if I said that I hated this DVD. On some levels, it is quite enjoyable and peaceful and non-threatening, the kind of thing you could con your anime-hating girlfriend into watching, for example.
However, this Spirit of Wonder DVD collection is rather blasé for anybody just wandering into the DVD (like myself). As a metaphorical revisiting of themes and imagery rather than a direct sequel, die-hard manga fans will no doubt be thrilled to have these episodic tales in animation form, but for those of us who have never read the manga, there is nothing here for us.
More whimsical than entertaining or funny or amusing or action-packed, or anything else, Spirit of Wonder is a cutesy disc that offers very little to seasoned anime fans. The focus of the features varies wildly and the target audience is hard to pinpoint.
Too wishy-washy for sci-fi fans, too vague and unstructured for romantic anime fans, and too not funny for comedy anime fans, its aimlessness dooms Spirit of Wonder into obscurity.
Not exactly "guilty," but definitely not off the hook, either—despite good production values and a good heart, Spirit of Wonder is dull, boring, and in the court's opinion, completely unmarketable. Too wishy-washy for boys, too uninteresting for girls; this disc is a sweet, whimsical mess.
The court is adjourned due to mistrial, because the judge doesn't have the heart to throw the book completely at Spirit of Wonder.
But then again, he definitely wants Spirit of Wonder out of his courtroom.
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