Reviewby Theron Martin,
Sub.DVD - The Complete Series
14-year-old middle schooler Ichika Tachibana is entering her last summer of fun before a life-changing event when Sei, one of her two older-teens tutors, gives her a yin-yang charm set with twelve gemstones. That leads to an encounter with Manatsu, a like-aged girl who steps out of a mirror and introduces to Ichika the ability to call on the elemental Djinns associated with each of the gems on the charm. Though Ichika finds using the Djinns to solve problems for her and her friends to be fun and utilitarian at first, she soon starts to notice the changes her transformations are bringing upon her and doesn't like what she sees. As she struggles to endure the increasingly adverse effects with Manatsu's help, Sei watches on with concern and her mostly unaware friends carry on like normal, while next door the mysterious neighbor lady watches on appraisingly. For Ichika, coping with the power of the Djinns is a test that will make this one memorable and potentially dangerous summer indeed.
Back in the day, ADV Films got itself into trouble partly by overextending itself on a licensing binge. Since reincarnating as Section 23 and Sentai Filmworks, its management has been more conservative on title acquisitions but still occasionally takes a flier on an older series – only this time around they seem to be aiming more specifically for hidden gems rather than just picking up any random thing. They succeeded wonderfully at this with Sentai's release of Living for the Day After Tomorrow earlier this year, and while this late 2004 series is not in the same quality league as Living, it is, nonetheless, a considerably stronger series than what it may initially appear to be.
Viewers will be forgiven for not expecting much from this series early on, as from the outset Uta∞Kata gives almost every outward indication that it is going to be a typical magical girl series. It has a 14-year-old heroine who gains the ability to summon assorted Djinns and call upon their power to solve problems, and each time she does so she gets a spectacular costume transformation. She also has a magical friend, although this one can fully pass as human. There are twelve Djinns – one for each regular episode, of course – and there are early indications that her powers are part of some trial, but that is par for the course for such fare. The none-too-subtle hints of mystery are also very typical, and most of the early activities in the series are simply the normal summer activities of a middle school girl.
As the series progresses, though, its true nature gradually manifests. Instead of just merrily popping along with saccharine adventures, events progressively take on a heavier and darker tone and the series' initially hidden sophistication starts to show. Although the series can fairly be accused of being heavy-handed in its efforts to build up a sense of mystery concerning the true nature of the trials, it also much more subtly works in parallels to the Seven Great Virtues and their flips sides, the Seven Deadly Sins; in fact, the writing does this so slyly that viewers may not even make the connection until it is pointed out in-character late in the series. As the trials move into their later and more troubling stages, the story becomes less about Ichika's mettle being tested than about her coming of age; each episode does, in effect, force her to mature, to take another step towards becoming an adult, and that includes coming to terms with the side of her that is willing to lie, be spiteful, and act without regard for consequences. Many girls her age come to not like what they see of themselves in the mirror, but in this case her self-image concerns manifest in far more dangerous fashions. Along the way elements about eating disorders, child abuse, and suicide get worked in, too, and the critical effect that close friendships can have in allowing girls to deal with such problems becomes a prominent theme. The writing deserves considerable credit for working this in smoothly rather than bludgeoning the viewer with it like so many other anime series do.
Doesn't sound like the kind of fare aimed at the normal demographic for magical girl series, does it? Sentai Filmworks has assigned it a TV-MA rating for its U.S. release and a 14+ rating for Canada, and while the former may be a little conservative, it is warranted. For all its cutesy trappings, its content squarely aims it at more mature audiences, as evidenced not only by the frequent bits of fan service throughout (and not just in the transformation scenes) and surprising level of graphic content towards the end (characters get impaled and essentially crucified, among other things) but also by the implication that one supporting character was molested by her father and hasn't ever told anyone about it. And that's just flavor rather than a plot point, though one has to suspect that the girl's behavior and appearance is being influenced by that.
Uta∞Kata was created by gimik a production group whose members include Keiji Gotoh (the director), Hidefumi Kimura (the series composer and scripter), and Megumi Kadonosono (the character designer). This is the same team responsible for the Kiddy Grade franchise, and the character design similarities in particular are unmistakable; Ichika and Manatsu are essentially design variations on KG's Éclair and Lumiere, while other characters show more subtle resemblances to other characters from the KG franchise. Djinn designs are more distinctive, although they also clearly take influence from designs for gods and stately spirits in other fantasy titles. In a special gimmick, each of Ichika's twelve different magical girl outfits was supposedly designed by a different prominent manga-ka or figurine designer, including Ken Akamatsu and Koushi Rikudou, which accounts for the broad and creative variety of their styles. Good rendering and solid background visuals based on real-life sites give the series an appealing look, though the animation takes shortcuts wherever possible and is generally fairly limited.
The series also sounds appealing, with pleasant, low-key numbers backing the day-to-day activities and gentle mixes of piano, guitar and flute numbers serving very well for more moody content. When more tension is required, the numbers upgrade and shift towards more discordant sounds, but even then the sound never gets heavy. In fact, the soundtrack remains so understated throughout that it is easy to underestimate how indispensable it is to defining the tone of the series and making everything work dramatically. Music producer Keiichi Nozaki has a long and varied list of wonderful soundtracks to his credit (Simoun, .hack//SIGN, Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040, Now and Then, Here and There), and this one is a smaller and softer feather to add to his cap. The opener and closer by Savage Genius are decent but unremarkable numbers.
Sentai Filmworks undoubtedly considered this too much of a niche title to be worth dubbing, although that does allow some nice Japanese vocal efforts to shine through without distraction. Sentai did get the subtitles right this time, however, and does give the release a respectable set of Extras. The first disk has two location scouting pieces which feature the seiyuu for Ichika and Manatsu visiting various sites used as the basis for the backgrounds in the series, while the second disk holds a collection of copyright notices voiced in-character by Ichika and Manatsu (in much the same way that they were done for Kiddy Grade's DVD releases), Japanese safety warnings also voiced by the lead pair, an alternate set of Next Episode previews, and clean opener and closer. Most importantly, the second disk also has Episode 13, a “two seasons later” episode originally released as an OVA which provides a more satisfying and sentimental round-out to the series than the episode 12 ending did. On the downside, the series' age means it still comes in a 4:3 aspect ratio.
The biggest flaws in the series are that it spends too much time piddling around trying to pretend that it's a basic magical girl title and puts too much effort into jamming the mysterious side of things down the viewer's throat in the early stages. By the later stages of the series, though, the heart and unexpected complexity that the series shows can make those flaws fade into the background. The look of the series will make it a hard sell for those who do not normally tolerate magical girl series, but this “tale told darkly” may be worth the effort.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : A-
+ Soundtrack, surprisingly sophisticated storytelling, epilogue episode.
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