Reviewby Theron Martin, Jul 7th 2011
In 1924 one Kazuya Kujo, youngest son of a career Japanese soldier, sets aside his military studies to instead study abroad. He winds up at St. Margeurite Academy in the southern European country of Sauville (located approximately where the real-world Monaco is), where his Oriental appearance and the spring timing of his arrival quickly get him dubbed “The Reaper” due to their misfortunate similarities to a local legend. Unable to make friends, Kazuya decides to investigate rumors of a “golden fairy” living atop the school's towering library. There he instead finds Victorique du Blois, a pint-sized girl with long blond hair, a weakness for sweets, and a ferocious intelligence who is technically a student but spends most of her time in the library reading its books. Kazuya soon learns that Victorique is the illegitimate half-sister of Grevil du Blois, an aristocrat who has become a famous local detective, and both the real secret behind his mystery-solving prowess and a virtual prisoner in the school due to the influence of her father, the Marquis de Blois, who is Sauville's Minister of the Occult. Despite Victorique's disagreeable nature, Kazuya gradually befriends her and wins her trust as she solves numerous difficult cases using her “Wellspring of Wisdom.” In the process Kazuya gradually comes to understand that nothing about Victorique is accidental; even her very existence is part of grand machinations conducted by her father, as are many of the mysteries that she solves. As Kazuya and Victorique become even more deeply embroiled in the legends and myths of Sauville and the tidings of war threaten everyone, the Reaper and the Gray Wolf (i.e. Victorique) must find strength in each other just to survive.
Based on a series of light novels by Japanese author Kazuki Sakuraba, the anime version of Gosick is one of the many 24-26 episode series which seem to only have enough plot for 16-18 episodes and so stretch things out by filling early episodes with 1-2 episode missions (or mysteries in this case) which bear little or no connection to the overall plot and mostly just reinforce the flavor of the content. Typically such series start getting serious about the bigger picture in the late single digit or early double digit episode counts and improve considerably in storytelling quality once they do, and Gosick follows that pattern, too. Whatever impression you may make about the quality of its story based on the first few episodes will likely change as the series progresses, as this is a better series in its last two-thirds than it is early on.
The basic structure of the early episodes – and, indeed, much of the series – is essentially a Goth loli version of Detective Conan flavored with tsundere trappings. Some kind of difficult, elaborate mystery comes up which Kazuya brings to Victorique's attention and over the course of an episode or two she assembles the “fragments of chaos” Sherlock Holmes-style (she even uses a pipe!) and explains the truth for Grevil and Kazuya, the former of which takes the public credit for it. Starting with episode 6, though, the mysteries also start feeding into the overall plot involving the Marquis de Blois' efforts to use Victorique as a tool for a power grab, although that will only be apparent upon later reflection. From that point on the series slowly but steadily builds a twisted plot involving political scheming, dark secrets, illusionists, masked alchemists, midget mothers (let's just say that it is not a coincidence that Victorique only stands 4' 7”), a story about a slain Queen, and local legends brought to life, all laced with a high degree of subterfuge and brought to a head in an initiation of World War II that comes more than a decade early in this alternate world. Certainly the content has no shortage of drama and intensity, and while some of the schemes are a bit silly, only rarely does the series flirt with melodrama.
The story arc involving the village of the Gray Wolves, which covers episodes 6-8, is also the point where the relationship of Victorique and Kazuya cements, although Victorique's hints of vulnerability and subtle reliance on Kazuya start to show much earlier. Anime cannot serve up a diminutive, tsundere female lead without also providing a caring, tolerant, and understanding male lead as an accomplice, and Kazuya and Victorique are the classic tsundere couple in that sense. Kazuya comes off as distinctly less intelligent here than in the novels, to the point that his inability to figure things out on his own is sometimes an irritation, but he does come to understand Victorique well and the sentiment which develops between the two feels genuine; when Victorique claims, late in the series, that Kazuya is her heart, any viewer who has paid attention to her circumstances and his actions should easily understand why. Granted, Kazuya and Victorique are hardly an excitingly original couple, but the execution of their relationship is done well enough.
The cast of supporting characters also proves to be typical and unexciting. Avril Bradley, a British foreign exchange student who befriends Kazuya because they are both outsiders, looks like she was intended as the competing love interest, as she provides the starkest possible contrast to Victorique for having the same hair color (her hair is short and she is vivacious and personable), but the series never offers even the slightest hint that she is gaining romantic traction with Kazuya so she is really just a hanger-on. A couple of adult ladies show up to provide spirit and comic relief but are ultimately forgettable, and the illusionist never gets much past being mysterious. Victorique's mother Cordelia is an interesting presence, and her backstory is particularly dark, but she spends too much of her time popping up randomly and also being mysterious; she only truly shines near the end of the series. In fact, the only recurring supporting character who makes much of an impression is (surprisingly) Grevil, and that is mostly because the buffoon that he seems to be early on is later shown to not be his true character; episode 11, which explains why he has the weird, drill-shaped hairdo (it is a very purposeful affectation, we discover, and not done just for flavor), should change many a viewer's opinion on him.
The real draw of the series, though, is the artistry, and especially the character designs. The doll-like Victorique, with her cute face, ultra-petite figure, and hair nearly as long as her body, is the epitome of Goth loli beauty; a picture of her with her pipe, sitting amongst her books, is all the advertisement that the series needs to attract viewers in, and Bones made certain to highlight her in other cute outfits, too. All of the other character designs are also clean and appealing, and background art is attractive, nicely-rendered, and tweaked appropriately for the mood of the scene, with serious moments generally being darker and more light-hearted fare generally being brighter. The series does not have much true action in it except towards the very end, so the animation rarely gets a chance to truly show off, but its merits shine in simpler moments like Victorique rolling around on the floor in boredom, her reaction to getting a shot (possibly the single most priceless tsundere moment ever), and the animation of facial expressions on assorted random characters, especially when giving horrified reactions. While the series is not especially bloody, it does have its graphic moments and occasional intense violence, enough so that any future DVD/Blu-Ray release will probably carry at least an age 14+ rating. It does not, however, have any prurient fan service.
Music director Nakagawa (Code Geass, Cross Game, Planetes) provides an effective and nimble score which handles both light-hearted and deathly series scenes with equal skill and knows when to be quiet, too. Opener “destine histoire” is pretty but bland, while each half of the series has its own equally pretty closer; of the two, the first one, “Resuscitated Hope,” is by far the better one, as the second closer “unity” sounds more forced. Amongst vocal performances, the stand-out is Aoi Yuki in the lead role – and she may be perfectly-cast, as she is only slightly taller (4' 9”) and slightly older (18 at the start of the series) than the character she voices. Aoi has had a string of prominent lead roles lately (Mina Tepes in Dance in the Vampire Bund, Jubei in Samurai Girls, Ichigo in Yumeiro Patissiere, amongst others) but this is one of her best jobs; if Rie Kugimiya ever steps down as the Queen of Tsundere, she could have a successor already lined up.
At the time of this writing Gosick has yet to be licensed for DVD/Blu-Ray release, and thus is only currently available in streaming form on Crunchyroll. Given its merits an eventual proper American release seems inevitable, however.
As pure mystery series go, there are certainly stronger options out there, but none of them can match Gosick's visuals and few can equal it on the development of its central couple. The series does have its humorous moments, too, and its ending, which is somewhat open to interpretation, is anything but tame. One may have to muddle through some weak early episodes, but the late pay-off will certainly be worth it.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Strong visuals (especially Victorique's character design), intense final few episodes.
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