The Spring 2021 Preview Guide
Blue Reflection Ray
by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Blue Reflection Ray ?
What is this?
Optimistic Hiori can't turn away anyone in need. Awkward Ruka can't seem to make friends, even when she tries. But these two do have one thing in common: they're both magical girls called Reflectors! Together, this unlikely pair will use their powers to help resolve emotional struggles and protect the Fragments of people's hearts.
How was the first episode?
Blue Reflection Ray takes home the prize for the tongue-twistiest title of the season. Seriously, try saying it out loud five times fast. That will be the only time you associate anything fast with the series, because this first episode is sloooooooooow, until the very end, when it isn't.
It follows Ruka, the new girl at school, who is absolutely terrified of talking to people. Her classmates try to be friendly, but she just stammers in response. She feels like she's never going to connect to them, but two things change matters: first, her missing roommate Hiori makes a grand entrance through their window instead of the dorm. Then, she picks up a ring dropped by a mysterious girl on the street, and the world freezes and changes colors for an instance. Hiori has a matching ring that she wears on a chain around her neck – could it be a coincidence?
I might have mixed up the order of those two events because I just found it really hard to care. Most of the episode is girls having mundane conversations in rather artless dialogue. There seem to be a dozen girls with slightly differentiated facial features that slide around their faces like an air hockey puck, and identical sunburns. The art and shot composition look like they were concocted by a 15-year-old armed with a “How to Draw Manga” book circa 2005, and the coloring makes the characters look like they tried to put on sunscreen before going to the beach, but were afraid of getting it in their eyes and forgot to get their fingers or the underside of their arms covered.
By the time things got interesting, I was completely checked out. While I still couldn't tell you the details of the plot because they have slipped completely out of my mind, things do get pretty cool visually. The villain shows up, and the world becomes overlaid with a marbled oil slick pattern dotted with flowers and butterflies, and Ruka and Hiori transform into some pretty nifty-looking magical girls that are kind of reminiscent of Flip Flappers. It's visually interesting, even if I'm well past caring about the plot.
Blue Reflection Ray is inoffensively boring and for the most part poorly-animated, but at least it was neat to look at for a few minutes!
“In which a new magical girl is born.”
Ever have the feeling that you missed an episode somewhere while watching a premiere of a show? That's an initial impression I got from the first episode of Blue Reflection Ray. It starts by dropping us into what seems to be the middle of the story, where magical girls are fighting other magical girls, with one appearing to give up in the process. Then we make a hard jump to an unspecified time in the future.
Instead of any of the previously seen magical girls, we are introduced to our protagonist (at least for this episode) Ruka, a girl who has transferred to a new school for a fresh start. She is socially awkward and doesn't know how to respond to people, which makes her seem cold and aloof to the other students she interacts with. On a deeper level, we see that her problems with personal interaction stem from her thinking that she doesn't understand other people and fearing that anything she says might be interpreted as her sticking her nose where it doesn't belong. It looks like even in this new environment, Ruka will be stuck in social isolation after all.
However, it's then that Hiori, Ruka's missing roommate, burst into the scene. Hiori is the polar opposite of Ruka. If she sees a person that even looks like they might be in trouble, she acts on it—regardless of whether her help is wanted or not. Thus, even when the two girls become trapped in an odd time-frozen world, Hiori immediately sets out to help a person in need. It's also why, when rich-girl-with-problems Miyako falls from the roof at the end, Hiori runs to grab her. At the same time, Ruka clearly wants to help but is frozen in place, unsure of what to do. It's a solid introduction to our main pair.
Honestly, the thing that bugs me the most about this episode is the character design, specifically the fact that all the characters have the same faces. I was constantly trying to figure out if any of the girls we were following for most of the episode were the same girls we met in the introduction scene, a task made all the more difficult by the girls' hair colors (and potentially hairstyles?) changing when they transform. And then there were the times I wasn't sure whether I was looking at Momo or Miyako as the two both have long, wavy hair (though of slightly different colors). It honestly felt like I had suddenly developed prosopagnosia.
But that oddity aside, this episode was a perfectly fine start to a magical girl anime. I understand our main pair and what drives them. Moreover, the art design during the scene where time stops is fascinating to look at and really gave off an otherworldly feeling. So while nothing about this series has really captured me yet, I'll probably give the next episode a try as well.
