Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Mar 15th 2010
Baka and Test - Summon the Beasts
Episodes 1-4 Streaming
At Fumizuki Academy, students are assigned to different castes based on their test scores. "A" class students live in grotesque luxury, "B" class students in slightly less grotesque luxury, and so on, down to the students in "F" class, who have no chairs, a windy classroom and rickety floor tables instead of desks. Sick of the bottom rung on the academic ladder, F class, led by "probationary" student Akihisa Yoshii and F Class representative Yuuji Sakamoto, wage war on the higher classes. At Fumizuki, a lower class can acquire an upper class's equipment if they can beat them in a summoning duel—a battle in which students summon virtual avatars with fighting powers based on their test scores. Their first target: E Class, of course. Though, as they are idiots, a direct confrontation with the brainiacs of Class A isn't out of the question.
Lost in the shadow of the controversy over Funimation's Dance in the Vampire Bund edits the company's other recent acquisition sits quietly in the wings, waiting to charm the pants off of anyone who stumbles upon it. Or at least those among them that can stomach the occasional stinker of a rom-com cliché.
The charm of Baka and Test lies, curiously enough, in its male characters. Some are flat. The camera-happy panty-peeping pervert for instance. But the ones who count have energy and personality. And humor. From lazy, slightly crazed but basically good-hearted Yoshii to devious, dead-pan but none-too-bright Yuuji the boys are the series' source of fun, and interest. Far from slabs of pathetic meat, they're lively, silly people with a surprising ability to sneak into your good graces. Laughing along as Yoshii plumbs the depths of shonen romance dunderheadedness or as Yuuji plays mastermind while obviously far out of his depth is a lot easier than it should be. And when Yoshii turns food scavenging into an extreme sport... Well, all self-consciously quirky behavior should be so funny.
If only the girls could keep up. It's an odd reversal, but it's the fairer sex who poop this party. Himeji, Yoshii's most obvious love interest, is a dully cute perfect-girl, his secondary partner Minami is undiluted and undifferentiated tsundere, and the others have too little personality to even categorize. As you'd expect, it's a weakness that makes the series far more viable as a comedy than a romance. A tendency encouraged by the writers' apparent misconception that girls agonizing over giving boxed lunches and guys being clueless about their intentions somehow constitutes romance. Though to be fair, somehow the series does manage to wring a drop or two of pathos from that particular cliché.
Pathos isn't its forte, though. More often the series wrings laughs from its clichés. Director Shin Oonuma picked up his semi-abstract approach to animation from frequent collaborator Akiyuki Shinbo, but unlike Shinbo, whose stylistic excesses can border on insanity, Oonuma favors light, cleanly symmetrical abstraction, gently goosing his material rather than making Dali art of it. And it works wonders—at least here. The odd visual touches and knowing breaches of film-making convention can make something fresh of even the stalest developments. In Baka's world of surreal intrusions and deadpan absurdity, even the old "girl who can't cook" thing is funny again, and the more off-the-wall comic inventions can be inspired. A boy recounting his surfacing from taser-induced unconsciousness just in time to see his date enjoying Apocalypse Now Redux's buffalo-butchering (twice); Yoshii's jealous classmates convening an Inquisition whenever girls pay attention to him, complete with black hoods, crucifixions and burning at the stake. Funny stuff, and by no means alone: Comic repetition, unadorned sight gags, self-reference, even systemic humor (as interesting a conceit as it is, the avatar battle thing is inherently comical)—Oonuma dabbles in it all; gently, but with consistently light and fun results.
If there's anything that bodes better for future seriousness-to-silliness ratios, it's the hardcore cuteness of the female designs. They may be as fleshed-out as bulemic rabbits, but darn are they adorable. And adorableness goes a long, long way if used right. At least half of those drops of pathos come thanks purely to the round lines of Minami's face and the way her happy smile drops away unexpectedly. The others come thanks to a knack for atmospheric introspection—no matter how slight—that fans of Oonuma's other solo work, particularly the ef series, know he can bring to bear. Particularly promising is his sparing, often nonexistent, use of the primarily upbeat score. It's the musical manipulation of someone who knows how to dramatize.
Which makes two reasons for optimism. Small optimism. A modest hope that as the series continues its romance will be a match for its comedy, and its girls a match for its boys. Until then, it's a gentle good time; no more, no less.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Funny, pleasantly stylized, a bit sweet and totally harmless; male leads with actual personalities.
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