Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 30th 2011
Aria the Scarlet Ammo
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
It is once again the future in Japan. In this future teens learn the ins and outs of being Butei—essentially well-armed and highly specialized PIs—at Tokyo Butei High School. It's a testament to the school's effectiveness that its young charges end up principled defenders of justice rather than, say, Blackwater. Kinji Toyama is a Butei. He doesn't want to be. He has a genetic defect that transforms him into a swaggering, damsel-rescuing prince whenever he is, um, stimulated, and being a Butei means utilizing it, which is not a prospect he likes. Just as he makes up his mind to leave, however, he meets Aria H. Kanzaki, the terror of the school's Assault Division. She's tiny, she's skilled, she has the emotional maturity of a dyspeptic six-year-old, and after seeing him in prince mode, she wants Kinji to be her partner. Kinji declines. And yet still finds himself living with her and getting embroiled in her pursuit of a Butei-killing criminal called, surprise, surprise, the Butei Killer.
Takashi Watanabe returns to J.C. Staff and reunites with tsundere specialist Rie Kugimiya to tell the tale of a lethal spitfire trying to navigate the pitfalls of young love while kicking bad guy butt. If Aria the Scarlet Ammo isn't meant to be a de facto remake of Shana it is at least an attempt to recapture Shana's magic—and its audience, of course. There is one important difference, however: It isn't any good.
And you don't have to look very far to figure out why. Like any show that names itself after its main character, it's fair to say that Aria isn't just dependent on its main character but that it is its main character. And she sucks. Oh, she bears a resemblance to Shana, and indeed to any of Kugimiya's many diminutive tsunderes, but only a resemblance. She has none of Shana's genuine and at times tragic social awkwardness and certainly none of the depth of character that made Toradora's Taiga Aisaka—probably Kugimiya's defining character of this type—a heartbreaker. Aria isn't a cliché fleshed out until she feels all too real; she's a parody. And not an intentional one. Or a funny one. Both her "I don't have any feelings for that guy!" anti-Kinji tirades and her "deep down I'm actually cuddly and cute" descents into cavity-inducing sweetness are pushed so far over the top that they grate rather than seduce. That she has zero internal consistency helps nothing. Supposedly she's the best Butei the school has to offer, yet she's constantly in need of rescuing. Every scene she's in, particularly the ones where she's stomping up and down and screeching at Kinji for being a pervert, is a chore.
Laying everything on Aria's slender shoulders is of course more than a little unfair. In truth her sloppy, nerve-shredding personality is part of a larger pattern of cliché-reliance. Genre tropes aren't bad by nature; like anything their quality depends on their use. Good genre vehicles subvert their tropes or use them to manipulate our expectations, exploiting our knowledge of convention to take us by surprise. Bad ones use tropes as crutches, to allow them to hobble along without doing the work of manufacturing their own appeal. Aria is one of the bad ones. It's idea of genre manipulation is to amplify its clichés until any leftover charm is stripped away. Thus we get Aria's strident rampages, the inevitable jealous cat-fights and half-naked misunderstandings between her and Kinji's sword-wielding childhood friend Shirayuki, and the crane shot of Kinji on his knees yelling "don't go!" as Aria supposedly choppers off for London. But doesn't really, of course. Aria isn't making canny use of its tropes; it simply is them, blown up until they can't be ignored...or enjoyed.
The parts of Aria that can be enjoyed are mostly thanks to two people, one fictional and one real. The fictional one is Kinji. He's no brilliant construct, but he is a male harem lead (yes, there's a harem) who knows his mind and has both the looks and the personality (not to mention the womanizing skills) to explain why he has a harem. His split personality may be a cheap trick, but it is a pretty funny one: Kinji in prince mode is a riot. The real person is of course Takashi Watanabe. Fault him however you will for taking this project on in the first place and for not toning down its cliché-assault, you cannot fault him for his action sense. Aria and Kinji's battles are breathless action showcases, pumped up with wonderfully pointless bursts of CG-enhanced slo-mo and choreographed to within an inch of their over-edited lives. There is frankly little in the way of full animation, but they have such ludicrous energy that it hardly matters. They are far and away the series' artistic highlights. Not that they have that much competition. Kazunori Iwakura's loli-flavored character designs are well-defined but hardly exiting, and the rest of the production barely distinguishes itself from the anime pack, much less achieves the kind of spooky, distinctive atmosphere that Shana projected with such apparent ease.
Not that Takumi Ozawa's score doesn't try on occasion. It just fails. Watanabe is veteran enough, however, to confine it mostly to an invisible supporting role, so you're unlikely to notice unless you're specifically listening for it.
Don't let my reviewerly fairness fool you. Any enjoyment you might derive from Aria is a drop of fun in an ocean of entertainment sludge. The script is so confident that its overcooked clichés will carry it that it regularly forgets to check if it's entertaining, or even making sense. The denouement of the Butei Killer arc, to choose a totally random example, is possibly the stupidest climax this side of Stupid Climax Land. Not only does it rely on someone else's main characters for appeal (Conan Doyle's and Monkey Punch's if you're curious), but it betrays those characters' essential natures while also hinging on the worst motive for murder ever. By which I mean it is both a dumb reason to kill people, and it doesn't explain most of the villain's victims. Oh, and just to kill things a little more dead, the villain is both random and really, really annoying. Pile that atop the "romance" and...well, perhaps I shouldn't have compared sludge to it. After all, even inorganic waste has feelings.
Overall (sub) : D
Story : D-
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : C+
+ Not ugly; plenty of flashy, gun-blazing action; Kinji is kinda fun.
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