Reviewby Theron Martin,
Psychic School Wars
Middle schooler Kenji Seki has lived next door to the athletic Natsuki for as long as he can remember. An encounter right before school starts leads him to fall for Kahori, a pretty student council member who loves to surf and plays the piano, but he remains painfully oblivious to the fact that Natsuki wants to be more than just childhood friends. He also faces some serious romantic competition when Kahori falls for the mysterious and handsome new transfer student, Ryoichi. However, Ryoichi isn't at all what he appears to be; he's a time traveler from an era where humans have had to abandon the Earth, and he has a mission that involves awakening latent psychic powers in some of his fellow students.
The story behind this 2012 movie is not a recent one; it's based on a 1973 sci fi novel which saw four live-action TV adaptations and two live-action movie adaptations scattered across the '80s and '90s, but the prominent role that cell phones play in both the themes and events of this version indicates a substantial update to the original work. I'm curious as to how much of the original story is retained, since much of what goes on in this movie seems much more typical of more modern anime productions.
The stylistic influences of the production are definitely more recent. The use of lighting effects, the tone set by the soundtrack, the character interactions, the underlying themes about connectivity and technology's role in it, and the integration of sci fi/fantasy elements are strongly reminiscent of the works of Makoto Shinkai, to the point that I had to remind myself more than once that this isn't one of Shinkai's films. It was instead directed and adapted by Ryosuke Nakamura, who is probably best-known for helming the anime version of Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash. He definitely carried over some of his experience making this movie into that project, and whether or not he was influenced by Shinkai, his style is remarkably similar.
As a result, this movie does not at all play out the way you might expect based on the title or synopsis. The wars in the title are purely metaphorical; while the story does have conflict between groups, it has little for actual action scenes. "Wars" instead refers more to a heated conflict of ideas over how people communicate with each other. At first, this is implicit in a proposed cell phone ban at the school, an unpopular decision with students that's justified under the premise that cell phone use slows development of more direct communication skills. Later on, as Ryoichi starts awakening the psychic powers of various students, the conflict becomes over the developing group mindset of those who are psychic, as they make efforts both passive and direct to push out students who aren't, believing that even a single dissenting viewpoint could disrupt the group. In the process, telepathy ironically becomes a replacement for cell phones in terms of interconnectivity, with some of the same people who are strongest on banning cell phones hypocritically trying to push out those who don't or can't use the new communication method.
In essence, the story comes down to communication between people. What is the best way to communicate, what happens when you cannot communicate what you want, and how can you make another person understand what you are not-so-directly trying to communicate? Is telepathy a solution for all of this or a cop-out? Bad things happen in the story when communication breaks down: one girl almost commits suicide in one harrowing scene, Natsuki's frustrations over not being able to convey her attraction to Kenji in a way that he can understand bring her to a boiling point, and Kahori finds herself at odds with people she used to get along with. Strong romantic elements also help drive the story, and multiple references are also made to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, although the significance of these intended allusions is debatable. (Ryoichi fancies himself as Puck, but drawing other character comparisons becomes much more tenuous.)
The pacing is very languid; more than 40 minutes pass before the crux of the plot starts to manifest, with nearly all of that time being basic slice-of-life scenes. Even once the plot does get underway, the story still takes its time to play out its character dynamics. Despite this, the nearly 110-minute running time seems inadequate for what the story is attempting. The main relationships are developed sufficiently enough, but some stray plot points are brought up in revelations that could stand a lot more elaboration, since they're just dropped in without properly integrating them into the overall story. What's going on at the school also gets entirely ignored beyond a certain point, which seems illogical. It's as if the story just gives up on that conflict, and a few more minutes spent fleshing out certain details would have helped a lot.
The artistry promotes a very deliberate tone, where characters are frequently isolated even in open spaces that shouldn't be so devoid of people. Various lighting effects create a rich, warm feeling throughout, and backgrounds are too meticulously detailed to not be based on some actual locations. Character designs make pretty much everyone look pretty, albeit in different ways. Natsuki has a more tomboyish look, while Kahori is more of a classic beauty, and it's easy to understand why Ryoichi can turn the hearts of his female classmates. The animation tries to emphasize the body language of its characters, but it takes big shortcuts elsewhere in consequence, especially when characters talk off-camera and occasionally slide off-model. Some of Natsuki's acrobatic movements also don't look as fluid as they could. The only time the animation truly shines is in the special effects driven scenes, where CG enhancements result in some very pretty displays of supernatural power. Graphic or lurid content is essentially nonexistent, resulting in a TV-PG rating.
The musical score, which is fond of soft piano numbers, uses its low-key sound to firmly establish the tone of the series. Even in dramatic moments, it never swells up much, instead using a soft touch for everything. This is quite effective for what the movie wants to do. The opening and closing themes, by supercell and Natsuki's seiyuu Mayu Watanabe respectively, both fit into this sound quite well.
Funimation contracted this English dub out to NYAV Post, resulting in a cast with little anime voice acting experience outside of Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! dubs; among the major characters, only Cassandra Morris (aka Cassandra Lee), who voices Natsuki, has modestly broad experience. Despite that, the dub is an outstanding effort. Every role, even down to bit parts, is well-cast and well-performed, with actors successfully getting emotional nuance even out of such low-key roles. The only quibble is the way Natsuki's name is pronounced, which will doubtless irritate some viewers; it's given three distinct syllables in English (nat-su-ki), as opposed to the two it takes in Japanese pronunciation (nats-ki). If not for that, this would easily be one of the year's best English dubs. Funimation's release of the movie is basic as their titles go. Both Blu-Ray and DVD versions are included in the same case, which comes in a slipcover. The only extras are promo videos and trailers.
As long as you go into the movie expecting a character-driven rather than action-oriented work, the questionably-titled Psychic School Wars can be a satisfying view. The way the ending is handled left me ambivalent (and be sure to watch all of the way through the credits!), but if you like Shinkai's works, then this one will probably be to your liking too.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Pleasing character designs, emphasis on character body language, generally strong English dub
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