Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Sep 12th 2013
Stella Women's Academy, High School Division Class C3
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Yura Yamato has many ideas about the fairy-tale life of a young lady at a prestigious girls' school. They are all wrong. Instead of finding refined ladies and genteel activities, she finds a Desert Eagle magnum under her pillow. A little snooping reveals that her current roommate, Sonora, has closets full of replica guns and military gear. When one of her roommate's friends spots Yura cavorting in Sonora's gear, Yura gets an invitation to join her club: the C³. The circle participates in survival games, in which teams armed with airsoft weapons play war games with specified parameters. Yura doesn't know it yet, but she's about to get deeply absorbed in that world.
From the preview you'd think Stella Women's Academy is a straight-up action series. From a description of its plot you'd guess it was a 4-koma comedy—a survival game version of the after-school fluff-fest. In reality, it's a little bit of both: a comedy of camaraderie that finds some surprising intensity in the act of faux-warfare. A Gainax series can never be as simple as it first appears, and this entry in the “cute girls do cute things” genre is no exception. There's an interesting vein of character growth running beneath its adorable surface; a vein that starts to show worrisome teeth as the series proceeds.
Not that the teeth have started gnoshing on us just yet. The show is firmly in its establishing phase here. These episodes are all about the place that Yura finds for herself in the company of Stella Academy's survival gamers. The first episodes do a nice job of outlining Yura's hopes and fears, her problems interacting with peers and forming friendships, while simultaneously demonstrating the charms of the friends that the club offers her. The warmth of the C³ club is a real and reasonably potent thing, the friendly bickering and happy enthusiasm of the clubmates presenting a potent lure for lonely, isolated Yura. It's a happy thing to see Yura opening up, speaking her mind, and enjoying the company of the oddballs she's fallen in with.
At this point, the series is almost as fluffy as its club-comedy premise promises. It's bright and it's lively and the survival gaming gives Gainax an outlet for its action itch without violating the generally lighthearted tone of the series. The C³'s games are surprisingly intricate in their military strategy, anal in their attention to equipment detail, and incongruously cool in their execution—especially incongruous given that the show's cleanly choreographed action showboating is applied to cute girls armed with fake guns—but they're also played for straight fun. No complications, no real tension; just girls enacting action-movie scenarios in objectively silly circumstances. Think of it like the survival game episodes of School Rumble, only less focused on the big joke and more focused on free-spirited fun.
There's also a reasonable amount of schoolyard hijinking going on, especially early on when Yura is still deciding whether to join and the C³ girls are doing their quirky best (cake traps!) to rope her in. The show enjoys betraying expectations, but only to comedic ends. The end of episode one, in which our club-comedy expectations get razed by the show's survival-gaming action panache, is a kick, as is the scene where Yura's princess daydreams meet Sonora's arsenal and, especially, the one where that arsenal gives us a hilarious look at the Yura who lurks behind all of those social phobias.
And then comes episode three. It begins as larky as any episode, as Yura and the C³ do their quirky thing at a survival game tournament. But by the end the game has gotten almost shockingly serious, and the aftermath revamps Yura's character in major ways. It's a real turning point in the series; the moment when it becomes clear just how audaciously the series is willing to alter its characters and their relationships. Most afterschool comedies thrive on reassuring stasis, maybe supported by a seductive sense of place. Episode three is Stella's emphatic rejection of that model. It shakes the show up and tells us that big changes, possibly unpleasant ones, are a distinct possibility going forward.
Afterwards Stella returns to schoolgirl silliness, pulling out two truly hoary tropes of the high-school comedy: the beach/bikini episode (actually an island survival game against of team of Kansai nature children) and the school festival episode. Both episodes are goofy and occasionally excessive, full of colorful energy and punctuated by comedic action set-pieces. But there's something just a little bit dark starting to roil beneath their surface; a darkness that hints at something hard and cold beginning to form inside of Yura. A darkness we now know that the series is entirely capable of acting on.
Throughout all of this Gainax delivers its usual level of quality, approaching the show with verve and imagination and not worrying overmuch about clean consistency. Yura's active imagination, which transforms her club activities into vivid internal fictions, allows the studio to deliver distinctly Gainax-ish interpretations of '80s action flicks, the classic western showdown, and, especially, various types of war cinema. One of her fantasies lets the animators bring medieval Japanese art to life; another sets up a parody of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima—a joke that, given the source, is a bit fraught.
Outside of the action sequences the animation is less thrillingly fluid, but is compensated by some excellent cuteness and a deft touch with visual humor. Director Masayoshi Kawajiri knows how to play recurring gags without overplaying them, having considerable fun with the customary quirks of the C³ club, including less obvious ones like their adorably chaotic strategy whiteboard. For its part Kotaro Nakagawa's score is good-humored and effective but unspectacular. It does what's asked of it with generally relaxed ease, and some jazzy style, but won't be digging its way into your subconscious.
It is not my intent to enshrine Stella as a Gainax masterpiece. These six episodes are almost pure groundwork—a foundation that one hopes will support a more emotionally and narratively ambitious second half but that rarely rises above the level of light entertainment itself. Light entertainment that has some pretty hefty weaknesses to boot. The fourth episode is a weird misfire in which the show takes a sharp left turn into supernatural territory. Sonora embodies a male stereotype—that of the odd but commanding mentor who knows everything and is always right—that is only marginally more interesting when applied to a girl. The rest of the club also ends up rather neglected by the sustained focus on Yura. The members of C³ are well-delineated, easy to like, and—in the case of easygoing Rento—have frightening stockpiles of comedic charm, but they're not given much real depth. However, all of that said, this is a promising series; the kind that can be enjoyed just on the face of it but that also has the depths to withstand a surprising amount of digging.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Fun action, ample cuteness, and inventive visuals add up to a grand good time; Yura's transformation starts to acquire some interesting dark edges.
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