Reviewby Theron Martin, Sep 23rd 2011
Baka and Test
Blu-Ray + DVD - Complete Set
Second-year high school student Akihisa Yoshi is one of the world's biggest idiots. Everyone around him – his best friend, his teachers, his school principal, his all-too-friendly older sister, even the two girls and one guy who crush on him – freely acknowledge that. Thus no one was surprised when his placement exam score landed him in Class F, the lowest-ranked class at the highly-competitive Fumizuki Academy, a school where the quality of the classroom and its equipment corresponds to the class's A-F ranking. (The top-rate Class A gets a luxurious room with premium amenities, for instance, while class F gets a drafty room with rickety low tables instead of desks.) At Fumizuki, though, a unique method does exist to overcome the deliberate inequities and foster fierce academic competition: with teacher approval, one class can challenge another to a Summoner Test War, in which each student uses tech specific to the school to summon a diminutive avatar to battle those of the opposing class, with the power levels of each avatar dependent on the student's most recent test scores. The battles are resolved when the class rep of one class or the other is defeated, with students whose avatars' scores are reduced to zero being carted off to remedial classes and winners getting to exchange classroom equipment with the losers. Despite being at a seeming gross disadvantage, Class F is not without hope and means, for they do have a canny class rep, a couple of students who are way above their average in certain subjects, and a Class A-level ringer who ended up in Class F because she could not finish the placement exam due to an illness. For Akihisa and class rep/best friend Yuji, though, trying to better their lot also partly depends on surviving (literally!) the romantic attentions of the girls in their lives.
This 13-episode early 2010 series, the first of two based on a light novel series by Kenji Inoue, has too many flaws to reasonably be considered among the year's best anime releases. It is, however, one of the year's funniest and most fun series and does put an innovative twist on Japan's penchant for competitive academics.
At first glance the concept would horrify current American education reformers, as it mandates the kind of gross inequities that the education establishment has diligently been trying to weed out. This is, of course, a perversion of Japanese schooling that is almost completely played for laughs and cute factor, but the concept's execution also carries a subversive element: an implied condemnation of the high-stakes testing so integral to Japanese education. Yuji's assertion on a couple of occasions that putting so much emphasis on testing can result in misjudging a student's true ability supports this, as do a few other scattered touches throughout the series.
Of course, this could also be a case of giving the writing entirely too much credit, as it primarily focuses on the tried-and-true method of milking stupidity for laughs. This the series does quite well, especially in the first two episodes. The scenes where Yuji continually suckers Akihisa into the heavily-abused task of being the one to deliver declarations of war to other classes never get old, nor does the way the androgynous Hideyoshi constantly gets mistaken for (and treated as) a girl despite his repeated protestations about actually being a guy – and yes, this does mean in the fan service sense, too. (Acknowledging Hideyoshi as his own gender for bathroom and changing room purposes is a particularly inspired stunt.) Akihisa's illogical antics for conserving on his food budget are also good for recurring laughs, as is adding a male romantic admirer who isn't flaming gay to Akihisa's “harem.” Even the abominable cooking and abusive love interest gimmicks are sometimes riotously funny, and the notion that so many people would be romantically interested in an idiot like Akihisa is itself a big joke. Enhancing the humor are a number of parodies of, and references to, popular anime titles, Western movies, and video games, including Neon Genesis Evangelion, Apocalypse Now, and Metal Gear Solid.
The series is at its best, though, when focusing on the school's unique avatar-based Summoning War system. The battles represent a 3D version of a tactical fantasy RPG, complete with elaborate summoning scenes and sidebars on the screen indicating power levels and other random details, such as the character's location on the school map or even the local weather. In some scenes the chibi avatars duel it out as their masters follow behind and direct them, while other scenes flash to overhead views to show tactical maneuvering. Students whose avatars are reduced to zero health are carried off for remedial lessons, but the system does allow a clever way to essentially heal one's avatar or even up its power level: by taking “recovery tests.” The battles do show some capacity for strategizing but hardly take themselves completely seriously, as some of the series' best jokes – such as the ways teachers in particular subjects are enticed into approving battles or waylaid to prevent them from doing so – happen during the action. Consequences resulting from losing battles are almost as much fun to watch. Sadly, after the first two episodes the series steps away from full-blown Summoning Wars under the excuse that a class who loses a battle cannot initiate one for three months. Eight episodes pass before the next round of full-blown battles begins, with some entire episodes in the interim passing without avatars ever popping up.
