"Soap Opera." For me, this phrase generally illicits only negative responses. If asked what came to my mind upon hearing the term, the result would probably be something along these lines: poorly acted, intellectually devoid, shamelessly manipulative trash aimed at uneducated housewives with far too much time on their hands. While I generally tend to avoid comparing animes to totally unrelated parts of American pop culture (Cowboy Bebop is like Die Hard plus JAZZ!), in many ways Fushigi Yuugi and your standard soap opera are eerily similar.
Like your average soap opera, Fushigi Yuugi contains a frustratingly manipulative plot. The characters are often made to react in absolutely irrational ways, because if they didnt, there wouldnt be a conflict. Also, constant measures are taken to keep the two main lovers apart, and oftentimes this feels more than a little contrived. Even more annoying is Fushigi Yuugis almost constant dependence on cliched devices to tell its story. Aside from the blatantly obvious magical girl archetype, we are also plagued with a story that has schoolgirls warping to another dimensions, friends torn apart by circumstance, and hair raising DBZ powerups. After a while, the hackneyed storytelling really begins to interfere with the overall plot. Finally, the anime suffers from random and generally distracting fanservice that really goes against the classic love story that the anime is supposedly striving for.
Worse than any of these faults, however, is the outrageously casual way in which the anime deals out death sentences. Starting in the final half of the anime, characters begin to be murdered away in a frustratingly flippant fashion. After their deaths, the anime is barely impacted; the characters are often freely cracking jokes the very episode after someone important has died. As opposed to plucking at my heartstrings, these frivolous fatalities angered me; I could only be jerked around so much before I saw these deaths for what they were: ratings boosters.
Furthermore, Fushigi Yuugi is eerily similar to soap operas in its relatively low-budget music and visuals. The animation, on the other hand, is just barely good enough to not draw attention to itself. Repeated footage, as well as other standard 1995 methods for money saving, is used at will. The character designs are all fairly unappealing (at least for guys such as myself).
The instrumental parts of the soundtrack are irritatingly repetitive, and are only occassionally broken up by bland and vaguely nauseating J-Pop. Voice acting is far from impressive as well.
Also in traditional soap opera fashion, the anime has far too many characters to possibly keep track of. One would think that an anime that was 52 episodes long would have nice character development, but no - almost no time whatsoever is given for characterization of the more minor characters. Many of the supporting characters feel almost like sacrificial lambs, waiting for their moment in the sun when they can be slaughtered in a heartless ploy for more viewership. The villains, as well, needed far more development than they were given. Oftentimes the "character development" that they received was nothing more than a brief description of what their superpowers were.
The only two characters that are worth mentioning by name are Tamahome and Miaka, the two main characters of the show. For what it's worth, they're acceptable, albeit unspectacular, leads, and do a fine job of anchoring the show.
Why, exactly, are so many people here cheerfully labelling Fushigi Yuugi as soap opera, and then giving it positive reviews? What is driving them to actually LIKE an anime that is plagued with so many aggravating faults?
The answer, I think, once again lies in the general nature of soap operas. Fushigi Yuugi, much like the genre of television I am comparing it to, has a distinct charm to be found in its sheer innocence. Sure, the characters are cliched, the story is hackneyed, and the soundtrack is godawful, but its heart is almost certainly in the right place. The two more contemporary animes that resemble this one, The Twelve Kingdoms and Kimi ga Nozomu Eien, undoubtedly surpass Fushigi Yuugi in overall execution, polish and creativity. However, by gaining sophistication, they lose something that Fushigi Yuugi has in spades: guileless appeal. This single innate quality makes the show enjoyable in spite of its undeniably superior successors.
While reading "The Universe of the Four Gods", best friends Miaka and Yui are mysteriously transported into a strange world full of magic and unfamiliar faces. As if their arrival was determined by fate, Miaka is revered as the Priestess of Suzaku, the savior of their warring country, who was destined to arrived in a flash of light, from a land far away. Betrayal, love, and heartache accompany this fantasy-filled tale of friendships torn apart, and hope that never fades.