Romance of the Three Kingdoms
The Han Dynasty once signified cultural and military unity as the center of the Chinese world, but over centuries it has fallen to corruption and neglect. Eunuchs control imperial affairs, as bands of peasants swarm under the banner of the fanatical Zhang Jiao and his Yellow Turban armies. In this world of chaos, three sworn brothers - Liu Bei Xuande, Guan Yu Yunchang, and Zhang Fei Yide - make a pledge to seek the same day of death, and in doing so, return peace to the land.
In the days before the Dynasty Warriors series hacked and slashed its way onto the television screens of fanboys and fangirls across the world, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms story was little known in the West, relegated to specialists in Chinese culture and literature. In Asia, however, this story is familiar to many throughout the region, to the point that there are multiple versions of the legend that grow more and more diverse with each retelling.
One such retelling was the Yokoyama Mitsuteru manga "Sangokushi", itself remade into this 47-episode television series. How will it fare when presented to a brace of self-professed Three Kingdoms junkies (read: frequent, valued Koei customers who have also read and studied the original source material)?
Even considering that this initially aired in 1991, the animation in Romance of the Three Kingdoms can only be adequately described as foul. Colors and backgrounds are muddy if not utterly monochromatic. Fight scenes quickly devolve into slideshows of stock footage. Heck, there's stock footage of the stock footage! This is just truly bad.
Not helping things are the broad, obvious character designs yoinked directly from Yokoyama's sketchbook and not updated a whit since their apparent inception in the 1970s. The huge drawback, unfortunately, is that Yokoyama material looks far too cartoony to mesh with the often serious and extremely violent storylines of the Romance. So we have the amazing teenage Liu Bei, an utterly scary-looking Zhang Fei (you know it's him because he's got two noteworthy facial scars!), and Guan Yu (also known as "MY BEARD IZ PASTEDE ON YAY!"). Even worse, we've got a whole host of cartoony-looking galoots who go around chopping people in half, and then themselves getting chopped in half (actually an easy thing to do, since in this series, 2nd-century China is actually mostly populated by cardboard cutouts).
Sure, okay, so animation and art aren't its strong suit, so the storyline should be fine as long as it stays true to the novel, right?
Oh, if only.
First off, Liu Bei begins completely unaware of his royal bloodline, believing himself to be a perfectly normal common peasant. Yet his name has somehow magically reached the prefect Gongsun Zan to broadcast to Zhang Fei and Guan Yu that Liu Bei should be their new master to lead a volunteer army, because, hey, who better to lead you into battle than a perfectly normal common peasant?!? We guess this was done in order to enhance the sense of "virtue" Liu Bei apparently has, though this version clearly depicts the future king of Shu as smart, but a bumpkin and a putzy mama's boy, an impression clearly different than, y'know, the actual novel, where he's smart, politically aware, and putzy for entirely different reasons. (Some of those reasons involving the fact that he came up with the whole "king" idea, not Mom, as this show would have you believe.)
Intersperse this with some wonderfully hamhanded scenes about the Yellow Turbans being conspicuously EEEVIL and you've got one amazingly, inadvertently funny piece of crap that vaguely resembles the actual Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel largely by virtue of being set in ancient China and not including Japanese schoolgirls.
Of course, we keep expecting one to show up anyway. The soundtrack is horribly anachronistic, with a rather amusing opening by 90s pop-rock band Fence of Defence (not yet "sailing for their dream" at this point but still plenty loud) and BGM laden with Nintendo-grade synthesizers and such traditionally Chinese instruments as saxophones. We wonder if they hired the same music guy for Fushigi Yugi.
Okay, okay, there's gotta be some redeeming quality to this, right? Let's see ... the voice acting isn't what I'd call stellar, but it's not obnoxious. Kindly note that we don't have an A-list cast here: Liu Bei's voice, Nakamura Daiki, is best known as Samurai Shodown's Haomaru and Fatal Fury's Billy Kane. Eternally sloshed Zhang Fei is voiced by a young Fujiwara Keiji, who would eventually land the role of fan favorite Maes Hughes in Full Metal Alchemist. Guan Yu is voiced by tough-guy character actor Kotani Shinichi (aka Tsuji Shinbachi), best known as the Japanese dub voice of Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The biggest star in the series is the seiyuu cast as strategist Zhuge Liang, the veteran Hayami Sho (Macross, Maximilian Jenius). And in an amusing bit of typecasting, Koorogi Satomi shows up in the first episode as a overly cute little girl, just like in Idol Project, Please! Teacher, Puni Puni Poemy, Animaniacs ...
Also, note who we're not talking about. That's right, this whole time, we've been discussing one kingdom. We have to assume the yummy details of the rise of Cao Cao and the Sun family are forthcoming, but if the writers relied on the same cow-patty plot that they substituted for the "vow in the peach garden" story (not to mention that the opening sequence doesn't show a SINGLE member of the Wei or Wu Kingdoms), then we'll just have to expect Liu Bei's fiancee to be, well ... a Japanese schoolgirl.
Seriously, this is Three Kingdoms. Can't we salvage anything useful from this show that we can't get from hack-n-slash games like Dynasty Warriors 5 or turn-based strategy epics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms X?
Well, does canned laughter count?
While this is a very preliminary review, we don't hold any high hopes that this is going to get much better. You may as well read San instead.
While funny for all the wrong reasons, Romance of the Three Kingdoms has had the unfortunate fate of being rendered obsolete by video games and Wikipedia. As it stands, good only for the nostalgic or masochistic, or for those who wonder what Three Kingdoms fanfiction would look like given an early 1990s television budget. — Carlos Ross
Recommended Audience: There is quite a bit of violence here, but the animation is so badly drawn that this isn't much of a factor.
Version(s) Viewed: Prerelease fansub
Review Status: Partial (1/47)
Romance of the Three Kingdoms © 1991 Yokoyama Mitsuteru
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