Reviewby Theron Martin, Mar 5th 2014
Sub.DVD - Complete Collection
In the not-too-distant future Earth's energy problems have largely been solved by the development of the Manifestation Engine a few years earlier, which has resulted in an era of unprecedented peace. Chipper middle schooler Akane Isshiki lives on Izu Oshima Island, near the site of the Manifestation Engine, which her genius grandfather had a major hand in developing. Her grandfather being ostracized over claims that aliens called Alone would one day come calling and her mother being in long-term hospital care are heavily responsible for the family being poor, so Akane delivers newspapers to help out and awaits the return of dear friend Aoi Futaba. However, Aoi's return is accompanied by the arrival of one of the Alone that Grandpa Isshiki had predicted, and ordinary military forces cannot even slow it down as it cruises towards the Manifestation Engine. But Grandpa has long been preparing for this, and presents Akane with an opportunity to stop the Alone: a special key connected to the Manifestation Engine that allows her - and eventually Aoi and two other girls as well – to unlock magical girl-like powers which are the only force capable of thwarting the Alone. Akane soon discovers that she can even “dock” with other empowered girls to create a more powerful and mature-looking fusion form called Vivid. Now if only Grandpa hadn't managed to have an accident that transferred his mind and spirit into the body of a stuffed otter. . .
Meanwhile a fifth girl who is a classmate of the heroic quartet, one Rei Kuroki, becomes Akane's target for a new friend. But Rei has her own motivations, and they involve secretly assisting the Alone rather than stopping them.
Despite having many character, plot, and structural elements that are very typical for magical girl series, this original 2013 production from A-1 Pictures is most definitely not intended for the traditional magical girl target audience: preteen and early teen girls. It is, instead, quite squarely an otaku-focused production. The series is clear about this from the very beginning, too, as the first episode only lasts 20 seconds before showing the sun rising directly under the crotch of a girl wearing bloomers. Further crotch shots abound in the early going, the bloomers turn out to be part of the standard school uniform (no skirts will be found here, a la Strike Witches), transformation scenes stress the girls in their underwear, a beach episode is naturally involved, and both suggested and direct frontal nudity will eventually come into play, too. And it should be no surprise that the fusion Vivid forms are also sexy, full-figured adult women. Even the attacks used by the girls get in on this by typically having “Naked” in their names (Nakedrang for the boomerang, Naked Impact for the jet-powered hammer, etc.). So yes, if you are a male anime fan who likes the seemingly contradictory notion of magical girls that are innocent and cute but also have sex appeal then this title is targeted like a laser at you.
But as crass as this may all sound, one need not be interested in fan service to actually enjoy this series; one only need tolerate such elements, as the rest of the series stands plenty well enough without them. The structure here is a very conventional one as magical girl series go: Akane, best friend Aoi, and two other girls emerge as empowered heroines, one per episode over the course of the first four episodes, as they collect together as a team to battle the Alone. Each one has a distinct color theme, each one has her own distinct weapon and specialty, and each one conforms to a stock personality type: Akane is the standard spunky but not-terribly-bright girl who makes friends with everyone, Aoi is the initially diffident rich girl who gradually grows in confidence by using her powers; Wakaba is the competitive, athletic one; and Himawari is the smart one, although she is given a bit of a twist by being both a semi-hikkikomori and the model-pretty one. They have flashy transformation sequences, gradually become close friends outside of their duties, and learn to triumph through the power of friendship. They even have a makeshift mascot character in otter-Grandpa, who is also their equipper and overseer, too! And of course there's an enemy who has to gradually be won over as well. The “docking” business is a little unusual, as is the more tech-based approach to their powers (yeah, you can say that they aren't technically magic, but they might as well be given how they are used), but neither element is revolutionary for the genre. In fact, both those and other elements in the series suggest that influences were drawn from a wide variety of other titles, including Puella Magi Madoka Magica (Rei is essentially Homura) and Neon Genesis Evangelion (the nature of the Alone and what they do).
So how does this series avoid being relegated to utter mediocrity by its dearth of originality? One major key is that, for all of the series' otaku-pandering elements, director/writer/character designer Kazuhiro Takamura (not surprisingly, the mind behind Strike Witches) never forgets that the content is mostly supposed to be fun. Allow the girls to be who they are, to play out their parts with spirit and energy, to have big hearts and silly moments, and to have opportunities to build on their friendships without overloading on sweetness, and they will do just fine. The other major key is an outstanding and impeccably-used musical score. Magical girls series (or at least ones that are not named Princess Tutu or scored by Yuki Kajiura) so rarely get robust musical scores that one can easily underestimate just how effectively quality orchestration and the occasional light rock number can drive a series to a level of entertainment value well beyond what the series could otherwise accomplish. Action scenes have grand, sweeping numbers which power the events without overpowering them, while everyday scenes have breezier numbers which set the tone just right. The opener may not be anything terribly special, nor are any of the closers (the first six episodes each use a different one, with the sixth one ultimately being the regular entry), but even they still suit the series well.
That the artistic and technical merits aren't shabby certainly does not hurt, either. CG renditions of the Alone and military craft are integrated in more smoothly than normal and action scenes have plenty of thrill factor and movement. Ordinary scenes late in the series do occasionally depend on still shots, but on the whole the animation effort is still better than average. While nothing original may be done with the character designs, the artistry still generally looks good, the coloring of the girls' combat uniforms and weaponry are vibrant, and color schemes are consistent almost to a fault for the girls; each one has hair and eye color similar to her uniform color, for instance.
While only Rie Murakawa (the voice of Aoi) was playing her first lead ensemble role, the experience level of the seiyuu for the five lead girls is not great; only Maaya Uchida, the voice of Rei, had multiple previous lead vocal roles. (Rikka in Love, Chunibyou, and Other Delusions and Rea in Sankarea were the two most prominent.) They all acquit themselves well enough for the roles, though, and Masaki Terasoma (Samurai 7's Shimada Kanbei) gives a fine supporting job as the grandfather who seems not too inconvenienced by being a stuffed otter.
Aniplex's American release of the series lacks an English dub and is only available on DVD. It only provides a truncated list of English credits as a separate entry on the disks and does not offer offer translated lyrics for the opening and closing themes. The only Extras included are clean versions of all of the openers and closer and the longer Next Episode previews that are available online. A set of character-featuring post cards is present as a physical Extra, and the case does have a reversible cover inside of a slipcover, but one is still getting no more than a typical sub-only release from other companies for an MSRP that is $15-$25 higher than typical DVD prices.
Despite the descriptions given above, exactly how this one succeeds as well as it does is still a little mysterious. Unless one finds the fan service inappropriate, though, the series never lets viewers down, and may even occasionally surprise with the comedic or lightly emotional impetus it sometimes achieves. It still is definitely not for younger audiences and will not turn the anime world on its head like a Madoka Magica, but it cannot simply be pushed aside as “just another magical girl” series, either.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Great and well-used musical score, mostly good technical merits, never forgets that it should be fun.
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