Reviewby Nick Creamer,
BD+DVD - The Complete Series
Kiyoshi Fujino is one of five boys enrolled at Hachimitsu Private Academy, a famous and formerly all-girls school now opening its doors to male students. Though he'd like to get closer to some of these girls, Kiyoshi and his fellow males are treated with suspicion - and when the five of them are caught peeping, the school's Underground Student Council sends them straight to their own private prison. Now, in order to avoid being expelled, the five boys will have to suffer all manner of indignities at the hands of their sadistic oppressors. School is tough enough already, but can anyone survive this prison school?
It's hard to say what makes for a “good fanservice show.” After all, some of the things that people seek from fanservice run directly counter to the qualities generally valued in other shows. Gratuitous fanservice tends to ruin an audience's ability to take a story or its characters seriously, but if the fanservice is the goal, is there a way to make those needs complementary to the narrative? The broad archetypes employed by harems rarely result in satisfying romantic drama, but if people are just there to pick their favorite type, does that even matter?
One way to solve this problem is by making sure everyone's just having a great time. Monster Musume embraced this approach, offering a very likable cast who all liked each other as well, and the more recent Keijo!!!!!!!! is following a similar path. But Prison School doesn't do that. Prison School's characters are crass and needy and kind of terrible. Prison School doesn't humanize its grossout fanservice to grant dignity to its characters - it revels in characters and stories utterly without dignity, counting on its constant laughs to drag the audience right down there with them.
The show's first episode rushes through setup in order to establish its inherently ridiculous premise. Kiyoshi and four other boys are the first males at an all-girls school, they're caught peeping, and they're sentenced to several weeks of in-school prison as penance. While in prison, they suffer the constant needling of the Underground Student Council, as they plan minor breakouts and ultimately work to clear their names. All of this drama is framed in terms of ludicrous fanservice and bodily functions - Kiyoshi earns a grudge from council member Hana by witnessing her pee, Kiyoshi's ally Takehito aids the escape effort by pooping his pants, and the quest to remain at school altogether is framed as sticking around to see a wet t-shirt contest.
Fanservice shows often fail by being fundamentally unkind to their characters, but Prison School circumvents this by creating a cast where every single person deserves what happens to them. Whether it's Kiyoshi and his male compatriots or the Underground Student Council, all of these characters are lecherous and awful and deserving of harsh comeuppance. You'll wince at characters like the bizarrely designed Andre getting kicked in the dirt, but then realize Andre's actually a masochist, and the council is falling into his ploy. Prison School is heavy on brutal slapstick and gross punishment, but since the cast is all ridiculous stooges, each punishment feels like they sort of had it coming.
Prison School doesn't just rely on over-the-top punishments for its ridiculous cast - it's also a fast-paced thriller, full of convoluted plots by both the prisoners and council members. One of the early schemes centers on Kiyoshi attempting to sneak out for a date with a girl at school, which involves him buying Takehito's silence, discovering a way to move around the prison yard undetected, establishing an escape route, crafting an alibi for his absence, creating the tools to support that alibi, and finally staging his escape on a day when he's not being tightly supervised.
All of those twists and conflicts would fit naturally into any heist narrative, but in the Prison School universe, they're all layered with absurdist scatological humor. The disconnect between the show's tonal intensity and ridiculous narrative make it somewhat similar to JoJo's Bizarre Adventure - it's how fully Prison School buys into the drama of sequences like “Kiyoshi has to pee in a bottle or Hana will kill him” that makes them both funny and genuinely thrilling.
Prison School's cruelty toward its characters does somewhat limit its dramatic reach. Though the show's characters are funny, it's hard to truly care about them - being awful people makes their humor land more effectively, but also makes their feelings somewhat distant. The show's breakneck pacing also doesn't always work in its favor. It's clear the show had specific points in the original manga it had to get to, and the buildup for some of the schemes suffers as a result. Your tolerance for toilet humor will also dictate a large amount of your reaction to the show - Prison School's jokes aren't complex or tasteful, they're just presented with as much energy as is humanly possible.
Prison School's visual execution does its absolute best with a herculean adaptive task. The show's original manga rides heavily on its gorgeous and incredibly detailed art design, which made for an inherently funny contrast with its poop joke content. The anime can't fully capture that appeal, but it does its best. Prison School's character designs are significantly more detailed than you often get in anime, facilitating a wild variety of strained expressions. The show sacrifices fluidity of animation for specificity of expression work, a necessary trade to capture the fundamental appeal of the material. And of course, the censoring of the broadcast version is absent here - you will indeed see naked boobs by the end of the first episode.
Tsutomu Mizushima was a smart choice to direct this adaptation, as basically all of his works demonstrate a keen understanding of comedic timing, and he's even expressed his interest in the link between horror and comedy. His visual sensibilities help keep Prison School's slapstick snappy, and occasional embellishments like the LEGO character interludes used to plan schemes offer some nice variations on the formula. The show's music is also well-chosen, though not terrible surprising or engaging on its own - it's all operatic orchestral songs, designed to draw all possible pathos out of conflicts like “will the vice-president be so distracted by Andre's nipple hair that she doesn't notice our escape?”
Prison School's dub leans into the show's silliness, offering exactly the kind of melodramatic performances the show needs. The one major awkward point is Andre's voice - instead of the simpering but still generally human tone of the original, Sonny Strait plays him as if his nose is pinched and has a mouth full of food, garbling basically all of his lines. I can see why the team might have found a goofy voice more appropriate for Andre, but I think giving him an inhuman tone somewhat undercuts the comedy of his material. He's already a visual joke, his voice doesn't need to underline that.
Prison School comes in a surprisingly sturdy chipboard case, housing two disk cases with the show on DVD and bluray, along with a cloth poster I'd caution against putting up outside the privacy of your room. The disks come with the standard textless opening/closing and trailers, as well as a few episode commentaries starring the members of the english cast. Those commentaries are full of the usual funny anecdotes you get when voice actors get together - Sonny Strait offered the role of Chiyo to Kristen McGuire by texting her “hey, do you do porn,” etc. They also embrace the overall dirtiness of the show itself, trading penis and poop jokes all through the episodes. You don't really get any insights into production outside of the english voice acting, but if you're interested in the stories of these voice actors, there's plenty to learn.
Overall, Prison School offers a lot to enjoy even if you're not normally a fan of fanservice shows. In fact, the show might be less appealing in a traditional fanservice sense, since so many of its big setpieces are more grotesque than sensual. The show is a study in extreme tradeoffs - stiff animation for expressive character designs, unlikable characters for solid slapstick, manic pacing for absurdly convoluted schemes. It's a funny and passionate work, a striking example of trash done right.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : C
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Heists are simultaneously hilarious and exciting, strong and unique art design
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