Reviewby Theron Martin,
Yuki Yuna is a Hero [Collector's Edition + CD]
In a version of Japan guided and protected by a godlike mystical tree called Shinju-sama, Yuna Yuki is part of her middle school's Hero Club, which also consists of Mimori Togo (her wheelchair-bound neighbor/best friend) and sisters Fu (the elder) and Itsuki (the younger). Under Fu's direction, the club pretty much functions as a service club, as they do things like assist other clubs, find new homes for kittens, and entertain young children. It's a comfortable, carefree existence for all but Fu, who knows something the other club members don't: that they were all recruited on instruction from the Taisha (a shadowy organization devoted to supporting and carrying out the will of the Shinju-sama) because they showed “high aptitude” as potential actual Heroes. That comes to a head when the prophesied attack of alien Vertexes commences in the Hero Club's region. The four girls find themselves transported to a barrier world where, if they have the will to fight, they can use special smart phone apps to transform into Shinju-sama-empowered magical girls, in which capacity they will combat the Vertexes who threaten to destroy their peaceful world. All four girls – even Mimori! – eventually take up the challenge, and they are soon joined by Karin Miyoshi, a fitness-obsessed girl who, unlike the others, has specifically trained for this role.
In some respects this 2014 production followed a similar path to the one Kyousogiga tread exactly a year before: it was an original anime project which debuted in the Winter season without much buzz, and yet its heavily character-driven story played a key role in it turning out to be one of the year's best series. It is an entirely different type of series, however, and unlike its predecessor, it is not only getting a (relatively quick!) physical release in the U.S. but a deluxe, dubbed one to boot.
Categorically, Yuki Yuna is undeniably a magical girl series, one from the more action-oriented, adult-friendly side of the genre. Its closest cousin is Madoka Magica, which it resembles in the tenor of its action scenes, the sense that all of its battles take place in a weird-looking alternate space against truly bizarre-looking foes, and in a grimmer tone and certain thematic elements which are not readily apparent in the four episodes present on this release but are coming for later episodes. The comparisons there only go so far, though, as the cast and approach are substantially different. This is also not so much a deconstruction of the magical girl genre as an expansion of it.
Magical girl series often live and die on the likability of their core cast, especially how quickly and effectively their characters endear themselves to viewers, and that is one of the series' greatest strengths. Comments made in included interviews with director Seiji Kishi (My Bride is a Mermaid, Assassination Classroom, Angel Beats!) and screenplay writer Makoto Uezu (My Bride is a Mermaid, Assassination Classroom, School Days) indicate that the project was conceived and designed around the Hero Club members, whose personalities were carefully constructed before the rest of the story was created rather than them being created to fill into an existing story idea. That emphasis shows clearly in how quickly, naturally, and distinctly the characters establish both themselves and their relationships with each other, and explains why the storytelling is so intensely character-driven. Some of the characters have clear models in other sources; Yuna is essentially Akane Isshiki from Vividred Operation but with a pink instead of red theme, for instance, and Fu has some superficial resemblances to Madoka Magica's Mami, though her character (especially the way she emphasizes “girl power” and frets over the way she essentially shanghaied the Hero Club into what could be a dangerous duty) is substantially different. Others, like Mimori and Karin, are more distinct, but all are quickly and eminently attractive in personality; even Karin, the most potentially disagreeable one, is handled in a more endearing and sympathetic way than the normal uppity outsider character and cannot long resist getting absorbed into the group. That their interactions were based on observations of real middle school girls, rather than just pandering to an otaku audience, also shows in the natural flow of the girls' conversations with each other, and the sense of bonding that will become so critical later in the series is already evident. These girls are not just friends for sake of storytelling convenience; they actually feel like they are.
The series also breaks new ground with the way it handles Mimori. Characters that are permanently physically disabled from the beginning are rare in anime, especially for core cast members, and in most cases the presence of the disability is not normally visually evident. Here, though, it is steadily present in an unobtrusive fashion. These episodes always show how Mimori's wheelchair is stored when she is not using it and even go into exacting visual detail about how she handles staircases in her school (via a lift built into the side of the staircase) and the transport services available for wheelchair-bound individuals. (A simple, brief scene where Yuna and Mimori are actually shown riding in a handicapped-equipped taxi is a delight.) Most importantly, though, Mimori is never shown as being defined by her disability. She is quite capable in many things and is not really treated any differently for her disability; in fact, the only way it plays a real factor is that it might be influencing her mindset about getting involved with the magical girl side of things. Hence it is no big surprise that she does eventually become a magical girl, too (although the opener plays coy about this by not featuring her in transformed form until after it has happened), but the fact that a magical girl series actually made a paraplegic girl into a magical girl is a truly special and progressive event, one whose implications may eventually go far beyond this series. That Mimori is not shown regaining the use of her legs in the transformation (she instead props herself up with ribbons from her costume and thus makes do just fine) is also a great touch.
The day-to-day activities of the girls and their Hero Club are mundane and not always particularly interesting. This is most evident in episode 4, which focuses almost entirely on Itsuki. It may be crucial to her character development and advancement, and to defining more completely her relationship with her sister, but it is also the slowest and weakest episode (comparatively speaking) of the whole series. That is at least partly because it does not have any action component, as the series also shines brightly in that aspect. The three such scenes in these episodes are all active, dynamic affairs characterized by dramatic movements and a smooth sense of flow, scenes easily worthy of being included in any action spectacle. And the best is yet to come on that, as episode 4 ends with the girls preparing to face by far their biggest challenge yet. The series also has at least some sense of humor, though that is more a “fill in the cracks” component than a major aspect or diversion.