And that's where the bulk of the series' problems start. Though the middle span of episodes still has a lot of funny content, the series definitely loses its advantage during that span, as without the avatar summoning system in play this is just another hijinks-laden high school romantic comedy. The series stumbles even more in occasional moments during those episodes where it actually tries to be serious; the whole-hearted emphasis on having fun through stupidity leaves little room for trying to do something redeeming, a problem often seen in series like this. Also, the writing shows no restraint concerning the overuse of common genre clichés. One girl who abuses her childhood friend/potential love interest is good? Surely two are better! (Admittedly, though, the styles of abuse are entirely different in the cases of Minami with Akihisa and Shoko with Yuji.) One girl having dangerously bad cooking is funny? How about two incompetent girls and one incompetent woman, then! Voyeur characters can be funny, but Kota (aka “Muttsolini”) is so ridiculously over-the-top that his antics are more often painfully annoying than funny. The all-too-cozy sister who pops up at one point does nothing to help, either, nor does the rabid lesbian girl who keeps trying to secure Minami.
Director Shin Oonuma and studio SILVER LINK have given the series a manga-styled look, complete with dotted shading patterns, a lighter application of color, and oft-undefined background characters. They pull out all sorts of artistic gimmicks, such as sometimes having nameless students from other classes represented by a student figure with a class letter instead of a face, extensively using alternative art styles for shocked reactions and emotional appeals, and video gamed-styled looks for the Summoning War scenes. Male characters have fairly standard looks except for Hideyoshi, who looks like he was borrowed from a “trap”-themed hentai manga (and boy, do they play that up for all it's worth), while the two lead girls are adorable in heavily contrasting ways (Mizuki is big-breasted, fluffy, and huggable, while Minami is sleek, athletic, minimally-endowed, and brassy) and the more peripheral recurring female students run the gamut of common school-based anime looks. Most of the avatar designs are immensely cute, too. The animation supports the material well but is nothing special. The fan service content is surprisingly low for a series like this, as the raciest elements typically involve Hideyoshi, but there are still enough bouncing boobs and edgy content to barely warrant a TV-14 rating.
The musical score by relative newcomer Nijine is most notable for its sparing use. While it does support the comedy elements well, it has little real impact. The opener and alternate closer used for episodes 7-9 are nothing special, but regular closer “Baka Go Home” by milktub is a fun, catchy rock number well-suited to the series.
Funimation did some extensive rewrites of the dialogue in order to make the humor work in English, including eliminating a couple of references that would be too obscure even for most Japanophiles to catch. The jokes typically remain the same type and subject matter as the originals but otherwise frequently make big adjustments. Head writer John Burgmeier knows what he is doing, though, as the script comes out at least as smooth and fast-flowing as the original. Casting choices sometimes result in significantly different vocal qualities than the original performers but are consistently on the money both for fitting the roles and executing the performances, particularly Josh Grelle in the key role of Akihisa and Scott Freeman (UK in Hetalia - Axis Powers) as Yuji. Aside from a blooper in one episode that someone missed editing out, this is one of the year's best all-around dubs. On the downside, much of the text in the eye catches and Next Episode previews is not translated in subtitles.
Funimation's release of the title includes five disks in a regular-sized case: two for the DVD episodes, one for the DVD Extras, and two for the Blu-Ray episodes and Extras. The art and musical styles of the series do not benefit much from higher resolutions, however, so the Blu-Rays do not offer much of an upgrade in either audio or visual quality despite using Dolby True HD sound for both languages tracks. Extras in both versions include clean openers and closers, promotional videos, and several short, comical omake, including a couple of Mission: Impossible-themed rip-offs; these are exclusively subbed-only, however. In a throwback to what used to be a standard a few years ago, the case cover is actually reversible. A Limited Edition version is also available which comes with a chipboard artbox.
Baka and Test sticks out from its peers in one other sense: it actually focuses on, and better-develops, the guys rather than the girls. That fact is more a curiosity than anything which actually impacts the series, however. Despite its flaws, the series was plenty entertaining enough to warrant a second season in the summer of 2011, which Funimation also has licensed. Thus there is more fun yet to come.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B
+ Summoner Test War system, plenty of excellent humor, strong dub.
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