Ink & Paint VII: Romeo X Juliet

William Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy of star-crossed lovers has been performed, filmed, and re-imagined so many ways, one could easily write a book on all the variations. I’ve seen the play at the Stratford Festival in Canada, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. I’ve seen the Franco Zeffirelli film version, the more recent Baz Luhrmann film version (On Verona Beach! With guns!), and a few others I don’t remember so well. Of course, it’s been referenced, parodied, lampooned, and homaged in no end of television productions, romantic and otherwise.

What’s the fascination with young knuckleheads in love? I guess we’ve all been there at some point, dating the guy or girl that mom and dad don’t approve of, sneaking out through the bedroom window for a secret tryst, sharing a straw at the malt shop, whatever.

Feeling like, yes, I just might be willing to sacrifice myself for this person, if it came right down to it.

So now, here’s another look at the tale of young lovers with family issues and incredibly bad timing. Romeo X Juliet is an anime version, from Japan, but fear not, it’s played straight, without saucer-eyed heroines or super-deformed spit-takes. It’s also not Shakespeare’s story. This is a re-imagining, and the changes are much more substantial than a change of period or costume. Still, it’s not so extreme that the story is unrecognizable, and there are plenty of respectful references to the source material.

The alternate-universe stuff can get a little confusing, so hang on.

In the fair city of NeoVerona, on a floating continent where we set our stage, wistful Juliet is the last survivor of a bloody coup led by the treacherous Lord Montague, who now wields tyrannical power over the land. Juliet is kept in hiding by a handful of loyal Capulet family retainers, and only a few of them know her true identity. Even Juliet is kept in the dark. She dresses as a boy and spends a lot of the time in the company of an aspiring playwright named William, the foppish son of a powerful noblewoman.

Seeing the poor citizens of NeoVerona ground mercilessly under the heel of Montague, Juliet assumes the role of a dashing outlaw, the Red Whirlwind, and sneaks out into the city as often as she can to protect the weak and downtrodden. From time to time, a young nobleman on a dragon steed (sort of a winged semi-reptilian horse) swoops in to provide an assist—puzzling, but helpful. Meanwhile, Montague scours the city for the Red Whirlwind and also for the Capulet heir he knows is still alive somewhere and a threat to his rule.

As her 16th birthday approaches, Juliet sneaks into the annual masquerade ball and encounters a dashing young man who seems to find her as intriguing as she finds him. They meet again afterward, and it’s official—love at first sight. There seems to be little hope of the relationship going anywhere, but Juliet is enjoying the ride anyhow.

Her birthday arrives, and her universe implodes. Juliet’s guardians reveal the secret of her past—as the only surviving heir of House Capulet, she is expected to lead an insurrection against the Montagues, exact revenge for her parents’ death, and restore Capulet rule over NeoVerona. Oh, by the way, that young nobleman with the cool ride is a Montague, so he’s definitely off-limits. While no one doubts Juliet’s courage, some of the retainers worry about her resolve, and a few see her as little more than a figurehead to be manipulated in support of their own agendas. Things get worse when Juliet discovers that her boyfriend is not only a Montague noble but the tyrant’s own son, Romeo.

For his part, Romeo has spent most of his life with his nose stuck in a book or flying around on his dragon steed and is only beginning to realize how much his father’s policies oppress the people of NeoVerona. As he learns more about Juliet’s history, he grows to understand how very wrong things are in the kingdom, and he resolves to change things for the better, for the people’s sake, and for the sake of the future with Juliet he dreams of.

Juliet reluctantly grows into the leader her guardians have been hoping for, and her guerrilla war gains traction when she realizes her goal must be to free the people of NeoVerona from tyranny, not satisfy the Capulet-Montague feud with bloody revenge. Romeo goes into exile and finds his own way to pursue the restoration of NeoVerona, completing himself as a true leader in the process. What the two young lovers don’t know is that there is a deeper evil underlying the troubles in NeoVerona, and it threatens to undo everything they’ve been fighting for. Can there be a happy ending for them in this parallel universe?

I won’t spoil that for you.

This isn’t your great-grandcestor’s Romeo and Juliet, but it’s a compelling story on its own merits, and though it by necessity lacks the depth and complexity of the original, it wrestles with some important questions about justice, leadership, courage, vision, self-sacrifice, and, yes, love. Lots of things happen along the way—battles, captures, escapes, plots, counter-plots, and romantic interludes leavened with anguish, pain, and desperate hope.

Shakespeare’s characters, from Romeo and Juliet and many other plays, are scattered throughout this story, most in roles quite different than we might expect. Heroes and villains trade places, obscure characters come to the fore, and bits and pieces of familiar dialogue and poetry abound. In this universe, Mr. Shakespeare is still the playwright as a youngish man, building his curriculum vitae, tapping into both everyday events and the broad sweep of drama swirling through NeoVerona to write his theatrical masterpieces. He’s a fun supporting character with a knack of providing wry and insightful guidance to Juliet when she needs it most.

There’s a lot of nice art in this production. The backgrounds and environs of NeoVerona are very pretty and detailed, and the action and flying sequences are engaging.  Lena Park does a nice Tokyopop cover of the song,”You Raise Me Up,” in the title montage, and the tune provides an appropriately understated musical thread that runs through the entire series.

I did have a few gripes. The leads are almost too good to be true, Romeo in particular displaying an unalloyed selflessness (and self-control) that, while admirable, is well beyond any teenage boy of my acquaintance. Juliet fares a little better, particularly in the angst she wrestles with over her role as presumed leader of the Capulet revolution, trying to figure out where to draw the line between being true to herself and true to her followers. She still compares favorably with Joan of Arc. Poor Montague is nearly a caricature of a villain, though he displays a little more complexity toward the end. Setting the story on a floating continent is a cool idea, but we’re not really aware of it, nor is that fact particularly important, until late in the story. Finally, the subplot that draws the story to its conclusion is cryptic and leaves a lot of questions hanging.

It’s not perfect, but it works, and if you’re looking for an animated series with a little more gravitas than the usual Saturday morning or Cartoon Network fare, Romeo X Juliet isn’t a bad choice. 23 episodes, around 23 minutes each, available in both subtitled and English-dubbed versions in the U.S. via Funimation, and streamed online at their website. I watched the dubbed version, and I thought the voice acting was pretty well done.

I’d rate this at about a PG-13 for some mature themes, violence, including swordfighting that spills blood, and the aftermath of murder. No nudity, etc. Romeo and Juliet’s relationship is presented as a chaste, courtly love.

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