Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 20th 2009
Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's
DVD - Box Set
After gaining magical powers and saving the world, Nanoha Takamachi hoped that she could return to the life of a normal third-grader. But being a magical girl is rarely so easy, and a friendly visit from Nanoha's former enemy Fate Testarossa quickly turns sour when Nanoha is attacked by a powerful "guardian knight." These knights are trying to collect magical energy for an artifact called the Book of Darkness, which when completed, will grant its master incredible destructive power. Now it's up to Nanoha, Fate, and the other officers of the Time-Space Administration Bureau to stop another otherwordly crisis. However, many surprises await them—the true nature of the guardian knights, the identity of the Book's owner, and the seemingly futile task of destroying magical artifact that operates with a mind of its own...
Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's can be faulted for many things—a chaotic beginning, a time-stalling middle, an overly drawn-out ending—but one thing it can never be accused of is having a generic, sneering, cackling, Big Bad villain. That's because this series does everything it can to avoid that stereotype, hiding the real enemy within a matryoshka doll of plot twists and revelations. As a sequel series, the pressure to outdo the the original must have been intense: "Actually, Fate isn't the real villain!" just would not do as a plot device anymore, and they had to go bigger and better, and throw in a couple of heart-wrenching moral dilemmas for good measure. The result is a work of raw ambition, desperately straining to break free of the clichés holding it down. To its credit, Nanoha A's comes close. Very close.
Even the title of this series belies its true nature: if anything, Nanoha A's is more of a pure action-adventure that simply uses magical-girl tropes and cuts out the filler. And so it is with the opening arc: Nanoha gets beaten to within an inch of her life in Episode 1, Fate has to fight in her place for almost all of Episode 2, and then it's another whole episode just to explain what the heck is going on. Clearly, familiarity with the original series helps a lot, because the recap ("I was an ordinary third-grader until...") barely counts as one. And don't ask what spaceships and cartridge-loading weapons and computer science mumbo-jumbo have to do with magical combat; this is one of those series where "because it looks cool" is justification enough for anything.
If this volatile stew of genre elements seems strange, though, it does become more palatable as the heart of the storyline is revealed. The knights' true motives come into the open, the Book of Darkness's background is made clear, and the true villain of the story—believe it or not—evokes a deeper sympathy than any of the heroes. (Or maybe that's just another cliché taking effect.) Where it would have been so easy to go with the cackling nutcase bent on world domination, this series actually tries to paint the good-versus-evil conflict in deep shades of gray, resulting in a far more bittersweet emotional effect than one might expect from the genre.
But a magic-infused action-adventure must, in the end, deliver action and adventure, and that's where things fall back into the realm of the predictable. The middle episodes feature a lot of sloppy stop-and-start battles, with the knights charging forward and then rearing back as they suddenly become torn between their thirst for destruction and the love of their master. And when it comes down to fighting the final battle—a longwinded four-episode affair (in a 13-episode series!)—everyone just trots out increasingly powerful attacks, usually accompanied by monologues about the strength of their heart and the force of their will. Nanoha A's may have subverted the traditional villain role, but apparently it couldn't think up anything original for the heroes.
Even the finale's attempt to visually impress the audience falls short: Nanoha and her friends' weaponry gets fancier with each transformation, but the digitally-generated effects are woefully cheap, and the artifact/creature designs just get stupid by about Episode 12 or so. But maybe the flash and fanfare of mid-air magical combat (yes, every magic-wielding person in this series can fly; it just looks cool) isn't so bad compared to what happens on the ground: blocky front-view or side-view scenery, uninspired backgrounds, and animation so cheap that there is one scene where a TV is flashing static images every two seconds. But lazy directing and cheap animation have nothing to do with the most intrinsic visual problem: the dull, bug-eyed character designs that differ only in terms of hairstyle and costume changes. And even then, everyone has that weird tuft of hair coming out the side of their heads! Is this some kind of bizarre universe where everyone wakes up with bed head in the mornings?
What a relief, then, that the music isn't quite as cheap as the visuals: sure, they still use electronic instrumentation because it's a pain to bring in real musicians, but the pretend-orchestra that pounds its way through the soundtrack is surprisingly effective. Battle scenes resound with Wagnerian pomp, while quiet moments and flashbacks are dotted with poignancy—especially in Fate's dream about her perfect alternate world. Too bad the theme songs are so dull in comparison (and this is why Nana Mizuki and Yukari Tamura have never quite broken the barrier between singing seiyuu and actual pop star).
If there's one more source of hokeyness to be rooted out in this series, it's in the dialogue, half of which seems to involve yelling out ridiculously-named attacks or trying to explain some form of magical quantum physics. Perhaps that's why the actors on the English track tend to overact, because there's just no way to say "Divine Buster Shoot" (or something similar) without sounding completely silly. Some of that can also be attributed to the dub's adherence to the direct translation, which increases accuracy but also leads to a handful of clunky phrases in the script. And while this DVD set is kind enough to offer dual audio tracks, it falls short in terms of bonus content, containing only textless credit sequences and a music video that sums up the first Nanoha season.
Following the success of the first series, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's builds upon the original in a way one would expect from most sequels: more characters, more twists, and more grandeur. Certainly, the series succeeds in those aspects, bringing in a surprising new villain to face off against Nanoha, adding a strong element of sympathy to the conflict, and finishing with a battle so epic that it takes four episodes to finish. But the limitations of the genre (and the animation studio) hold it back from truly breaking the mold; instead what we get is an ambitious dose of action-adventure that still suffers from convoluted plot-churning, cheap visual effects, and too many crazy attacks and sci-fi-magic concepts to keep track of. It comes so close to greatness, but it's just not there. So close.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B
Animation : C
Art : C
Music : C+
+ An unexpected villain and various plot twists add new dimensions to the standard save-the-world plot.
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