Gonzo Hell | Romeo x Juliet

Romeo X Juliet Title

If there were ever an anime that I didn’t think I would like from my selection of Gonzo shows, it probably would have been Romeo x Juliet. I mean just look at it. Anime adaptations of classic literature have always weirded me out, especially ones that incorporate fantasy or sci-fi elements (Which Romeo x Juliet has in spades). It just seems kind of like a fanfiction. The title certainly doesn’t help either. The “x” between the Romeo and Juliet reminds me of the days when my friends would ship school teachers and their classmates, and I shipped Johnlock while watching Sherlock on PBS Masterpiece… Those were dark times.

Strangely enough though, I enjoyed Romeo x Juliet. In spite of some glaring flaws, it consistently kept me watching with its strong heart. Romeo x Juliet feels like it was made by people who cared, or at least were interested in the source material. And considering what most other Gonzo shows are like (I’m looking at you Witchblade), I’m very pleased that this show feels like it had some thought and effort put into it.

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Before diving into any real meaty subjects though, let me divulge you a plot summary that is bound to confuse any Shakespeare fan. Taking place on the floating continent of Neo Verona, Romeo x Juliet follows the tale of, well, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. Juliet, having been kicked out of royalty by the Montague family at a young age, lives in hiding disguised as a boy and performing vigilante justice as a masked figure called the Red Whirlwind. Meanwhile, Romeo lives his calm but unsatisfying life in Montague’s castle, where he contemplates why the citizens of his country are distressed while aimlessly wandering through noble meetings and princely procedures. One day, Romeo and Juliet end up meeting accidentally at a ball, and from there on out their fates and hearts become entwined together; even though their warring houses threaten to tear them apart.

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Now, as you can probably tell, Romeo x Juliet is by no means a fair or accurate retelling of Shakespeare’s original play. It nails the original tone in many ways, portraying love struck adolescence in all of its melodramatic glory, but plot wise it certainly isn’t going to appease any purist. A lot of the major story cruxes here have been drastically altered, from there being a tyrant Prince Montague who almost destroyed the House of Capulet, to the Tree of Escalus that keeps Neo Verona alive and well, it’s clear that this show is going for a high fantasy drama feel compared to its tragic contemporary.

Basically, if I had to use one word to describe this adaptation it would probably be Disney-esque. Like most animated Disney movies, it takes a well loved fairy tale (Or in this case a classic play) and warps it into a unique creation. I wouldn’t say it’s nearly as revisionist as Disney’s Frozen, or the Little Mermaid for that matter, but Romeo x Juliet is very much focused on the love struck parts of the original story, rather than trying to wow the audience with sad catharsis.

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This becomes pretty evident in most of the characters, who, unlike their Shakespearean counterparts, are much more black and white in nature. To put it bluntly, Romeo and Juliet are perfect angels who can do no wrong. Yeah, Juliet starts off a little naive and indecisive, and Romeo is kind of a pushover throughout most of the show; but otherwise they are incredible beacons of hope for the world of Neo Verona. Their love is even directly paralleled by the myth of Escalus, which states that two trees help the continent float in the sky until one day they were separated by a man who committed mortal sin. Romeo and Juliet are the trees of Escalus, and only their united love can keep the world afloat!… Yeah, it’s pretty melodramatic.

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That being said, at least they have understandable character arcs. Comparatively speaking, the series’ villains are much less interesting. Most of them get some sort of backstory throughout the show (Mercutio has a drunken father, Prince Montague was born in the slums), but their constantly evil actions don’t do much to help paint them in a sympathetic light. This isn’t all that bad, I mean the antagonist in most Disney movies aren’t very three dimensional to begin with; but if you’re looking for something complex, you won’t find it here.

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However, that’s kind of what makes Romeo x Juliet likable. It doesn’t attempt to amaze you with high concept ideas or grand thematic statements; it’s just a cheesy, sweeping, and enjoyable romantic drama. Watching Romeo and Juliet twirl under flying flower petals in a worn down church cathedral, as Hitoshi Sakimoto’s beautiful soundtrack blasts through your speakers is both a completely ridiculous and heartwarming experience. Admittedly speaking this content can become a little grating over time, but sometimes it’s nice to watch something that’s just nice and fluffy. It probably also helps that this intense dramatic sweetness lends itself nicely to the actual conflict going on between the story’s two main houses.

Romeo and Juliet’s constant struggle to be together, and the intense corniness of their romantic scenes, really help elevate and make the Capulet vs. Montague conflict compelling. You want them to end Prince Montague’s reign of terror, because you just want to see these kids be happy dammit! The combination of kingdom battles and fierce emotion works surprisingly well here, though it probably helps that the series is backed up by some rock solid production values.

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You heard me right, this Gonzo show has good production values. For a studio so often associated with terrible CGI and 8 minute scenes of off model characters, Romeo x Juliet is pretty well made. The backgrounds are nice and grand, and the direction and art is appropriately dramatic, with tons of swinging swords, bursting fireworks, and simple shoujo character designs. Not to mention Gonzo’s trademark use of CGI is blended in subtly, with it only being implemented on flags and the curves of buildings. There are a few low points, the color palette can get flat in places, and any scene involving a flying horse looks janky as hell; but compared to some other Gonzo shows it’s a work of art.

The previously mentioned soundtrack by Hitoshi Sakimoto is also a nice bonus. Considering his work on Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story, this soundtrack was bound to be good, but damn if he doesn’t just nail the tone of this show. The cheesy opening and it’s orchestral refrains work perfectly with what’s displayed on screen, and it really helps elevate scenes that may have considered a little too forced.

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All in all, Romeo x Juliet should be an enjoyable romance melodrama… But then the ending happens. I obviously won’t spoil what happens here, but the final episode ends on a messy and rushed note, trying to go for the tragedy of the original source material without any of the subtlety or tonal build up. I can kind of see what they were going for overall, but the lack of any tonal connection to previous episodes is what ultimately makes it miss the landing. If they had just included an extra scene near the end that matched the heartfelt material of the other episodes, then I would have gladly accepted the rest of the episode thorns and all.

Of course, even with the jipped finale, Romeo x Juliet still features another major issue which was a consistent problem throughout its 24 episode runtime: The plot contrivances! Yep, if there’s one thing Romeo x Juliet loves, especially in its early and mid episodes, it’s getting its characters out of any terrible situation by shoving in a random character at the last moment, or spontaneously revealing they’re related to another major character.

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Probably the most egregious example of this occurs in the early episodes, when an underdeveloped side character sacrifices himself in order to save Juliet from being captured as the Red Whirlwind. Not only did this scene feel cheap, but the show also brushed it off onto the back burner pretty quickly. Besides a few passing mentions in later episodes, the man who sacrificed himself is rarely mentioned again. This is not only terrible writing, but it makes every character who isn’t a main feel utterly useless, to the point where the just seem like blank slates used to move forward the plot.

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In spite of these glaring issues though, I still really enjoyed my time with Romeo x Juliet. The crazy dramatic romance is kind of extreme, but it still feels like there was a lot of love put into this production. Every moment flies off the screen with an intense emotional flair, and the overall product is entertaining if nothing else. I wouldn’t recommend this series to those looking for a more thoughtful affair (Or a good Shakespeare adaptation for that matter), but if you’re a fan of this kind of shoujo-esque sentimentality then check it out! It may not have stunned me, but Romeo x Juliet was an interesting ride that I’ll never forget.

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