Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jan 22nd 2009
Negima!? Season 2
DVD Part 1
After graduating from the magic school at the tender age of ten, Negi Springfield lands a job as an English teacher in Japan. But the life an educator, particularly a magical one, is no cakewalk. In addition to the danger of being eaten alive by his class of middle-school girls, Negi also must keep his magical abilities secret. If he is discovered, not only will his powers be revoked, but he'll also be transformed into an animal. And if his ferret sidekick Chamo and his poorly-formed magical watchfrog Motsu are any indication, it won't be a cute animal. Unfortunately Negi is something of a genius at being found out. Within minutes of arriving, one of his students, ill-tempered Asuna, has already discovered his secret, and he blows his cover with metronomic regularity from then on. In order to protect himself from animalization he makes a pact with Asuna that allows her to share his powers, a skill that comes in handy when Negi is forced to square off against Evangeline, a vampire with a killer grudge against his father. It isn't long before Negi's amazing inability to keep a secret forces him to make pacts with nearly all of his students, even the ones who are leery about the pact-making process (particularly the part that involves smooching Negi). When dark powers begin targeting Negi, he discovers that his wandering lips may be a blessing of sorts. After all, he'll need all the help he can get.
Though billed as Season 2, Negima!? isn't a sequel to Negima! so much as it is a complete re-imagining. Negima!? takes Ken Akamatsu's magical action-romance and bends it so ruthlessly to director Akiyuki Shinbo's will that it's ends up more Pani Poni Dash! than Love Hina. Enjoyment of the series will hinge not only on one's affection for the franchise but also on one's tolerance for Shinbo's visual experimentation and postmodern humor. The new Negima is drenched with anime in-jokes and bizarre nonsequiturs. It's short on overt romance, heavy on inventive magical warfare, and liberal with its fan-service, delivering it with an acuity that is almost unsettling. The result is sometimes funny (particularly when exploiting the running chupacabra jokes or Chamo's bad luck with roses), often merely weird, and always fascinating to look at. But rarely does it bear more than a passing resemblance to Nobuyoshi Habara's original take on the material.
As with his other works, Shinbo's Negima is most remarkable for his idiosyncratic visuals. One of anime's most distinctive visual stylists, Shinbo's works are immediately identifiable by their purposefully disorienting gothic-noir look. Though lightened by a decidedly brighter palette and tone than, say Moon Phase, Negima!? is no exception. Actions are transformed into abstract tableaux by purple shadows, colored light and expressionistically posed bodies. Wind-blown hair flows in art-deco curlicues, images lose focus and strange, distorted camera angles turn everyday settings into suffocating alien prisons. The action set-pieces are outrageously baroque, the first and best of them an aerial battle fought amongst the frozen pillars of a gargantuan ice sculpture of Evangeline. Cutaway sets, strange, random animals and inexplicably bad wardrobe choices (that chupacabra shirt!) provide humorous counterpoints to the darker visuals.
Now if only Shinbo and his regular collaborators at Shaft put half as much enthusiasm into the plot. The series drifts from one magical confrontation to the next through a series of clumsy character-building episodes, displaying neither the drive nor the sweet sentimentality of the original. Little effort is taken to beef up Akamatsu's vast cast of single-trait characters, and the premise itself—which begins with a ready-made harem of thirty one and is spearheaded by a lead who is not only under-aged, but also a teacher and a wizard—could use some overhauling that Shinbo seems most unwilling to supply.
Of course, Shinbo's no babe in the woods (in fact he's one of the more anime-savvy directors currently active). He knows the limitations of his story and makes what he can of them. Kazuhiro Ota's gorgeous designs combine with carefully animated body language to flesh out the underwritten female roles, creating for each a unique, purely visual charm. The hypnotic visuals and strange humor are ever on hand to prop the series up when its dramatic content fails—which is often—and Negi's innate decency is allowed to overpower his blandness when at all possible. But ultimately Shinbo is more interested in indulging his many visual obsessions than in transcending the series' silly premise or one-note characters.
Composer Kazuhiro Ota's score is at its best when keeping Negima!? fluffy despite the often alienating effects of Shinbo's oblique editing and stylistic excess. It does so with bouncy bubblegum vocals and mindlessly upbeat ditties that have an odd way of growing on you with repeated use. The score is also capable of the darker, harder sounds needed to support supernatural action, but fares poorly in comparison to the expressionistic panache of the visuals.
Funimation's English adaptation is typically solid. The overwhelmingly female cast manages the seemingly impossible task of turning in distinctive performances for each of the countless students, despite the necessity in many cases of performing multiple parts. Luci Christian's Asuna, with her relatively wide range of emotions, is a standout, while Christopher R. Sabat's narrator is a shamelessly hammy blast. Greg Ayres is one of the few male voice talents capable of convincingly playing a character of Negi's age and temperament. His English accent is a tad shaky and he sometimes lets his voice drop into a scratchy whisper, but he more than compensates with his balanced intensity during action sequences. The script is surprisingly tight, taking its most serious liberties when adjusting for culture-specific gags. The result is smooth, funny, and on occasion, ingenious (check out the extended Dr. Seuss gag in episode eight). The decision to dub the opening and closing themes was not one of those occasions.
Negima!?'s opening features some unusually complex animation, so the chance to enjoy it sans credits is welcome. Also provided is a clean version of the mildly obnoxious candy-pop closing and its parade of SD characters, which also serves as a convenient catalogue of each character's assigned character trait. The only other extra of note is a lengthy series of cultural notes explaining the on-screen text (which is filled with geek-culture in-jokes).
Though few will find Negima!? to be anything but inconsequential, it does feel rather cruel to abuse the series for it. As acquired a taste as Akiyuki Shinbo's sense of humor is, and as microscopic as its ambitions are, the series is still funny, fun and basically harmless (though there is something vaguely dirty about the loving care with which each of Negi's kisses is animated). There are worse things to be than silly eye-candy, and worse transgressions to be accused of than inconsequentiality. Of course, there are better things to be as well.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Harmless fluff given a startling stylistic makeover.
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