There’s a lot to be said for anime remakes, many of which exist to right the perceived wrongs of their respective initial shows. Some, like the 2019-2021 Fruits Basket, were created to essentially retell a story that was in need of completion and/or revision to more accurately reflect the source material. Other anime are revisited in order to introduce the franchise to new audiences and/or commemorate a major anniversary while simultaneously giving the visuals a more contemporary look, as with the likes of Sailor Moon Crystal.
However, this doesn’t mean that all anime remakes are inherently better than their older counterparts, or even just on par with them. While some anime revivals have gained immense popularity to the point where they’re widely thought of as masterpieces of the medium, others are total flops. Such is the case with a certain series that fans of ‘90s anime may remember with a sense of nostalgia, and which received its own remake in 2020: the fantasy-adventure Orphen.
Originally a series of light novels starting in 1994, Sorcerous Stabber Orphen (Majutsushi Orphen) received an anime adaptation in 1998. The 24-episode show follows the titular Orphen, once a promising young student of sorcery at the Tower of Fang. However, after his foster-sister Azalie was accidentally transformed into a monstrous dragon, Orphen left the school to try and save her, while the masters of the Tower of Fang believe Azalie must be hunted down and killed. Five years later, and accompanied by a stubborn girl named Cleao, a childhood friend of hers and novice sorcerer named Majic, and a pair of dwarves, Orphen is determined to find Azalie and transform her back into a human -- whatever it takes.
A classic example of a high fantasy anime, complete with magic users, artifacts with strange powers, supernatural beings and a pseudo-medieval setting, Orphen is very much a product of its time. The plot features nothing not seen before in any other mainstream sword-and-sorcery story. Moreover, clearly not blessed with a large budget, the production is conspicuously laden with still frames, cheap animation, inconsistent background models, and unimaginative synthesizer background music.
Nonetheless, the show was voted the eighth-best anime of the year in the June 1999 edition of anime magazine Animage, and Orphen himself the second-best favorite male character. While not necessarily unique or innovative, Orphen does not lack heart. It stars a cast of largely sympathetic characters, is evenly paced, balances out the more action-packed aspects of its story with an almost slice-of-life fantasy tone, and concludes the journey in a way that’s somewhat unconventional yet ultimately satisfying. Entirely average on paper, Orphen succeeds at what it does because it feels bigger than the sum of its parts.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the 2020 version of Orphen (Majutsushi Orphen Hagure Tabi). Released to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the franchise, this version of the anime seems less like a celebration than a desecration, despite ostensibly sticking closer to the source material than the 1998 show. While it tells much the same story, it comes across as almost painfully dull and lackluster. Even the opening episode, the primary purpose of which should be to draw viewers in, is more likely to repel them with its ponderous timing and pointless filler material, making almost every moment feel like a chore to watch.
Beyond the hackneyed hijinks of the series’ added side characters and the filler-bloated storyline, Orphen 2020 fails to make any sort of positive impact with its technical quality. Improved production values should be all but a given for revived anime titles, yet the likely purposeful decision to keep Orphen’s retro vibe intact was a misfire, considering that the shoddy art details and cheap musical choices mean the show looks and sounds no better overall than it did over two decades ago -- and with far worse excuse.
Anime fans who are looking for a fix of nostalgia, or who just have a hankering for high fantasy stories of old, could certainly do worse than going back to give 1998’s Orphen a try or a rewatch. The original series, while far from perfect, is oddly compelling and now something of a cult favorite, and it at least had plenty of heart, if not the budget to go with it. Regrettably, 2020’s Orphen is sorely lacking in both.