Reviewby Theron Martin, Jun 11th 2014
Aesthetica of a Rogue Hero [Limited Edition]
Over the past few decades the number of individuals worldwide who have been spirited away to what can only be called fantasy realms has numbered into the tens of thousands. About half manage to return through Otherworld Gates after being gone for years, typically coming back in possession of some degree of magical power. Those that do are taken to Babel, an organization that shelters such individuals and trains them in the use of their abilities, ones which commonly get used on battlefields around the world (though the students don't always know that). One such individual is Akatsuki Ousawa, a roguish fellow who became a hero in the land of Alayzard but defied the wishes of one of the queens of that land and returned anyway, surreptitiously taking the naked girl Miu in tow. Though Akatsuki claims that Miu is his long-lost little sister, she is actually the daughter of the last Dark Lord of Alayzard, who charged the man who finally defeated him with her care. It is a duty that Akatsuki takes quite seriously, though he also claims that he cannot abide anyone who makes a woman cry, finds plenty of time to pick fights with anyone stupid enough to challenge him, and is not above occasionally employing his ultimate skill: removing the undergarments of a fully-clothed woman without otherwise defrocking her. Some of his antics of course bring him into conflict with the Student Council of the Japan Babel High School, but along the way he and Miu also earn some valuable friends and allies, too – which is good, because some powerful people in his native world have interest in him and powerful people in Alayzard have interest in what happened to Miu.
Imagine a harem series where the male lead is a handsome stud who is not only quite capable but also quite cocky and quite adept at handling himself around the ladies and you more or less have this 12 episode series from 2012, which is an adaptation of the first part of a light novel series. The result is something somewhat unusual for the subtheme: a series of situations where the male character is almost invariably in control of the circumstances rather than at the mercy of them. In fact, the nature of Akatsuki's character suggests a deliberate attempt to mix traditional shonen elements with traditional harem elements. Predictably, the results are mixed.
Common wisdom is that the male leads in harem series are typically milquetoasts so that they can be audience insert characters for otaku who have limited or no romantic experience with members of the opposite sex. Aesthetica is One Piece of a picture which suggests that there is a bit more to it than that, however. (The upcoming American release of School Days will be the other.) Non-Japanese fans often complain that they want to see harem leads be more assertive, but the problem is that such characters can very easily cross a line from being playful to being aggressively creepy when they do actively assert themselves instead of just “accidentally” fondling a female character. Some of that can be seen in Akatsuki's portrayal here. The writing goes to great pains to show Akatsuki is not really a lascivious ass because he usually has a specific purpose behind his prurient actions; in one scene where he fondles a character's breasts, for instance, he is actually showing her the proper way to fit her ample cleavage into a bra. In other cases his removal-of-undergarments trick is suggested to be a way to throw off female attackers without actually harming them. In other cases emphasis is place on him having a devilish side, albeit one mixed with a definite amount of gallantry; this is a guy, after all, who swore to take in and look after the daughter of a defeated enemy.
However, the series teeters on the brink with its justifications so often that occasionally stepping over the edge is inevitable. That most prominently happens with the “sympathetic peeing” incident in one early episode, where Akatsuki uses his energy manipulation ability to have one girl's desperate need to pee in a circumstance where a group of them are locked in a room shared with a couple of other girls, with the logic being that the experience is less embarrassing if shared. While that is the most tasteless that the series ever gets, a couple of other later incidents are also hard to explain away.
That aspect aside, the premise is otherwise essentially just another excuse to have super-powered individuals wandering around and gathered at a particular school. The element of crossing over from another world is a fresher twist, as is the male lead being the guardian/protector for the offspring of a defeated foe, and various tidbits dropped along the way suggest a lot of potential for a fairly involved and interesting backstory. (Sadly, that is not delved into in detail anywhere in this series.) Miu's circumstances are also a draw, although the discomfort of her fitting into a new world is never played up much (certainly not to the degree that such things are handled in, say, The Devil is a Part-Timer!) and the awkward position she is placed in by her continuing existence potentially endangering both those around her and people back in Alayzard does not come up until late in the series. When it does, though, it is given heavy emphasis, and the series ends with the implications that the consequences of saving and protecting her are far from over.
Aesthetica also wants to be a super-powered action series, and indeed does have plenty of flashy super-powered displays. Sadly, though, its action is better in concept than execution; what Akatsuki can do with his energy manipulation power is quite neat, but the animation simply is not robust enough to execute sustained fights, which commonly results in lots of shortcuts even in featured scenes. The characterization, though not deep, is actually better, as there is a genuine sense of Miu and two other girls (one a lesbian, the other much younger) coming together as both friends and a team.
Studio ARMS produced the series, so a certain level of production quality, especially in fan service scenes, can be expected. (Also watch for a couple of cameos from their Queen's Blade franchise between the main series and the Extras.) Character designs – whether male or female – are invariably sexy, and displays of undergarments and bare female flesh are frequent, though ARMS has done better work of this type elsewhere. Overall the aesthetic is good but not a stand-out, and the limited action animation restricts how much of a visual impact it can make.
The series does a better with its musical score. Strong hard rock opener “Realization” anchors it at the front and its closer pairs a decent lighter rock song with visuals that obsess on Miu's bouncing chest. In between the oft-orchestrated score does a reasonably good job of setting the mood for more serious content, though it is a little shakier on more frivolous fare.
The strongest aspect of Funimation's release of the title is actually its English dub, which helps makes the series content more tolerable. The script by J. Michael Tatum and Patrick Seitz may juice the dialogue more than a little bit, but Eric Vale uses it to nail the cocky stud characterization of Akatsuki without making him seem like a total dick. None of the other performances miss the mark, either, and the dialogue fits seamlessly with the attitudes of the characters.
The release is being offered as one of Funimation's standard Blu-Ray/DVD combo packs, with each version having two disks split between two cases that come in an artbox. Both cases have bonus interior art, and on-disk extras include character-specific promos, other series promos, English cast/staff commentary for episodes 3 and 8, and six installments of “Embarrassing Original Videos.” The latter are 3-4 minute parody shorts which, in following recent tradition, are completely fan service-focused and allegedly funny, although anyone who did not care much for Akatsuki in the main series will like him even less in these bonus shorts. They are run-of-the-mill fare which generate more yawns than laughs.
Aesthetica regrettably ends just as the plot is finally starting to kick into high gear and with a lead-in to what will presumably be the next major story arc, hence giving the feel that this should have been a 24 instead of 12 episode series. No further anime adaptation has yet been announced, however, leaving those wishing to see the continuation of the story to hunt out the original novels (which have not been released in English as of the time of this writing). While the series does not excel at anything, it does eventually show to have some plot and can work decently as a fan service-friendly modern-world fantasy/action/harem series if the aforementioned borderline creepiness does not turn you off. However, there are numerous better anime examples out there for just about everything it does.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : B
+ Strong male harem lead, strong English dub (especially in the lead role), has some potentially interesting conceptual and backstory elements.
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