Reviewby Theron Martin,
Aura: Koga Maryuin's Last War
Seemingly normal Ichiro is having a well-adjusted high school experience and might even be getting an in with the “in” crowd, though his mother does seem to worry about him heavily. Then one night he decides to return to school to fetch a book he forgot. He should know that little good usually comes from being at school at night! In this case he encounters an odd girl who claims to be an otherworldly “researcher” seeking something called Dragon Terminals, though Ichiro quickly notes that a lot about her is sketchy. He eventually discovers that the girl in question in an absent classmate, one who still insists on wearing her fantasy get-up when she does come to school. Though he is leery about associating with her due to his own past experiences with what appears to be a case of chunibyou, a teacher “convinces” him to look after her. But while there are other “dream soldiers” in the class, not everyone is so agreeable to the presence of individuals they see as trying to play for attention.
One old adage which is reportedly especially applicable in Japan is “the nail which sticks out will get hammered down.” That underlies the themes of this 83 minute long 2013 movie, which adapts a one-shot 2008 light novel of the same name.
The tale covers similar ground to the 2012 series Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions!, in that a young man who's trying to move beyond his own delusional middle school experience finds himself dealing with a cute girl who is still heavily-entrenched in that mode. This, however, is a far less sympathetic or playful take on the whole matter, which results in a dramatically harder-edged tone. In fact, learning that the source novel is listed as a romantic comedy was rather shocking, as while there is a definite romance element present, the comedy component is sparse at best. While the heroine of Love was gently pressured to come back to reality, here the regard of those not enamored with fantasy delusions is harsh and unforgiving, to the point of bullying.
A focus on bullying has certainly been done before in anime (see Shigofumi, among others), but here it takes on a slightly different tack: the lead bully girl isn't operating purely out of spite or because heroine Ryoko (aka Researcher) is an easy target, but because she takes offense to Ryoko's (as she sees it) selfish efforts to stick out. And as the adage says, she believes that those who stick out – who buck the dress code, who act in ways which draw attention – need to be pounded into either leaving or conforming. The bully girl is taken aback when a boy in her group gets too physical, but nothing short of that is out of bounds for her in pursuing that end, including blackmail. Other “dream soldiers” who are not subject to direct bullying are portrayed as pathetic attention-grabbers, individuals whom Ichiro must brush off to keep from being sucked back into that world.
The story takes its heaviest turn when Ichiro's own past as a chunibyo gets detailed; apparently he took things so far that he created deep problems within his own family. (Insisting that your whole family is fake is not a good way to build strong familial relations.) That gives him pressure at home concerning Ryoko but also allows him to all-too-keenly understand when Ryoko is also crossing that line, and that sets up the movie's final crisis, a scene which has some fantastical aspects (yeah, like anyone would believe that Ryoko put that together on her own) but which in some respects also may remind older viewers of the climactic scene from the 1982 movie Mazes and Monsters; that is not the only thematic similarity to that made-for-TV movie, either. (The negative and even potentially harmful view of role-play gaming espoused by that movie has definite parallels in the chunibyo phenomenon, as does how both can be a means of escapism.)
The overall approach taken in the movie is one which may not set well with Western audiences who look beyond its surface appeal. It advocates the value of being normal, of fitting in with everyone else, and suggests that those who try to wantonly grab attention with their presence are disruptive at best, outright bad at worst. Every instance of someone trying to be their own person is cast as exaggerated delusion and in a distinctly negative light, and the movie practically lectures about how wanting to feel special is a sin because of its inherent selfishness. (That wanting to feel special is inherently selfish is not in question, but this movie outright says it's bad.) A scene at the end where Ryoko finally dresses in regular clothing could be seen as her finally becoming well-adjusted, or it could be seen as her bowing to peer pressure to be normal. That this scene comes after another one where the majority of the class seems to become more accepting of those who are different almost seems like someone in production said, “Whoa! We're letting an ‘it's okay to be an individual’ message creep in here.” Sadly, the movie comes with no interviews or staff commentary which could elucidate on the actual creative intent.
The technical merits would be pretty typical for a TV show, which makes them underwhelming by movie standards. The animation uses a plethora of typical TV series shortcuts and is never too impressive even when it is fully animating scenes. Ryoko has an attractive design both in her cosplay get-up and her regular clothing at the end up (although her head seems disproportionately large) and Ichiro is just enough different to not look totally generic, but none of the other designs stand out much and quality control on how the characters are rendered can be shaky. Backgrounds are usually merely functional, though a few scenes do stand out (especially the roof scene at the end) and some background details in certain scenes have pertinence which may not be obvious on the first pass. To put this into perspective, director Seiji Kishi has produced TV series which looked like they had a far bigger budget than this movie did (see Yuki Yuna Is a Hero). Incongruously, the movie has exactly one fan service scene, but it does show full nudity.
The musical score, on the other hand, functions at a fully cinematic level, with grand sounds borne of rich symphonic orchestration for dramatic moments and layered instrumentation even for gentler scenes. Closing theme “Bokura no Sekai” marks a foray back into anime work by CooRie, who sung themes for a variety of anime titles in the mid-to-late 2000s (D.C. ~Da Capo~, Midori Days, and School Days, amongst others). It is a pleasant, smoothly-flowing number which serves as a good cap to the movie.
Sentai Filmworks provides the English dub, which marks the ADR directorial debut of voice actor David Wald. The cast is a mix of regulars and newcomers, with Corey Hartzog and Juliet Simmons capably reprising their co-starring from Akame ga KILL! (they voice Tatsumi and Akame, respectively) and anchoring the dub with their performances, especially in some emotional scenes towards the end. The weak link is Sara Ornelas (Stephanie in No Game, No Life), who struggles to pitch her voice in a way that sounds natural for the perky pipsqueak Kobato., but otherwise the dub offers no complaints.
Sentai's release of the Blu-Ray version is a bare-bones one, as it offers no Extras beyond company previews. At least the video transfer is quite sharp and the DTS Master Audio HD sound on both language tracks is crisp.
Despite my misgivings about the message it may be sending, Aura still offers a meaty story with plenty of character depth and development and an examination of issues in a serious manner. If a tale about chunibyou behavior with a decided edge to it sounds interesting then it is worth checking out.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : B+
+ Treats subject matter surprisingly seriously, good character development.
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