Reviewby Theron Martin,
DVD - Complete Collection
Senou Natsuru was an ordinary high school student with an ordinary unrequited crush on Sakura Kaede, one of his school's top two idols, but one morning he wakes up to discover that his dream of two girls fighting a desperate battle against each other is no dream: he really is one of those girls, and though he can change back into a guy, he returns to girl form whenever he comes into proximity with another girl wearing a bracelet similar to the irremovable one he has. His second big surprise is that his Bowel Familiar (a line of deceased animal plushies whose innards stick out) Harakiri Tiger can walk and talk – and with a voice that sounds like a prominent seiyuu, to boot. It informs him that he has become a Kämpfer, a girl with enhanced fighting capabilities who has mastery over either guns or blades or energy blasts, and since Kämpfers can only be girls, he has to turn into one to do his requisite fighting. He eventually encounters and allies with three other Kämpfers (only they're all really girls), and the lot of them try to figure out why the mysterious Moderators chose them and want them to fight each other. That doesn't, of course, prevent all manner of romantic complications from arising, for Senou quickly discovers that his girl form is intensely popular amongst other girls – including especially Senou's beloved Sakura, who has no interest in boys but practically throws herself at the female Senou – while his guy form attracts the earnest attention of the other Kämpfers. With so many love interests to juggle and the occasional threat of battle, how will he ever find peace?
In the late '80s Ranma ½ set the standard for the complications involved when a character who regularly switches genders gets romantic attention in both forms, while in the late '90s Maze: The Mega-Burst Space put a fantasy spin on the same concept and added lesbianism into the mix. Kämpfer, which is based on a series of light novels, is the spiritual descendant of both. While retaining all of the romantic hijinks of its predecessors, it adds one new (for this type) element to the mix: it is a harem comedy, too.
The series may not look that way at first. The first two episodes give the impression that this will be a more action-packed series with fan service elements and perhaps a bit of harem shenanigans to support it, but as the series progresses the harem elements take center stage and the action component gets pushed well into the background; in fact, there is one run of several episodes in the middle of the series which is almost entirely devoid of meaningful action. The storytelling gives the feel that the creators wanted to make a series which was equally action-oriented and harem-oriented but could not figure out how to properly balance the two elements and so took the path of least resistance. Bolstering this argument is the incredibly lame justification provided late in the series for why the Kämpfers wearing the two different-colored bracelets (red and blue) are supposed to be fighting each other and the way the series sabotages the addition of a third color group by making them rather pathetic beyond a strong initial appearance – and no, not all of that can be explained away by the fact that the white Kämpfers are inherently a joke. Put another way, the series takes the potentially appealing concept of having sexy teenage girls fighting each other with a mix of guns, blades, and energy blasts and does little with it.
The series fares a little better if looked at purely as a harem comedy. It has most of the expected elements: a diverse variety of personality types for the girls, a pathetically indecisive lead at the center of attention, plentiful groping and sexual innuendo, all of the expected opportunities for fan service situations (bathing, pool episode, sleep-overs, lingerie-purchasing, etc.), and so forth; there is even a childhood friend character who seem conscious of the fact that childhood friends are supposed to have an edge in these situations. Having Senou collect his harem in both genders, and having his prime love interest only being interested in him as a girl, are the two fresh twists in what is otherwise a generic harem construction, but that is enough to keep that aspect of the series from being totally dull. One of the girls switches radically between the passive and aggressive sides of her personality when she transforms, which is amusing early on but gets old after a while. A more consistent plus is Student Council President Shizuku Sango, who may seem like the stereotypical aloof, domineering figure who eventually melts to the unwitting charms of the hero, but she surprises by actually fully maintaining her dignity and intelligence even while coming on to the male Senou. She remains calm and in control in any situation, never getting flustered even by Senou's unimaginable denseness and always on the lookout for trouble. A late episode tosses in a cheap and random background motive for her, but even with that she is still one of the most interesting harem girls to come along in quite some time.
The other major aspect of the show, and the one which arguably works the best, is its perverse and sometimes twisted sense of humor. One of the series' running jokes is characters commenting that other characters sound like certain prominent female seiyuu – and, of course, the characters being referred to actually are being voiced by those seiyuu; in an extension of the joke, the white Kämpfers who show up late in the series are even partly named after the seiyuu voicing them. The other huge running joke is the line of plushie Bowel Familiars, which are animals who have died from some cause (Burnt-To-Death Lion, Seppuku Black Bunny, Harakiri Tiger, Electrocuted Lynx, a strangled dog, and so forth) and have their innards sticking out. That the series' most lovable character adores them is part of the joke, and a middle episode reveals that they are all connected to a book or TV series-based mythology involving a Guts Kingdom, a Bowel Kingdom, and a character becoming a Bowel Bride. The notion of Berlin Wall-like security between the boys and girls sides of the school is also inherently amusing. Attempts to stick in references to other anime series are more hit-or-miss, with the Gundam references feeling a bit forced but others – including one character showing up dressed as Zero from Code Geass and another character being described as a combination of Utena and Sailor Uranus – working better. Miserably failing are the tiresome, money-grubbing routines of the officers in the classroom of Senou's girl form and the lame parody attempts that are the personalities of the white Kämpfer girls. Certain aspects of the bonus episode 12, a Christmas-themed body-swapping romp told as a fairy tale, are disturbingly weird, none moreso than its final scene.
Artistry and animation production, courtesy of Nomad (Rozen Maiden, Yozakura Quartet), stand on the high end of average. The girls all have pleasingly sexy looks without needing outlandish figures (but, surprisingly for a series like this, loli fanatics will find no one to fixate on), but even the wholesomely attractive Sakura has a generic cast to her features and two of the harem girls have too similar builds and hair style/colors when not in Kämpfer form. The male and female versions of Senou both stick out for being unconventionally tall (harem leads are typically on the short side and almost never taller than average), and the Kämpfer forms of some girls are more distinctive. The rare male characters beyond Senou are mere afterthoughts, but the designers do get to show their creativity with the Bowel Familiar designs. Backgrounds, color schemes, and animation are all decent but unexciting. Fan service avoids using full nudity or panty shots and is, in fact, fairly tame by recent standards even though there is a lot of it.
The musical score provides fun little themes to spruce up the comedy moments, such as the adventuresome theme used for world-traveling childhood friend Mikoto, but generally does not do anything exceptional. Neither the opener “Unreal Paradise” nor the butt-dancing closer “One Way Ryou Omoi” makes much of an impression.
Sentai Filmworks clearly decided that this was too much of a niche title to warrant a dub, and correctly so; it has no cross-over value. The subtitles are solid, though, and include several on-screen notes explaining the seiyuu and Gundam references. On-disk Extras include only clean opener and closer and a Blu-Ray version is not available (though one was released in Japan).
Kämpfer works best if regarded as a harem series laced with some action elements, as its plot is a mess. It awkwardly drops in developments when it tries to transition back to Story Mode in its last third and concludes in episode 11 with a climax which is suitably dramatic and involves a pivotal decision but comes nowhere close to rounding out the story; in fact, the climactic scene feels more like a stepping stone than a destination. (Two more episodes are scheduled for March 2011 release, but as of this writing there was no indication whether they will continue the story or just be further fan service fests.) Only occasionally do its action elements do anything special, either. Watch it for the fan service and the jokes, because this one doesn't have much more going for it than that.
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Shizuku, nice girl designs, some good jokes.
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