Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Dec 15th 2008
Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha
DVD - Box Set
Nanoha may appear to be an average third-grader, but she has a secret: she's actually a clone created by an evil animation company, imbued with a personality culled from millions of outgoing animated magical girls, and sent to suck the life from anime fans who walked into the series expecting quality entertainment. She's also an honest-to-goodness magical girl, or at least she becomes one when she teams up with a talking ferret. Yuuno the ferret was injured while sealing a magical jewel, and he needs Nanoha's help to finish the job. The jewels were scattered over the Earth after an accident at a ruin the ferret was exploring, and through some statistical miracle, all landed in Nanoha's neighborhood. Their fluffy adventures and convenient monster-of-the-week scripts are unfortunately complicated by the arrival of Fate, a powerful and ruthless girl with a magical scythe and an eye on Yuuno's jewels. Fate is driven to dangerous extremes by her beloved but evil mother, and Nanoha, charismatic converter of the evil that she is, feels compelled to lighten her new friend/enemy's burden. Matricide and amazing revelations soon follow.
You don't know otaku anime until you've known Lyrical Nanoha. Not in the biblical sense of the term of course (though one bathing scene comes awfully close), but in the sense that until you've seen Lyrical Nanoha, you haven't seen otaku-targeted entertainment taken to its logical extreme. There is nothing, not one scene, line of dialogue, image or plot development in the series that isn't aimed with laser accuracy at the hardest of hardcore anime fans. Moe character types, fan-favorite genre tropes and cheesecake service shots are just the beginning, and crammed doesn't even begin to describe the neutron-star density with which the series packs in the otaku obsessions.
There are magical-girl showdowns galore, the obligatory talking-animal mascot and magical stick, naughty transformation sequences (featuring grade-schoolers!), and characters to whom labels like dojikko and tsundere apply all too easily. But Nanoha doesn't stop there; in fact it's just priming the pump. The series may begin as a jewel-gathering magical-girl romp, but before the end it delves into science-fiction, military adventure, mecha action, and ultimately dark drama. Nanoha and Fate are given back-stories that paint them in shades of alienation and loneliness, and their burgeoning friendship is ramped up to homoerotic levels of intensity. Geeky details, such as the Dragonball Z-esque measurements of magical energy, proliferate in the background while characters ponder identity and relationship issues with the angsty earnestness usually reserved for teen-oriented shoujo tales or adaptations of visual-novel romances.
That the series is marketed to fanatical anime fans isn't an inherently bad thing—after all series like director Akiyuki Shinbo's own Pani Poni Dash are aimed at basically the same audience—it's just that Shinbo and writer Masaki Tsuzuki are so busy parading all of their favorite visual and narrative elements that they forget to actually entertain. Its bright look and dark emotional undercurrents never mesh comfortably, and too often the series takes time off to introduce some new otakuism when it should be having fun. The evolving relationships unfold with some of the same deliberation that marked fellow magical-girl alumnus Cardcaptor Sakura, but without its effervescent charm, wallowing in lengthy, depressing stretches of introspection that slow the series' final two-thirds to a leaden lumber.
Normally that slowing would place Nanoha alongside Tweeny Witches as a magical-girl anime that aims to be more than fluff—not an unworthy ambition—but ends up draggy and dreary instead of powerful or resonant. But Nanoha has something that Tweeny Witches doesn't: Masaki Tsuzuki. That isn't a good thing. Third-grader Nanoha consistently acts in ways that are at direct odds with her professed age, voicing with adolescent gravitas Tsuzuki's anime platitudes about the nature of friendship, family, and other things that no eight-year-old ever pores over. The relationships he crafts are simultaneously too sophisticated for his under-aged cast and too formula-bound to qualify as mature. Add to that his skin-crawling lolicon fan-service—which includes a brutal whipping in which eight-year-old Fate's clothes are flayed from her body as she hangs trussed from a rope—and the series is pretty grim going.
The series' utter devotion to fan-pandering can be impressive in its thoroughness. Even its production is steeped in otaku trivia (it's a spin-off of an adult series based on a computer game), and its very animation is aimed at fanatics. Shinbo's use of multiple animation directors gives each episode a distinct look, dabbling in distorted action one episode and focusing exclusively on the ultra-detailed cuteness of Nanoha's body language the next. The differences are intentionally subtle, which allows the series to retain a level of stylistic continuity and also excludes non-fanatics from the nerd-spotting of each animation directors' stylistic quirks. Visual quotes are kept similarly subtle, as when the final showdown apes the static style and high-contrast red and black compositions of Evangelion. The look that emerges can be uneven, but it's undeniably appealing—aside from the nondescript hentai-ready character designs—especially when it gets inventive (splashing water on the director's imaginary camera) or elaborate (the spinning rune-wheels and mystical seals of Nanoha's magic).
The series' English adaptation is faithful to a fault, preserving the original dialogue in all its illogical, lifeless glory. The acting is a little flat—particularly where military mage Chrono's assistant and Fate are concerned—but it, and even the uninspired translation are ultimately of little consequence in the face of fatal flaws such as the series' painfully conventional score and unpleasant narrative undertones. A great adaptation could have raised the show a notch, but a lackluster one can hardly lower it.
Nanoha is not without appeal—much of it is cute and the magical action is downright cool—it's just that it's hard to enjoy it amid the naked elementary-school girls, traffic jams of knowingly recycled plot developments (viva la rival-to-friend transformation!) and ponderous pacing. Had the series devoted a little more time to crafting likeable leads (as opposed to moe archetypes) and less time to sating appetites for gloppy, codified emotional darkness, or more time to Shinbo's oddball humor and less time to Tsuzuki's thinly-disguised S&M fantasies, perhaps the series could have been the modern magical-girl classic it wants to be. As it stands it is more a monument to otaku tastes than a viable work of entertainment, and an oft-disturbing monument at that.
Overall (dub) : C-
Overall (sub) : C-
Story : D
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : C
+ Idiosyncratic animation; some potent cuteness.
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