Reviewby Theron Martin,
Complete Series BD/DVD
With the recent passing of the grandmother she had always lived with, 14-year-old Arika Yumemiya sets out on a quest to find her mother, whose name she doesn't even know. Her only clue is that her mother was a former Otome, one of the nanomachine-empowered maidens who serve royalty, so she makes her way to Garderobe Academy in Windbloom Kingdom, the training ground for all Otome. On her way there, she encounters both one of the Academy's top students and the errant crown princess of Windbloom. Seeing a Meister Otome (an Otome who has earned a titled activation gem) deal with a foe convinces Arika to become an Otome herself, even though she doesn't initially understand what all that entails. Her mettle under pressure and affinity with the long-lost Meister gem Blue Sky Sapphire give her the opportunity to join the Academy, but that's only the beginning of the challenges before her. With threats from jealous classmates and tuition expenses to scheming politicos and the monsters called Slaves, Arika's life in Windbloom won't be dull.
My-Otome is the 2005 follow-up to 2004's My-HiME. For most of its run, it appears to be an alternate-world version of My-HiME, where the original cast is transplanted into a new setting but with different lesser roles, but details later in the series' run suggest that this might instead be a centuries-later sequel with many of HiME's characters simply being reincarnated together. Whatever the case, familiarity with the original series is not necessary for understanding or appreciating My-Otome, as it stands plenty well enough on its own.
At the same time, this series was clearly made with fans of the original in mind, and fans of My-HiME will probably get the most out of My-Otome. One of the major initial attractions for established fans is seeing all sorts of familiar characters in new roles; for instance, Mashiro, the headmistress of Fuka Academy in My-HiME, becomes a bratty princess in My-Otome, with Mai's classmate Aoi becoming Mashiro's personal maid, while former hellion Natsuki becomes the Headmistress. All of the original HiME pop up at some point, as do most other named characters with the conspicuous absence of Yuichi Tate. (Major Wang is similar enough in appearance to be Yuichi's stand-in, though.) Even some of the apparent major newcomers were actually in the original series, though viewers will have to look carefully to catch them; Arika had a conspicuous background cameo in the epilogue of My-HiME, for instance, while major character Nina Wang was shown several times as a seat neighbor of Mai's who never had a line of dialogue. Disappointingly, original series star Mai is mentioned early on but does not actually appear until the show's last quarter. This was presumably done to prevent her from overshadowing the new heroine, so in retrospect it was the right choice.
It's not just the recurring characters that creates a draw, though. Many of the relationships from the original remain: Akane and Kazuya are still wannabe lovers, Akira is still close with Takumi, Mikoto and Mai are inseparable, and Shizuru is Natsuki's devoted right-hand woman. The most interesting relationship changeover belongs to Haruka and Yukino's switched power dynamic: Yukino is the master of the two, though Haruka still has the stronger personality. Of the original Children, only Gakuten-O and Miroku remain in some form, though the Slaves of this series bear distinct similarities to the Orphans of My-HiME. The original HiME/most loved one connection has distinct parallels to the Master/Meister and controller/Slave pacts in this series too. Certain scenes from the original – most notably Natsuki's ill-fated hitchhiking attempt and Mikoto's lament about love – have their own versions in this series as well.
But this series is more than just a series of connections to its predecessor. My-Otome has a similar balance of humor, action, romance, and drama to My-HiME, but it uses those elements in a different way. Whereas the HiME in the original series were secrets, the Otome are not only out in the open but idolized; there are even dedicated fan shops, and some Otome are adored like rock stars in their countries. Being an Otome is a conscious career choice that has to be worked for through formal education rather than something you're born with, and they are recognized as one of their patron country's chief sources of military power rather than destructive wild cards. For all of the emphasis on personal elements like romantic entanglements and rivalries-turned-friendships-turned-rivalries again, the scope of the story is also much greater; whereas the events of the original series were almost entirely contained within Fuka Academy, events here affect multiple countries and political factions.
Broadening the scope also introduces more expansive thematic elements and character developments. Possession of Otome is effectively equivalent to an arms race; there's even an Otome Proliferation Treaty. The restrictive nature of what it means to be an Otome could also be seen as a sly commentary on the lives of idols, though whether or not that was intended is unclear. On the character development front, Arika pretty much remains the loud genki girl throughout, though discovering romance does have a profound impact on her personality, while Nina goes through her own journey as she explores love, duty, friendship, and jealousy.
