Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Oct 22nd 2006
The cultural festival is over and finals completed, which means it's time for the beach, make-up exams, and vampire-hunting! As always, life at Fuka is plenty exciting, and things only get more so as the power behind the defeat of one HiME begins to make its move against the rest. And all the while Takumi deals with his slowly-warming, secretive roommate Akira, Natsuki remembers her childhood, Mai comes to terms with the responsibilities of being HiME, the winds of love blow willy-nilly through the student body, and new HiME begin to surface in the most unlikely of places.
Don't let anyone tell you that a good gimmick can save a show. At best a good gimmick provides a hook, something to draw the audience in. After that, it's up to the show itself to keep the audience involved. Mai-HiME's gimmick is to take a standard shounen action setup (a group of teenagers with super-powers battle each other and eventually join forces to fight a greater evil), and simply replace all of the characters with girls. Girls of every size, shape and personality type imaginable. It's a very simple (and visually pleasing) gimmick. However, here at the halfway point of the series is where the show must stop relying on its setup and find its legs. And while it hasn't taken off running, Mai-HiME proves in this installment that it has its feet firmly planted and is ready to sprint.
Composed as it is, from an apparent swamp of been-there-done-that anime story elements, how does Mai-HiME find firm ground from which to take off? In a word: competence. Extreme competence in all areas of execution. It's simply superior entertainment at every level, and by dint of this, every constituent of the show flows together into one mightily satisfactory whole. How else do you describe a show that can take the standard "everyone goes to the beach!" episode and manage to sneak romantic entanglements, character back-story, some plot hints and illumination of dark conspiracies in between all the swimsuits and comic misunderstandings? The show may know when to slow down and have some fun, but even while spinning pure fluff it's never standing still; even the entirely disposable cake competition serves as the basis for darker developments later on. And additionally, throughout it all—from the fan-service fluff to the creature smackdowns and hand-to-hand battles—runs a thread of pure psychological unpleasantness that lends everything a highly becoming edge. Tate and Mai continue to emotionally abuse each other and themselves; Shiho shows the first signs of an unbecoming catty streak; Miyu demonstrates the ugly flip side of her devotion to pint-size Alyssa; Shizuru begins to let slip signs that she's not nearly so simple or easy-going as she lets on; and Sister Yukariko's weakness and insecurity begin to undercut her devotion to God. Virtually every character gets a little bit of the limelight in nigh-on every episode (although you may have to keep a sharp eye out for some of them), all without ever feeling crowded, rushed or forced. Juggling a cast of this size without letting any of them drop is no mean feat, yet Mai-HiME manages to make it look effortless. The ability to write episodes that seem like simple filler, while inconspicuously seeding them with important portents and subtle developments is a skill that, while not as flashy as composing bombastic explorations of the human psyche, is no less difficult or praiseworthy. The plot may only begin to kick in in episode 11, but the preceding episodes are no waste of time.
Sunrise's art and animation for Mai-HiME are the same quality as the writing, not extraordinary, yet subtly impressive. Extra care is given to the animation of character's expressions, allowing one narrow-eyed glance or unhealthy grin to carry a disproportionate amount of meaning. Characters for the most part move fluidly through their surroundings. The staff also takes time to occasionally animate non-essential background characters, a rarity in most anime. Nevertheless, the obvious recipients of the animation budget are the action scenes, full of enough smooth movements, striking imagery, and outrageous acrobatics to match the rising stakes of the fights. The art hasn't changed since the beginning: Mai is as stunning as ever, and the supporting cast is literally rife with character designs that look good enough to eat. The colors are bright and eye-catching, and distinctive, complementary color schemes are used for all of the major characters. Backgrounds and settings are all well rendered, with special mention going to the nicely atmospheric crumbling ruin that the disc's climactic battle occupies. The Orphan designs are still kind of generic, although the beasties used by the Searrs Foundation have a more angular, mildly inorganic appearance that sets them apart from your run-of-the-mill monsters.
Yuki Kajiura's score for this series continues to be a treat for the ears, and is thankfully a little more understated than some of her outings. Director Masakazu Ohara wisely decides to hold her patented classical-meets-modern choral pieces in reserve as punctuation for the battles, sidestepping the musical overkill that plagues Yuki Kajiura's collaborations with Koichi Mashimo. Mai-HiME instead finds Yuki Kajiura ably supporting the action, without drowning it in an aural tidal wave; simple melodies underline the everyday lives of students, while her more typical, complex, otherworldly rhythms lend a haunting unreality to the supernatural goings-on. A pair of pleasing yet relatively undistinguished j-pop tunes bookend each episode.
Bandai's dub fares poorly in comparison to the cast of Japanese veterans and prominent up-and-comers. The original performances were highly dependent on slight shifts in tone, timbre and emotion, many of which fail to make the transition, and the emotion overall is dampened by the slightly lackluster delivery. Very few liberties are taken with the translation, except where necessary to match lip-flaps, but the accuracy comes at the sacrifice of flow, resulting in some awkward dailogue. Praise is in order, however, for the female actors, who generally speak in a lower, more natural register, which prevents the female-heavy cast from devolving into the unnatural screechfest it might have been had they attempted to match the exact tones of the Japanese voice actresses. Voice actors are also generally well cast, although Mikoto ends up losing her feral edge in the English version. It's also refreshing to see the increasingly standard substitution of the Kansai dialect with a light southern drawl, a practice light-years beyond the complete standardization of years past.
This disc continues the tradition of previous volumes of including a brief omake at the end of each episode. Like installments past, these omake are amusing, informative, and quite racy. No extras—except previews—are included outside of the omake.
Mai-HiME is simple, rock-solid entertainment, no more, no less; and while on the surface disposable, this particular set of episodes serves as a springboard for later developments and is awash in important details, so watch carefully.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Stuffed to the gills with relevant details, ongoing plot finally gets underway.
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