The Summer 2022 Preview Guide
Smile of the Arsnotoria
How would you rate episode 1 of
Smile of the Arsnotoria the Animation ?
Community score: 3.0
What is this?
Here in this magic academy city of Ashram, where everyone is required to live in dormitories, a close-knit group of girls known as "Pentagrams" pursue their studies, including training in manners and magic, to become "true ladies." Arsnotoria, one of the students in Ashram, lives in Dorm 5 and is always with her dormmate friends: Mel, who's the life of the party, Petit Albert, who's quiet and does things at her own pace, Picatrix, who wants to be the class president, and Abramelin, who's always cool. They take classes and work on their school duties together, and they throw tea parties after school in "that room"...
Smile of the Arsnotoria is based on the Nitroplus smartphone role-playing game of the same name and streams on Crunchyroll on Wednesdays.
How was the first episode?
I'm going to be honest: I had very little idea of what the hell was going on during the first nineteen or so minutes of Smile of the Arsnotoria, nor was I particularly invested in figuring any of it out, but it sure was pretty to look at. I had to do a double-take when I saw that Naoyuki Tatsuwa is apparently the same director behind Harem in the Labyrinth of Another World, because that premiere is absolutely terrible, and the crew at Liden Films animated the absolute hell out of this one. I swear, there is more charm and personality in the one scene of Arsnotoria warming up milk with a little magic glowy ball than the entire first episode of Harem put together. It's a funny old world, in that way.
Still, for as lush and colorful as the animation and set design of this anime are, I can't say that I was equally charmed by its cast and story. I can vibe with cute girls doing cute things as much as anyone when the circumstances are right, but I usually need to have some kind of hook to keep me invested (for a great example of how to do hangout shows right, see The Demon Girl Next Door). There is definitely such a thing as being too cutesy, though, and Smile of the Arsnotoria crosses right over that line with gusto, to the point where I'm worried I might need to be concerned about my blood sugar levels.
Outside of the vague setting of the magical academy, there's (almost) nothing in the episode to latch on to aside from our core cast of impossibly shiny and adorable girls, which isn't exactly a selling point if watching a bunch of kids whittle away time by making snacks and bantering for half-an-hour isn't your idea of an amazing time. It's especially hard when you actively bristle at the title character of the anime. The rest of the girls are fine—every one of them slots into their color-coded archetypes without missing a beat, though you'd be hard-pressed to remember anything about them outside of what could get neatly stamped onto a character card in a mobile game. Arsnotoria, though, is such an abstract representation of “cute” that she doubles back around into being a bit unsettling. The girl spends half the episode sniffing her damned hair, for one thing, complete with the oh-so-necessary onomatopoeia. Her voice is also quite grating, even though Misaki Kuno is clearly trying, bless her heart. The poor thing eventually starts making squeaks and other moe sounds that don't even sound like a human-produced them.
So you'll forgive me if I tried to tune out the endless faff of dialogue throughout most of the episode, as I wanted to focus as much as possible on the lovely art instead. Naturally, though, I snapped to attention when the completely unexplained deluge of bloody death arrived to close off the premiere. At this point, it's become a cliché in its own right to end an overly saccharine episode like this with a shocking left turn into R-rated mayhem, but it's the kind of cliché that works on my lizard brain. Is the mystery of this seeming inquisition enough to keep me coming back for more Smile of the Arsnotoria? It's hard to say, though I'm happy to know that there might be some attempt at substance to go with all of the style on display.
The sensation of finishing the first episode of Smile of the Arsnotoria is akin to waking up from a poorly-timed nap, where you spend a long time bored and half-awake on the couch. Your alarm goes off just after you enter the REM cycle, jarring you into a groggy, unpleasant wakefulness. You feel confused and disoriented, and the purpose of trying to nap has been completely defeated.
Smile of the Arsnotoria desperately wants to lull you into a false sense of security. It wants you to think it's a cute girls doing cute things show, with its adorable character designs and tea time banter with occasional vague gestures at something darker. And then, wham! It shocks you at the end with surprising darkness. A few anime series have managed that to great effect, most famously Puella Magi Madoka Magica, though my personal favorite to pull that off is School-Live! However, Arsnotoria doesn't quite manage.
Why? Because everything up until the rug pull is desperately boring. Arsnotoria and her friends sip tea and exposit about their training as ladies and struggle to open jars and oh god I think I'm going to fall back asleep just writing about it. The aforementioned successful examples had skilled directors and writers at their helm who managed to effectively build a creeping sense that there is something desperately wrong going on in the background. Arsnotoria makes two major mistakes: a lack of proper foreshadowing, and also revealing way too much of their hand in the OP, so any suspense they might have managed to build was immediately killed.
Oh hey, did you know the Ars Notoria is a famous medieval grimoire? Learn something new every day.
It's a pretty nice-looking show, with cute character designs by Shinichiro Otsuka and a beautiful magical school setting, but Arsnotoria is unbearably squeaky. Then again, I suppose there's really only so much you can do with this material…
I'm open to the idea of Smile of the Arsnotoria becoming something interesting; I'll definitely keep my ear to the ground to see if any positive word-of-mouth crops up. But unless it gets good, and soon, I'd rather get the extra half hour of sleep every week.
I'm well aware that there is a section of anime fans who love relaxing anime. For them, nothing could be better than a show about cute girls going shopping for pastries or sitting around having tea while discussing the proper order to put toppings on scones. I, sadly, am not one of those anime fans. The whole “cute girls” aspect does little for me—especially in this first episode of Smile of the Arsnotoria. Each of these girls is a one-note stereotype: we have the spoiled princess, the shy girl, the lazy girl, the sporty girl, and the calm leader. Using these well-established roles, the dialogue pretty much writes itself—and what's predictable is often also boring.
