It's been quite a long time since I actually played the pen-and-paper version of Dungeons and Dragons, the role-playing game that brought fantasy gaming to the masses back in the 1970s. Although I've spent many an hour playing computer games that simulated the worlds D&D had in store, they don't have quite the same feel as playing around a table with a bunch of friends, using just your imaginations to come up with a compelling adventure. In several ways, Weathering Continent is just like one really good session of D&D. Although it falls far short of thoroughly defining its characters or creating an epic narrative, it comes in, involves the audience thoroughly, and then pulls back leaving you wanting more. Although not a classic--it's too incomplete for that--it's surprising that it hasn't been picked up for Western distribution, considering the popular names involved in its creation.
The story is set on a mysterious continent in the Atlantic Ocean, one whose history had disappeared in ages past. Once a ripe and beautiful land, the continent has become a wasteland, barren and parched. While scavengers and evildoers seek to loot the less fortunate, many are simply trying to find the only true treasure left: water. It's here where our story begins, as our heroes stumble across the site of an apparent massacre. The threesome is made up of a muscular front man, Boyce, an enchantress, Tieh, and a young fighter, Lakshi. Attacked by the last remaining survivor of the carnage, who quickly gives out from exhaustion, they soon find that this tribe was wandering, simply desperate to find any source of water, when they were brutally assaulted. Such is life on the continent. As the story continues, our heroes stumble into an ancient city of the dead. Although a place of rare wealth, any disturbance could awaken the spirits that still reside there. Though our intrepid band has no such intentions, a large band of nightmarish thugs is after just such a haul, and our heroes may have to deal with not only their wrath but also the vengeance of the sleeping specters unhappy about their final resting place being disturbed.
Weathering Continent has a strong bloodline in its creators. Tanaka Yoshiki wrote the series of novels from which this show was based; he also wrote the series that became the basis of another popular fantasy anime, Heroic Record Of Arslan. Meanwhile, Yuuki Nobuteru of Lodoss fame contributed to the character designs, which gives the main adventurers a nice look. (The same cannot be said for the bad guys, who almost look like clones from Hokuto no Ken.) The orchestrated soundtrack works well in almost every situation; it is a welcome respite from J-Pop. Since this was actually a short (55 minute) feature that was shown in theatres, the artistry is quite evident, and a lot more physical detail is provided than in your typical anime. Although it's not lavish, the production value is strong.
With such impressive people behind it and the level of attention paid to individual elements of its storytelling, Weathering Continent has the potential to be great, and it is quite good. From my understanding, the story told in the movie falls somewhere in the middle of the novel series. This is apparent from the very start, as the characters really don't get a full introduction whatsoever, and the audience is forced to piece together their history as the show rolls along. However, the back-story is obviously important, and the movie is better for its existence. The mood that Continent hits is striking; it works best when it moves into spooky gothic horror mode. Some scenes are particularly powerful, notably a sequence where we enter into an old abandoned warehouse of sorts filled with masks not dissimilar to those that represent the standard dramatic concepts of comedy and tragedy. These masks, which play a larger part later in the show, are disturbing in their haunting simplicity, as they come to represent the spirits who have yet to find their final resting place. Certain moments are very impressive, particularly the ending, and I enjoyed the movie on the whole.
Having said that, for setting a great mood and drawing us into the world compellingly, there are some elements here that just don't work. For one, the evildoers are underdeveloped and unimportant to the overall story, and it could have been a better show if they weren't in it at all; the creators could have found some other way to move the plot along. Second, there's a spoiler-filled amount of gender-bending androgyny at place here, which is common in a lot of bishonen stories. Frankly, it didn't matter to me that I couldn't figure out what sex Lakshi and Tieh were from their visual look or their seiyuu (voice actors). However, a movie this short cannot deal with the concept effectively. As it is, though it keeps us guessing, there's not enough background to these characters to feel all that differently about them when the truths are revealed. Finally, the core problem is that this could essentially be a side story to the Weathering Continent epic; no one's agenda or personality is advanced thoroughly by the events chronicled. Because of this, it's less memorable and less impacting than it should be for a story that is otherwise told quite effectively. Although I didn't find it a problem, some will also find this show too slow for their tastes, as there's little action. The movie is more about discovery than sword fighting, and that actually was a plus for me, but it's not going to appeal to fantasy fans who must have battle sequences galore to enjoy themselves.
Overall, I recommend Weathering Continent if you can find a copy of it. That's not an easy task, but fantasy lovers who want something different and enjoyed the first section of Arslan or the slower moments in Lodoss should appreciate it. Anybody who appreciated playing D&D for the character interactions more than the dice rolling might also seek it out.
Weathering Continent -- violence, brief language, mild horror elements -- B+