Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
AIKa R-16: Virgin Mission
With a fresh salvage license in hand and ambitions of self-employment in her heart, Aika Sumeragi gets buffaloed into taking her first salvaging job for free by the obscenely rich president of her class's “treasure hunting club.” President Eri's amnesiac best friend Karen has in her possession—or more exactly, printed on her breast—the first clue to a potentially immense submerged mystery. The three, along with a slew of club members, the club advisor, and a crew of remarkably well-behaved seamen, set out on a luxury yacht for fun, sun, and most of all adventure, but soon run afoul of some technologically advanced forces that are loath to let the nubile young treasure-hunters near their anticipated goal. Nudity and panty-flashes ensue.
The latest series from fan-service specialists Studio Fantasia to make it to North American shores, R-16 is a terminally slight action-adventure set in a barely exploited post-apocalyptic future starring a sixteen-year-old version of one of Fantasia's previous successes. Though to be entirely fair, Aika's panties should probably get equal billing.
Fans of R-16's Studio Fantasia predecessors like Agent Aika and Najica will be forearmed against the astonishing density of panty shots in this three-part OAV, but the uninitiated can only watch in awe. That so many up-skirt, crotch-cam shots can be packed into a mere hour and a half is a miracle that can only be achieved via animation—though when fans of the medium praise its capabilities, one hardly imagines that this is what they had in mind. Nevertheless, it is in its own way a marvel. Everything in the show, from Aika's crotch-first fighting style to the liberal use of tranquilizer darts, is designed to maximize the number of undergarments shown. Why is the treasure-hunting club girls-only? Because guys wear pants. Why do unconscious girls always fall over chairs with cotton-clad butts held high like flags of surrender? Just Because!. Embarrassing positions are the norm, the camera is perpetually tilted from the ground up, and no chance for a wide-angle shot of female rears is left unexploited.
Director Katsuhiko Nishijima is good natured enough to allow the ubiquity of panty shots to wax humorous in its preposterousness, escaping with a wink and a chuckle the leering creepiness that the series might otherwise have suffered. Sometimes amusing, sometimes obnoxious character banter keeps the tone light, and the fan-service humor is good so long as one is willing to stomach the, shall we say less-than-progressive treatment of women. The beachside bikini rumble between Aika and a team of g-string commandoes in particular reaches a crescendo of fan-service that is almost Zen-like in its transcendental silliness.
Unfortunately, that's likely the only enjoyment anyone will take from R-16. So resolutely crotch-obsessed is the series that the plot revolves around providing opportunities for undergarment exposure, rather than vice versa. Aika and Eri's journey is a bare thread stringing together a series of panty payoffs, and Karen's lost past—the series' one chance at depth—is parlayed not into emotional weight, but rather into a preposterous martial-arts free-for-all with an army of half-naked clones whose ages (and sizes) range all across the fetish spectrum. Not that emotional weight was ever that likely. Aika is a generic spunky girl, Eri is a generic debutante, Karen suffers from an amnesiac's dearth of personality, and their interactions never achieve anything beyond “they fight, but really get along” clichés.
The series' raison d'être is reflected also in the budget. Jiggling chests, wiggling fannies, and little details such as the realistic way that girls' legs dangle when slung bare-butted over sailors' shoulders get priority over the fight sequences. Which, while surprisingly solid in their choreography, suffer from more speed-blurring and vanishing backgrounds than is expected of a video series—except, of course, where the fighting does double duty as fan service. Likewise, lovingly detailed lingerie, multifarious swimsuits, and distinctive female designs take precedence over backgrounds, settings, and anything remotely male. The odd exception can be found in the glossy CG artistry of Eri's yacht and the eerie emptiness of an underwater airport, but it remains a reliable rule of thumb throughout.
Slight as the project is, the English cast gives it their all, turning out an adaptation that, surprisingly, entertains more consistently than the Japanese original. The supporting cast is perfectly fine, but the heart of the series—outside of panties and breasts—lies in the threesome of Aika, Eri and Karen, and it is there that Bandai's English version excels. Erika Weinstein does what she can with Karen, easily capturing the offbeat personality underlying her reticence. Kira Buckland plays Eri as a hyperactive child, balancing energy and likeability, usually dodging the obnoxiousness Eri so easily slips into. Cristina Valenzuela in the meantime gives Aika a brusque professional edge, separating her from Eri in a manner that the original fails to do. The script rewrites the dialogue enough to keep the adaptation lively, but preserves the meaning of the original with fidelity enough for to satisfy most reasonable fans. Not brilliant, but certainly enjoyable.
In addition to compiling the entire series on this disc, Bandai also compiled all of the extras. Extensive behind-the-scenes features cover most of the aspects of the series' production, including invaluable glimpses of the Japanese recording process. The rambling interviews with the voice talent test the patience, though the revealing interviews with Valenzuela and Buckland make the effort worthwhile. There are also plenty of commercials to slog through, as well as clean versions of all three different end sequences. They even go so far as to isolate the inset video that plays during the final episode's credits. All of which is nice, though listening to the ending theme that many times only serves to emphasize how bland it and the opening theme are in comparison to even the merely serviceable jazz-based soundtrack.
That R-16 robs story and character to deliver perpetually low-angle titillation shouldn't be taken as a blanket condemnation of fan-service. It isn't that fan-service and quality are mutually exclusive—the underrated Kirameki Project proved that even Studio Fantasia is capable of combining the two—it's just that R-16 never bothers with the latter.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C
Story : D
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : C+
+ Brimming with nudity and panty-shots and yet somehow escapes feeling totally exploitative.
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