Reviewby Theron Martin, Sep 4th 2016
BD+DVD - The Complete Series
In a setting where certain individuals have the power to use a Blaze (a manifestation of one's soul as a weapon), Tor Kokonoe is an Irregular: his Blaze instead manifests as a shield. To get stronger, he enrolls in Koryo Academy, a school where all the students have Blazes and use them to battle each other in training for future jobs, though the students are also part of Headmistress Sakuya's scheme to achieve something called Absolute Duo. To that end, students pair with each other in Duos, which includes fighting as a team, sitting together in class, and even rooming together. Tor winds up in an unusual mixed-gender situation when Julie, a petite foreign girl, is assigned to be his temporary Duo partner, an arrangement that later becomes permanent when they work well together. As various trials arise, the two work as a team to avenge their lost loved ones.
This series' debut last year was not well-received here on ANN; its first episode was one of the lowest-rated of the season amongst ANN staff and readers alike (only World Break and Unlimited Fafnir fared worse), and it did not poll well enough to merit weekly streaming reviews. But hey, anime history is littered with shows that had inauspicious starts and still ended up being good, right? Sometimes it's unfair to judge a show by its first episode.
But not in this case. What you see is what you get with Absolute Duo on the whole. Utter lack of originality as a light novel adaptation? Awkward execution? Yep, both factors are pervasive throughout the entire series, along with lazy fanservice and obvious harem antics, even if the other harem girls besides the female lead are not obvious in just the first episode. And oh yes, we can't forget the penchant for battles between students in a magic school fighting series.
Actually, the show has many opportunities to be at least a little better than its premise, but it squanders all of them. Other magic school light novel series have proven that sharp battle scenes can make up for issues elsewhere, but very little about Absolute Duo's battles impresses much. As cool in concept as the Blazes are, neither the activation sequences nor the weapons that result are attention-getting, not to mention that Tor's shield is woefully inadequate. You cannot be a badass harem master with a dorky soul manifestation like that. Battle choreography remains mediocre. Julie and a couple other characters have some nice moves, but the lack of excitement and dynamism in the way battles play out repeatedly manifests throughout the series, as does an annoying number of “let's stop the battle and talk” moments.
These deficiencies aren't limited to the action scenes either. For a 12 episode series, the plot is remarkably thin: battle to get into the school, battle to up your level, and get involved in a vague plot involving that veritable Holy Grail, the Absolute Duo (whatever that is). Except for various relationship hijinks, that's about it. Sure, we have some lingering backstory for both of the leads, but Julie's only comes up once, and there doesn't seem to be any more to Tor's than just cliché motivation. Characterizations are also rough, predictable, and rarely more than one-note even for major characters. The epitome of this is a joke character who “talks with his muscles” (he grunts and poses a lot but never actually says anything), but even Tor's unflappable nice-guy routine shows very little depth or range, and the villains are wholly uninteresting and ill-developed. (Don't even get me started on their mess of a teacher.) The writing in general is just a disaster.
The series is not entirely without bright spots. One significant character progresses from being a shy type to actually confessing to her love interest, which is refreshing for a genre where such scenes don't commonly happen, and that episode is easily the series' best. The humor also occasionally works, but all these bright points are more a testament to how bad the series is overall, since every time the series looks like it might be getting better, it shoots itself in the foot with additional trash.
The artistic effort is also wholly uninspired, with even highlights like the elaborate school designs and Headmistess Sakuya not standing out much. None of the character designs deviate much from the magic high school norm. The animation tries hard to push the fanservice angle, to the point that it even concentrates on displaying bouncing boobs in the middle of action scenes, but this is also a mediocre, half-hearted effort. (There's no defined nudity even in the uncensored version, either.) Although the animation shows little trouble staying on-model, it's not sharp or impressive to begin with.
The musical score starts out weak, with early selections sounding like they were ripped off from a second-rate visual novel, but it gets better in fits and starts, to the point that it almost has some dramatic impact toward the end of the series. It does at least feature some decent theme songs whose visuals are at least as interesting as anything in the actual series.
Funimation has been known to save some shoddily written series with a slicker dub script (see Speed Grapher), but there wasn't much they could do here. They even retained Julie's supposedly Nordic-themed way of saying “yes” and “no,” but it doesn't come off any less corny in English than it did in Japanese. While casting decisions are generally sound, performance quality is unusually spotty; Caitlin Glass does a convincing British accent and attitude as Lilith, but Ashley Domangue sounds rough as Miyabi, and many performances lack energy and seem to be stretching on timing. It's probably not a coincidence that Absolute Duo was one of the first guinea pigs for Funimation's Broadcast Dub initiative.
The included English audio commentaries for episodes 10 and 12 may actually be the most entertaining parts of this release, as the ADR directors and voice actors actually sound like they are having fun even when spinning off into random side topics. Other extras are typical ones: clean openers and closers and an assortment of trailers, commercials, and promo videos. Both DVD and Blu-Ray disks come in a single case which has bonus interior artwork and a slipcover.
Trust your gut here: if the first episode doesn't entertain you, then take a pass on this one. Enduring all of the garbage to get to the occasional decent scene just isn't worth it. By magic high school standards, harem standards, or anime in general, this is just a bad series.
Overall (dub) : D+
Overall (sub) : D+
Story : D
Animation : C+
Art : C+
Music : C
+ The audio commentaries are entertaining
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