Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Ayano Kannagi has consistently (and unconvincingly) denied that she has any attraction towards the maddening wind magic-user Kazuma, but such a denial is hard to maintain when her friends, father, and younger cousin Ren are actively collaborating to give the two ample opportunities to become a couple. Kazuma's feud with his father Genma resurges when the two accidentally cross paths at a spa, and Ayano gets her own rival in Catherine McDonald, a fire magic-user from the United States who initially just wants Ayano's flame sword Enraiha but later also sets her sights on Kazuma. Ren has his own problems as his friends continue to squabble over him. Things get decidedly more complicated when teenagers start gaining powers from a mystical Web site, though, and the powers behind it strike uncomfortably close to home for Kazuma. For everyone's sake, Kazuma must be convinced to live in the present rather than dwell on the past, and Ayano, to her dismay, may be the only person capable of doing that.
Beyond the early episode where Kazuma confronted his father, the first half of Kaze no Stigma was a diligent exercise in rigorous mediocrity. Its second half, somewhat surprisingly, actually steps up its game a notch, as it does not lack for entertainment value and its serious and comedic parts are a little more effective. If your interest in the series was left on life support after the first half, this half might revive it.
Compared to the first half, these later episodes do a better job of not taking themselves too seriously in lighter moments, as they show in the first four episodes of this set. The elder Kannagi's elaborate efforts to hook his daughter up with Kazuma – which also give the series a convenient excuse for including obligatory hot springs and amusement park episodes – becomes a running joke only slightly undermined by his ulterior motive for doing so. (This plays even funnier in the subtitled version, as unfortunately the dub script washes out more blatant references to Ayano and Kazuma having an “accident” together.) Ayano's friends Nanase and Yukari continue to provide valuable comedic support with their involvement in said efforts and continuing observations about the state of affairs between Kazuma and Ayano. The comedic highlight, though, is arguably Genma's return to action in the spa episode and his ongoing battles with Kazuma through that episode, which take on a decidedly lighter tone than their original early conflicts. Less welcome is the entrance of Catherine McDonald, the obligatory haughty rival for Ayano, who, thankfully, is forced by injuries to fade into the background for the last few episodes.
Ayano also comes off better in this volume. Being so outclassed by Kazuma mostly relegated her to secondary combat status in the first half, but her expanding proficiency with her powers makes her less needful of being bailed out by Kazuma; in fact, she stands up impressively well in one crucial scene where she has to fight Kazuma and is clearly shown overcoming her need to rely on him for help. Her blustery attitude somehow seems less irritating here, which makes her a more likable character in the end.
The most crucial improvement, though, is finally making Kazuma seem at least a bit vulnerable. In the first half of the series he was too untouchable, but around the end of episode 17 the first cracks show through as the series finally starts bringing up elements directly connected to his years away from Japan, including half an episode of flashback content involving his time with Tsui-Ling. How Kazuma's history with Tsui-Ling ended would rattle anyone (though how he and Tsui-Ling ended up in that situation is insufficiently explained), and having it thrown back in his face like it is here would force almost anyone to require help from another to regain equilibrium. The series does such a respectable job of handling this during the major finishing plot arc that the series is at its best during those scenes.
The Pandemonium arc, which covers episodes 17-24 and essentially involves teenagers acting out a battle-focused RPG in real life as part of a schemer's evil plot, starts well and plays fairly well during most of its run but ultimately ends up being a bit unsatisfying. It does raise some interesting (if not entirely novel) notions, but the hard-core info-dumping it engages in early in the final episode disrupts the dramatic and action flow the story arc had until that point. While the immediate problems raised by the Pandemonium arc are resolved at the end, the bigger picture involving the key antagonists is not. Sadly, there will almost certainly be no follow-up, as Takihiro Yamato, the author of the novel and short stories on which the series is based, passed away this past July. At least Kazuma and Ayano's relationship gets some degree of appreciable resolution.
Unlike many Gonzo productions, the artistry in this one never takes a nose dive, but neither does it raise its game like the writing does. In fact, one of the few artistic highlights is seeing Ayano in a flattering formal evening gown for her dinner date in episode 14. Newcomer Catherine McDonald also gets a sharp outfit and flattering look, while new villain Lapis has a more generic design and the masked mastermind Bernhardt even moreso. In general, character design and rendering is the series' strongest artistic aspect except for the blocky, textureless cut to the hair of Ayano and her father. CG effects, present mostly in flame depictions and Catherine's virtual characters, mesh in acceptably well, but the background art, while normally good, suffers from inconsistencies; in the scene in the rooftop restaurant in episode 14, for instance, the size, spacing, and number of chairs at tables varies from shot to shot, as well as seemingly having characters sitting on air at one point. (See this comparison shot.) The “base colors” coloring theme also persists, including figuring prominently in the climactic scene. The animation, as before, continues to emphasize action scenes at the expense of non-action content.
The first half of the series rarely took advantage of the fan service opportunities it had, but the same is definitely not true in the second half. Ayano gets a revealing early shower scene, Tsui-Ling shows a lot of skin in some of Kazuma's flashbacks, and three other female characters who typically dressed sensibly in the first half have periods in the second half where they dress in much sexier fashion. The oft-oddly-timed and inconsistently-used panty flashes are also back, with Ayano even walking around in one scene with her clothing torn enough to clearly show her panties and seeming not to care – which seems out of character for her.
The typically tepid nature of the synthesizer-intensive music remains an inconsistent asset, although it does try to mix things up a little bit by using some more rock-flavored themes. The original opener continues throughout and the closer used for episodes 1-11 continues here through episode 23. The final episode's closer uses the same basic visual theme but is brighter and cheerier in both look and musical selection.
Funimation's English dub, which was hardly a liability in the first half, becomes a strength through the second half. Daisuke Ono's original rendition of Kazuma sounds like just a typical leading man, but Robert McCollum infuses him with all of the attitude and smarminess that Kazuma should have, making him sound very distinct from most other anime characters; it is one of 2009's better male English dub performances. Cherami Leigh's performance as Ayano here contrasts radically with her much more subdued effort as Tamaki in Bamboo Blade but is just as good, hitting the right notes on Ayano's fiery and emotional sides. Other performances are also solid. The English script takes quite a few liberties in addition to what was mentioned earlier, including eliminating a series of jokes about Catherine's imperfect command of Japanese, but it flows smoothly enough with the animation that a viewer who watches this dubbed-only is unlikely to notice any discrepancies or miss anything important..
As with the first half, Funimation packages this second half in a regular-sized case with the overlapping-disks-on-one-side format, an irritating arrangement which is increasingly common for them. (They could learn something from Sentai Filmworks on better ways to pack two disks in a normal-size case.) As with part one, this set has bonus interior artwork and the second three installments of the 8-10 minute “Ayano's House Call All-You-Can-Eat Cake Buffet” videos featuring the seiyuu for Ayano, Nanase, and Yukari, which are mostly worth watching if you're into watching cute young Japanese women eating.
Kaze no Stigma should never be mistaken for a quality series, but it at least does okay in its second half. Its writing does improve overall, contributing better comedic and serious moments, with more fan service is an added bonus.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Improved writing, fan service, character rendering.
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