Reviewby Theron Martin,
World Conquest Zvezda Plot
Middle schooler Asuta Jimon has run away from home after a fierce disagreement with his dad. When caught on the streets during a martial law declaration, he encounters a young girl on a bike named Kate, who, in exchange for being fed, declares that she is actually Lady Venera, the leader of the secret organization Zvezda, whose ultimate goal is conquest of the entire world. Asuta doesn't believe her, even as he tries to evade a battle between military forces and a massive alien-like construct, but he eventually discovers, to his dismay, that Kate was telling the truth: she really is the powerful and feared leader of of Zvezda and really does have both loyal followers – including the katana-wielding, eyepatch-sporting Itsuka, the mechanical genius Natasha, the monstrous, massive Goro, the good-for-nothing peon Yasu, and robot girl Roboko – and her own secret base of operations. As he gets drafted to be the masked minion Dva and the organization's de facto cook, he gradually finds himself mixed up in assorted sordid affairs, including an anti-smoking crusade, a treasure hunt, and repeated battles against White Light, a secret organization which opposes Zvezda. Unbeknownst to Asuta, the girl he is mutually sweet on – the pigtailed Renge – is also one of his White Light foes, but she doesn't recognize Asuta in the role of Dva, either.
Anime is often accused (and not without some validity) of being heavily derivative and cliché-laden, but every so often it produces something truly and uniquely bizarre, something which does not easily fit into any normal anime classification system. In 2014 that title was World Conquest Zvezda Plot, an original production penned in part by one of Type-Moon's writers and directed by Tensai Okamura, the man who helmed the Darker Than Black franchise, the Stink Bomb part of Memories, and Wolf's Rain. In its 12 regular episodes it spins a tale that is not easily comparable to anything else in anime, one which is in part a mix of parody and satire but is mostly just plain weird.
The most accurate way to describe the series succinctly might be to call it an exercise in absurdity, one flavored with some savagely biting satire. Our viewpoint on this is Asuta, a middle school-aged runaway who becomes the newly-added outsider in the crazy world that is Zvezda. His skepticism at the off-kilter logic in play around him manifests the audience's reactions to things like the notion of a little girl being the feared and revered leader of a world-conquering organization or udo, an east Asian vegetable comparable to asparagus, being both an ultimate power source and the apparent basis of an ancient civilization whose underground ruins may or may not extend all the way to Ukraine. (The series even renames the actual Tokyo ward Edogawa as Udogawa, although its location in the map of metropolitan Tokyo in the series does not correspond to the actual location of Edogawa.) The absurdity also shows in the existence and organization of White Light as a counter to Zvezda, that its roots are supposedly old and deep, that both organizations have far more extensive networks than are initially apparent, or that the manner of exploring the ancient ruins below ground is portrayed in the manner of an old video game.
Rather than being a mere observer or voice of reason, Asuta is more a voice of discontent. As much as he regards the methods of Zvezda with disbelief, he also clearly is not happy with the way things are, else he would not have run away from home in the first place. That opens a window into the satirical aspect of the series. One early episode which focuses on an anti-smoking crusade literally demonizes smokers, to the point of turning dedicated smokers into inhuman things and making second-hand smoke the bane of Zvezda's power. While smoking is the clear target here, the draconian undertones of the anti-smoking crusade raise the possibility that the episode might also be ridiculing those who go overboard in staunchly opposing smoking.
Another probable – although more subtle – target of satire here is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's 2011 updating to the Youth Healthy Development Ordinance (often called the Tokyo Youth Ordinance) via Bill 156, which expanded the definition of what “harmful materials” is in anime and manga. That bill was staunchly opposed by the anime and manga industry, to the point of provoking boycotts of the 2011 Tokyo International Anime Fair (which ended up not being held anyway due to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami), so someone using a series to take a potshot at it would not at all be surprising, and the production timing for this series (which aired in the Winter 2014 season) is right for the connection to be feasible. Exactly how the series may be interpreted that way is not fully evident until late episodes, which reveal that the setting is a Japan where a veritable civil war has happened and Tokyo has extended its direct control to most of the country. Part of that involves the Tokyo governor overstepping White Light to more directly stamp out any hint of subversiveness or items connected to it with totalitarian ruthlessness. Within that context Zvezda could be looked at as the embodiment of the anime and manga publishing industry, which would explain both the whole “world conquest” thing (conquer the world through the spread of anime and manga, you see) and why Natasha normally dresses so skimpily despite being specifically identified as only being 15 years old. A far less comfortable extension of this theory is that Kate's costume as Venera is meant to embody lolicon; I prefer a fellow staff member's interpretation that the costume more represents a child's playful interpretation of how a super-villainess might dress, but given that lolicon was a prime target of Bill 156, the connection is entirely possible.
