Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jul 15th 2009
KenIchi the Mightiest Disciple
DVD - Season 1 Part 2
Kenichi's sister Honoka is concerned for his well-being. Okay, so she's actually more concerned for his chastity, but the effect is still the same: she wants him away from Ryozanpaku (and Miu's breasts) as soon as possible. So naturally she sneaks in—and immediately befriends Kenichi's two strangest teachers. But she needn't have been concerned; Kenichi is far too busy dealing with Ragnarok's thugs to seriously put the moves on Miu. His need to confront them becomes acute when he hears that Kisara and her motley crew are planning to beat his newfound friend Takeda to a penitent pulp. Armed with the fruits of his torturous training, Kenichi prepares to face off against not only Kisara (who, as a girl, he is honor-bound not to hit) but also Ragnarok's seven top-ranked fighters, among whom is the deadly Hermit, who seems to have rather a personal interest in poor Kenichi.
The first five episodes on this set aren't exactly what you'd call meaty episodes. They're the kinds of episodes that have names like “Dedicated Training! And a Nearby Hot spring Bath!” and “Paradise? To the Mysterious Furinji Island!” and are every bit as fluffy and silly as their titles suggest. Luckily Kenichi does fluffy and silly pretty well, serving up plenty of amusing situations and the usual training/abuse from Kenichi's martial-arts masters. The best of these episodes focus on Miu and Honoka, both of whom have been in need of some fleshing out. Honoka's friendship with Ryozanpaku oddballs Apachai and Shigure adds a much-needed extra dimension not only to Honoka but also to Shigure and Apachai. And Miu's ill-fated attempt to pass off Shigure and Sakakai as her mom and dad helps immensely in giving her some appeal beyond her obvious physical charms. The training/abuse is beginning to wear thin as a comic device, but still earns some chuckles—if only for Kenichi's spiritual flip-flopping between lion and rabbit.
But, as amusing as such side plots are, it isn't long before the hunger for real plot and—just as importantly—real action sets in. And though it takes all of two hours to get around to it, Kenichi responds. The return of Ragnarok terminates abruptly the mid-season foray into pure fluff, and slowly gets the show's narrative juices to flowing. Kisara and (Gardening Club President) Izumi are finally given some me time to flesh themselves out, new characters are introduced, and most importantly stuff actually happens. Kenichi works his way through Ragnarok's upper echelons; Niijima's snaky brain hatches a plan to take over the school (and Japan! No, the world!); Miu gets a romantic rival, as does Kenichi; and a plot to sabotage Kenichi's good name gets underway. Much of it is predictable (Hermit's identity doesn't even deserve the descriptor “secret”) and still more hackneyed, but it's King Lear when compared to the water-treading of the first two hours.
In addition to kick-starting the plot, the returning Ragnarok menace also brings with it a healthy dose of martial-arts action—the main beneficiaries of which are Kenichi and Miu. Miu fans will be glad to finally see her in a serious fight, and during his brawl with a street full of Ragnarok thugs even Kenichi detractors may find themselves thinking that the little ex-wimp is actually pretty cool. For their part, Kisara and Hermit bring a real sense of menace to their fights that, combined with glimpses of the monster that Kenichi is slowly becoming, lends the series an excitement that has been noticeably lacking. The continued focus on details of footwork, timing and strategy keeps the fights (barely) grounded in reality, while the little asides about the background and mechanics of certain moves remain interesting.
Less interesting is the series' look. It's certainly appropriate: simple, colorful and loaded with beefcake. But it's also cheap. TMS Entertainment's animation is clean but unnatural, particularly during its too-smooth pans and when characters move in depth (from foreground to background for instance). The action scenes fare better than the everyday scenes, not because they're any better animated but because director Hajime Kamegaki is a past master of milking action energy from limited budgets (as anyone who remembers Project Arms or even Ceres can attest). Editing and dramatic angles make up in impact for what the action lacks in raw motion, and Kamegaki's eye for action poses is good.
There's some fast but enjoyable fan-service during Miu's fight with Kisara, but the bulk of the fan-service is understandably confined to the opening filler episodes. On a whole the characters are designed more for ease of identification than for realism or attractiveness. Kisara, with her green eyes and willowy physique, easily outcompetes the voluptuous Miu for looks—something that, curiously enough, none of the other characters seem to notice. Settings are similarly more functional than atmospheric, providing distinct locales for events to occur in and little else. Ryozanpaku, as the main setting, is naturally the most imposing, but even it is more remarkable for the people in it than for its geography or architecture. The beams of light that shoot from the Ryozanpaku masters' eyes are a fun touch, by the way.
The show's music is obvious, overused and monotonously simplistic. The soundtrack apparently has all of five different compositions, each of which matches a certain basic mood and is applied whenever appropriate and occasionally when not. It won't shred your eardrums, but something is definitely off when the most pleasant scenes to listen to are those with no music at all. New ending themes are introduced in episodes sixteen and twenty-five along with a new opener in episode twenty five, but none are any more interesting than the vaguely upbeat tunes they replace.
Voice actors often seem to enjoy themselves more when the restraints of realism are removed. As it's basically one giant ball of over-the-top silliness, Kenichi offers plenty of fun for its cast, and they do take advantage of it. A lot. Every line that passes through one of the six masters' mouths comes out smelling of cheese, and supporting characters like Niijima are perhaps even riper. The fun they have with their roles is infectious; the energy they bring to their roles nothing if not appropriate. Casting is accurate—frighteningly so in the case of Christopher R. Sabat's Sakaki—and even when it strays from the original, as Josh Grelle's more serious Kenichi does, it's to good effect (Grelle is arguably more convincing during action scenes than Tomokazu Seki is). The fast and loose translation has its faults, including a callously smothered Lupin III reference, but the sheer fun factor more than compensates.
The two hours of unabashedly goofy fluff that kick off this set aside, Kenichi is making forward strides. The introduction of a new and powerful set of villains ups the intensity of the fights, and Kenichi is definitely growing both as a martial artist and as a person. But make no mistake, upticks in seriousness notwithstanding, the show is still very, very silly. Its forward strides are only enough to ensure that its mix of silly fun doesn't stagnate. Which is, of course, exactly as intended.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : C
+ Advances the Ragnarok plot and intensifies the fights while losing little of its overwhelming silliness.
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