Reviewby Theron Martin, May 20th 2011
episodes 1-6 streaming
Succubi, an all-female race distinguished by their ability to reproduce their kind through mating with males of any race, are both one of the oldest races in the Creature Realm and its rulers. An adult succubus sustains herself by sucking “life seed” from males in her harem, which presents a future problem for 10-year-old Princess Astarotte (aka Lotte), who has hated males since an unpleasant incident years earlier involving a member of her mother's harem; it is also the reason that she lives apart from the Queen. Judit, Lotte's chief servant, is concerned about her mistress's stubbornness, so she seizes on the first opportunity that Lotte gives her – Lotte's claim that she would accept a human man, which she thinks is a safe call since the gate to the Realm of Man has been closed for a thousand years – and finds a way to the Realm of Man, where she quickly recruits Naoya, a 23-year-old man on his way to a job interview, with an offer he can't refuse. Though reluctant to accept him at first, Lotte gradually gets won over by Naoya's kindness and officially makes him her toy. Naoya's extroverted daughter Asuha, who is about the same age as Lotte (yes, you read that right), eventually joins them in the Creature Realm and swiftly makes herself something that Lotte has never had before: a friend. No one is initially aware, however, that Naoya, Asuha, and Lotte are all actually connected in a much more complicated way than anyone could have imagined, or that that the royal status of Lotte's line is based in part on one of their more obscure special powers.
Veteran anime fans will be forgiven for initially assuming that this is one of the sleazier entries in the Comedy Fan Service Fest category, as the basic premise and first episode, with its (likely deliberate) ambiguity on what “sucking life seed” means and implications of lolicon trappings, do little to dissuade anyone from that impression. That aspect of the show is more toyed with than carried through past episode 1, however, and the whole “sucking life seed” business ultimately proves not to be what it sounds like it is. Instead, episodes 2-6 turn out to be surprisingly charming and occasionally even heartfelt as they explore the relationships between Lotte, Naoya, Asuha, and Lotte's mother.
The series is still, in some respects, at least a little edgy. Each episode seems to have a small quota of panty shots which must be fulfilled (albeit often innocuously), Lotte's casual wear outfits are a bit on the racy side for her age (even given her race), and Asuha equates freedom with “going commando.” Judit is shown to have a secret predilection for S&M, the Queen rotates through a collection of men for her liaisons and was implied to be sexually active at a very young age, the Headmistress of Lotte's school dresses provocatively, and the big-breasted maid? Let's just say that there's a reason why she wears a bell around her neck. Certainly the edgiest bit is making Naoya a biological father at such a young age, a fact which is a minor spoiler since it actually does not come up until episode 3; until that point, the series lets viewers assume that Naoya and Asuha are brother and sister. Teen parents are not unknown in anime, as Kenta Usui's mother had him at age 16 in Karin, Key's mother gave birth to her at 15 in Key the Metal Idol, and Sana's biological mother had her at 14 in Kodocha, amongst others. Such cases are rare, however, and even among them, age 13 is extreme. Further, the father being both that young and actively present is almost unheard-of. It puts a whole new layer of meaning on many of the relationships in the series, including casting Naoya more as a loving family member than a potential love interest for Lotte – which, likely not coincidentally, also draws the series back from the brink of outright lolicon trappings.
And that is perhaps the key to why the series comes off as charming rather than crass. Instead of putting Lotte in romantic situations, the writing emphasizes much more that she is just a kid, and a lonely one at that. Though she has a full staff of servants, her circumstances have left her socially isolated and with a strained relationship with her mother that neither of them wants. Naoya and Asuha's efforts are less about winning Lotte's heart and more about breaking through her shell. The appearance of Lotte's mother in episode 4 adds in all sorts of juicy twists and complications whose impacts are still unfolding as this set of episodes ends, but even there the writing handles the situation mostly seriously rather than playing it as a joke. This set ends with the beginning of a new storyline that puts Lotte in a situation of great peril borne of her childish petulance, too. While the series still has its fun – some of the jokes are tired ones, but others are inspired – it also understands when not to mess around and how to punch dramatic and feel-good buttons.
Unfortunately the technical merits are not up to the same standards. diomedea, a company which broke into the lead production role with last season's Squid Girl, delivers only a mediocre visual effort here. The bright and varied color scheme helps give the series a cheery feel, but background art trends towards the simplistic side (and what's up with that R-shaped tower in Lotte's home?) and, aside from the Queen in her full succubus form, none of the character designs stand out; in fact, most just look like ordinary people with pointed ears rather than having any distinctive racial features. Animation is decent but the overall rendering quality will not impress anyone. Fan service is more suggested than actually shown, as the only scene approaching nudity is a bathing scene in episode one which does not show enough to need any kind of censoring.
The musical score does much better. It effectively sets the tone for the series by giving it a gentle, low-key sound which makes the series' heartfelt appeal possible and subtly enhances the more dramatic content. That gentle touch carries over into closer “Manatsu no Photograph,” a soft, simple winner, while opener “Tenshi no Clover,” a more energetic J-rock number, is solid but unremarkable. On the voice work front, Naoya sounds a little too girly but the rest of the casting decisions and performances are fine, with Rie Kugimiya stepping up once again to further her dominance of tsundere roles by voicing Lotte, albeit in a more childish sense this time.
In 2010 I gave Surprise of the Year honors to Asobi ni Iku yo! for its unusually and unexpectedly high level of cleverness and general quality. Astarotte's Toy is not on that same level – especially not on visuals – but still more thoroughly defies initial expectations on the positive side than any other new title so far this year (except possibly Puella Magi Madoka Magica). Don't let the apparent lolicon flavor or first episode deceive you; it is a better and generally more decent series than that.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : C+
Music : B+
+ Charming and occasionally even heartfelt, fresher character dynamics, good closer.
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