Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
The Obsidian Prince, the true enemy of the HiME, has awakened, but the HiME battle royale has gained unstoppable momentum. Mikoto's break with Mai causes her to join forces with her brother, in the process putting herself at odds with the other HiME. Nao is hell-bent on revenging herself against Natsuki, and Mai, convinced that gaining the power promised upon defeating all other HiME is the only way to bring back Takumi, makes an apparent decision to oppose all former allies. Meanwhile, deadly anti-HiME android Miyu reappears on the scene, the Obsidian Prince and Nagi hatch their nefarious plans in spite of Fumi and the Headmaster's opposition, and Natsuki, emotionally crippled by a devastating revelation, recuperates under the ministrations of Shizuru, whose overprotective impulses may well do more harm than good.
Coming off of the emotional and action highs of the last volume, this penultimate volume hits the ground running and wastes no time in squeezing the cast until they bleed pure drama. There may be only three episodes on this disc, but there isn't a single wasted moment; it's an hour and a quarter of pure (melo)drama heaven.
Like the last volume, this volume has dispensed entirely with first half's light humor. This stretch of episodes is heavy (and occasionally heavy-handed) straight through, as the fragile alliances formed among the HiME during the Searrs Foundation's attack continue to unravel. As do the HiME themselves. The time has come for every sideways glance, cryptic hint, and scrap of back-story seeded in the series' more lighthearted beginnings to pay dividends. The large cast is fleshed out with deep, yet only partially exposed personal histories that simultaneously tantalize and evoke sympathy. As a result, the emotional pain of the entire cast cuts deep, even while Nagi's HiME death match strips them down to their rawest, ugliest emotional cores: Natsuki has succumbed to soul-destroying despair, Nao is consumed by revenge, Shizuru surrenders herself to single-minded devotion, Mikoto drowns her confusion in subordination, and Mai is a mess of conflicting emotions and deep-rooted denial.
Oddly enough, given the strength of the central cast, the series' secret weapon is the supporting cast. As the cover attests, this volume focuses heavily on Natsuki and Shizuru. Yet, at the emotional peak of their story, the entire scene is stolen outright by belligerent student council officer Haruka who, in one of the series' most powerful scenes to date, proves once and for all that her love of justice and Yukino run very deep indeed. It's a moment that demonstrates exactly the subtle disruption of common narrative practice that sets My-HiME apart from its more mundane peers.
The series does flirt with melodrama throughout this volume, but it cuts between the endeavors of its varied cast with lightning precision, cutting scenes short before their emotional manipulations can become oppressive, simultaneously limiting melodrama and maximizing tension. Melodrama aside, the only truly damaging charges that can be leveled against this volume are the continued dullness of the male lead (Tate) and a persistent lurking suspicion (fuelled by comments about "remaking the world") that the series may be building up to an Evangelion-style "reset" cop-out.
The dark settings of the expertly staged HiME battles and the bleak landscapes of ravaged buildings and forests mirror the emotional and physical trauma of the central cast. The color palette has been drained of the comparatively festive colors that brightened earlier episodes, reflecting the predominant mood of dark despair. The cast looks as great as ever; even without Kagutsuchi's impressive flame effects the fights are still fluid, sharply edited visual treats; and facial expressions are detailed to heart-breaking effect.
Yuki Kajiura's haunting score grows ever more effective, with greater use of her patented vocals underlining the story's dark turn. If you have watched anything scored by Yuki Kajiura, then you'll know what to expect here, minus the continuous repetition and bombastic musical overkill that marred the .hack series and Madlax. The opening and ending themes remain unchanged.
The more intense things get, the more the limitations of the English version become apparent. The dub's good points—naturally pitched female voices, the decision to preserve Shizuru's accent via a light southern drawl—are lost amidst the mediocre acting and flubbed emotional content. Many of the actors have moments of surprising effectiveness (Yukino, it turns out is better at being angry than being timid) but the impressions that last are the bad ones. Natsuki's incidental noises (gasps, sighs, etc.) are painfully unconvincing, Reito loses his mildly insinuating tone, and Haruka only intermittently projects her crucial combination of iron willpower and genuine affection. The faithful script means that no plot points are lost, but the emotional content, which covers the bulk of this volume, is severely dampened.
Expecting extras? Too bad. This is another in the growing number of Bandai releases to be literally extras-free (unless you count trailers). The episode-end omake are still included, tacked onto the end of each episode where they belong.
Utilizing light entertainment to build audiences' relationships with characters before putting them through the wringer is a fairly common tactic in anime (used with varying degrees of success in shows as disparate as Planetes and Mahoromatic). The brilliance of My-HiME is that the HiMEs' many-faceted descent into an emotional hell of unavoidable battles is deeply rooted in the many tiny yet momentous moments of earlier, fluffier episodes. Each episode, each development grants viewers new eyes with which to view earlier episodes, making rewatching this series a must—regardless of any reservations one might have about its potential conclusion.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ A full-throttle emotional rollercoaster that makes brutal use of the incremental characterization from the opening volumes.
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