Reviewby Theron Martin, Aug 7th 2009
Kaze No Stigma
DVD - Season 1 Part 1
Teenaged Kazuma was the designated heir of the powerful Kannagi family, which has a centuries-long tradition of specializing in fire magic, but his inability to properly use said fire magic led to his quick defeat at his second cousin Ayane's hand in a battle of succession. Disgraced and abandoned by his family, he left Japan, only to return four years later with a new name, new attitude, and new (and quite powerful!) wind magic powers, including a rare Contract with one of the mighty Spirit Kings. He swiftly butts heads with the fiery-tempered but now-outmatched Ayane, who by dint of being the replacement successor now wields Enreiha, the flame sword of the clan's ruler. Though Ayane first mistakes him for a potential threat, she later finds herself saddled with Kazuma as a bodyguard, forced to work with him on various supernatural matters, or crossing paths with him when his jobs intersect with hers. Ayane's friends delight to no end in thinking that Ayane is falling for Kazuma despite her protestations, but more serious matters arise when a clan who has long served the Kannagi turns traitor. Later, Ayane, Kazuma, and Kazuma's kid brother Ren get mixed up in a mess involving a clan of earth magic users, the obligation that clan must fulfill, a pixie, and a cold-hearted vixen, all of which seems to center around a cute girl who may not be what she seems.
Some series have all of the elements required for greatness but never quite manage to put them together. And then are series like Kaze no Stigma, which have all of the elements necessary for mediocrity and struggle even to achieve that much.
Although the series' flaws are many, it does at least offer some early reason for hope. The notion of the “black sheep” of a family being brusquely cast aside for incompetence only to return later full of a different kind of power is hardly an uncommon one, but having such a character as one of the main protagonists instead of in the more typical villain role has some promise and a powerful but klutzy character as the other protagonist is always ripe for some good humor. Ayano's friends, who seem to treat her as their own personal entertainer, also are amusing to watch, and Kazuma's attitude is entertaining – at least as first.
Two major problems prevent the first twelve episodes from capitalizing on the meager potential that it shows, however. One is the Steven Segal Syndrome, which dictates that the hero must be so powerful and coolly cocky that he is never seriously threatened by anything. In such cases the joy of watching the hero thoroughly stomp everyone eventually wears out as the viewer realizes that the hero is never really in danger or even being stoutly challenged. Even if a viewer knows, in a metastory sense, that the hero will ultimately triumph, some kind of credible risk must be present or action scenes lose their capacity to create necessary tension, and that starts happening with Kazuma about halfway through this run of episodes. (That's why villains so vastly more often than heroes seem indomitable.) Past the first couple of episodes, Ayano and R.E.N.'s fights are usually more interesting because both of them seem like they could actually lose or get beaten up (and that does, in fact, happen on more than one occasion), while Kazuma too often seems untouchable.
The second and much bigger problem is the writing in general. Except for an early scene between Kazuma and his father, the writing routinely fails to generate anything compelling. It stumbles in one trite death scene which is supposed to be a tear-jerker, overplays Ayano's temperamental nature so much that it soon becomes annoying rather than comedic or endearing, sometimes lacks smooth transitions between scenes, and wears down Kazuma's smarmy attitude after a while. Only a little of what the storytelling does could reasonably be considered fresh or interesting takes on standard situations and it never quite finds a way to properly integrate comedic, potential romantic, and serious elements. It lets one character off astoundingly easily for having essentially murdered hundreds of people and, in some places, requires a total disregard for logic or common sense to get plot elements to work. (Who would accept a date from someone who had recently openly vowed to kill him, no matter how sexy she looked?) Most of the time the writing seems like a half-hearted effort.
Admittedly, the series does do some things right. The true nature of the girl R.E.N. falls for, and why she is that way, is a novel twist, and Kazuma's confrontation with his father is a satisfying early battle. The hints about what happened with Kazuma during his four-year absence are suitably tantalizing and some of the jokes, even if tired, do still work. Overall, the positives in the writing do not balance out the flaws, however.
By Gonzo standards the artistry is on the high end of average. The action scenes are suitably flashy, the character renderings are richer and more consistent than in some of their other recent efforts, and the background art and subtle CG touches typically look sharp, but nothing is exceptional about it all. Ayano's appealing look is hampered somewhat by a less-than-glamorous cut to her hair and frequent superdeformed renderings, and the scion of such a wealthy family specifically dressing in her school uniform to go out on duties which have nothing to do with school defies logic. (But then again, so did Kagome gallivanting around the Japanese feudal era in her school uniform in InuYasha, so this is hardly a quirk unique to this series.) The none-too-subtle base colors spread amongst the hair colors of Ayano and her two friends - Ayano is red, Nanase is blue, and Yukari is yellow – is faintly amusing, though. Interestingly, while the series offers many situations conducive to fan service, it rarely takes advantage of them, instead innocuously sticking in a handful of little snippets such as a long-distance shot of wind momentarily flipping up Ayano's skirt during an action scene. The animation is typical Gonzo quality, emphasizing action scenes and taking big shortcuts elsewhere.
A heavily-synthesized musical score inconsistently supports and enhances the material; some numbers work in pumping up the action, comedy, or drama, while others merely limp along. The regular opener and closer offer nothing to distinguish themselves, either, though a more melancholy closer for episode 12, featuring appropriate alternate graphics, works much better.
The English voice actors do what they can with the material, although the writing often does not give them much to work with. The casting, with one or two minor exceptions, is on the money, as Robert McCollum perfectly embodies Kazuma's attitude, Cherami Leigh capably replicates Ayano's blustery temperament (for better or worse), and Monica Rial is a good fit in a supporting role as Misao from episode 5 on. (Her brief appearance in an earlier episode is voiced by someone else.) The English script slants the dialogue a bit to put the attitudes of various characters in more English terms and corrects some inconsistencies in the subtitles but is otherwise slightly less interpretive than the norm for a Funimation dub.
Instead of releasing the first half of the series in a boxed double-thinpack format, as it has done with most of its other seasonal set releases, Funimation instead opted to use a regular-sized double-DVD case for this one. This packaging approach, while space-efficient, does leave a bit to be desired, but at least it does include some bonus interior artwork. In another unusual arrangement, the first DVD has seven episodes while the second has only five, presumably to allow for the inclusion of three 10-minute “Ayano's House Call All-You-Can-Eat Cake Buffet” videos. These feature the seiyuu for Ayano, Nanase, and Yukari in home video-like clips taken during their visit to Kobe for a promotional event. Only the first half of the first one directly involves the series, while the rest involve the seiyuu taking in Kobe's food and goofing around in a hotel room. Also present are textless songs.
The first half of Kaze no Stigma is hardly awful, but it definitely does not stand amongst even the better recent series of its type, much less the better recent series in general. Though it does look good, weak writing and overripe characterizations eventually cause what early promise it has to wither. If you want to see a much better series with a girl wielding a sword and flame magic at its center, check out Shakugan no Shana instead.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Some cleverness, good background art, solid English dub.
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