Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Feb 15th 2010
Sub.DVD - Collection 2
What can't a group of ultra-smart, grotesquely rich students handle? Well, love first of all. And secondly the Machiavellian manipulations of their own families. Love-wise, Akira ponders her relationship with Tadashi, Jun is victimized by an ex-suitor of Kei's, and Megumi makes a very odd choice in beaus. And of course Kei is doing his level best to make his feelings known to thick-as-bricks Hikari. A little bit of heartbreak and a lot of struggle lies between all of them and romantic bliss, but the bliss of everlasting friendship may prove even more elusive. Because, Machiavelli-wise, Kei's family is doing its utmost to sever him from his SA comrades and spirit him back to their London headquarters to serve as evil headmaster to their conglomerate. And they won't balk at destroying the SA to get him there. Can Hikari's customary stubbornness and blossoming feelings save the SA, and Kei? Of course they can.
Criticizing S.A is like punching puppies. Happy, frolicky, eager-to-please puppies. So let's get it out of the way fast.
For the record S.A is a big heap of borrowings. Finding originality in S.A is the proverbial search for a needle in a haystack—sans needle. The series was conceived in some sort of reality-vacuum, where the only points of reference lie in other anime series. Maki Minami's cast of oddballs are base anime stereotypes dressed in even more derivative anime quirks: the secretly cuddly hard case with a weakness for animals, the shy girl who communicates via sketchpad, the delicate bishonen with a dark alternate personality. The plot is one enormous wash of aged clichés, beginning with its super-special group of rich, wonderfully wonderful idols and running right up to the "go on without me!" shonen silliness during the final showdown at Takeshima's London mansion. It sneaks elements from everything from Ouran High School Host Club to Kare Kano, and never does anything consistently superior with any of them. Too often its (borrowed) emotional manipulations slip over the line from heartfelt to hokey, and its (borrowed) relationships are slow to develop and clumsy when they do.
But for all its artificiality, S.A has a strange charm. It's particularly evident here in its second half. As it methodically pairs off its characters, running them gently through the wringer, the show achieves a kind of sweet affect. There's no law saying that regurgitated simplicity precludes characters being well-defined and cheerable, and S.A's are both—especially Hikari. The scene where Akira begs KEI to take a hit for Hikari before she destroys herself banging against the wall of his family's wealth, blaming herself for every failure to batter it down, is both touching and true to character; not an easy combination when your characters are paper-thin and your plot even thinner. And the sweetness? The series' earnestness takes care of that. Its whole-hearted support of uplifting school-life clichés is definitely hokey, and often embarrassing, but it's also endearing. The show just wants you to feel good, and it makes no bones about its ambitions or their limits. It doesn't care that its emotional resolutions lack grace or that its every move stinks of the corpses of a dozen better anime, and by the time it delivers its final, physics-defying bolt of bald romanticism, neither will you. If you want to fault it for all the complexity and creativity it discards while getting you to that happy state...well, that's puppy-punching.
Sweet affect, of course, isn't the only avenue of S.A's feel-good attack. No summation of the show's qualities would be entirely complete without a mention of its pervasive humor. It's a very funny show when the mood takes it, and a mildly funny one even when the mood doesn't. KEI and Hikari's reunion, though one of the series' romantic pillars, is still done in part with Hikari dressed in the world's ugliest bunny suit. Sight gags aren't the only thing that director Yoshikazu Miyao is good at (his grasp of how to high-fructose his romantic syrup with big shiny eyes and comely blushes is excellent, as is his eye for grandiose climactic compositions), but it is probably what he's best at. The running bunny-suit gag is great, as is his impeccably timed Tadashi abuse. And the little touches of comic invention—feverish Hikari as a blanket-wrapped inchworm unleashing all manner of emotional hell on KEI being the most memorable—are probably the series' only moments of originality.
Perhaps more important, however, is his use of angular thick-lined SD, speech bubbles, hugely exaggerated expressions, arrows, soft-focus impact scenes and explosions of abstract sparklies to evoke the active yet flat look of a shojo manga. It's comic booster fuel of a fine grade, but also encloses the story in a manga fantasy world, which makes its sugary fakeness a lot easier to swallow. And that, in honesty, is more important even than the spindly character designs or the colorful backgrounds or the striking use of Scrooge-friendly shortcuts in fights. After all, in S.A's fantasy manga world, blatantly unnatural delivery is natural, obvious musical cues fit right in, and Three Stooges sound effects are perfectly normal. In any other context any one of those would be a deal-breaker. Here, they're just part of the ambiance.
No interesting extras, no dub, no problem! So long as you're a fan looking to pick a series up on the cheap. Which this it is, if nothing else.
For anyone who is wondering, yes the story does actually end here. Scriptwriter Jukki Hanada ties off every relationship in the ongoing manga as neatly as he can, and there is, believe it or not, a measure of finality in the show's ultimate conclusion. Of course, closure will be of little importance to anyone who finds the series' brand of shamelessly fake romantic comedy irritating. And be warned, many will. But for those who can weather it, or thrive on it, there's a glut of sugary reward awaiting.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Brings all the primary relationships, such as they are, to a satisfying close; really is a good time once you get past the artificiality of it all.
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