Reviewby Theron Martin, Nov 19th 2012
Aria the Scarlet Ammo
BD+DVD - Complete Series [Limited Edition]
In Kinji Toyama's near-future world a special breed of armed troubleshooters called Butei assist law enforcement officials in addition to doing odd jobs like bodyguard duty. Kinji has been attending a high school specifically for training Butei, but the hassle of the training and the need to wear bulletproof uniforms and be armed at all times is wearing on him so he is considering dropping out. Becoming the target of a reputed Butei killer and finding himself partnered up with Aria, a dual gun-and-blade-toting girl who's one of his school's top students, forces him to take school more seriously, however, and he now has to watch out for longtime childhood friend Shirayuki, a shrine maiden who has a heavy crush on him and violently responds to Aria as a romantic threat. Sexy classmate Riko also seems interested in Kinji but also has ulterior motives, too, ones which seem to involve a secretive organization called I-U and a long-standing rivalry with Aria's family. (Aria's a fourth-generation descendant of Sherlock Holmes and Riko's a fourth-generation descendant of Arsène Lupin, you see – never mind that they're fictional characters from contemporary but different universes.) Fortunately Kinji has one thing going for him as he deals with all of the ladies and the various dangerous situations he gets dragged into: when suitably aroused he goes into a psychological state he calls Hysteria Mode, where he suddenly becomes suave, chauvinistic, and vastly more competent at most things. But why would I-U, who seems to covet those with superhuman abilities, have an interest in him? And what will he do about the pipsqueak firecracker that is Aria, who wants to make him her slave?
The first twelve episodes of this mid-2011 series adapt the first three novels of a 13 volume light novel series; the final episode (which Funimation lists as episode 13) is a fan service-focused OVA that is probably an anime original. The basic essence of the plot and characters are very ordinary, even prosaic, but anime titles have shown many times before that even uninspired material can still succeed with a couple of clever twists and a high level of storytelling and technical execution. This is not one of those cases. In fact, the series borders on being a complete disaster, and whether the source material or the adaptation is more to blame is hard to tell.
One of the problems is that the series only adapts the first three novels and makes no adjustments to account for that fact. Ordinarily this would not be a big problem – plenty of other series adapt part of their source material and then just stop, after all – but in this case it results in an utter failure to explain what the “Scarlet Ammo” tag in the series' name refers to; nowhere in 13 episodes does the storytelling even give the vaguest hint about this. The series also brings up the mysterious I-U as a secretive enemy organization but fails to elaborate on its raison d'etre and why Kinji's supposedly-dead brother seems to be involved with it. In the end this is really just an extended advertisement for the novels unless more gets animated.
That is but a minor quibble beside the much deeper and more fundamental issues that the series faces, however. One of them is that Aria is not effectively appealing as the female lead. Successful tsundere characters always walk a tightrope between being endearing and annoying, and the notion of a dual gun-and-sword-packing tsundere is hardly outrageous, but the creators made the fatal mistake of not giving Aria any significant degree of charm. Her “I'll pump you full of holes!” tag line and efforts to make Kinji her “slave” are more irritating than cute, attempts to make her sympathetic by bringing in a mother wrongly convicted of multiple life sentences feel hackneyed and forced, and no real chemistry ever develops between her and Kinji. Her personality and attitudes are as stereotypical as petite-built tsundere come, and she does not have the depth or comedic potential necessary to overcome that. Kinji is not much help, either, as beyond his Hysteria Mode (which is really just an excuse for him to act suave in the face of sexual arousal) he has little personality, and even when in Hysteria Mode he remains rather bland and inconstant. Major supporting characters do not fare much better, as Shirayuki tries to be the normally-sweet but secretly-violently-jealous “childhood friend” component of Kinji's harem, but she offers nothing new beyond a potentially interesting background that is not much delved into and disappears from the action for long stretches. Riko, meanwhile, cheerily fills the “playful sexpot” role, but attempts to expand her character by introducing an incongruous background story also stumble. The villains are even worse, as they uniformly prove to be disappointments.
