Reviewby Theron Martin,
Heaven's Memo Pad
Blu-Ray 1-2 - Complete Collection
Narumi Fujishima doesn't stand out much and rarely gets to make lasting friendships because of how often his father has moved for his job, thus leaving him wondering about a world where he's just a pixel and never gets to see the full picture. His latest move, to Tokyo, quickly proves to be different, however. He soon gets drafted by classmate Ayaka, who is seeking a second member for her Garden Club, and then winds up (unwillingly at first) in the company of a bunch of NEETs (individuals Not in Employment, Education, or Training) who include a military otaku, a playboy, and a professional gambler and hang out by the ramen shop where Ayaka works. That leads him to an association with Alice, a strange, pint-sized girl who operates the NEET Detective Agency, a quasi-business whose function is for her to serve as an “advocate for the dead” (amongst other things). While she investigates via hacking and the Internet, the other NEETs – and soon Narumi, too – do her footwork. In the course of cases that include investigation into local prostitution, a girl whose father has gotten entangled with the yakuza, a thief who strikes close to home, efforts to sabotage a concert that Narumi winds up helping to promote, and the dangerous new street drug Angel Freak, Narumi also gets involved deeply in the affairs of the Hirasaka Gang and its charismatic leader, known as The Fourth.
This summer 2011 series adapts the eponymous light novel series by award-winning author Hikaru Sugii, though it does not do so in published or strict chronological order. The double-length episode 1 and episodes 10-12 cover the seminal novel, while episodes 2 and 3 cover the second novel, episodes 5-8 deal with the fourth novel, and episodes 4 and 9 are short stories from the fifth novel; the third novel, whose events directly spin off of the final scene of episode 12, seems to be completely skipped here. This reordering results in one character being actively involved in the second story arc who wasn't in the novels, and a few significant details do get changed, but the event progression is flawlessly smooth, with lead-ins to later stories being incorporated into earlier stories to set them up and detail changes having no major impact on how the arcs play out. In fact, one who has no familiarity with the novels could not tell that anything has been changed, and that is a hallmark of an excellent adaptation.
The series composition by Seishi Minakami, who also did outstanding work on Living for the Day After Tomorrow, also does the source material justice. As silly as certain elements of the premise may be, and as goofy as the occasional comedy elements are, the story takes its subject matter quite seriously, resulting in a collection of usually well-written, well-conceived, and compelling stories which can resonate deeply with viewers. Even the baseball game episode, which represents the series' low point, still has moments where it seems just a little more sincere than equivalent fare in other series, such as the point where specific details of the burly yakuza's baseball past are brought into play.
While most of the NEET Detective Agency flunkies remain static in their characters once established, most other recurring and significant guest cast members see satisfyingly substantial development. Narumi is especially notable here, as he is a touch cleverer, bolder, more insightful, and more capable in his actions than one might expect without being unrealistically competent. As wimpy as he may come across, no one will walk away from the series questioning his testicular fortitude in the slightest, nor will anyone walk away convinced that he was too dimwitted to be afraid of the very real danger he knowingly puts himself in. He is one of the better characters of his type to come along in quite some time.
His female counterpart is another story. Alice's appearance, general demeanor, and behaviors are so carefully designed to be cutesy otaku bait that they almost sabotage the impact and credibility of the content involving her, which is a big deal since the series gives her many of the weightiest and most important lines. The series makes no effort to explain anything about her: how old she actually is (she looks like a little kid but certainly does not talk like one), what her background is, how she ended up doing what she's doing, how she assembled all of that equipment and supports herself, how the other NEETs ended up associating with her and loyally helping her, why she's regarded as a “big sister” by the Hirasaka Gang and respected even by The Fourth, and so forth. She gets no real development, either, leaving her as a shallow centerpiece that viewers must accept at face value for the series to go forward. Ultimately she is more a part of the premise, a tool for the series, than an actual character.
