Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Oct 31st 2013
Stella Women's Academy, High School Division Class C3
Episodes 7-13 Streaming
Sonora is worried about Yura. She's worried that Yura might be losing the have-fun spirit of the C³ club. And she's right to worry. When Sonora is hurt protecting a reckless Yura from a sniper with an illegally modded airgun, Yura vows to win the big 24-hour tournament in her stead. She drives the club's members ruthlessly, drilling them until they can run formations in their sleep. And they do surprisingly well, eventually facing off against Meisei's ace team in the final. But Yura is pushing her team with worrying callousness, and in the final moments of the showdown she loses sight of everything—rules included—in her lust to win. Yura is properly aghast at her behavior, at least as pertains to the rules, but her slide into win-obsessed airsoft gaming only accelerates. Accelerates to the point that it threatens to blot out everything else—including her new friendships.
The premonition in Stella's first half that something darker and more complicated was coming down the pike turns out to be dead right. Built around Yura's slow transformation into a harsh, driven competitor, Stella's second half has a continuous arc and far more sharp edges and dark psychological places than the free-spirited first half. The premonition that the show would be better, on the other hand, proves a little less accurate.
While the 24-hour tournament is running, though, there's every reason to believe that Stella is on an interesting upward trajectory. The show had been hinting for a while that something less than healthy was building inside of Yura, and with Sonora's hospitalization, we see Yura's personality shift in earnest. Watching her fun-loving spirit—only recently acquired—being strangled by her drive to win makes for a darkly fascinating run, giving her procession of wins a paradoxically queasy-making power. Each success reinforces Yura's Draconian approach, steering her further from the C³'s philosophy and further alienating her from her new friends.
The series treats her evolution with a nicely-calibrated ambivalence. Yura's friends find her militaristic drive worrying, especially when she fails to notice the physical toll it's taking on gentle Rento, but they can't deny her new effectiveness. They grouch about how un-fun her approach to the game is, but at the same time they're very happy to be winning. For our part, we're happy to see Yura coming into her own—as a leader and strategist—but at the same time we're dispirited by the effect on her personality. It's undeniably good stuff: psychologically incisive, compulsively watchable, and a lot more exciting than a mere will-they-win-or-won't-they tournament would have been.
The problem is where the show goes from there. When writing the synopsis that leads this review off, I was genuinely at a loss for how to transition between the 24-hour tournament and its follow-up. Normally the synopsis would say something like: "For such-and-such reason, the events of the tournament lead Yura further down her uber-competitive rabbit hole,” but I had to scrub out any mention of motivation. Because there aren't any reasons. At least none that make intuitive sense. The tournament, especially its denouement, leaves no doubt that Yura finds her own behavior disturbing. And yet she doesn't reverse course; she pushes harder.
There are lots of convoluted reasons we could throw up to explain why she does that. The series itself suggests a few. That she doesn't want to go back to being scared, static Yura, the lonely girl who began the series fantasizing about a new start at a new place yet was unable to instigate the change herself. That she is trying to fashion a new self after the women she admires—Sonora and, eventually, Rin—going to self-destructive extremes to gain their recognition. But none of them satisfactorily connects Yura's actions to emotional reality. They don't make the kind of immediate, instinctive emotional sense that hits you where you live.
Instead they feel like what they are: psychological contrivances used to arrange dramatic personal developments. Which subtly undermines everything that the show tries in its final episodes. There are some fine developments as the show proceeds to conclusion, but they're always a little artificial, a little mechanical—like emotional experiments carried out by narrative scientists. It doesn't help that the scientists have difficulty capitalizing on the opportunities they create. The intriguing parallels that the tournament draws between neo-Yura and Rin never really go anywhere, and neo-Yura's potential as an anti-heroine (or an outright antagonist) is never realized.
That still leaves those fine developments, however. And they can be pretty potent. Especially when the show makes use of Rento, its sweetest and most sympathetic wellspring of girly charm. The scene in which Rento visits a brutally obsessed Yura, her desperate warmth doomed in the face of Yura's cold fixation, is a killer. And their second meeting, in which Rento tracks a fallen Yura down at a video arcade, hurts even better. The finale, for all its jarring supernatural overtones, is deeply and satisfyingly fun; and there's even a series of sad/funny little scenes that make Sonora both easier to understand and easier to like.
Where the first half's most memorable images revolved around spirited airsoft action, the second half tends to locate its best imagery in its most fraught stretches. The tournament makes good use of Rin's forbidding beauty, as well as the firmness that has begun to invade the cute contours of Yura's face. The designs overall prove more sensitive and expressive than the show's silly opening let on, and Rento gets to turn her adorable body language to more bittersweet ends. It's Yura, though, who gets the lion's share of Gainax's attention. Her transformation, subtly effected through incremental changes in behavior, posture, and dress, is far more physically convincing than it is psychologically. And her slouchy, wavery-mouthed defeatism in that second meeting with Rento really slays. Aside from the action, which takes on a mildly FLCL-ish energy (and unconcern with neatness), and the effective darkness that haunts some of Kotaro Nakagawa's compositions, the rest of the series' stylistic elements remain constant.
As does the show's overall entertainment factor. You get a different kind of enjoyment from this half of the series, but no greater or lesser than that of the first. And given the fun we had in those episodes, that's no mean achievement. However much potential the show wastes, we should not lose sight of that one basic fact: Stella's still great fun.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Yura's evolution darkens the tone nicely and adds some sharp dramatic edges; persistently fun look and feel; sprinkled with well-built emotional zings.
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