Reviewby Theron Martin,
Ai Yori Aoshi
DVD Brick Set
Do you remember your first love? What it felt like? Do you remember thinking that it would last forever?
Aoi Sakuraba, sole daughter and heir to the Sakuraba conglomerate, can remember. Betrothed to Kaoru Hanabishi, heir to another powerful family, at an early age, Aoi found herself smitten on first contact and spent her formative years devoutly training to become the perfect traditional Japanese wife for Kaoru. When their engagement is broken off without explanation years later, Aoi travels to Tokyo to seek Kaoru out and find out what happened. A chance encounter leads to a fateful reunion, where she discovers a lonely college student who has turned his back on his family. Aoi's firm resolution to resist her parent's wishes and stay with Kaoru, even if it means turning her back on her own family (for, without his family connection, Kaoru doesn't have the standing to be the husband of an heiress), ultimately leads to a compromise: the betrothal can continue and they can live together in one of the Sakuraba mansions, but only under the supervision of Aoi's guardian Miyabi and only if they keep the nature of their relationship a secret.
To further disguise the truth, they pretend to be landlady and borderer and gradually take on several other female borderers, including Kaoru's classmates Tina and Taeko and, later, Taeko's younger cousin Chika. Miyu, a wealthy but lonely girl whom Kaoru once befriended and unintentionally won her heart, also eventually joins the cast, forming a bitter rivalry with Tina. Many comedic and romantic adventures and misadventures ensue as the girls try to win Kaoru's attention while he tries to sneak around and have his moments with Aoi.
Based on the 17-volume manga series by Kou Fumizuki, Ai Yori Aoshi does not look like anything special on its surface. Most of its characters are pretty typical archetypes as harem series go, the set-up feels as gimmicky as ever for the genre, and the events that play out are mostly the typical slice-of-life moments one would expect to see in any anime romantic comedy. Its artistry and music, while both good, cannot sell the title on their own, either. So why was the first 24-episode series such a surprise smash hit on both sides of the Pacific that it warranted a 12-episode follow-up?
Although this may seem like an oversimplification, it really comes down to one thing: the relationship between central characters Kaoru and Aoi works. They look so right when sharing serious, intimate moments together that the appropriateness of their pairing is impossible to deny; nearly every scene showing the two of them together is poster-worthy. Unlike most couples in romantic comedies, their personalities also complement each other perfectly. Aoi's ceaseless devotion, though charming, might overwhelm a lesser man, and her worrywart nature requires a gentle, stable, and reassuring presence in her mate. Kaoru, for his part, has such an unpleasantly lonely past that he needs the kind of unconditional and welcoming love that Aoi can offer, something that he has been sorely missing since his youth. He has enough backstory that we can quickly see and sympathize with his reasons for turning his back on his family and refusing to return, even if it means winning a woman like Aoi. Before the third episode ends it has become clear that he is not the typical spineless loser who normally ends up at the center of a harem series, although the girls who come in later do spend a lot of time running over him. And while some American viewers may take issue with Aoi's absolute domestic devotion, it should be remembered that she is intended to be the epitome of a young traditional Japanese housewife. The title does not ignore how much this puts her at odds with the more typical modern young Japanese woman, however, as can be seen clearly when she visits Kaoru on campus in one episode.
The title also departs from the typical harem format by making it absolutely clear up front who Kaoru is going to be with, and why. Unlike most other harem series, this one is also always at its best when focusing solely on its two lead characters, especially in its excellent first 3½ episodes and the last three of the first series, with various snippets scattered throughout the rest to sustain viewers through the sometimes-tedious antics of the supporting cast. The rest of the girls, though a colorful and diverse bunch, are usually only distractions and excuses for humor who represent common harem romantic comedy archetypes. (They all have counterparts in Tenchi Muyo, for instance.) On several occasions throughout both series one girl or another does have an opportunity to set aside her normal antics and show some real depth, but only once in 36 episodes does one of them provide even a brief serious temptation for Kaoru. His restriction on openly admitting that Aoi is his fiancée gives them plenty of opportunities to try, however.
