Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 15th 2008
Hayate x Blade
Hayate Kurogane has joined the Tenchi Girls' Academy for one very particular reason: to take the place of her injured twin sister Nagi, who was supposed to enroll there. But Hayate gets more than what she bargained for when she discovers that the school has a "Sword Bearer" program where pairs of girls roam the campus in search of battle. When Hayate learns that there are cash prizes to be won—and that her adoptive foster home is in desperate need of money—she realizes that the simplest solution is to win a lot of sword fights. But Hayate's teammate of choice, Ayana, is reluctant to pair up with her due to some emotional baggage involving a past swordfighting partner. By challenging the other students at Tenchi Academy, can Hayate raise enough money to save her childhood home ... and can Ayana overcome the issues of her past?
What does Hayate X Blade want to be? A sword-swinging action series, a bouncy all-girl comedy, a yuri-flavored schoolyard romp, or what? Volume 1 gives all of those genres a shot, but doesn't particularly excel at any of them. The premise is almost needlessly complex (what's the point of the twin sister subplot?), the fights aren't anything special, and pretty much the only thing keeping this series afloat so far is that Hayate's repeated molestations of Ayana are a riot and a half. And that's assuming you like that style of zany humor in the first place. The far-off goal and strict tournament format provide enough structure to keep the plot going, but will anyone keep reading?
Regardless of future developments, here's the hook that will surely get some folks to start reading: it's Maria-sama, but with less French and more swords. Yes, if there's one thing that earns the series its yuri label, it's that it relies on the time-honored tradition of having an all-girls boarding school where students are expected to pair up with other students for lesbian gossip purposes. Or maybe to build friendships. Either way, this is already one major cliché that the series has plowed into. Then there are the character archetypes: Hayate's perky attitude contrasts well against Ayana's aloofness, but this would be about the 1,507th time in manga history that a calm, collected character has teamed up with a complete scatterbrain. The one selling point is that Hayate pushes the concept of scatterbrained to its limits, making dumb mistakes and blurting out lines that earn a few laughs. But like so many one-joke characters, Hayate's idiot act gets old fast.
All right, so maybe the yuri school concept isn't particularly convincing and the characters are lacking in depth. But how does the action fare? Those who enjoy games and tournaments with complex rules might get a kick out of this one, with its offensive-defensive combatant-pairing system and specific conditions for victory (strike the star emblem on the opponent's uniform and you win). Laddered rankings also make it clear that Hayate and Ayana's path to domination is a long one ... but having a complex combat system and actually using it for effective storytelling are two different things. Hayate's problem-solving in the heat of battle is only showcased a couple of times, and there's never that electric surge of pacing and energy that comes from a top-notch action series.
A cartoony yet cluttered art style also hampers the action; some of the pivotal scenes in the early battles are actually too ambiguous to understand at first glance. (Handcuffing? How does that even work?) At least it improves later on—like when Hayate strikes down multiple opponents at once—but an action series simply cannot afford to falter at a critical moment. At least the Hayate/Ayano visual gags are packed with energy and delight, but those are really just single-panel static images. Meanwhile, more basic elements like character designs suffer from ambiguity as well: Hayate is short enough to pick out from a crowd, and Ayana wears distinguishing glasses, but one look at the supporting cast and it seems that the school suffers from a surfeit of bouncy-haired moe girls. The simplified style and frequent use of tones also make it difficult to get a grasp of the backgrounds—what does the campus look like again? But the most ingrained artistic flaw, by far, is the poor sense of layout: it's just no fun to read when images and panels are crammed together with no regard for how the eye is supposed to follow them.
Even the text contributes to the layout problems in this volume—the dialogue is just everywhere, with speech bubbles interrupting the art at every turn. (Hint for aspiring artists: always make room for dialogue placement! Well-trained eyes can tell when you just slap on the text wherever.) Yet despite this graphic-design gaffe, the writing itself turns out some surprisingly good zingers, mostly when Ayana snaps back at Hayate for being annoying. A couple of times the translation tries too hard to be colloquial, but better to have a script with personality than to sound dry and clinical. Sound effects are an either-or proposition, with the smaller ones being erased and replaced with translations, while larger effects are just left alone and translations placed next to them in a matching font. A glossary in the back also provides some brief cultural notes.
Whatever Hayate X Blade is trying to be, Volume 1 doesn't seem to be doing it very well. As a school comedy with yuri overtones, it doesn't leave much of an impression aside from being a carbon copy of all the other ones like that, and the one tweak that sets it apart—sword-based combat with a fancy set of rules—doesn't quite measure up to other action titles. It also doesn't help that the art seems to be doing its best to be as confusing as possible (and this despite the simple-lined style). If the series intends to push Hayate and Ayana into more swordfights, comedy situations, and possible romantic complications, it will need to improve quickly and show why it stands out among the multiple genres it's trying to compete in.
Overall : C
Story : C
Art : C-
+ Scatterbrained lead character produces some shining comedy moments, while a complex combat system forces her to fight creatively.
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