The production comes courtesy of Studio Gokumi, whose other previous lead efforts (among them A Channel, Saki Episode of Side A, and Koe de Oshigoto) have all been far less visually ambitious. Indeed, except for the aforementioned detail work there isn't anything all that visually distinct about the series until the shift to the barrier world, as the overall color scheme is a bit muted, character designs do not stand out, and background art is good enough but not the sharpest. In that alternate world, though, is where the series becomes a visual powerhouse. The barrier world's forest has a kaleidoscopic look to it which truly gives the sense of being in an alternate reality, the Vertexes are creepy CG design wonders reminiscent of a cross between the aliens in Noein and the Angels in Neon Genesis Evangelion, and of course each of the girls gets an elaborate transformation scene into a costume that is stylish and has a distinct color theme without being overly cutesy. (Mercifully, though, these are not used every time.) The familiars who pop up vary from plain to (in Karin's case) impressively detailed but the animation quality steps up dramatically, including some great first episode shots of characters hurtling through the air. Later scenes of Karin practicing with her swords on a beach also impress on the animation front. Although the girls do get beat up some, the fights are not significantly graphic and fan service is surprisingly restrained for a series which aired on late night TV; aside from Mimori's battle outfit and transformation scene, which reveal that she is actually pretty busty for her age, there really isn't any.
The musical score also steps its game up to another level for the battle scenes and is definitely a major element in their thrill factor. There its dramatic sound sometimes has a flavor reminiscent of Yuki Kajiura's work, although the style is far more varied and includes substantial orchestrated segments. The mysterious, mystical tones used for the pre-battle barrier world scenes are also quite effective. Regular world background music is typically more light-hearted and ordinary. Regular opener “Hoshi to Hana,” which features the seiyuu for the four original Hero Club members, is a pleasant, melodic song which sets the tone pretty well and updates itself visually after Mimori has her first transformation, while closer “Aurora Days” (also sung by the same four seiyuu) is a low-key number which also updates visually when Karin is added to the cast.
Pony Canyon called upon Bang Zoom! Entertainment for the English dub. Long-time voice actor Lex Lang mostly guides well a cast with limited experience; only in a couple of places do the performances sound even slightly stiff or awkward. All of the actresses were appropriately-chosen for their roles in a vocal quality sense and handle the acting capably, including Brianna Knickerbocker in her debut role as Itsuki. (Her singing isn't perfect, but it's adequate.) The dub script is also a smooth and reasonable interpretation of the original Japanese script.
Pony Canyon's Collector's Edition release includes both Blu-Ray and DVD versions in an oversized plastic case which comes in a see-through plastic sleeve. Audio quality is very good for both disks, with sound effects coming through especially well on the Blu-Ray version. Both versions include Spanish subtitles in addition to English ones and an option for sign-only subtitles, and both versions simultaneously provide both English and romaji translations for the opener and closer. The original Japanese forms of the opener and closer are fully retained; translated English credits only appear in the Extras. An included CD is set up a bit strangely, as most of its dozen tracks are simply (seemingly-exact) repeats of the opener and closer themes, with a couple of karaoke songs from episode 4 thrown in for good measure.
On-disk Extras for the release include clean opener and closer and a collection of commercials. Physical add-ons include two mini-posters featuring Yuna and Mimori in normal clothes, interior art depicting Mimori in magical girl form, and a booklet which is divided into two parts: pink pages for the part focusing on Yuna and blue pages for the part focusing on Mimori. In each case we get a detailed character profile with concept art for both her and her familiar(s); a reveal of the flower theme for those who do not recognize the motifs (Yuna's is cherry blossom, Mimori's is morning glory); a print interview with, and profile of, the Japanese voice actress for the role; an Episode Guide (1-2 for Yuna, 3-4 for Mimori) which includes “Check Points” that viewers may or may not have noticed themselves; and an additional staff interview. In the Yuna part, Kishi talks about how the series was constructed, with the key reveal not already mentioned being that the Hero Club's school is modeled on an actual school in Shikoku, down even to what gets written on the chalkboard (hardly a surprise). The Mimori part interviews Uezu, whose commentary overlaps heavily with Kishi's. He does offer the additional point that the foreshadowing in the series is deliberately intended to be pervasive because nothing happens in the series that the core cast is not directly involved with. Development of anyone beyond the Hero Club members was also deliberately kept to a minimum to reduce the “noise” in the story.
Evaluated as an introduction to the series, the first third of Yuki Yuna shows great promise, as it delivers an entertaining blend of fun, character development, and action without going overboard on anything – and indeed, the series' strongest parts are yet to come. Those watching these episodes a second time through after having seen the whole series may also note the full breadth of the foreshadowing; some of it is so subtle that new viewers have no chance to pick up on the details and what they mean (some details of the girls' battle costumes are more significant than they may initially appear, for instance), but they are definitely there. As great as the series is, though, it's immensely overpriced for what purchasers are getting, especially given the flaws on the DVD; in fact, on a per-minute-of-animation basis, it's the most expensive modern R1 anime release for a TV show. Put it out at half of its current price and it would still be overpriced but it would be at least closer to what we expect for a deluxe Collector's Edition set. The wisdom of putting it in a plastic case the size of NISA's boxed sets is also questionable, though it may have been necessary to accommodate physical Extras which couldn't be downsized. If that is the case, though, then why not use an actual box (which would have looked much better on display), like NISA does? Still, if you can stomach these aspects then you are getting the start of the best magical girl series to come along in the wake of Madoka Magica.
Editor's note: This review originally noted issues with video and subtitle timing on these discs. After confirming with a number of other people who purchased this volume, it became clear the issues mentioned in this review were isolated to the screener copy we received. There are no notable video or subtitle timing errors on this release.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Strong character development and interactions, great battle sequences, first physically challenged magical girl.
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