Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Summer has arrived, and for schoolboy Rin Tsuchimi, that means being surrounded by girls in swimsuits! Sia wants Rin all to herself at the beach, but she discovers that total seclusion has its disadvantages too. Later, Sia's father thinks that the battle for Rin's heart is all but won, and decides to announce a wedding. However, rival Nerine won't let her feelings go unnoticed, and the tug-of-war for Rin's affection continues. Meanwhile, the other ladies in Rin's life are facing problems of their own: classmate Mayumi experiences a severe panty malfunction, their class teacher can't seem to find a decent boyfriend, and as summer winds down, something happens to the childlike Primula that could have serious consequences for everyone.
Okay, is this the part where Shuffle! becomes awesome? Well, if your definition of "awesome" means anime girls in swimsuits, then this is the DVD for you! But on a more serious note, things do start to change: the final episode on the disc suddenly takes a dark turn, suggesting that awesomeness may be on its way. Unfortunately, that also means having to sit through three fluffy episodes of the usual boy-girl antics, running the range from mildly entertaining slapstick to trite, nauseating conversations about love and life. Perhaps we should at least be grateful that the series finally starts to reveal a deeper side to the story. The only question is, why did it take 12 whole episodes to get there?
The first episode in this set is the epitome of fluff: an obligatory beach episode, running through the complete checklist of clichés. Boob jokes? Losing one's bikini top? Stranded on a deserted island? It's all here, and the only half-decent joke is the running gag about Primula's sandcastles getting washed away. The episode after that goes from comedy fluff to romantic fluff, with Sia and Rin being forced into several awkward conversations as word of their rumored marriage goes around. Of course, nothing actually happens, but we still get stuck with numerous lines of cheesy, gag-inducing dialogue, and it only gets worse when Nerine confesses her feelings to Rin. The heartfelt music kind of saves it, but honestly, this is the kind of stuff that can only be enjoyed if you're willing to drink the Kool-Aid of juvenile, unabashed puppy love.
Fortunately, things start to get better with Episode 11, which leaves the goggle-eyed romance behind and goes for straight-up comedy—mostly by focusing on minor characters. Mayumi's panty crisis is a classic example of saucy fanservice humor, throwing on embarrassment upon embarrassment at a lively pace. (Actually, for a series that's racy enough to contain frontal nudity, it's surprising that there isn't more humor of this type.) But the biggest improvement—or at least, the first sign that the story is going somewhere—is when Something Happens To Primula. After lulling viewers into a false sense of moe-induced security, this turn of events brings in darker emotions, new plot points, and most importantly, addresses the supernatural aspects from the start of the series. If you'd ever wondered "Why are Sia, Nerine and Primula descended from gods and demons if they're just going to act like regular harem girls?", well, Episode 12 finally explains it. Unfortunately, that's also where the disc stops.
As usual, the art direction in these episodes emphasizes warm colors and a variety of soft filters; some of the most striking scenes involve sunsets (Rin's serious talk with the rulers of the supernatural worlds) and nighttime (Rin and Sia alone on the beach). Clear picture quality and reasonably detailed backgrounds should also please the eye. Despite all this technical polish, though, the visuals are hampered by lack of creativity among the character designs and animation. Rin and his collection of girls basically look like any other cast of characters in the same genre, with maybe only the pointed ears and multicolored hairstyles to tell them apart. The emphasis on dialogue also makes it hard to find any opportunities for an animation director to show off; a good 75% of the scenes might as well consist of the character standing face-forward with a box of text below them. (Then again, considering the source material...)
Lack of creativity also shows in the music selection, which basically recycles the same few melodies for almost every comedy or happy-go-lucky friendship scene. Really, once you've heard one synthesized MIDI file, you've heard them all. This becomes especially apparent in the theme songs, which apply the well-known formula of a mid-tempo opening and a ballad ending to make things completely forgettable. It's only during Nerine's confession scene and a couple of other serious spots that the music improves, with a stronger sense of melody and emotional depth.
Interestingly enough, the acting on the English dub seems to work in reverse compared to the music: enjoyable during lively comedy scenes, but less so during the quiet moments. Rin sounds particularly forced and artificial whenever he has to address one of the girls in a serious manner. However, his sarcastic jibes with classmate Midoriba (who doesn't appear nearly often enough) often hit the right spot. The girls, meanwhile, continue along their merry way with appropriate voices assigned each personality, except for Kareha, whose sing-song tone just doesn't fit. Language-conscious viewers should also be aware that the dubbed audio often drifts far away from the actual subtitled translation, sometimes even inserting lines where there aren't any, or changing the meaning of a phrase.
It looks like there may be hope yet for Shuffle!, which finally starts to show signs of a deeper plot in the final episode of Volume 3. However, the other three episodes still contain the usual harem junk: bikini girls on display, the Rin-Sia-Nerine triangle reaching new levels of sappiness, and side characters like Mayumi bouncing around like idiots. But if you've already suffered through the first two volumes—and can stand three-quarters of this one—then the new plot developments surrounding Primula might be worth it. And who knows? Maybe Volume 4 will be the jump in quality we've all been waiting for.
Overall (dub) : C-
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : C
Art : B-
Music : C
+ Plenty of visual polish, and it looks like the story has something deeper in store after all.
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