That said, Smile of the Arsnotoria does have a few saving graces. The first is obvious: the animation is downright beautiful. The color pallet is also excellent, as is the direction; whether it's our heroines jumping off a building or walking down a hall, the visual presentation is downright stunning.
The other aspect that saves the episode from complete doldrum is the amount of subtle world-building going on through every scene. Sometimes, it comes through dialogue, like learning the general basis for what the girls are doing or the fact that they are apparently located above London (perhaps literally given that magic's involved). Other times, we get some great visual storytelling, like showing the existence of spirits or that the school's economy is based on mana. The trickle of information comes at the perfect pace, so while I may not have cared much about adding milk to tea or just how to open a stuck jam jar, I was hyper-fixated on what was going on, searching each frame for more information about the fascinating world this series takes place in.
So, in the end, this is a series that is half fantastic world-building and half wonderfully animated boredom. Not enough for me to watch another episode, but not a waste of my time either.
There's a story hiding somewhere in Arsnotoria, but this premiere is in no great rush to tell you what it is. There are hints, certainly, but they exist at the fringes in scattered lines of dialogue and background events. There are subtle things, like a mysterious cat in a witch hat that creeps in the shadows, unnoticed by the human characters. There are bombastic things, like the final minutes of the story shifting to a completely different place and showing the bloody destruction of a town by our heretofore un-alluded-to villains. There are a ton of little background details – and imagery in the OP – that tell you something is up in this world, but you're going to have to strap in for the long haul before it tells you anything concrete.
And I do mean a while, because the actual, upfront portion of this premiere is as slow and stake-less as you can get without turning into a documentary about drying paint. Across a full episode, our titular heroine, Arsnotoria, traipses around magic school with her friends, haggles with the fairy that runs the school store, drinks tea, and fails to open a jar of jam for several minutes. There is occasional banter, the barest hints of world-building, but otherwise it's the epitome of uneventful. Maybe this is an attempt at firmly establishing these girls' daily lives before the actual story arrives to shake things up, but either way this episode on its own does basically nothing to sell itself to anyone who doesn't want to watch anime girls faff about at a magic school with no particular aim or conflict.
I'm not really sure if I'm in that camp. I'm a notorious mark for magic school stories that aren't based on godawful light novels, and there are certainly some charming aspects to this setting. I especially love the little Pikmin creatures that seem to be the school's helpers – they're just ugly and cute enough to work as perfect mascots. The backgrounds capture that exact right kind of medieval fantasy castle aesthetic that makes these settings feel both fanciful and grounded. There are also some fun, understated character gags like Little Alberta (Yes that's her name, for some reason) gradually sinking further into her mountain of pillows as the tea party goes on.
But the majority of this episode was slow and quiet in ways that are dull rather than charming. Our cast are all extremely cutesy personalities with little in the way of comedic friction or even just interesting banter. While the direction and production keep their conversations engaging on a visual level, it's hard to ignore how little is actually accomplished with most of what is said. Did we really need a lengthy discussion about whether you should spread marmalade or clotted cream on your scones first? And that's all if you can get past the odd quirks our titular heroine displays, like constantly holding a lock of hair over her mouth and sniffing around the castle like moe Toucan Sam. All the lively direction and appealing character designs in the world can't help you if you don't have a serious tolerance for fluffy anime girl-isms.
So I can't blame anybody if they are bored to tears by this premiere – I'm kind of there myself – but this is also the perfect season for Arsnotoria to air. If ever there was a time where waiting for a show to maybe become interesting was a decent use of your time, it's now, when the seasonal offerings are so sparse. Maybe this will become an engaging magical girl series like the OP promises. Maybe it'll spend three months twiddling its thumbs in between eating enchanted eclairs. Either way, I'm at least curious to see which one it picks.
Smile of the Arsnotoria commits a few of my cardinal anime sins right off the bat: terminally cute and boring featuring girls who attempt to pass off single traits as entire personalities, and a gross misunderstanding of how curtseying works. (Yes, the last one is my stupid pet peeve, but if these girls are trying to become “ladies,” you'd think they'd know better.) There's also info-dumping, which certainly doesn't help – most of the tea party, which is most of the episode, is simply Picatrix explaining who the girls are and what they're supposed to be learning/doing. There's also a discussion of whether milk should be hot or cold and when it should be put into tea, just in case you're not keen on extended scenes of too-cute-to-live Tori struggling to open a jar of strawberry jam.
Then we get to the last few minutes, when suddenly we appear to be in a different show, one where merciless pale men in dark robes burn a town and slaughter people for reasons. It's the sort of bait-and- switch that can, and has, worked well before, but it doesn't quite here; mostly that's because in the most infamous of examples (School-Live!, Puella Magi Madoka Magica), there are still hints of darkness and something being somehow wrong behind the scenes of fabricated saccharine joy. But we don't get that here – yes, there's the odd blurriness of the teacher the girls pass in the hall, but that's not quite enough to make us question anything else about the story's world. Possibly Tori's intense sniffing abilities are intended to indicate that she's something other than human, but given that the girls are all attending a magic school, it doesn't quite cut it. I'm also mildly confused that the school is called an “ashram,” because that word specifically has religious connotations, but honestly that's the least of this episode's issues.
I may very well be judging this too harshly based on it being a near-perfect combination of things that annoy me. The character designs are cute, after all, and I'm a sucker for a beautiful, detailed background that functions as world-building by merely existing. But the balance is so off and the pacing so glacial that I can't see subjecting myself to any more of this. On the plus side, if you love cute girl stories, this may be right up your alley – especially if a story opening without much in the way of plot isn't an issue for you.
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