Reviewby Theron Martin,
When otaku Shinichi aced a qualifying questionnaire for a job advertisement for anime/manga enthusiasts, he had no idea what he was getting into. He soon found himself shanghaied to a fantasy world accessible via a recently-discovered hyperspace portal, where Japanese government liaison Mr. Matoba informs him that he is to be Japan's ambassador to the Holy Eldant Empire in an effort to introduce Japanese culture (specifically manga and anime) to it. His initial efforts to teach his language to his half-elf maid Myucel and the young-looking teenage Empress Petralka inspires Shinichi to a grander goal: establish a school to teach the language and otaku culture of Japan to Eldant youths, regardless of whether human, dwarf, or elf. Though his efforts go almost too well in that regard, Shinichi soon finds that a number of challenges stand in his path, including the inherent bigotry within the Holy Eldant Empire, resistance from some elements within the Empire that see his efforts as a threat, an Empress who wearies of the duties impressed upon her, information leaks, and secret motives held by the Japanese government which may not at all be savory or good for his well-being.
Clever, witty writing and thoughtful execution can turn even a silly concept into something good, and that is exactly what happens with this 12 episode series from the Fall 2013 season. In fact, it turns out so much better than originally expected that its streaming run was my Surprise of the Year pick for that year.
But really, how silly is the notion of trying to win over an entire empire by pervading it with one's culture? Winning the populace over with popular culture has long been considered a form of “soft” power, after all, and cultural pollution has been an issue for pretty much as long as human civilization has existed. It is such a big concern today that repressive governments try to put tight restrictions on movie and TV content and Internet access, and religious fanatics clearly fear it. Hence essentially weaponizing it, as is done in this series, is by no means a stretch, and the notion that it could theoretically work as effectively as it does here is actually a little scary. (And how this aligns with some Cool Japan initiatives was doubtless not lost on the original light novel author or production staff.)
One of the story's key conceits is that Shinichi does not realize that this is what he is actually doing until late in the series. He knows that the government is capable of being underhanded – after all, he was drugged to get him to the Holy Eldant Empire unawares and is told that the government could make him “disappear” if he doesn't cooperate – but he soon gets so wrapped up in his enthusiasm for promoting and spreading the material he loves that he never stops to think about the consequences. Even an incident where radicals violently attempt to thwart his school-building effort does not give him any pause until he connects it with other events later on and realizes that he is, indeed, an invader of a kind. The final arc of the series essentially comes down to him trying to figure out how to rectify that without getting taken out by his own government in the process.
The series has other strong points on the serious front, too. One of its joys is how first Shinichi and later Petralka interact with the maid Myucel. As a half-elf, she is at the bottom of the racial food chain when it comes to being respected and treated well and lives in a society where beating servants is routine, so she is initially very timid despite being a fairly accomplished combat mage. The somewhat sexy maid outfit she wears practically screams “eye candy,” too, but aside from an occasional dream sequence Shinichi treats her with the utmost respect. When he learns that she is illiterate, he decides to teach her Japanese. Harem and haremlike series so often have the girls throwing themselves at the male lead, or else linked to him automatically by childhood association, that seeing one where the guy actually earns the affection is a refreshing change. The way Empress Petralka, who initially proscribes to the common prejudices against both half-elves and servants, eventually warms up to her is also heartening; ones of the series' best scenes comes midway through, when Petralka casually and unthinkingly publicly displays camaraderie with Myucel after the two work together towards a (literal!) goal, a demonstration whose signficance is not lost on those of many races who witness it. The quality of the series also shows in a great scene where the Eldant people have a horrified reaction to the JSDF using their full military capabilities to drive off an interloping dragon and in one episode where Shinichi must convince Petralka that the life of a hikikomori (the English dub uses “shut-in”), while it might seem to offer great freedom, is actually nothing more than a pathetic cage. (It is a little too pointed to have not been intended as an indictment of that kind of lifestyle.)
