Shelf Life Ultra Maniac
by Paul Jensen, James Beckett,
I live on the second floor of an apartment building, so it's always surprising when one of the neighborhood cats appears on my tiny balcony. I'm not sure if it somehow climbs the fire escape ladder or just jumps its way up from one air conditioning unit to another, but either way it's an impressive feat. Teach me your ways, Balcony Cat, so that I may become less awful at platforming games. Welcome to Shelf Life.
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On Shelves This Week
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Shelf Life Reviews
James takes a look at a recent rerelease of the 2003 series Ultra Maniac this week. How well does this magical girl series of yesteryear hold up today? Read on and find out.
While the title makes this series sound like one of those old action shows, this is most definitely not a show about badassery and bloodshed; in fact, it may be as far on the other end of that spectrum as possible. Ultra Maniac is actually a magical girl show, based off a manga of the same name from author Wataru Yoshizumi, who is perhaps best known as the creator of Marmalade Boy, a popular '90s shoujo series. This anime adaptation of Ultra Maniac is being released on DVD by Discotek and uses the 2004 English Dub from Animax, and though it follows the manga's broad strokes, it also makes its own changes to the plot and characters.
The series follows the life of middle-schooler Ayu Tateishi, who is best friends with Nina Sayaka. Though Ayu is your average human girl, Nina is actually an exchange student from the Magical Kingdom, with the ability to transform into a magical girl and use all sorts of spells and charms. Nina uses her powers at spellcasting and witchcraft to get into all sorts of silly hijinks, including her numerous attempts to get Ayu together with her longtime crush, Kaji. The magical exchange student has also been given a mission during her time in Japan: find all of the Holy Stones, so she can win the right to be the bride of the Magical Kingdom's charming prince.
So yes, a fluffy slice-of-life magical girl comedy is not at all what I was expecting from a series called Ultra Maniac, though it does still feel like an anime ripped straight out of the '90s. Though it was technically published and animated in the first years of the new century, I have to imagine Ultra Maniac felt dated even back then. The flat characters, the stilted and generic visual aesthetic, and even the chintzy and overdone soundtrack all feel like holdovers from a bygone era, and from that perspective Ultra Maniac is an interesting cultural artifact. Unfortunately, none of that makes for a particularly good show.
Ultra Maniac is essentially the anime version of a cheap kids show, something you might find on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon here in the US, which takes a relatively high concept (high-tech witch from a magical kingdom) and wastes it on boring romantic shtick and repetitive gags. There's technically an overarching plot to the show, which involves the girls searching for those Holy Stones I mentioned earlier, but the crux of the series is definitely rooted in the repetitive formula of a sitcom. The first episode has Nina using her magic to try and get Ayu and Kaji together, only for it to fail and result in predictable romcom shenanigans, and most of the series tends to follow that basic setup closely. Sure, characters from the Magic Kingdom come and go, and the series manages to branch out and focus on the details of other people's lives, but it never manages to shake the feeling of being hopelessly light on substance.
In other words, Ultra Maniac is very corny, but not very funny. I'll admit that this kind of humor doesn't especially appeal to me, with its reliance on repetitive visual gags and lots of yelling. I also had a tough time investing in any of the romantic plots revolving Ayu and Nina, since there aren't any characters in the story that rise above being flat clichés. Ayu is the protagonist because she's vaguely nice, and she loves Kaji because he's handsome and also sort of nice. Nina is a klutz, but she sure does mean well, and so on and so forth. Sometimes Nina accidentally makes Ayu electrocute every boy she touches, and sometimes she floods her house with an avalanche of sentient plushies, but everything is eventually set right with minimal consequences. I would have had a challenging time engaging this when I was a kid back in the nineties; as an adult, it's almost too much to bear.
Discotek's DVD set is sparse, offering nothing but the 26-episode set and the English dub that comes along with them. This is little consolation, unfortunately, because the dub is pretty bad. Ayu and Nina are played by Stephanie Sheh and Carrie Savage respectively, and while they've turned in decent work on other series since this dub's production, their work here is uninspired, and they might be the best of the bunch. The rest of the cast ranges from wooden and boring to downright irritating, and I couldn't watch more than a couple of episodes before switching back to Japanese. This is the kind of dub people talk about when they swear them off for good, so if you prefer to watch your anime in English, this is one series to avoid.
Getting through all of Ultra Maniac was a chore, plain and simple, and I can't think of anyone that would get much out of it who isn't a diehard collector, or a prior fan of the property. It's a magical girl show that lacks any real magic, and a romance that fails to stir up any actual passion or intrigue. If you absolutely adore anything from this genre, you might get something out of it. It's hard to find much else to say, since the series itself is so weightless and forgettable. I initially enjoyed the prospect of reviewing a series that reminded me so much of the heyday of anime, but it ended up being a solid reminder of why some relics ought to stay buried in the past for good.
That wraps up the review section for this week. Thanks for reading!
This week's shelves are from Jared:
"My name is Jared. It's been a few years since I submitted my collection, so I thought I'd send in a few updated photos. My favorite series would have to be Maison Ikkoku, as likely evident from the display on top of my main media shelf unit. One neat addition I recently received for the display is a diorama of Kyoko sweeping out in front of the apartment building, complete with opening doors and a fully-functional porch light. Also, please forgive the piles on some of my shelves, as these are my (increasingly growing) backlog piles."
That diorama is awesome! Something about having a full environment for the character really makes the scene come alive. Thanks for sharing!
If you'd like to show off your own collection or have a cool new addition you'd like to highlight, send me your photos at [email protected]!
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