Review: Shakespeare meets anime in Romeo x Juliet

Some adaptations of classic stories make surprising changes to the source material. Romeo x Juliet probably sets the record for how quickly this is put into practice; Shakespeare's original play opens with a street brawl between warring families, but this fanciful TV anime adaptation begins with one family completely overwhelming the other, a botched assassination and a flight to safety on a winged horse.

In Romeo x Juliet's world, the clan Montague reigns over the city of Neo Verona, which floats high in the sky, suspended by some arcane technology, and appears to be constructed from at least three separate Renaissance-era cities stacked atop one another. The rival Capulets, almost wiped out by the Montagues' power grab 14 years earlier, have been driven underground. The last surviving scion of the family and the remnants of the rest of the clan bide their time hiding in a theater run by a skilled but laconic playwright named Bill Shakespeare. How clever.

Here is a version of a classic story that isn't content just to take the blood and guts of Romeo and Juliet and transplant it to a fanciful flying city; Studio GONZO's Romeo x Juliet is wry, clever and surprisingly intense and atmospheric. We know from the outset that the noble and handsome Romeo will cross paths with the fiery and stunning Juliet, but the series creators dump Romeo into an unhappy family situation, where he's forced to spend his days making ungainly political maneuvers and courting the hapless Lady Hermione, for whom he has no particular affection.

Juliet doesn't even start off the story as Juliet; she works in Shakespeare's opera house disguised as a boy named Odin. Her old family handlers have kept her ignorant of her bloody past, but even so Juliet has a strong sense of justice that is constantly challenged by the churlish actions of the Montague guards. To combat this, she dons a mask and takes up the sword, defending the city's commoners against the oppressive rulers, in a move that echoes Orczy's classic The Scarlet Pimpernel; even the name that Juliet takes, the Red Whirlwind, is similar.

Major elements of the rest of Shakespeare's tale are grafted onto Romeo x Juliet's framework in many interesting ways. Romeo's confidant Mercutio is present, as is Juliet's bellicose cousin Tybalt. Escalus, who ruled over the city of Verona in the original story, is represented here by the Tree of Escalus, the source of power that allows Neo Verona to float high above the earth. The ballroom scene in which Romeo and Juliet meet is present, but with the twist that Juliet has infiltrated it in disguise; other key scenes from the play, like the pair's fateful meeting at the balcony, are also represented, but with changes. The episodes are well paced and engrossing; this first set ends with episode 13, only the halfway point of the series, but the pair of lovers have already stirred the ire of Duke Montague and are on the run from the authorities.

I must call special attention to the dubbed version of Romeo x Juliet. The actors, regulars from FUNimation's stable, aren't exactly peerless, but the adaptation does its level best to swipe lines directly from Shakespeare's works as often as possible, and the voice actors acquit themselves well enough to make everything sound fluid and credible. It seems like it would be easy to over- or under-act in a piece like this one, but the decidedly Shakespearean dialogue sets the dub of this series apart from many of its peers.

Adaptations of the Bard's works can very often go south; one need only look at the bizarre Romeo & Juliet: Sealed With a Kiss to see a long list of how many things can go wrong with introducing new concepts and settings to an ages-old tale. One thing I do find disappointing about Romeo x Juliet is that, aside from its high-altitude setting and flying animals, the fantastic elements of the story are thin indeed. I'm waiting and hoping for the second half of the series (due in August) to reveal something more interesting—magic, perhaps, or a Babbage-esque logical engine—but for now the viewer will have to make do with flying horses. Still, Romeo x Juliet is undeniably solid, an intriguing new spin on an old story.

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