Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Classroom of the Elite
Kiyotaka Ayanokoji has just embarked on his first day at Japan's most prestigious school - the Tokyo Metropolitan Advanced Nurturing High School. Created by the government specifically to cultivate future leaders, and boasting a 100% college enrollment rate, this school is the crown jewel of Japan's education system. But when he arrives on campus, Kiyotaka begins to discover this school's reputation hides a variety of dark secrets - and that his fellow classmates may be more interested in sabotaging their fellows than honestly rising to the top. Working together with the sharp-tongued Suzune Horikita, Kiyotaka will have to fight to keep his classmates afloat, or risk all of them drowning together.
There's a certain subgroup of anime high school dramas that I've come to essentially see as “Catcher in the Rye shows.” Echoing the defiantly cynical yet extremely naive perspective of Catcher's Holden Caulfield, the genre generally concerns itself with the psychological substance of unhappy high school, the backbiting and group dynamics and overwhelming sense of personal displacement. My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU is the genre's gold standard, but it also contains shows like the ongoing Bunny Girl Senpai. Even Bakemonogatari verges on this particular subgenre, and you could trace its roots back to protagonists like Haruhi's Kyon. Classroom of the Elite falls very much in line with these shows, though it possesses strengths and failings all of its own.
The show puts its best foot forward in the premiere, opening with the introduction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Advanced Nurturing High School. Founded by the government specifically to train the next generation's movers and shakers, the school has a 100% college enrollment rate. The first episode follows our protagonist Kiyotaka Ayanokoji through his first day at this school, a soft-spoken but deeply cynical boy who muses constantly on the nature of education, society, and much else. There, he soon learns that his school's sterling reputation may be founded more on cruelty than excellence, and that boasts like “100% college enrollment rate” tend to hide truths like “because we expel everyone who might even consider failing to matriculate.”
Classroom of the Elite's early episodes offer some genuinely sharp commentary on the increasingly predatory relationship of education, and how students are often seen as investments more than people. Kiyotaka's homeroom teacher talks of how her students have “demonstrated immense value” simply through their successful enrollment, and their own personal funds are directly tied to their academic performances. Their high school maintains this system by pitting the students against each other, creating both a hierarchy of class value and a spirit of cutthroat competition within each class. The show's worldbuilding sculpts a setting ripe for commentary on the fantasy of meritocracy, the nature of education, and what we are truly worth within a capitalist society.
Unfortunately, after setting up all that thematically rich worldbuilding, Classroom of the Elite sadly fails to do all that much with it. There's one relatively strong arc that focuses on how competitive systems can be used to turn workers against each other, but the bulk of Classroom of the Elite's running time is taken up by meandering tactical games waged between cartoonishly villainous class leaders. There's a lengthy arc regarding a fight between students that never arrives at a satisfying conclusion, and the show's whole second half is taken up by an island retreat that seems designed as a half-baked riff on Lord of the Flies. While Classroom of the Elite's tactical machinations are occasionally clever enough to offer their own thrills, the show largely lacks the thematic ambition or personal insight that makes this genre's best offerings shine.
Kiyotaka Ayanokoji himself embodies a fair number of Classroom of the Elite's issues. Though he initially presents himself as simply quiet, observant, and cynical, we soon learn that his entire persona is essentially a mask. Kiyotaka is hiding his true intentions, but over the course of this entire season, we never get any closer to actually learning those intentions. As a result, it's impossible to emotionally invest in Classroom of the Elite's protagonist, because his entire actual personality is a hook that the light novel series apparently only cashes in on at some point down the road. An unreliable narrator is one thing, but a narrator who never actually reveals themselves, and whose refusal to reveal themselves never leads to any dramatic payoff, is a font of frustration.
The rest of Classroom of the Elite's cast don't fare much better. While Kiyotaka's partner in crime Suzune Horikita is a fine enough character (drawing heavily on the Senjougahara archetype tradition), others like chipper classmate Kikyou are designed more as gimmicks than people, used more for hammy cliffhangers than genuine introspection. And the show's villains are worst of all, a motley collection of over-the-top rogues whose designs seem intended for a far less self-serious production. Classroom of the Elite seems most comfortable when it embraces the silliness of its villains; after my initial expectations for the show cooled, it was watching these characters wield their nefarious plans against each other that ultimately offered the most entertainment.
Like its narrative, Classroom of the Elite's aesthetics are an initially shiny array with not that much under the hood. The show has an inherently pleasing look, rich in colors and saturated lighting, that naturally echoes the overt glory and underlying sickness of Classroom's setting. The character designs are also distinctive, and though I felt the villain designs were somewhat ridiculous, they worked well for the show's more melodramatic material. The backgrounds themselves are unfortunately lacking in much detail, hewing to CG shapes and rarely presenting a convincing sense of place. And the animation is likewise fairly limited - acceptable for such a talk-heavy show, but lacking in any sort of expressive character acting. Meanwhile, the show's music is largely generic, offering simple synth melodies and occasionally leaning a little too heavily into the menacing organ noises.
Classroom of the Elite comes in a standard Funimation slipcase and bluray case, housing the show on both bluray and DVD. There are no extras beyond the textless opening, but the show does come with a perfectly solid dub. I felt Justin Briner did a great job of bringing just enough personality to Kiyotaka's generally deadpan delivery; a great deal of the show's humor rests on Kiyotaka's lethargic shoulders, and Briner definitely captured that. Felecia Angelle does a fine job with Suzune's more traditional character type, and though I didn't feel all of the background classmates were as convincing, the dub on the whole is a perfectly reasonable affair.
Ultimately, Classroom of the Elite feels like a victim of its own ambition. After starting off with a variety of rich and engaging topics, the show ultimately narrows itself into a melodramatic series of betrayals and cross-betrayals between characters who never feel convincing as people. While other shows in this genre possess the ambition and human insight to frame their characters' struggles as reflective of general human or societal struggles, Classroom is ultimately a much more straightforward pot-boiler, and a somewhat clumsily plotted one. Overall, Classroom of the Elite fails to capitalize on its premise, but still offers some funny, hammy tactical drama. If you're looking for a school drama with a deeply cynical edge, you could certainly do worse.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : C
+ Occasionally pokes at some compelling ideas, ultimately offers engaging tactical feuds between larger-than-life classmates
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