The Summer 2016 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
Fifteen-year-old Mahiru likes to keep things simple. It's a trait that dates back to when his mother died, leaving him an orphan with relatives bickering over who was going to take him in. In the midst of all of the arguing, his uncle stepped in, and from that day on Mahiru would rather volunteer to take on anything rather than live with regrets later. Now living on his own, Mahiru takes in a stray black kitten he finds on the street, because that seems to be the simplest course of action. Unfortunately for him, the kitten, who he names Kuro, is actually a vampire who turns into a cat in sunlight. Mahiru and Kuro don't get along at all, but when rumors of an evil vampire attacking people in the neighborhood turns out to be true, they form a pact to stop it. Now Mahiru is the master of a Servamp – and it looks like the two of them are going to be busy. SERVAMP is based on a manga series and can be found streaming on Funimation, Tuesdays at 11:00 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
Aspiring anime comedy writers take note: repeating a character's one gag over and over doesn't ever make it more funny. SERVAMP basically revolves around one not-quite-joke. Powerless human master Mahiru tries to solve everyone's problems by himself to keep things simple and avoid trouble, while his powerful vampire servant Kuro tries his best not to do anything ever to keep things simple and avoid trouble. Their starkly opposed ideas on the best way to keep worries at bay only land them in a world of danger when enemy vampires come knocking, and that's the joke, the whole joke, nothing but the joke! Hopefully the back-and-forth of "We have to do something!" and "I don't wanna do anything..." doesn't bore you too much inside of one half-hour, but even as a big fan of campy boys, monsters, and kitty cats, I was checking the time every couple minutes or so.
Crass-yet-cute fujoshi-style comedy can be tremendously entertaining with the right variety of weirdos in the boy-band and solid enough production chops. I'm not a big fan of Bungo Stray Dogs, but even that shakily-written series understands the formula needed to help its cast find their audience: it looks good, and the fantasy dudes stand out. Its unexpected combinations of were-tigers and Anne of Green Gables are enough to keep me watching even if I'm not emotionally attached to the story. But SERVAMP relies on parroting the same basic joke twenty times for every new forgettable bishonen, and no amount of mild BDSM imagery and blood-gushing action can make up for its pretty pithy animation budget. This story needs to drop some of the juvenile repetition and introduce a lot more bite if it wants to please vampire fiction connoisseurs, and it needs to ramp up the camp and hotness to please an overserved fujoshi audience this season.
For the most part, SERVAMP just exists without forging forward enough in either direction to make a strong impression. Nicest thing I can say for the show is that it errs on the side of being annoying instead of boring, but that will definitely change if it keeps trotting out the same jokes every episode.
Servamp feels like at least three shows of varying quality crammed into one. If you were to pick out a single scene from this episode, you might end up with an amusing comedy about a guy and his pet vampire, an underwhelming morality tale about stepping up to do the right thing, or a bloody and self-indulgent action series. These multiple personalities don't always play well with one another, and the show's frequent tonal shifts are often pretty rough. Even so, the individual parts are good enough to add up to a pretty decent first episode.
The series benefits from a well-matched pair of main characters. Mahiru's straightforward “leave everything to me” attitude and Kuro's depressed laziness are an entertaining combination even though neither of the guys is especially compelling alone. The contrast between them leads to some amusing dialogue, and that chemistry makes Kuro's mandatory “Vampires 101” explanation much easier to sit through. Future episodes will need to expand Kuro's emotional range beyond his exhausted griping routine, but a few of his lines hint at a more interesting personality waiting to be developed.
The episode's shift from goofy comedy to extravagant violence happens with all the subtlety of a runaway freight train. It's almost a good thing that the villain of the week is so over the top, as his obsession with attention actually plays into his jarring arrival. The fight between him and Kuro is brief and not all that impressive as far as the animation goes, but Servamp's colorful visual style helps make it interesting to watch. The narrative appears to be headed in a pretty standard “antiheroes versus cackling villains” direction, which is acceptable for a genre title.
If you don't mind getting a little more style than substance in an action series, Servamp should fit the bill. It'll need to work on balancing its various elements over the course of the season, but I'd rather watch an entertaining show with a few wrinkles to iron out than a bland one that hits all of its marks perfectly.
I think I may now have identified the most irritating new character of the season. That would be Kuro, the vampire who is a self-admitted hikkikomori and so lazy that he is apparently also (fittingly) referred to as Sloth. His character type – the morose guy who finds absolutely everything to be a bother to do – has come up enough times over the last decade or so that it's now its own archetype, and he is the most annoying iteration of it that I have yet seen. That he can turn into a relatively cute black cat when exposed to the sun – which is actually an interesting concept – only assuages that a little. Doubtless he's meant to be a foil to a master who is so take-the-initiative in attitude that he strives to be the “someone” in “someone has to do this” situations (which is itself becoming something of an archetype), but at this point, at least, the chemistry just isn't there. Kuro is so over-the-top in his lethargy that his connection to Mahiru just creates grating clashes instead, and that is killing the stylish cool factor that the artistry and animation are trying to evoke.
The whole approach the series takes, and the style that it uses, enough resembles that of Akame ga KILL! (whose source manga starting 15 months before Servamp's did) that I have to think that there's some direct influence that KILL has on Servamp. That means characters suddenly either appearing or flipping into crazed mode to unleash bloody havoc, typically with exaggerated wicked grins on their faces, and the magician-vampire who appears to attack Mahiru and his friends fits that bill quite nicely. It also sports the same whipsaw shifts between Comedy Mode and Serious Mode. The cut-rate fight animation also has a similar feel to it. None of these similarities should be considered favorable for this series, either, as KILL mildly succeeded despite them rather than because of them.
