Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 29th 2013
Sub.DVD - Complete Series
Kamizono Academy is a very large school. Between its elementary, middle, and high school divisions—all located on the same enormous campus—it has over 3000 students. So it's no wonder that Ayumi Nonomura, a shy new student, gets hopelessly lost on her first day. It's a bit odder that the first student she meets while lost, long-time Kamizono student Tatsuki, is also hopelessly lost. And still odder that the next two students she meets—human tornado Torako and her stalwart sidekick Suzume—are also lost. Their lost-on-campus adventure begins a lasting friendship that will anchor the four as they make their way through a school overrun with weirdoes of all stripes. Though Torako herself is queen weirdo.
Hyakko starts out with the right energy. That first episode, where Torako and her entourage wander their new school, is cool and stylish and a hint sad, but with a fun rhythm and good solid comic edge. The following few episodes lean further into the comedic camp, with an emphasis on weird new characters and various forms of wackiness that is goofy and charming, yielding some heavy-duty laughs and a lot of lesser amusement. The end of the first episode puts the punch back in punch-line, the second wallows in the central quartet's comic rapport, and the third features a bit with a robot and a brilliant method for playing hooky that is hands-down the funniest thing the show ever does.
It is, at this point at least, a highly diverting show—and not without deeper appeal. Torako's wildness (the things she does to her poor homeroom teacher) makes her a strong, unapologetically aggressive lead, and the dynamic between her, insecure Ayumi, hoity-toity Tatsuki, and impassive freak of nature Suzume is fun and sometimes surprisingly interesting. (In episode two, where Torako's pranks on Tatsuki wreak havoc at a series of school clubs, the group gets away with everything because Ayumi accidentally charms the heck out of each club). We want to see more of these girls and how they and their friendship grow and advance.
Unfortunately, that is not to be. The show ultimately proves more interested in becoming a kind of platonic, friendship-based harem series than an exploration of the characters or their relationships. The series' most common episode-type features Torako getting to know some new classmate and eventually adding them—often against their will—to her growing pile o' wacky buddies. Characterization is shallow, assembling an extensive cast that is defined mostly by their crazy quirks (the lesbian class rep, the glasses-girl who builds robots) and whose relationships are static and devoid of new or intriguing interactions.
In the meantime, the non-Torako members of the central quartet get badly neglected. After an admittedly solid episode in which a home visit reveals how much her new friends mean to her, Tatsuki is ignored outright. Suzume is treated as some sort of exotic pet, and Ayumi is never allowed to capitalize on her early potential. The latter is probably the show's most tragic mistake, as Ayumi is far and away Hyakko's most likeable character: kind, sensitive, and totally oblivious to the “soft” power of her girly good looks and gentle character.
Instead the show focuses heavily on Torako, whose manic charm wears dangerously thin as the series progresses, especially when she starts forcing her friendship on people like screw-the-system punk Ushio and frosty introvert Touma. Not all introverts want or need a brassy extrovert friend, and Torako's insistent overtures come across as a kind of weird friendship-rape. The series tries its best to build her up, but she never has the depth or even the raw charisma to justify her supposedly magnetic pull on those around her. Some of the later episodes, about her sadistic elder brother and her complicated relationship with her sister, do flesh out her background, but they never seem to go anywhere important or deepen her character in any significant way.
Instead they and their more serious brethren—the reserved Touma episode and the final, downright melancholy flashback episode—simply reduce the laugh quotient, to the extent that by the end the series is hardly a comedy at all. Certainly there are no really good laughs after episode three (with the possible exception of the dodgeball brutality in episode eleven), and even the episodes where Torako goofs off with various classmates lack an effective sense of fun.
Director Michio Fukuda approaches Hyakko's more serious turns with a rather poetic sensibility. He has an eye for natural beauty and a fondness for cinematic imagery that bring out a certain lyricism in the show's heavier episodes. The Touma episode in particular makes good use of wide, blue summer skies and fluttering spring breezes. Fukuda is not, on the other hand, quite so adept at humor—despite some early success with Torako's more insane moments. His timing is sometimes off and he lets the cast overplay their comic eccentricities. The disparity is part of the reason that the show seems to lose its balance between humor and (attempted) affect as it goes. On the other hand, it's Fukuda's arty tendencies that prevent the show from becoming an antic headache during Torako's classroom frolics.
The show's score has the same basic bias. It's right fine when relaxing or steeping in nostalgia or darkening the mood, but fairly awkward when called upon to prop up a gag.
Fukuda also pays unusual attention to how his characters move, which helps with the show's physical humor (especially when he breaks out the slo-mo) and gives the characters extra individuality but can also lend an unsupported intensity to certain sequences, usually involving Torako's evil looking brother, who leaks squinty menace despite never doing anything particularly evil.
Nozomi/Lucky Penny doesn't go the full box-set route for this release, instead packing the set's three discs into a single DVD case. No dub is included, and the only real extras are the liner notes on each disc. Which are, admittedly, really useful—especially in deciphering the punny episode titles and some of the more culture-specific jokes.
Striving, as Hyakko does, for a more dramatic tone is not itself a problem. Many comedies have enriched themselves with a little dramatic gravitas or a touch of honest emotion. Hyakko's problem is that it tries to do so without doing anything particularly dramatic, and with flat, increasingly annoying Torako as its emotional lynchpin. This while sidelining the characters and relationships that may have been able to get it what it wanted. The result is a comedy with no commitment to being comedic and no real substance to offset the lack. It isn't painful to watch, indeed it's usually quite pleasant, but it can't help feeling off-center and incomplete.
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Good fun for its first few episodes; fine central cast; solid visuals and interesting direction from first-time helmsman Michio Fukuda.
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