Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 1-12 Streaming
No one ever accused Uzume Ono of being extraordinary. She's clumsy, sleeps late, and has a hard time telling others how she really feels. In short, she's a middle-of-the-road middle-schooler. Her one claim to fame is her childhood obsession with competitive card-gaming. She spent her younger years hanging with guys playing with collectible cards and even won a prestigious national tournament. All of that is behind her though. These days she's reluctant even to join her friend Manai's Card Club. It is not her fate, however, to remain so normal. One day a stranger slips a smartphone-like device into her bag. When another stranger attacks her at school, the device asks her to register as its user and out pops a girl: Sasara, master of fencing. Sasara and her four other comrades are Fantasista Dolls, mysterious digital beings who can be played like the cards of Uzume's youth. And they want Uzume to be their Master.
Goro Taniguchi clearly had Card Captor Sakura in mind when he created Fantasista Doll. Given Uzume's Sakura-clone look and the focus on cards, that's the only assumption we can make. That is not a criticism. There are many worse things to have on your mind, and it's really quite nice in these post-Madoka times to have a magical girl series that's actually aimed at girls. It would be even nicer, though, if the show doing the aiming didn't take so long to fashion itself into something worthwhile.
In the hands of Taniguchi's proxies—he neither wrote nor directed the series, only created its original concept—Fantasista's first two thirds are a fairly limp exercise in rote magical girl fluff. Each episode is a standalone affair, usually focused on one of Uzume's Dolls, its feeble drive supplied by whichever incompetent card-master is pursuing Uzume that week. Victory usually comes without real effort: either through blind luck, the meddling of other card-masters, or the opponents simply deciding they don't want to fight. After which everything is typically tied up with a hokey affirmation of Uzume's strengthening bond with her Dolls.
Being formulaic is of course de rigeur for a magical girl show of this sort. The problem with the bulk of Fantasista isn't that it's formulaic but that its formula is boring. Its antagonists are too inept and/or nice to raise tension, and the consistent focus on Uzume and her relationship with her new techno-sprite friends is undermined at every turn by their thinly-written personalities and an early refusal to address the most interesting (and, not coincidentally, most fraught) aspect of the Dolls' lives—namely whatever it was that led to them being abandoned and handed over to Uzume. It doesn't help either that Hisashi Saito, Taniguchi's directorial stand-in, always pushes the girly bonding too hard, lending the series an embarrassingly sappy undertone and making the considerable cuteness of its various girly friendships difficult to enjoy.
It also doesn't help that Saito can't seem to keep a firm handle on his animators. The series' visuals are weirdly messy, the animation frequently sacrificing consistent artistry in favor of extra mobility. Thus Uzume and her elaborately costumed Dolls have a potent repertoire of cute expressions and equally cute body language, but at the cost of sloppy quality control—which again makes the cuteness harder to enjoy. There are indications that some of the series' stylistic issues are budget related—quality control loosens, stiffness increases, and the fights get cheaper and less cogently choreographed as the series progresses—but that's the fate of being director: everything gets blamed on you, whether it's your fault or not. And other issues are clearly directorial in nature. Like the disjointed editing that afflicts episode six, or the failure to maintain the aura of mystery that gently darkens the opening episodes.
All of which should place Fantasista, for all its good intentions, right atop the not-worth-your-time heap. And yet… The series has a maddening aptitude for delivering just enough quality, just enough intrigue, to keep you on the hook for the next episode. There's the free-spirited fun when Uzume's youngest Doll, Katia, tows Uzume's little sister around town, unconsciously thrashing the team of Dolls sent after her. There's the unexpectedly poignant subplot about hand-to-hand specialist Shimeji and her former partner, who is being badly used by her abusive new master. There's the surprising humor of the cultural fair episode, where a ditzy model and a would-be director (who's trying to push his hilariously bad art film) futilely chase Uzume around campus
But most of all, there are the series' ongoing concerns. Though badly neglected as the show's first eight episodes opt for cheesy bonding and forced capering, the series turns to the abandonment issues of Uzume's magical freeloaders often enough to weave a small but effective emotional core from their collective fears. And from the occasional thread of mutual Master/Doll feeling to survive those bonding scenes. Even as simplified as they are (their personalities can all be summed up in one word: motherly, innocent, taciturn, outgoing, etc.), and even as annoying as their behavior can get, it's hard not to feel for Uzume's crew as each strives in their own way to cope with the possibility of Uzume turning her back on them. And equally hard not to take a little comfort in the warm (if sometimes less than natural) friendship that makes it ever more unlikely that those fears will be realized.
It is that heart that keeps hope alive as the series wanders through schoolyard fluff, and it is that heart that rewards us for keeping the faith. With episode nine, Fantasista shifts into a more continuous mode, putting together a four-part finale that pulls all of its ongoing concerns together: Uzume's budding friendship with would-be antagonist Kagami, the origins of the Dolls, the history of Sasara and her kin, the strange men who gave Uzume her cards, the organization that keeps sending inept players after her. It even nicely integrates the random older girl who Uzume keeps going to for advice. There are answers galore, thrilling (and appealingly humorous) Doll battles, and some philosophical sparring just to spice things up. But most of all, the finale capitalizes on that fragile heart of feelings and fears. The series sends some heavy curveballs at Uzume and her digital pals, and watching her cope with them—with a little help from her friends—makes for a surprisingly poignant finish to a previously undistinguished trifle.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : C+
+ Sweetly earnest magical girl fluff with just enough promise and substance to keep you coming back; wonderfully cheesy opening sequence; pulls together pretty nicely at the end.
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