The other negative that cannot be ignored is that both series – especially ~Enishi~ – fall into the trap of relying on filler content to pad out a story with little real plot. Most of the blame for this falls on the original manga, however, which both series follow closely if not necessarily in the same scene order. And while the first series has somewhat of a resolution to end with, the second series is entirely open-ended because the manga was not finished at the time the anime concluded. Those hoping to see the background issues belaboring Kaoru and Aoi's relationship ultimately dealt with will be left disappointed. (But there's always the manga, whose American release should be complete by the end of 2007, for that.) One might also criticize the writing for needlessly straying into melodrama at times, but on the whole it does find a satisfying balance of humor, charm, and drama.
Also important to remember is that, for all its sweet and tender moments, this is still as much a comedy as a romance, and it usually does well on that front. The content rarely lacks for effectiveness when trying to be funny. Despite not using the defined frontal nudity that is a staple of the manga version, it has no shortage of fan service, either.
Although both series excel in their artistry, ~Enishi~ looks prettier than the original. Background art is usually good, but the focus is always on the character designs. With her stylishly short hair and a conservative purple kimono hiding her delicate but amply-endowed figure, Aoi strikes a modest but distinctive look which not only mixes cute and sexy but clearly distinguishes her from other female anime leads. Occasional impressive costume changes spice things up even further, especially the striking kimono passed down from her grandmother that Aoi wears for a Cherry Blossom Festival in one episode. (Whether tasteful swimsuit or cute tennis outfit, she looks great in anything.) All of the other female characters have distinctive looks, too, most notably the pigtailed Chika with her deep tan and prominent tan lines, though none of them cuts as impressive a figure as Aoi. Handsome Kaoru has more of a “typical male lead” look but is just enough different from the norm that he would also stand out amongst his peers. Generally bright, vivid colors create a cheery look and feel without being garish. Although the animation is not awful, it is not likely to impress, either, as the look of the series seems more oriented towards set pieces than active moment.
What may impress much more is the delightful soundtrack, which makes for a pleasant, light, fluffy listen independent of the animation and serves as an excellent complement to the various serious and comedic moods of both series. It is especially effective at highlighting key dramatic moments, such as Aoi's discovery in episode 1 that the stranger who helped her out in Tokyo was really Kaoru. The first series opens with the all-time-great anime theme “Towa no Hana (Eternal Flower)” by Yoko Ishida, who also does the good but lesser opener for the second series. Most episodes of both series close out with one solid theme or another by The Indigo.
The likeability of the English dub will come down to a matter of normal sub-dub preferences for most fans. All of the English cast members do an acceptable job of getting the tone of their characters right and delivering their lines smoothly, but none especially stand out in the quality of their performances and there are some minor issues with consistent pronunciations of certain names. Wendee Lee, in a nearly unrecognizable performance, gives Tina Foster a country twang to represent the regional accent she is supposed to have, which may annoy at first until one realizes that it fits perfectly with the country-twang sound of her normal theme music. The English script sticks quite close to the original, even retaining most of the crucial honorifics – a move not common for an early 2003 dub.
Pioneer (now Geneon) released the original series on five volumes over the course of 2003 and the ~Enishi~ follow-up on three volumes over the second half of 2004. Geneon has now gathered all eight volumes into a single “brick set” release with an MSRP of $59.98 – not bad at all for 36 regular episodes, two shorter bonus episodes, and all of the original Extras except (to this reviewer's knowledge) the figurine included in the Limited Edition version of one of the ~Enishi~ volumes. Regular Extras include alternate reversible covers, series artwork postcards or mini-posters, concept art galleries (first series volumes only), series trailers, and clean opener/closer. Extras unique to individual volumes include a “Towa no Hana” music video, a subtitled-only 4½ minute bonus episode titled “Speaking of Dreams,” and a 9-minute clip of Yoko Ishida live at AX '04 featuring her singing the full versions of both theme songs. The highlight extra is “Miyuki,” a 16-minute dubbed bonus episode detailing Kaoru's encounter with an Aoi-like Santa figure one Christmas Eve in Tokyo prior to reuniting with the real Aoi, which also features brief glimpses of many of the other regular cast members. It is, arguably, the best individual episode the title has to offer.
Pioneer/Geneon's advertising department may have come up with one of the best advertising tag lines ever for an anime series (see the line in italics in the Synopsis), but this is a series well capable of hooking people with its quality first three episodes and providing enough good and funny moments throughout the rest of both series to keep them coming back. It is not without flaws, but at its best it is the best harem romantic comedy to come out to date. The economical price for the entirety of both series makes it well worth a look if you missed it the first time around.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : C+
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Great lead couple, quality musical score, all of both series in one set.
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