The real star arc belongs to Mashiro, though. For much of the series' first half, she is bratty and irresponsible to an obnoxious level, a princess-turned-queen who's as clueless about what it means to be a ruler as Arika is about what it means to be an Otome, with her only limiting factor being questions about her legitimacy as the real princess. That changes dramatically with a major plot twist about two-thirds of the way through the series, which forces her through an epic fall from grace. The way she takes her harsh lessons to heart and rebuilds herself is truly impressive, turning her from an unlikable character into one that audiences can cheer on by the end of the series.
All of that takes time to develop, however, which leaves two central characters who can grate on viewers' nerves with their antics for a good chunk of the series. This is mostly offset by a lively and fun supporting cast, and I actually prefer the tweaked personalities of some My-HiME holdovers to their original versions, especially Nao; she doesn't have the evil edge that she did in the original, and that makes her a lot more fun. Haruka is also more fun as a comic relief character, and Midori works just as well as the stern leader. Chiho's character is certainly taken in an odd direction. Yuri elements are also ramped up significantly, with strong implications of kinky lesbian lovemaking in a couple scenes.
The series doesn't shirk on action, either. Numerous battle scenes of varying degrees of intensity pop up throughout the series, sometimes involving Otome vs. Slaves but other times involving Otome vs. Otome or Otome vs. cyborgs and even occasionally fisticuffs and gunplay between ordinary humans. All of these scenes have at least some degree of flash and pop to them, and director Masakazu Obara once again shows a good eye for dramatic staging. Overall, this is not top-of-the-line action fare, but it does well enough for this show. The magical girl elements that were more overt in the original series only linger in the form of the transformation scenes where Otome materialize their Robes (combat outfits).
Sunrise also animated this installment, but it's not one of their sharper efforts, generally a step down from its predecessor. Character designs for major characters are fine, including some sharp Meister Otome Robe designs, but designs for lesser characters and quality control in general both suffer, and the relatively bright color scheme of the series limits the effectiveness of its heavier tonal swings. Animation quality is about average, although there are some neat touches, such as the way Arika's braids convey her mood. This one is distinctly more graphic than its predecessor, with about the same amount of fan service (sparse but not insignificant), but it remains on the light side of a TV-14 rating.
While the visuals may suffer a bit, the musical score certainly doesn't. Yuki Kajiura anchors the soundtrack on a lullaby that's integral to the story, a lovely song which is used in numerous vocal, synthesized, and orchestral variations throughout the series and powerfully drives both poignant and dramatic moments. Action scenes are energized by up-tempo numbers that also frequently feature vocals, while more lighthearted pieces effectively enhance the lighter scenes. This isn't quite Kajiura's best effort, but it's still one of the better anime soundtracks of the 2000s. Its weakest aspect is probably the two openers (the first for episodes 1-15 and the second for 16-25), both of which are easily skippable. The closer is better but not especially memorable either.
The English dub done by The Ocean Group's Blue Water Studio retains the cast from My-HiME but comes off slightly better because the weaker vocal performances in that one either show up far less (Takumi) or are allowed to be much more expressive (Mashiro). Among new vocal roles, Angie Beers gets Arika's personality down right, which means she comes off as obnoxiously loud; your tolerance for the English dub will depend entirely on whether or not you can at least put up with her. Contrarily, Kris Rundle gives a nicely restrained performance as Nina. The best new performances are Phil Fulton as Sergei and Barb Mitchell as Maria, both of which nail their characters. It's still a distinctive dub overall since few of the actors have substantial (or in some cases any) anime credits beyond this franchise.
Funimation's release comes in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack, with each version spread across three discs. Also included are nine subtitled-only omake ranging from 2½ to almost 6 minutes in length. The mix of comedy, sex appeal, and even occasional poignancy makes them all worth watching, and some even fill in details on key gaps in the story, though one is an advertisement for a fake My-HiME movie and another is a comically misleading advertisement for My-Otome Zwei. They are offered in one cluster on the final disc in both versions, which wouldn't normally matter but it becomes a detriment in this case, since most are tied to specific events in the series and work best when watched with the episodes they reference. Between that and the Blu-Ray upscales not improving the picture quality much over the original DVDs, the only reason to double-dip might be for considerably more compact shelf space.
My-Otome is generally not regarded as highly as its predecessor, and it's not hard to understand why; a drop-off in artistic quality and a focus on (initially) less likable leads is enough to drag things down. However, it still delivers plenty of entertainment value, stands up well on repeat viewings, and became successful enough to spawn two OVA series, which are also being released by Funimation. It remains one of my most frequently rewatched series, so I'm happy to give it a hearty recommendation.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : A-
+ Clever and amusing use of characters from original series, strong character development, musical score, dramatic action sequences
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