Even with those problems, the series might have still been salvageable had it told dynamic stories, used compelling action, played for laughs, or, at the very least, wallowed fully in fan service. Despite some sexy elements, though, the fan service is relatively light outside of episode 13's onsen visit and certainly not heavy enough to carry the series. The action scenes fare little better, often being drab affairs that unwisely rely too much on cool factor and do not stop to consider how eye-rollingly ridiculous they are; for instance, one episode that rips off the American movie Speed does not allow the bus stunt to play out enough to develop much tension and expects us to believe that Aria's long twin tails wouldn't get in the way while she's leaning over to look under a speeding bus, while others show (gasp!) Segways with automatic weapons! And yeah, those are as unintimidating as they sound. Having a school where students wear bulletproof uniforms, effectively learn police academy-type disciplines, and are required to be armed at all times is just as silly, as is the notion of teenage, heavily-armed Butei wandering around doing jobs, but anime has gotten away with concepts on that level before. That requires doing more than just using stock relationship gags, dull plots, or lamely relying on references to famous fictional and historical figures, however. It is a sad statement that the onsen episode may actually be the best one.
A mediocre production effort by J.C. Staff doesn't help. The animation is decent (though not good enough to fluidly pull off some of the action stunts that it aims for) and Riko convincingly looks sexy without being exaggeratedly so, but other character designs are just run-of-the-mill fare, with Aria being only a slightly exaggerated, uncute rendition of a standard tsundere twin-tail. Some respectable background art and fine attention to detail on weaponry keep the artistic effort afloat, but the series will not wow anyone with its visuals. Its violence and mild fan service are just graphic enough to warrant the assigned TV-14 rating. The musical score is a little better, as it actually makes an effort to enhance the action scenes and does effectively generate a bit of tension in places. It shoots itself in the foot (almost literally!) with its propensity to sprinkle random gunshots and cat sounds throughout its content, however. Opener “Scarlet Ballet” by May'n and the sexier closer “Camilla no Hitomi” by Aiko Nakano (who also sang the opener for Dance in the Vampire Bund) are both solid numbers for their musical styles.
The Japanese dub is most notable for featuring the same leading man + tsundere girl pair of seiyuu as heard in Toradora! (i.e., Junji Majima and Rie Kugimiya), but its performances suffer from an apparent attempt to amp up the vocal cutesiness factor to compensate for a shortage of it in the visuals. The English dub does better primarily because of one performance: Luci Christian as Riko. She does not often get a role where she is allowed to just flat-out have fun with the part, and she makes the most of it here. Brina Palencia, contrarily, struggles to hit a proper tone for Shirayuki. Other English performances are at least passable and the English script sports no major flaws or deviations.
Funimation is making this title available in one of their now-commonplace DVD/Blu-Ray combo sets, with each version getting its own case with its own bonus interior art and both coming in an artbox. Language tracks on the Blu-Ray version are TrueHD 5.1 for the English and TrueHd 2.0 for the Japanese; the English track definitely sounds better, with a broader dynamic range and more aggressive use of surround sound, but only audiophiles will likely note a big difference. The visual quality is more lackluster in the Blu-Ray, as it is a minor step up over the DVD version but the artistry simply does not allow for the Blu-Ray to fully exploit its sharper and more saturated color capabilities. Extras for both versions include assorted promo trailers, clean opener and closer, and English audio commentaries for episodes 4 and 6. The former features Luci and Todd Haberkorn (as Kinji), while the latter features Todd, Leah Clark (aka Aria), and ADR director Zach Bolton.
The most positive thing that can be said about the series is that it is action-packed and adrenaline-laced, but even that is not done well enough to cut this series a break. Funimation advertises the series with the corny line, “On a Scale of 1 to Explosive, She's Dynamite!” That should be taken as a warning rather than a selling point.
Overall (dub) : C-
Overall (sub) : C-
Story : D
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : B
+ Lots of action, gunplay, and (supposedly) cute girls; episode 13.
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