This one does at least have some potential to go beyond that, though. The byplay between Mahiru and his friends, who clearly care and worry about him, is a more natural set of dialogue exchanges than anything that appeared in KILL, and the concept has some interest factor. (Kuro is apparently not the only vampire who transforms into something small and cute when in distress.) It also has a kick-but pair of opener and closer; the former is a hyped-up heavy metal number, while the latter is more of a pop tune featuring the whole cast dancing in turn. Really, the closer in particular is worth watching even if you don't watch the rest of he episode.
In all, the first episode isn't that great but it isn't a flop, either. Tone down (or perhaps tone up?) Kuro and the series might be watchable.
Servamp, a portmanteau of “servant” and “vampire,” is kind of an odd duck. On the one hand, it's a goofy show about a guy who takes home a stray kitten only to find out that the cat's really a lazy self-proclaimed shut-in vampire who turns into a kitten in sunlight. Since Mahiru is a proactive kind of guy, he and the vampire form a classic odd couple and wackiness ensues. On the other hand, Mahiru's an orphan who will always volunteer to be the “someone else” people are looking for so that there are no arguments as a result of no one wanting to take him in after his mother died. There are rumors of a vampire slashing/eating people around town that turn out to be terribly true when the creature attacks (and kills?) his friend Ryusei right in front of him. To say that this story is unbalanced is to put it mildly.
What's surprising is that it kind of works. That's to say that there aren't really any major jarring moments between the two modes of the story, with the comedy and horror elements, if not blending precisely, at least work with rather than against each other. In a lot of ways this is embodied by the relationship between Mahiru and Kuro, the kitten/vampire he takes in and forms a contract with. The two of them are polar opposites, with Kuro preferring to lay around eating the contents of Mahiru's pantry while Mahiru takes on pretty much the entirety of his class' school festival project. It's not surprising that ultimately it is Mahiru who forces their contract; after accidentally forming a temporary one, he deliberately makes Kuro drink his blood to cement it in order to avenge Ryusei. How Kuro feels about this isn't actually said, but given that he lets slip that he's avoided drinking blood for a century, he's probably not thrilled. Nevertheless, he proves to be a very capable fighter, which is a good thing because Tsubaki, the master of the guy they take out, is clearly wandering around in psychopath territory. This may indicate that the story is going to stick with the darker side of things once it gets going, and that would work, while the interplay of the two leads' personalities could continue to provide a little levity when it's needed.
It helps as well that this is fun to look at. The character designs for the humans are fairly bland, but the vampires each have distinct appearances that fit a character type – Kuro's human form has a sort of rocker look while the vampire he fights looks like he was inspired by a mix of the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat. Tsubaki appears to wear traditional Japanese clothes, and actually even the boys each wear their uniforms uniquely, giving us an idea that they each have their own personal style. The colors tend towards the bold, which works well for this in that it makes the blacks and darker, more sinister scenes look even more dangerous. The ending theme really stands out for animation as the (apparently large) cast dances in a spotlight. It's actually my favorite part of the episode because it just has such a good time with itself.
Servamp definitely has potential, although it risks becoming very unbalanced if it isn't careful with how it handles its dueling elements. It has some interesting things to consider, such as whether Kuro is the vampire's original name or he's just too lazy to tell Mahiru his real one and what happened to Mahiru's uncle who took him in. If the story can answer the more mundane questions along with its supernatural plotline as well as keep things even, this might be an interesting series to keep an eye on.
There are a fair number of subcategories within the broad, amorphous action-fantasy genre, and so far, it looks like SERVAMP is hewing pretty closely to the Akame ga KILL! model. That style prefers its action with a heavy dose of showering blood and cackling villains - it's the grindhouse aesthetic, perfectly suited to this show's numetal opening song. Like Deadman Wonderland and Future Diary and many others before it, SERVAMP matches its standard teenage protagonist and battle-focused narrative with a carnival-esque atmosphere and love of ultraviolence. If you're a fan of that archetype, SERVAMP is ready to please.
Of course, not all of these shows are exactly the same. Your feelings on that genre will likely dictate the larger part of your reaction to this episode, but as far as things that distinguish such shows, I liked the choice of protagonist here. Mahiru isn't a dark and tortured sob story of a character; he's competent and likable, and his desire to help others stems very understandably from the way his uncle once saved him. Mahiru seems more like a genuinely good kid than an escapist fantasy, and that helps lend some grounding to this episode's vampire-focused shenanigans.
Outside of that, there isn't all that much to recommend here. The fight choreography is pretty much non-existent - fights are basically just stills interspersed with blood splatter, as characters grimly mutter about what a pain everything is or cackle about “the fun and exciting vampire parade to hell.” That line is about par for this show's dialogue - Mahiru's vampire companion Kuro basically only discusses things in terms of what a bother they are, and the first villain here could be swapped out for any other one-note magician-themed bad guy. The silliness of the writing and lack of animation drain what tension could exist here; the battle between Kuro and the magician feels like a fight between artificial constructs, with the only reward being the bulging eyes and blood geysers you expect from this sort of show.
SERVAMP lacks either the aesthetic polish or narrative creativity to stand out even within its fairly undemanding field, meaning this episode won't likely do much for anyone not already committed to the crazy-eyes school of action-fantasy. Also, I'm pretty sure no one involved in this production actually knows what a cat looks like.
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