For all of this serious content, though, Outbreak Company is still as much a comedy as anything else. Sometimes this humor is just typical anime shenanigans, such as how Shinichi's busty JSDF bodyguard is obsessed with BL and trying to set Shinichi up with Petralka's (male) cousin/knight Garius (and as a kicker, Garius seems to have a taste for BL himself), how Petralka tries to act like a tsundere after learning about them, or the way a soccer match between dwarves and elves gets utterly out of hand. (Think Shaolin Soccer.) Other jokes are a little more inspired, such as some questionable teaching priorities once Shinichi finally gets into teach the nuts and bolts of otaku culture, a couple of scenes involving aerosol deodorant and a dragon, or some of the ridiculous extremes that elvish and dwarven youths go to in their budding passion for anime, manga, and related games; the phrase “Loli Dwarves Protection Society” (because the stature of dwarven women, even as adults, effectively makes them “eternal lolis,” you see) comes up at one point, for instance. Further cleverness surfaces in some of the world-building characteristics, too, such as how a werewolf girl recounts her people being trained as youths to channel their hunting instincts into other endeavors – in her case, drawing pictures – or the amusingly logical way Shinichi comes up with to deal with a magical fire device. A scene in the opener where a lizard man servant and his wife share a tender moment by touching tails is awesome in its unexpected sweetness.
Salacious fan service, while present, is not particularly heavy or a major component; even one swimsuit episode is (mostly) tasteful. No, the true fan service here is in how thickly the anime, manga, and game references and parodies are laid on. The gamut they span is broad and deep, from the famous “unfamiliar ceiling” line spoken by Shinji in Neon Genesis Evangelion to a spoof on the Captain Tsubasa manga to a parody of the game Da Capo II to even references to fare as recent as The Severing Crime Edge, which aired only two seasons before this one. Even the 1991 game Zero Wing gets brought up for its famous line, “all our base are belong to us.” Trying to catch all of the references without relying on the provided notes (see below) would challenge even the most adroit Western otaku.
The production chops are not bad but nothing special, either. The architecture on some of the buildings in the Eldant Empire, especially the interior of Petralka's castle, is the most noteworthy artistic aspect, though some of the less focused-on details, such as how the JSDF strings a power cable up into Petralka's bedroom and the precision in the illustrations of some of the JSDF equipment, are nice touches, too. Myucel's delicate build is unquestionably the character design star, with Petralka having a more typical loli look and most of the demi-human races being fantasy standards; the running joke that it is nearly impossible to tell how old male dwarves are, since they have full beards even at age 10, never really gets old, though. The animation works well enough for the few true action sequences but is never a strong point, either. The musical score is a little better, with fitting opener and closer and generally good musical support throughout.
While not a spectacular effort, Sentai Filmworks' English dub lands largely on the plus side. No established English VA has a vocal quality which would have fit as well (much less better) for Mr. Matoba as Andy McAvin does, and Juliet Simmons is excellent as Myucel. Kira Vincent-Davis as Petralka and Tyler Galindo as Shinichi both take some getting used to but end up being satisfying picks. Most minor parts are cast well, too, with the running joke in the Japanese dub about the young dwarves being voiced by gruff-sounding male adults being carried over. The English script uses a more specifically American flair in its dialogue in dream sequences but otherwise stays tolerably close.
Sentai's release of the title splits the episodes between two Blu-Ray discs. The second one includes clean opener and close as the only conventional Extras. The release does, however, pepper the episodes with numerous top-of-the-screen notes to explain references to/parodies of other series, including cases where characters reference other characters voiced by the same Japanese voice actor. This is a wonderful addition since some of the references are pretty obscure and/or get lost in translation in the English dub. The sound quality on the Blu-Rays is great but the picture quality is far less impressive; some of that likely has to do with the series hardly being an artistic masterpiece, though. A DVD version is also available.
Throughout most of its run Outbreak Company places greater emphasis on situation-to-situation scenarios rather than any major overarching plot, which makes its shift to a more plot-heavy mode in the final couple of episodes a little awkward. Still, that is not a big problem and the series is smoothly brought to a good stopping point. Overall it manages to find a satisfyingly good balance between its comedic and more dramatic content. The result is a well-thought-out, highly entertaining show which manages to touch on some issues and work in some sentiment without getting weighed down by either.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : B+
+ Excellent balance of humor and more serious elements, at times very funny, translation notes included on-screen to explain references.
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