Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Mar 15th 2013
Problem children are coming from another world, aren't they?
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Who needs a synopsis when you've got that title? Indeed there are problem children and indeed they are coming from another world. The problem children in question are unpredictable, unruly, and unfortunately gifted with potent psychic powers. Arrogant bastard Izayoi Sakamaki is gifted with seemingly bottomless strength and speed. Haughty young lady Asuka Kudō can make anyone or anything obey her voice. Terse cipher Yō Kasukabe can speak to animals and take on their attributes. One day each receives a mysterious letter that transports them to the strange world of Little Garden. There they are met by Black Rabbit, a bunny lady who explains that Little Garden is a vast land where anything can be gambled and anything won. The world's laws, nations and customs are all built around gaming. Black Rabbit invited the problem children to Little Garden to help restore her devastated gaming “nation” to its former glory. And they agree to help, but darned if they don't keep causing problems.
Bored, bored, bored, is the refrain of the problem children before they're transported to another world. They're tired of the same-old, same-old and are looking for something to challenge them. Which could be our refrain too through the first episode or so. Problem Children opens with a spectacular dearth of promise. The superpowered teens. The prospect of endless game-matches. The highly structured alternate world. The leveled layers, iron-clad rules, territories controlled by video-game bosses… Boring is definitely the word for it. And the children don't help. Izayoi is basically an all-powerful asshole. Asuka is an upper-class snob able to order anyone around like a servant. And Yō is one of those quiet, strange girls who's meant to be alluringly mysterious but is mostly just personalityless. If you're not a reviewer looking for something to dump on there's very little reason to pursue the show any further.
Which just goes to show, you shouldn't judge something solely on its first episode or so. Problem Children does a remarkably good job of tuning itself on the fly: playing to its strengths, shoring up its weaknesses, and finding reliable (if hoary) tricks to keep itself engaging and entertaining. What emerges can't honestly be called a good show, but it is a messily enjoyable diversion. Which is far more than its dull opening would lead us to believe.
As little as the show has going for it at its opening, it does do a few things reasonably well: a decent sight gag here (the camera following Yō's cat as the kids fall out of the sky ), an amusing offhand comment there (Black Rabbit complaining about her “out of control classroom”), a zippy overall pace. And over the course of the next few episodes, the show builds all of those into genuine advantages: The weak jokes and gags grow into a nice, loose sense of humor—never enough to get big laughs mind you, but enough to let you know that the show doesn't take itself or its characters too seriously. And the pace is studiously maintained, zipping the kids from one battle, one villain to the next; disposing of bad guys before they can really grate, moving to new environs before they can get boring, buzzing past the uninteresting on the way to the fun.
In the meantime the show does what it can to patch up its main characters' personalities. Yō is the easiest. She just needs a little more personality. The show gives her a cute friendship with Asuka, a relatable reason for travelling to a new world (she just wants to make friends) and, hey presto, she's a reasonably likeable girl. From there Asuka's improvement comes naturally. Her friendship with Yō thaws her frosty aristocrat demeanor, and she soon proves a fiercely devoted friend to both Yō and Black Rabbit. Black Rabbit for her part was always the show's best character, and she remains so: forever brightening the mood and broadcasting a kind of exasperated affection for her problematic charges.
Izayoi is the real challenge. The show's strategy is to make sure that, even if he's an indestructible dick, he's our indestructible dick: always on the right side, doing the right thing. It's not an entirely improbable conceit. He's driven by boredom, and which is more interesting? Cozying up with powerful nasties to take from the weak, or teaming up with the weak to crush powerful nasties? The problem is that, while that does makes him easier to root for and even to like, it doesn't make him any more interesting. He's still smarter and stronger than everyone, able to do anything and win against anyone with dispiriting ease. He's less a character than a deus ex machina for getting the show out of tight spots.
The show does what it can with him, though. It makes sure to pit him, and his allies, against baddies who are so vile that you can't help but cheer when they're swatted like flies. The first is a beast man who enslaves his opponents by kidnapping their children, but who secretly eats the kids because, well, he hates kids. After him comes a leering pervert, who uses his hold over one of Black Rabbit's friends to try and force her into sex slavery. It's an old, old strategy to be sure, but it's still around because it still works: their comeuppance, when it comes, is quite sweet.
One thing that does not improve as the series progresses is its look. Problem Children is a terminally average-looking show. Amanoyū and Naomi Ide provide character designs that are perfectly okay and perfectly forgettable. Everyone has their signature outfit and signature facial expression and rarely varies from either. The settings and monsters are varied and distinct, but never particularly striking. The various races of Little Gardenians fall into your usual elf, human, and half-animal categories. Diomedea's animation for its part is strictly middle-of-the-road. It isn't particularly stiff or unattractive, but it isn't particularly free or fluid either. Action tends to take place in either stills or pans. Characters move across animated spaces rather than through them. The series overall has a kind of flat, conventional look to it. It has its moments—some memorably cute humor, a destructive game of tag in the red streets of a faraway nation—but they're few and far between.
The same can be said, more or less, for Shiroh Hamaguchi's score. It's hardly ugly, but directors Keizou Kusakawa and Yasutaka Yamamoto use it with such a dull lack of invention or inspiration that you'd be hard-pressed to remember any of it.
And truth be told, once the show's run its course it's unlikely you'll remember much else about it either. You may, however, quite enjoy the running. Which is an achievement no less impressive for its ephemerality, given how little the show had to work with.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : C
Art : C
Music : C
+ Improves steadily as it goes, becoming an enjoyable little underdog of a show in the process.
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