In the mid-to-late'90s, anime was starting to flourish in the US. Off the top of my head, I can name a half-dozen major players in the anime licensing and distribution business from that time period, and one of the big players was Pioneer LDC, the company that would later become Geneon Entertainment. While ADV was playing off its smash-hit success with Neon Genesis Evangelion and focusing on sci-fi properties, Pioneer made an unusual move: it licensed the 52-episode anime adaptation of Yuu Watase's shoujo bestseller Fushigi Yûgi.
While I was familiar with shoujo anime thanks to Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth being on TV when I lived in Japan, I never really got into it. For one, I was a boy, and girls were terrifying, and all that icky girly romantic stuff was equally terrifying. But around my junior year, when Pioneer started releasing Fushigi Yûgi on VHS, I wasn't quite as terrified of the fairer sex (that is such a misnomer)--and I was willing to check out almost any anime or manga that was released Stateside.
You see, Fushigi Yûgi is--more or less--an idiotic romance centered around a very unlikeable leading trio and their really really good supporting cast. A quick synopsis: Miaka Yuuki and her best friend Yui Hongo are in the library studying for a high school entrance exam. Miaka follows a supernatural vision that leads her to an ominous book titled The Universe of the Four Gods. Reading it sucks her (and Yui) into the world of the book, making her play the part of the Priestess of Suzaku, a holy figure who will save the world. In order to do that, she must assemble seven Celestial Warriors who will protect her from harm, but as is often the case with any number of these "ordinary schoolgirl warped into a magical world" stories, almost everybody is in love with the main character to some extent, so complications naturally arise.
It's almost like the Suzaku Seven were hand-picked to be the best possible love interests in a shoujo manga for "ordinary schoolgirl and average student" Miaka. There's the perfect athletic guy (Tamahome), the rowdy but loveable goofball (Tasuki), the unusually bishie nerd (Chichiri), the gay frenemy (Nuriko), the really tall guy (Mitsukake), the little kid (Chiriko), and the filthy stinking rich guy (Hotohori). While the most regular conflict is between bland Tamahome and smoother-than-smooth Hotohori, Miaka makes the rounds with all seven of them. Get your minds out of the gutter--she ends up emotionally connecting with each of the Celestial Warriors, and it becomes kind of hard to watch since not everybody makes it out of the series in one piece.
While Miaka is in Suzaku-land where it's raining men, Yui goes through hell and back--she spends a little bit of time back in the real world reading about Miaka's dreamy adventures, then gets sucked back into the world of the book, then gets kidnapped by slave traders where she's led to believe she was raped, then is saved by Nakago, the tall, blonde, and ruthless leading Celestial Warrior of Seiryu, who's evil in that realistic way where he kind of feeds off of women's dependence on him. He's two-faced and manipulative, and is the kind of guy who doesn't have friends--he has lackeys.
Of course, everything eventually goes to crap--Yui somehow evolves from "kind of a stuck-up bitch" to "hateful, backstabbing, makes-Mean Girls-look-heartwarming super bitch" as she takes on the title of Priestess of Seiryu (Nakago's suggestion, of course) and rallies his forces to destroy Hotohori's kingdom--the home of the rest of the Suzaku Seven. It's friend versus friend, priestess versus priestess as they use their respective Celestial Warriors like human Pokemon and duel it out across the mystical totally-not-China Universe of the Four Gods.
Apparently, Tamahome comes from the "Conan of Cimmeria" school of apocalypse prevention (if you need a virgin priestess to summon a god, make sure said priestess isn't a virgin and then the bad guys won't be after your girl), but Miaka isn't nearly as shortsighted. The plot drags Miaka and Yui (and Tamahome!) back out of the book and into the real world, then back into the book where Yui's stupidity gives Nakago immense power that brings him into the real world, where he and Tamahome have a crazy Dragonball Z final battle across Tokyo. What? I never said it made any sense.
Fun, random fact: Tamahome's dub voice was David Hayter.
David "Snake" Hayter. Let that sink in for a second.
The thing about all of this is, looking at it in hindsight it's pretty stupid. It's kinda hard watching now, especially since I know what's gonna happen next, and since I know who makes it to the end. But watching the series for the first time? It's a total soap opera! Will Miaka and Tamahome end up together? Who are the Celestial Warriors of Seiryu and why are they so loyal to a d-bag like Nakago? Where in God's name is the story taking us next? I think the real question is, "is it possible to care about romantic tension between two people that you hate?"
Normally, I'd say no, but Fushigi Yûgi's anime tells me otherwise. I watched a smattering of episodes of Kenshin and I played The Bouncer from beginning to end, but I was able to put both of those down and focus on other things after I was done writing about them. The funny thing is, with Fushigi Yûgi, I keep on going to the next episode. I KEEP WATCHING MORE AND I CAN'T STOP. It's sappy and stupid and I hate Miaka and her stupid anime impressions and I'm wondering why she doesn't just stab Yui and Tamahome starts off as such an interesting and likeable (and money-hungry) character and suddenly he turns into freaking McDreamy and it's so stupid and... aww...
...Tamahome and Miaka just confessed their feelings... and kissed... and Yui was listening the whole time. Happy early Valentine's Day, everybody. I'm gonna go turn in my Man card now and watch Yui's spectacular, ice-cold descent into crazytown.
Did you ever watch Fushigi Yûgi, probably on the VHS tapes from Pioneer where the dubbed versions were titled The Mysterious Play? Or are you more familiar with the manga? If you have the chance, dig up those tapes (or the surprisingly expensive Pioneer/Geneon DVDs), give the show a re-watch and let us know what you think! In the meantime, I think I'll watch one more episode. I'll probably be done with this show by Tuesday.
Images via Infinity except for that one shot of Big Boss