The series is not all absurdity and satire, though. It is also still essentially a comedy, as most regularly typified by the Next Episode pieces involving Yasu/Odin trying to portray himself as a sexy playboy or the oddball behaviors of some cast members. The series is not above using direct parodies, either, such as a riff on the famous Star Wars poster featuring Luke Skywalker with his light saber pointed towards the sky. Background stories for many of the key cast members are most definitely not jokes, however, as they are played straight and with a grim seriousness practically at odds with the rest of the series. Traces of romance also exist in the fledgling relationship between Asuta and Renge, and distinct action elements pop up from time to time throughout. Neither is a focal point, however. Fan service is not, either; while it is a recurring element, it is never used heavily, and most of it consists of Natasha's normal apparel, which involves her wearing an open lab coat over minimally-cut underwear.
The production effort comes courtesy of A-1 Pictures, which clearly placed more emphasis on the characters animation than on the backgrounds, although the designs of the Zvezda headquarters and underground areas do impress. Whereas backgrounds are almost universally colored with a mottled texture, and thus have a rough look, characters are much more sharply and consistently-colored. Designs beyond Asuta offer sharp and distinctive looks whether in normal clothes or their action outfits; this is especially true for Kate when the camera focuses only on her face and “evil dictator” battle glove. Artistic quality on the characters is still far from top-notch, but at least the quality control is steady. The animation is better when not taking shortcuts, though the CG elements are hit-or-miss; a CG bus at one point has a clunky feel to it, but CG renditions of the giant fists that Kate can manifest as Venera are more impressive and better-integrated. Also watch for occasional, purely visual jokes and bonuses which can fly by quickly, such as the dog in the flashback for Kate's background or the scenes establishing why Renge admires Miki so much.
Music director Tatsuya Katou has proven quite proficient with dramatic musical scores in fare like Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya and The Qwaser of Stigmata, but here he takes a different approach. Oh, the dramatic use of full orchestration mixed with piano and guitar is still there, but the difference comes in the way he uses it: as a backing for patently ridiculous content to reinforce, through incongruous contrast, how absurd the scene actually is. This is done very effectively, enough so that it allows scenes to segue effortlessly into properly dramatic content and contributes greatly to the series having a different feel than most other anime fare; listening to the soundtrack independently would be a very misleading experience. Gentler numbers also handle quite well the softer moments. Opener and closer are both solid numbers that are not especially distinctive in an audial sense, though the artistic style used in the closer sticks out. Sound effect use is also sharper than normal, including the conspicuous use of old-style phone modem sounds when Roboko is processing information or communicating with other constructs electronically.
The release of the series by Aniplex offers no English dub, but the Japanese dub does offer at least one noteworthy performance: Misaki Kuno, whose most prominent role otherwise has probably been Tama in Selector Infected Wixoss and its sequel, does a wonderful job as Kate. Her ability to retain a childlike expressiveness while still speaking in grandiose statements, and to subtly vary between innocent and not-so-innocent tones when Kate pretends to be a student, is a grade above. The subtitles are generally very good at clarifying the meaning of a couple of wordplay references that would not otherwise survive translation (slight variances on pronouncing Asuta's name generate entirely different meanings, for instance), though they miss clarifying that the code names for Renge, Miki, and one character who pops up later are all plays on how their last names translate into English.
As Aniplex of America releases go, this one is something of an economy release: the whole series prices at only $74.98 MSRP. It is, unfortunately, only available on DVD at this time, but the digital 2.0 sound production on it is outstanding. The DVD case comes in a soft slipcover, and physical Extras include a trifold mini-poster featuring alternate art of the Zvezda and White Light teams, a reversible case cover, and a set of nine pin-up card featuring various individuals or character groups, including one featuring all of the main girls in bikinis. On-disk Extras are limited to clean versions of the opener and closer (which are the only way to see the lyrics subtitled) and previews for the OVA of episode 13. The latter is actually included, but the episode, which focuses on the endeavors of Zvezda to form an idol group, is easily the weakest part of the series, even if the prospect of seeing (a well-animated) Roboko as an idol group lead with the rest of the cast as back-ups does hold some appeal.
World Conquest Zvezda Plot is at its most conventional during its climactic battle, and the broad strokes of its plot progression are nothing unusual. The way it progresses, though, and the premises it operates on and characters it operates with, are anything but that. Perhaps most importantly, it accomplishes the task of being strange without doing so in an off-putting or needlessly cryptic manner. Nothing is ever really done purely for the sake of being weird, as the story and setting do steadily follow their own internal logic (as warped as that may be). It also handles its brief snippets of character flashbacks extremely well, especially with an efficiency that could make it a model for innumerable other series. And while some things could be explained a little better, the vagueness on how certain things work and/or came to be fit the absurdist approach just fine. This is definitely not one of the funniest series in recent memory, but watching the series is nonetheless a quite enjoyable experience and is highly recommended for those who want an anime that is well off the beaten path.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : A-
+ Original concept, biting satire, entertainingly weird.
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