Reviewby Theron Martin, Apr 4th 2012
Infinite Stratos + Encore
Blu-Ray - Complete Collection
In the future, a weaponized exoskeleton system called Infinite Stratos (IS for short) has become the dominant weapons platform, though its use is typically restricted only to sport-like activities. Due to some peculiarity in its construction, IS units can only be piloted by women - or at least that's the way it normally is until Ichika Orimura, young brother of legendary IS pilot Chifuyu Orimura, comes along and proves that he, too, can activate such technology. That makes him the only male student at the IS training academy in Japan, which naturally makes him quite the popular fellow amongst the schoolgirl denizens. Among them initially is Houki Shinonono, younger sister of the IS's flaky inventor and Ichika's onetime childhood friend/kendo sparring partner, and Cecilia Alcott, the haughty Candidate Representative from Great Britain. Joining them later on in Rinin Fang, the Candidate Representative from China, who was Ichika's childhood friend after he moved away from Houki; Charlotte Dunois, the Candidate Representative from France who initially claims to be the boy Charles; and Laura Bodewig, the Candidate Representative from Germany who initially regards Ichika as the enemy because she sees him as a burden on Chifuyu, her beloved former IS instructor. Since they don't have much in the way of outside threats beyond a couple of rogue IS units, the girls instead spend a lot of their time vying for the clueless Ichika's affections.
Combine the popular harem romantic comedy and mecha genres and you have Infinite Stratos, a 2011 light novel-based series which proves that the two can work quite nicely together. It also proves just how stale the base elements of the harem theme have become.
Oh, the producers of the series do try to give the material some fresh twists, such as by making the harem a fully international one, and in this case the logic behind why Ichika is at the center of a harem is plain and easily acceptable: he's the only guy around, and he's a fairly studly-looking one to boot. Beyond that, though, the harem antics are as moldy as strawberries left sitting in a refrigerator for a month. The “female childhood friend with lingering feelings for the protagonist” has long been a staple of harem series, but did we really need to have two of them in this case and reinforce the fact that they are childhood friends with nauseating persistence? Girls who are won over after they are beaten or nearly beaten in some fight or contest by the male lead are another staple, and again, we have two of them here. The girl who initially poses as a boy (and even though Charlotte goes nearly two full episodes as Charles before revealing her true nature, this doesn't count as a spoiler because it's so incredibly obvious to the viewer that she's “passing”) is a far less common gimmick, and perhaps because of that the relationship which develops between Charlotte and Ichika is the freshest and most interesting to watch. Ichika negates any hope of originality through his neutron star-grade density when it comes to the feelings of the girls around him, however. The problems aren't limited to the retread character concepts, as the execution of decrepit harem clichés leads to a goodly amount of truly awful content, especially in the early episodes. The fan service isn't frequent enough or (beyond a small handful of scenes) brassy enough to compensate, either.
The series does partly redeem itself with its action scenes, however. The IS suits can materialize in a magical girl-like fashion and are structurally vaguely reminiscent of the famous industrial loader that Ripley piloted in the movie Aliens, albeit with a far slicker and more stylish design and loaded with a varying array of weapons. Pilots guide them through dazzling ground and aerial battles which exploit the full capabilities of Studio 8-Bit's CG artistry (this is the precursor to their later co-production of Aquarion Evol) and offer plenty of thrills. The fact that Ichika's level of piloting ability is dramatically inconsistent seems irrelevant, but at least he's not the one always saving the day and at least he does show some slick teamwork at times. Sadly, the series never gives Ichika and the girls an established, regular enemy to fight, which lessens the sense of conflict in the story and leaves all too many teenage hormones to be directed into the harem antics.
Beyond the IS action the sound and visual do well enough, with the IS designs and animation getting the lion's share of the attention; this does result in some nearly flawless 2D/CG integration, however. Character designs are fairly typical, with Ichika looking only a little less bland than harem protagonists usually do (at least he's taller than all of the girls) and the girls offering a normal array of body and hair type options. The soundtrack is at its best when playing up the dramatic battle scenes and innocuous otherwise. Neither the opener nor the closer is remarkable as J-pop numbers go, although the closer's gimmick of progressively expanding its cast of girls running with Ichika as they gravitate into his harem is mildly interesting to watch.
The Japanese dub for the series suffers a bit because it makes no real effort to distinguish its foreign characters from their Japanese peers in a vocal sense. The English dub definitely does do that, and while the attempts of Shannon Emerick (Charles/Charlotte), Brittney Karbowski (Cecilia), and Tiffany Grant (Laura - oh, who else did you expect?) to give their respective characters appropriate accents often come off more as speech affectations, they do at least succeed at making their characters sound distinctive. A strong performance by Josh Grelle, who is an excellent fit as Ichika, complements them nicely, as does a good scripting effort.
Sentai Filmworks has given Infinite Stratos the deluxe treatment (and yes, they do have the uncensored version), with both the DVD and Blu-Ray versions including both the follow-up OVA episode and what's advertised as a soundtrack CD; actually, though, it has a collection of character songs sung by each of the five main seiyuu paired with each seiyuu in turn singing the lead on the closer. The case included a liner insert which has all of the lyrics for these songs in both English and Japanese. On-disk Extras are also more extensive than normal. Included are three audio commentaries done by various seiyuu: the one for episode 4 featuring Yōko Hisaka (Houki) and Asami Shimoda (Rinin), one for episode 7 featuring Hisaka and Kana Hanazawa (Charles/Charlotte), and one for episode 12 featuring Hisaki and Yukana (Cecilia). The content of all of these is highly inane, with one of the few interesting bits of insight being that Hisaki was specifically told to use a more masculine tone and approach with Houki. Also present are the much more entertaining 41-minute-long “Radio IS” video, which features the same group of seiyuu; a 10 minute “behind the scenes” video , which features Honiara interviewing director Yasuhito Kikuchi; and clean opener and closer.
Overall, Infinite Stratos's blend of tediously awful and thrillingly cool content balances out somewhere in the middle. It has enough harem and mecha action to entice enthusiasts of both genres but will disappoint anyone looking for actual substance or a fresh approach.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B
+ Some thrilling and well-rendered action sequences.
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