Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Asterisk War: The Academy City on the Water [Limited Edition]
Some years ago, a meteor shower resulted in a massive disaster for Earth and the birth of a new kind of human with special abilities. Known as the “Genestella,” they have become the key to reordering the world. Now with corporations running things as much as countries, an almost gladiatorial industry has been built around the combat skills of these new humans. In the floating city of Rikka, also known as “the asterisk” for its shape, five schools specializing in training Genestellae hold annual competitions known as “Festa” for the entertainment of the public. Ayato Amagiri has come here to look for his missing sister, and Princess Julis-Alexia of a small European nation has come to earn money for her homeland. Can the two of them work together to solve their problems? And what sinister secrets about the Asterisk will they uncover?
The first version of The Asterisk War to make it to the west is also the last one to see a physical release – the 2015 anime series. Aniplex of America's release of the first six episodes on Blu-Ray, which also includes a music CD of various BGM pieces remixed into a single twelve-minute track, an art box, postcard-sized artwork, and a guide booklet, falls firmly in the middle as far as the best ways to enjoy this story go. While better than the manga adaptation, it isn't quite as engaging as the original novel, although it has clearly tried its hardest to adapt events faithfully without becoming overwhelming.
The story is a fairly typical battle school/harem adventure. It follows high school first-year Ayato Amagiri, the scion of an ancient school of swordplay, who has recently transferred to the extra-national academic city of Rikka, better known as “the Asterisk” for the five schools that branch out from its city center. Ayato is searching for his older sister Haruka, who vanished five years ago, and he has a strong suspicion that she spent time at Seidoukan, one of the schools located on the island city. Immediately upon his arrival, he bumbles into an unclothed encounter with Julis-Alexia von Reisfield, another first-year student who happens to be the haughty princess of a fictional European nation. Despite their unfortunate first meeting, the two form a friendship and later a fighting team. Meanwhile, various other female characters show up to vie for the unassuming Ayato's affections, such as busty loli Kirin, childhood friend Saya, and sexually aggressive Claudia.
While this is clearly familiar territory both for the battle school and the harem genres, what sets The Asterisk War apart is the development of its world. The backstory for the series is that a devastating meteor shower created a new evolutionary phase for humans, resulting in people who can access superhuman powers and have superior healing capabilities. Due to the destruction of the current world order, corporations came into power, and they saw an opportunity to use these new humans, known as Genestella, to help rebuild the world economy and solidify their own power base. This resulted in a gladiator-style competition known as “Festa,” where students fight each other for the amusement of spectators. While this idea has roots at least as far back as Battle Royale, The Asterisk War is more interested in exploring the dark implications of the concept than simply watching it play out. Everyone is at Seidoukan by choice (with Kirin as an arguable exception), and each of them have their own very specific reasons for wanting to participate in the Festa, whether that be money, information, or publicity. It's a cutthroat version of the reality TV fame cycle, and if the show can develop it fully, it stands to be very interesting.
It gets off to a rough start, however. While there are some very good elements, such as Ayato's clear respect for Julis as a person rather than a princess, the very real sense of Julis's isolation at school, and both Kirin's uncle and one of the students as clear markers of the corruption within the system, these are outnumbered by some of the less stellar moments. Claudia is chief among them, coming into the story as essentially a sexy info-dump who continues to embody the tasteless stereotype of the sexually aggressive woman. While we could argue that she's just hyper-secure in her body and sexuality, the predatory way she pursues Ayato while also using her body as a way to distract him from information suggests otherwise. She's also clearly there to fulfill a fanservice requirement – the show goes out of its way to avoid showing Kirin's underwear, and despite the camera's love of Julis's backside early on, she's only shown undressed one fleeting time. When we compare this with Claudia's nude or partially nude scenes, to say nothing of her bathing suit with its inexplicable labia windows, it doesn't quite add up. Other issues include having Ayato continually save Julis, who we know to be capable of saving herself, Julis's textbook tsundere personality, and an overuse of basic harem tropes, which are clearly meant to be lighthearted distractions that just end up feeling stale instead.
Interestingly the show has opted to leave out most of the world-building from the novel, which does allow for a better flow to the plot. It can also give viewers who have not read the book a sense that they're missing something, which AoA appears to be aware of – the included booklet goes over a lot of the information that the show has excised. It's an imperfect solution, but it does work to some degree, the sticking point being that the booklet is rife with spoilers in the character sections, which come before the world information. It also leaves out all cast information, with the credits appearing as extras only on the first of the two discs. The font for most of the smaller on-screen text (not including regular subtitles) is a bit hard to read, and I found myself having to get closer to the television to see it clearly. Artwork is quite nice, although Julis's outfit often looks like she forgot to put her pants/skirt on, and there are some moments of nice animation and a good use of color throughout, as can be seen in the included art cards. The background music works well as background music, but I can't say that it makes for good listening on the included CD – what works to hype you up for a fight scene doesn't make for terrific background sound for everyday life. The English dub, on the other hand, is generally good, with the exception of Claudia and Kirin, who both try a bit too hard to match their Japanese counterparts.
The Asterisk War's first six episodes lay the groundwork for what has the potential to be an interesting story about the monetized exploitation of those with special powers. We know from Claudia that executives have to cut emotional ties with candidates (which actually might go a long way to explaining her behavior, given that her mother is one), and we learn from Kirin's uncle that there's resentment of Genestellae amongst “regular” people, so there's a lot of ideas to explore as Ayato and Julis explore the reasons his sister vanished. The show does, however, need to reign in some of its harem elements and direct its focus more in order to bank on that promise. Right now, The Asterisk War isn't working enough with what could make it stand out from its crowded genre.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : B-
Art : C+
Music : B-
+ Interesting underlying themes, dub is generally as strong as the sub, story feels like it has potential
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