Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Pani Poni Dash!
DVD 1: Lethal Lesson
Class 1-C of Momotsuki Academy is getting a new homeroom teacher, but there's just one problem—she's 11 years old! Rebecca "Becky" Miyamoto is the youngest graduate to ever come out of MIT, and now she's come back to Japan ... to teach high school? Book-smarts is one thing, but controlling a classroom of feisty teenagers is a whole new challenge. With students like sharp-tongued Rei, nutcase Himeko, studious Miyako, and mysterious class president Ichijo, 1-C is a truly warped cross-section of the student body. Learning everyone's names, re-attaching loose locks of hair, preparing for a test, and surviving a class camping trip are just some of the escapades that await Becky and her class.
You've sat through Doki Doki School Hours. You've seen all of Azumanga Daioh ... thrice. You have come to know the greatness that is School Rumble. And Cromartie High School is a world unto itself. What else is there in the classroom comedy department?
Pani Poni Dash!, that's what.
While other series rely on straight-out weirdness or loudness for laughs, this one takes all that and adds a new twist: the element of speed. The jokes fly by so quickly that the DVD even includes a pop-up feature just to point out every single gag. Background visuals, lines of script, clever parodies, and yes, even the actual characters—all add to the multi-layered hilarity. Laugh at Himeko's idiocy and you might miss the weirdness going on behind her. Pay too much attention to Becky's tirades and the ever-changing blackboard messages (often with references to classic mecha anime) might go ignored. That's where the replay value comes in—rarely has a series been so rewarding on its second viewing, and third, and fourth, and fifth.
Yet there are still shortcomings in this rapid-fire romp. Wacky high school comedy isn't exactly the most groundbreaking genre, and there are certain elements that seem to make their way into every series. (Like ... detachable hair?) The main teacher is always bumbling and irresponsible, the focus is always on one specific class, and students might as well be defined by their stereotypes instead of their names: Bookworm, President, Boring. In fact, that's exactly what happens when Becky can't remember their names—perhaps a self-referential poke at the genre's reliance on such devices. Don't expect the plot to be too cohesive, either: this is all about silly school situations, with bouts of randomness that can last from just seconds to several minutes.
Within randomness, however, lies the spark of genius. Once you sort out the multi-layered gags and get used to the characters, the unique aspects come to light: a secret cadre of aliens watching from above, Becky's melancholy pet rabbit Mesousa, the mysterious cat in the vending machine, and more. Pani Poni may be built on a well-known formula, but the execution of that formula is what elevates it above the norm.
Helping to push the jokes-per-minute to their limit is the animation, cutting maniacally from scene to scene and tossing out sight gags as fast than the human eye can perceive. While the fundamentals of motion aren't the greatest—simple character designs moving around in simple ways—the artistic direction succeeds on sheer quantity of content. The animation staff isn't even afraid to poke fun at the industry's inner workings: swarms of identical generic characters stand in for actual students, classrooms are shown being "filmed on set," and the magical-girl eyecatches continue to raise the bar for absurdity. With a bright, supersaturated color palette that borders on seizure-inducing, this is a true barrage of visual excess—and it's fantastic.
Much like the different styles of humor, the music soundtrack is all over the map, using any variety of instruments and beats. But even serious moods eventually gravitate back to punchlines and comic effect, so cheery, pop-flavored instrumentals are the dominant style. The theme songs push that aesthetic even further with their nonsensical lyrics and quirky melodies; however, the songwriting tries so hard for the "weird and random" effect that the songs aren't particularly memorable.
Also trying for the weird and random effect, but with more success: ADV's cast on the English dub. Familiar voices like Hilary Haag (Becky) and Christine Auten (the whisper-toned Mesousa) bring out personalities that native English speakers will find more distinctive than the Japanese track. However, that distinctiveness is also a matter of personal taste; strong voices like Himeko's semi-yelling or Rei's harshness could just as easily grate on some viewers' ears. Whatever the verdict is on this love-it-or-hate-it dub, the scriptwriting stays true to the spirit of comedy, sacrificing obsessive accuracy in favor of snappy punchlines and smart colloquialisms.
This disc comes with ADV's usual share of fun extras—a booklet with character profiles, a reversible cover, clean opening and closings (all five variants for these five episodes), a catch-the-reference blackboard game—but the real bonus is the "ADVidnotes" pop-up feature that plays over each episode. For those who want to spot the most subtle references, or who want to check up on their anime literacy, the ADVidnotes will open up new levels of enjoyment for the series—after watching it the regular way first, of course.
So you think you're ready for a new take on high school silliness. But are you ready for one that goes at maximum speed, assaulting the eyes and the ears and the mind with all manner of madcap humor? Pani Poni Dash! may be a retread of familiar themes, but it attacks those themes with such energy and uniqueness that there's no mistaking it for any other classroom comedy. Watch it once just to see what happens, watch it again to catch all the in-jokes, watch it as many times as you need to see comedy pushed to its technical limits. And it might just make you think twice about vending machines that dispense warm drinks.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B
Story : A-
Animation : C+
Art : B+
Music : C+
+ A colorful comedy packed with so many gags, it demands multiple viewings.
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