It can be difficult to recover from a bad first impression.
A lot of people have to do a lot of things right to make a good anime. Most of the time animators, directors, producers, composers, actors and many others have to do their jobs well. Maybe a few of those folks can turn in subpar performances, but if (a) enough aspects of the show are below a certain threshold of quality or (b) one of the show’s key aspects is bottom-of-the-barrel-quality, then a show can be ruined. The 1997 fantasy anime The Violinist of Hamelin suffers from an acute case of the latter.
Yet, in spite of the bad first impression it is sure to leave on viewers, those who give it a chance will discover something wonderful in this creation born from the mind of writer Yasuhiro Imagawa.
Suggested Soundtrack for Reading – Vivaldi “Gloria.”
If you’re thinking about watching Hamelin, don’t tell anybody because you will likely be scared/shamed away. What is more, the criticisms often leveled at the show (surface-level though they may be) are entirely justified.
Its most glaring fault is its animation…or lack thereof. Clearly, Hamelin did not have a big budget, and right out of the gate its animators are forced to redefine the notion of taking a shortcut. I’m not saying that nothing is animated or that there isn’t the occasional pop of fluid sakuga, but it can get pretty rough. For example, many times a character’s mouth movements won’t be animated when they are talking; instead, the seiyuu speaks over a still shot. Mike Toole is not far off the mark when he refers to Hamelin as “barely animated.”
The show is composed of two arcs, each spanning about half of the episode count. Once Hamelin gets going, it really gets going, with both decisive actions and new revelations coming thick and fast. When an arc hits its stride, the show can be truly addictive. Unfortunately, both arcs are a bit slow out of the gate. Slowness with the first half can be attributed to establishing Hamelin’s humble beginnings and setting the stage for the grand battle that is the culmination of the arc. I think the beginning of the second arc suffers from the necessary come-down from this battle. Some viewers might not stick with Hamelin long enough for the buildup to pay off.
All the other negatives of the series can be summed up in two words: source material. The Hamelin manga is a very silly, lighthearted fantasy romp. This isn’t in and of itself an issue; however, when Imagawa pens the adaptation, he opts to drastically alter the tone of the story while keeping trappings of the world such as the characters’ outfits (everyone has hats and some require their own zip code) and music-pun nomenclature (e.g. characters called Flute, Horn, Clari, Trom, etc.). These things can be obstacles to taking the show as seriously as it takes itself, which is gat dam serious, mang.
Anyone whose enjoyment of an anime hinges on the visuals has probably been sufficiently turned off, and, to be sure, Hamelin isn’t for everyone. Still, I say again, it is an excellent show. It rises above its visual imperfections to be an emotionally gripping, dark fantasy story. How does it manage to overcome its limitations? Well, the way any good anime overcomes such flaws: its writing, its heart. The pen is mightier than…the…other pen…used for drawing things…
As stated above, Hamelin‘s script is penned by Yasuhiro Imagawa, famed super robot series director and adaptation guru. While Hamelin was airing, Imagawa was in the midst of adapting Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Giant Robo manga into a decade-spanning OAV, and he would later go on to repurpose for television Tetsujin 28 (another Yokoyama robot comic) and Go Nagai’s fan favorite Mazinger Z. Also, though it is an original work, his Mobile Fighter G Gundam takes existing elements of a mega-franchise and radically reframes the presentation and content of that franchise. So, Imagawa has experience getting the best out of source material but only within one genre (or perhaps sub-genre?). Can he succeed when faced with the task of adapting a different kind of story?
Yes, he can.
As he does with Giant Robo, Imagawa cherry picks characters from the Hamelin universe and completely re-imagines their roles for the story he wants to tell. This technique gerrymanders the series’ battle lines, resulting in some characters who were heroes in the manga being villains in the anime. Maybe it’s the obsession of my inner pro wrestling fan with the babyface-to-heel turn, but I just love the shit out of stuff like that. In any case, Imagawa’s versions of these characters are far more compelling their original incarnations.
