Based on Megumi Tachikawa’s manga of the same name, which Tokyopop published in the early 2000s but is tragically no longer in print, Saint Tail has not been kind to English-speaking audiences. The series saw the release of five dual-language DVDs and four dubbed VHS tapes in 2001-2002, with the remaining single disc releases shelved, until Discotek saved it and made it available in this Blu-ray compilation. A set of discs six through eight was released in 2003, although it was missing the English dub. Unfortunately, Saint Tail not only stands up surprisingly well for a 1990s title, but is also a fine story on its own, so it’s unfortunate that the series stagnated for twenty years.
Similar to Phantom Thief Jeanne, Saint Tail centers on an adolescent magical girl who turns into an enigmatic (phantom) thief in order to take goods that have either been wrongfully taken from their lawful owners or damaged in some other way. She goes by Meimi Haneoka in the real world, a middle school student at a Catholic school. Meimi is in a unique position to be able to transform herself because her father is a stage magician and her mother was a phantom thief when she was a teenager. Meimi regularly assists the deserving while embarrassing a police force that can’t seem to catch her, thanks to the assistance (and, one assumes, encouragement) of her best friend Seira Mimori, who is preparing to become a nun. She goes along with Asuka Jr., the main detective’s son, who develops an obsession with being the one to capture Saint Tail.It inevitably leads to a romance subplot that Asuka Jr. and Meimi attempt to ignore throughout the first three-quarters of the episode, despite the evidence that they are unable to. It’s a beloved tale about a magical girl and, to be honest, a lot of wonderful fun.
Historically, Saint Tail owes a great deal to Magical Emi, the Magic Star from 1985 and has a strong influence on Arina Tanemura’s later title. There are some clear parallels even if we ignore the names (and the fact that Meimi’s mother is named Eimi), mainly in the way that stage magic affects Saint Tail’s transformation and abilities. In Meimi’s world, the distinction between the stagecraft she learned from her father and true magic is very hazy, and it appears to extend into her barely concealed identity. The ponytail that bears her name appears to be the crucial element of her metamorphosis that conceals “Meimi Haneoka” from view. Emi draws an intriguing analogy between stage magic and actual magic in her narrative. Tanemura’s Phantom Thief Jeanne, on the other hand, takes a lot of inspiration from Saint Tail, both in terms of the religious overtones and the fact that she steals back as opposed to simply taking what she wants.
Asuka Jr.’s mission to capture Saint Tail and a small romantic competition between Meimi and Rina are the only major plot points of this mostly episodic anime, but the growing bond between the two leads gives it a feeling of coherence. Asuka Jr. discovers, in episode thirteen, that Meimi and Saint Tail are essentially the same person. From that point on, the problem is more with Asuka Jr.’s refusal to accept the truth than with his ignorance of it. By episode twenty-three, Meimi is concerned about whether it’s appropriate for her to keep her true identity from Asuka Jr. Their judgments are influenced by their connection, and in the sole two-part episode of the series, which airs between episodes twenty-eight and twenty-nine, things finally take a drastic turn. This all contributes to the finale’s impact, and in contrast to many episodic shows, it feels really well-put together both during the viewing experience and even more so afterwards.
That’s not to suggest the tale doesn’t lag at points. The thirty-something episodes are the least strong in the anthology, perhaps because they take inspiration from Tachikawa’s original manga the least. (It’s possible that the anime was catching up with the manga when it first aired.) These episodes’ stories aren’t nearly as cohesive, and many of them contain anime-only material devoid of the endearing characters and antics of the rest of the show. (Moreover, it’s always clear which character designs belong to the original anime characters.) It’s also important to note that Seira may be a challenging character at times, both in terms of her development and likeability. Although everything always works out well, she is effectively regularly violating people’s trust and confidence in order to oversee Saint Tail’s operations. This is a difficult moral line to walk. Additionally, she grows envious of Meimi’s friendships with other characters, particularly the way Saint Tail and Asuka Jr. stand by one another, and she frequently comes across as being extremely arrogant. Though she’s less on screen than Seira and is more of a stock rival character, Rina, Meimi’s romantic rival, may also be tough to handle. Sawatari, the passionate photographer who is Asuka Jr.’s romantic competitor, is likewise a rather conventional character who seems purposefully irritating. Apart from that, the main grievance is that the show chose to have more filler episodes instead of developing the arc that concludes with Saint Tail facing off against her mother’s former foe.
It’s interesting to listen to, and this DVD includes as much of the current English dub as possible. It’s not bad at all, especially considering its age; the Japanese track is a great example of early dub doctoring even though it has more body. With Seira dressed as a nun and in evident prayer stances, the narration switches from third person in Japanese to first person in English, and all mentions of God and religion are meticulously omitted, which feels a bit false. It performs a fair job outside from that, and it’s unfortunate that the dub ends after episode fifteen. Extras include ads and clean versions of all three ending themes (my personal favorite being the second, “Upside Down”) in addition to the dub.
Regardless of whether you saw it when it was initially released, Saint Tail is worth seeing out again. A timeless tale of a magical girl and phantom thief, it features a captivating romance-rivalry scenario and well-written theme music. Having everything in one attractive Blu-ray compilation is a treat, and all I can hope for now is that the manga will be saved and reissued.