Chalk Blue Reflection Ray as another series I wanted to love, only for the final product to end up really testing my patience. On paper, the show has a lot going for it, and I was looking forward to seeing how this adaptation of the RPG might take a thoughtful, character-focused approach that takes its time to establish our heroines' inner conflicts and burgeoning friendship before diving into the magical girl spectacle of it all. I've seen the original game compared to Persona, which is hardly bad company to be in, and the anime's preview showed off a nifty look to the battle settings of the show; I dug the sinister floral imagery that gets plastered all over the world like the evilest wallpaper in existence, freezing it in time. Plus, who doesn't like anime girls transforming into slick outfits and getting into swordfights?
While Blue Reflection Ray does get to some of that cool imagery and whatnot eventually, it spends the vast majority of this first episode being terminally boring. It isn't even necessarily the fault of the writing all on its own, either – though I couldn't help but roll my eyes at some of the more overwrought prose about abstract emotion and trusting in one's feelings, Ruka and Hiori make for fine heroines. Ruka is so shy and clumsy with her words around other people that she can barely connect to anyone at Tsukinomiya High School, while Hiori is the kind of person who'll jump headlong at strangers to try and help them out. Toss in some Spooky schemers that skulk about the halls making their villainous plans, and some magic rings that turn girls into those aforementioned magical fencing Reflectors, and you've got yourself a decent enough setup.
This is one of those anime where the directing and artwork kill the vibe for me more than anything. The colors are mostly washed out and overlit, all of the storyboarding that we see before the battle is quite pedestrian, and the character animation is generally too stiff and restrained. Every shot feels like it lasts just a little too long, as if the animators are scrambling to make every last frame of the episode strain against the show's presumably limited resources.
There are times where I sort of get what the show is going for aesthetically, and the art sort of looks like the cover of a shoujo manga put to motion. Mostly, though, it makes for exceedingly underwhelming television. Blue Reflection Ray is apparently supposed to go for two whole cours, though, so I can see it recovering from this rough start in time. I sure hope that is the case, but for now, consider my expectations set firmly in check.
Okay, before we get into the premiere proper I have to ask that someone, anyone, explain to me what's going on with the shading on characters' skin in this show. At first I thought maybe there was something off on my monitor settings, or maybe Funimation's web player was screwing up, because I initially refused to believe this was how it was meant to look. I'm used to some shiny or rosy skin being used to add texture to anime character designs, but somebody went way overboard here. Everyone looks like they have some unmentioned disorder with their blood circulation, or are nursing a full-body series of bruises, and it's distracting through the entire episode. I couldn't not talk about it because it's all my brain could focus on for several minutes.
Anyway, besides that literal blemish, this is a fine enough premiere for a new magical girl series. Seemingly part of a multimedia push for the nascent Blue Reflection game series, this hits all the notes you'd expect from a magical girl show aimed at older teen audiences. You've got your moody, anxious lead paired with an outgoing and exciting partner who's probably hiding some tragedy of her own. You've got evil magical girls cackling as they feed on the darkness of people's hearts. It's all solid stuff that doesn't break the mold, but it doesn't have to in order to be engaging. Sadly there aren't any magical SD mechs for the girls to pilot, but swords and arrows are fine I suppose; not everyone can be modern masterpiece Granbelm after all.
My biggest issue is that our leads still feel a little one-dimensional by the end of this. Ruka and Hiori exemplify their main character traits the moment they arrive on screen, and never really progress from there. Obviously this is just the first episode, but if they're going to eventually become a fighting duo they need more texture and chemistry to carry the show. I'm also interested in the as-of-yet unnamed third heroine we see, who seems to be the rare adult magical girl. That's potentially a really neat angle and dynamic to play with, so here's hoping. There's overall nothing bad about the writing here, but it just feels too slight and slippery to fully hook onto right now.
The production side seems ambitious, but not particularly graceful right now. There are some neat visual ideas like the bizarre frozen world the characters find themselves in when magic starts running amok, and while we haven't seen a lot of them I do quite like the magical forms of the main cast. But alongside the weird choice for skin shading there is a lot of stiff movement and flat direction. We only see a few short bursts of action this episode, so it's too early to tell how well the actual fights will end up, and that will likely make or break this series. For my part, I hope this is able to succeed, as so far this seems to be avoiding the most obvious and obnoxious pitfalls of “adult” magical girl anime, and it'd nice to see more shows like this.
p.s. Watch Granbelm.