Take Raiel, for example. The manga casts him as the guy who gets all the nosebleeds and also the straight man to Hamel’s stupid jokes Oh yeah, and he carries around a golden grand piano on his back because, you know, magical music is his weapon. Though he keeps the piano, Raiel is a very somber sort of character in the TV show, as Imagawa puts more emphasis on his tragic past. His painful feelings build and build, and the show eventually takes Raiel’s character to some pretty daring places, I think.
Oboe seems like a total throwaway: cute, animal sidekick (he’s a crow). Yet, the little guy turns out to play this hugely meaningful part in the story. Plus, he’s played by Shigeru Chiba, aka the best guy–apart from maybe Norio Wakamoto. Then, there’s the angel Sizer, one of the main draws of the cast. Her character is originally the oblivious fighter who can only think about hittin’ stuff. Imagawa’s re-write completely transforms her by casting her as a fallen angel siding with three demon kings to reclaim the humans’ domain. As Hamelin progresses, Sizer begins to explore her identity, and the existential crisis she endures in the second arc is quite compelling.
Speaking of the demon kings, the villains are super cool and help make the show. They all have appealing character designs and are badasses. Along with the aforementioned Sizer (comma Synth E.) we’ve got: Dragon King Drum, whose body contains like a million dragons; King of Beasts, Guitar, who is essentially an armor-clad werewolf growing out of the back of an ordinary wolf; and the commander of the army of the undead, Hell King Bass. Bass’s design is especially awesome; he is a disembodied head being carried around by one of the world’s most powerful mages, whom he controls. When Bass speaks, so does the mage, which results in this creepy, Baron Ashura-esque voice.
Hamelin‘s battles feel very much like those of Giant Robo, only less animated. In both shows, two super powered groups fight it out, and the stakes are continually being raised over time. Each successive battle feels more grand, as well as more personally affecting to the viewer, than the previous one. You won’t come away from the battles thinking that they were pointless or that nothing was resolved. Consequences of the war are real and are severe. Combine that with the serious tone of the show, and the experience of watching the fights becomes very, very tense.
The impact that these and other scenes can have is heightened by the excellent music featured in the series. Given that the show’s title is The Violinist of Hamelin, it should come as no surprise that much of the soundtrack prominently features the violin. Raiel’s piano makes several key appearances as well. It’s almost as if the music is trying to pick up the emotion-inducing slack for the limited visual presentation.
Hamelin‘s score isn’t made up of original compositions; rather, famous classical pieces of music are used as part of the storytelling, much like in Princess Tutu. Luckily, this fact is not kept esoteric. Oboe’s secondary role in the show is that of the shounen action series sideline commentator. In other words, he will explain what music is being played, who it is by, where it is from, and why Hamelin chose to play it.
Taking a step back, the overall structure of the story is very reminiscent of Imagawa’s Mobile Fighter G Gundam. I say this chiefly because of how much Hamelin‘s final act of the second arc reminds me of that classic mecha title. The script is written in such a way as to slowly build maximum tension as the viewer nears a climactic destination that has loomed large for the entire story arc. Cliff hangers abound. By the time you reach the end, you’ve been whipped up into an internal frenzy. I had to push through the last 4-5 episodes all in one sitting because I couldn’t walk away without seeing how things would conclude.
Thematically, the show is quite dark. It takes time to explores humanity’s existential struggles, particularly in the field of identity. What if we begin to find out who we are, and we don’t exactly like it? How do we belong somewhere? What do we do if the narrative under which we have lived our entire lives is suddenly proved demonstratively false, right before our eyes? Hamelin also has some interesting things to say about relationships and forgiveness. Characters in the show have to work with someone, sometimes someone they care deeply about, who has done terrible things. The inevitable inner conflict is investigated throughout the series.
There are not a lot of good fantasy anime out there, but, despite its problems, Violinist of Hamelin achieves both the status of being a great fantasy anime and a great anime period, at least in my book. Any fan of Yasuhiro Imagawa’s work will feel right at home, as his sensibilities shine through. Those who can get past its flaws will find a powerful tale powerfully told in Hamelin.