Reviewby Theron Martin,
The Magnificent KOTOBUKI
Episodes 1-12 streaming
The land of Ijitsu is a desolate place of barren deserts and canyons widely-scattered with towns and airstrips. Ever since the disappearance of the Yufang people through a hole in the sky 70 years ago, the various populations have been linked by airships and their support fighters, all based on designs brought by the Yufang. The KOTOBUKI Corps is an ace fighter squad composed of six young women who work for Madame Loulou and normally base themselves on the Madame's airship, the Hagoromo. Though they primarily run escort duty to fend of air pirates, they also engage in a number of other individual and group missions. Eventually they and the Hagoromo all get caught up in a grand scheme by one ambitious man to unite the scattered towns – even if that ultimately means using force to secure exclusive access to potentially the most precious of resources.
The last year or so has seen an upsurge in a subclass of aerial combat series that could generally be called “girls with planes” series. Following in the footsteps of last year's Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan, the Winter 2019 season introduced both the LN adaptation Girly Air Force and this original 12 episode series. Each of these series has brought a substantially different angle on the concept, with this one distinguishing itself from the others both by using an earlier tech base and by focusing vastly more on the technical aspects of aerial combat.
For all that the series tries to offer a lively cast of girls and some semblance of a plot, the technical detail aspects outstrip everything else by a wide margin. In fact, this is less a series for fans of cute/sexy girls and much more a series for plane otaku. The plane models used are almost entirely Japanese WWII and pre-WWII-era designs, down even to the names, with careful attention paid to the strengths and weaknesses of each design and a few experimental models thrown in for highlights. Both the artistry and the animation feature an exacting level of detail on the planes, including one protracted first episode scene where the start-up sequence for one plane is shown step-by-step. In flight, attention is given even to fine details like the sound of the wind rattling steering cables and the distinctive popping sound of a bullet piercing a wing and blowing an engine or fuel tank. About the only technical detail which is interpreted liberally is plane-to-plane communications, which seem to happen freely despite none of the characters using any headgear and them rarely being shown using radios.
Although all of this obsessiveness about the planes can bog down the story progression at times and needlessly draw out some scenes, it also allows for regular aerial combat action pieces which are always lovingly-crafted and sometimes spectacular. Director Tsutomu Mizushima, whose diverse credits include the likes of Squid Girl, Shirobako, and Genshiken, draws more heavily from his experience with Girls und Panzer to execute flight scenes which involve complicated maneuvers and sometimes even first-person perspective. Planes zoom through canyons, support pylons for bridges, in and out of clouds, and even through stormy skies as they dogfight, and a couple of late battle royale scenes depict opposing sides consisting of dozens of planes duking it out. Most of this is done in CG, which can give the fights the look and feel of a top-end video game, but between the first-person perspectives, cockpit perspectives, and aerial acrobatics, some of these fights achieve an undeniable thrill factor. Action sequences can also be quite sharp in the much rarer scenes involving ground-based (or airship interior-based) fighting, especially including one sequence in episode 8 where a character who hadn't appeared to be a combatant type goes to town on invaders in stunning fashion.
The series impresses less with its cast of characters. Each of the girls/young women in the KOTOBUKI Corps has a very distinctive appearance and personality, but they are almost invariably stock appearance/personality combos. Kylie, who gets the most screen time of the corps members, is basically just a reskinned version of The Girl in Twilight's Asuka, one who's obsessed with pancakes rather than chikuwa, and equivalents to the other five can be found in other series; you have the smart but expressionless girl, the loudmouthed pipsqueak, the busty young woman who's a heavy drinker, and so forth. At least some attempt is made to flesh out the backstories of some of them, but this is never a thorough or concerted effort. The series also has a penchant for putting statuesque women in prominent roles, including the femme fatale that the Corps works for, the leaders of two cities, and one prominent air pirate. Balancing that out is a foul-mouthed adult loli as the Hagoromo's chief mechanic. Even the entire bridge crew of the Hagoromo is female beyond the spineless captain, which harkens back to the day when “bridge bunnies” were a common feature of sci fi anime. By contrast, male characters are typically portrayed as being of lesser competence, flaky fools, or villains beyond the smart but crippled brother of one Corps member, but watch out for that bartender when he finally goes into action!
For the first few episodes the story seems to consist of just a collection of random missions, though consequences of one mission (such as a damaged plane) can carry over from one episode to the next. That abruptly changes in episode 9 with the revelation that events in one previous episode were actually setting up a bigger plotline. In the process, most of the previous missions that the Corps participated in are shown to not have been as unconnected as they may have looked, and nearly every surviving character comes up again as events build toward the climactic battles. This could have been a neat trick, but the suddenness of the transition is jarring, especially given that the somewhat flippant tone of the series never changes. No matter how big the stakes get, the story never seems to take the situation completely seriously. What, exactly, the chief antagonist hopes to accomplish with his scheme is also not entirely clear; that feels more like a gimmick to give everyone a reason to fight. Details about the Yufang and their influence are also only thinly-scattered through the episodes, and the series ends with the sense that a lot more could have been delved into there.
The artistic design elements are at least solid and reliable, with the character designs providing a wealth of sharply-colored and attractively-portrayed female characters. CG animation is involved here as well, with the overall affected being akin to The Girl in Twilight; this animation style didn't bother me and seemed a grade above normal, but it still might not set as well with those who have a low tolerance for CG. Fan service is limited to the sexy apparel of some of the older female characters and graphic content is remarkably light for all of the planes which get shot down. Aside from the planes, the true fan service here might be the neat all-the-way-through design of the Hagoromo's hangar deck.
The musical score comes courtesy of Shiroh Hamaguch, who has provided most of the music for One Piece and worked with Mizushima on both Shirobako and Girls und Panzer, among many other credits. Its lively sound primarily uses symphonic orchestration which features a variety of different instruments at one point or another. It capably maintains the tone of the series and provides a classic high adventure sound in key action sequences. Jazzy opener “Sora no ne” provides an upbeat start for the series, while the more mellow and generic-sounding closer is sung by a chorus of the main seiyuu.
Overall, The Magnificent KOTOBUKI is an example of overspecialization; it devotes so much of its time and energy to the planes that it doesn't leave enough opportunities to develop its characters and plotlines. The plane aspect is done well enough that the series could be worth watching just on that level for niche fans.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Immaculately detailed fights between vintage Japanese planes, cool production design, some thrilling action scenes
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