Reflections have a storied history in magical girl art, if not in the stories themselves. It's a pretty common subject for illustrations – the magical girl standing or sitting over a reflective surface, her everyday self looking into a reflection that shows her transformed self. Pretear and Phantom Thief Jeanne have both used the visual trope very well (especially Pretear's variation on the theme), but it's certainly present in many if not most magical girl series' art. That means that Blue Reflection Ray is already on the right track, with its theme of reflections that may or may not mirror the person on the other side of the glass and its powers based on the emotions in the magical girls' hearts.
That's my assumption based on this episode, at any rate. When Hiori, one of two potential new magical girls, first transforms, she hears a voice telling her to lean into her emotions, and later another character comments that there's a new “Reflector,” referring to Hiori's transformed self. That sounds like the girls' transformations are reflections of their feelings, something borne out by the two warring factions of magical girls that the show seems to be setting up – those who steal what I presume to be feelings, and those who embrace their own to save others. It's a good set up, and one that could easily capitalize on the base ideas of the magical girl genre from the classics to the edgier new fare, because no matter why the magical girl transforms, it's usually because she wants to help in some way, and those emotions allow her to access her inner powers. Certainly that theme's present in this season's other magical girl offering, as is the idea that embracing your emotions and accepting them makes you a better, or at least capable, magical girl.
Add to all of this some really neat visuals and this is looking very promising. While the character designs are a bit flat and spindly, the backgrounds for the Leap Range (the world that appears when the magical girls are doing their thing) are fascinating, sort of like painted over oil-slicked water, if that makes any sense. The vines and butterflies that cover the frozen people feel like some sort of Pre- Raphaelite hellscape, and it absolutely works as a background for the action. I don't love the transformation non-sequence or the magical girl costumes (why the exposed belly buttons?), but it's still interesting to look at.
If Tropical-Rouge! Pretty Cure is too fluffy and bright for your magical girl craving, Blue Reflection Ray may be more what you're looking for. I do suspect that there will be some very heavy themes going forward – I do not have a good feeling about what happened to Hiori's sister – but this looks like it'll be worth keeping an eye on.
Blue Reflection Ray is a series that first and foremost gives me pause. I was looking forward to it after watching the promotional video a few weeks ago, and I think overall I liked this opener, but that "like" comes with a multitude of caveats. I'll start with the show's primary issue first: the production quality looks like it's hanging on by a thread and this series is supposed to run for roughly 25 episodes. The adaptation hasn't done Mel Kishida's original character designs any favors, leaving everyone looking...wispy might be the best word. Gradient shading is used throughout and there's not much animation to speak of. Meanwhile there's a sort of washed-out lighting filter, like you're looking at the characters through a sunny glare coming through a window.
The episode is also deliberately obtuse about the sequence of events. There was some kind of magical girl fight at the start, and one of the magical girls involved was likely the elder sister of our (secondary?) protagonist, Hiori. Hiori herself, who exhibits the kind of personality expected of a series lead, only shows up midway through the episode after having mysteriously disappeared for several days. We can infer that the magical girl fight at the beginning caused Hiori to return home unexpectedly before sneaking back into school, but the way it's presented is more confusing than necessary. Also, everyone has caught a case of the sads that may or may not have to do with the villains roaming around stealing girls' flowers.
There are moments when the series overcomes its shaky aesthetic and puts together something really pretty (see above screencap) and the limited CG usage during the magic fight is competent. What puts this show a point above what I'd give it otherwise is the primary protagonist Ruka. I'm sure her personality will be divisive to some as I could just as easily see viewers declaring her boring. She struggles with connecting with others despite obviously wanting to make friends. When she makes a social faux pas, like staring too long at someone because she's interested in what they're saying or doing, she'll lay on her bed in her dorm room and say, "I messed up again." Ruka strikes me as someone who has a hard time conversing in groups because there's too much auditory input and she likes to think through her answers. She's observant of the feelings of others but feels like it's not her place to approach them and inquire about it. Her inability to reach out is what keeps her isolated, but she's trying, going so far as to buy a self-help book in hopes of getting advice.
Hiori seems to be able to read Ruka's intentions without asking and it's their dynamic that makes me willing to give the show a few more episodes. I found it really easy to root for Ruka despite her social difficulties ,and hopefully her own "transformation" will lead her to finding her own happiness.
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