More a mix of credit and concern is the serious way the series tackles some heady social issues. In its treatment of NEETs the series can be looked at either as playing to a certain audience known to overlap significantly with anime-related otaku or as a subtle social commentary. Alice and her subordinates clearly take pride in their willful NEET status, which could be interpreted as glorifying simple indolence (something which anime typically only shows in a negative or comedic light) but could also be equated to a rejection of Japanese work ethic and society. Narumi, despite hardly being the most socially well-adjusted person around, is the stand-in for the non-NEET, non-otaku audience, so the way he looks askance at the attitudes and behaviors of Alice and her subordinates, and is warned against getting drawn too deeply into the affairs of Alice and the Hirasaki Gang, could be taken to represent the way society regards NEETs. The series more successfully addresses other tough issues such as suicide and teen prostitution – two prominent social issues in current Japan – and the production, distribution, and impact of illegal drugs, although it dodges references to prostitution by immigrant women that were apparently included in one of the adapted novels. Even so, the subject matter gets quite edgy at times, enough so that the series only getting a TV-14 rating is a little surprising.
J.C. Staff doesn't exactly have the greatest reputation for turning out sharp visual productions, but they make a solid effort here. Character designs beyond Alice may not be the most original but are appealing and consistently drawn well; Alice, with her long hair, childish build, and teddy bear-themed pajamas as normal apparel, is more distinctive but also heavily moe-flavored in the series' only nod to that style, especially in the scenes where she dresses up to go somewhere and in the opener's animation. Respectable background design and a flat color scheme also contribute to a good-but-not-great overall visual impression. The animation does rely on still shots in places but comes through well enough when needed and actually hits home best in the handful of graphic scenes. Fan service is only present in such small and tame doses that it is largely innocuous.
The musical score stands out much more, but one would expect nothing less from Taku Iwasaki, the man whose creative work has enlivened series like Read or Die, Gurren Lagann, and Soul Eater. His eclectic score goes for a more understated approach rather than being bold and brassy, using themes which include light jazz, piano, full orchestration, Western-styled guitar, rock, pop, even rap at one point, with several of the themes having vocals set to them. The series' signature theme, a somber, haunting number featuring a bell set and vocals sung a syllable at a time, gets called upon for the weightiest moments and delivers well.
Whether or not one likes Sentai Filmworks' English dub largely comes down to how much one tolerates Hilary Haag's key performance as Alice. Her performance makes Alice sound a bit less kiddish and not quite as cutesy, which hurts the moe effect but does make her a little more convincing when ordering people around. She does struggle a bit with using filler words, however. Other casting choices are perfectly fine, with Brittney Karbowski and Shelley Calene-Black being dead-on as Ayaka and the ramen shop owner Min respectively, Greg Ayres possibly even being an improvement as Major (who has a really irritating vocal style in Japanese), and Mike Yager doing an excellent interpretation of guest star Renji Hirasaka. The English script stays as tight as could reasonably be expected.
Sentai is giving this series the deluxe release treatment, with both two-disk Blu-Ray and three-disk DVD options available; only the Blu-Ray version was available for review. Both have only clean opener and closer for Extras but do include several header notes in the subtitles to explain certain cultural references and full subtitling of on-screen text, which is critical in many scenes. The Blu-Ray transfer is a good one, bringing out the best in what is not quite a top-definition artistic effort and proving quite effective on the audio front, too. Of the two DTS HD Master Audio 2.0 language tracks, the English one has the edge with a richer sound at the high and low ends of the register. If you own a Blu-Ray player, the extra $6-10 for the Blu-Ray release is worth it.
Overall, Heaven's Memo Pad is a very good series which falls short of being a great series primarily because it insists on committing to a moe element which it doesn't really need. It gets off to a strong start with its tone-setting first episode and wraps up with an equally good final arc, though the stories in between also have their moments.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Well-conceived and well-written individual stories, good male lead, musical score.
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