The Mike Toole Show
by Michael Toole,
We all waste time on the internet. Some people obsessively track and tabulate sports statistics. Other people enjoy photos of old trains. Still others join forums in order to discuss obscure musical instruments, or download recipes for authentic American Civil War field rations, or shop for elaborate doll clothing, or tinker obsessively with the Wikipedia entries for excellent, well-remembered TV shows like Wizards and Warriors or Voyagers!. As for me, I like weird fan art. Nothing brightens up my day like scrubbing through DeviantArt, looking at stuff like anime heroes re-imagined as Lion King characters, or moe anime girls kitted out in hyper-violent 80s OVA armor. But if you wind the clock back several years, options for this sort of thing were thinner. DeviantArt was sort of an upstart and home to more bad fan fiction than anything else, and pixiv was still years away. I still trolled everywhere I could, and I think it was actually on a Yahoo! auctions listing that I stumbled across this confusing tableau.
Alright, so who's this girl, exactly? What's with the numbers at the bottom? It was a mystery, albeit one that became somewhat less mysterious once I started digging up more lurid images of the same character from the same book, ones that tended to involve wardrobe malfunctions, bizarre perspectives, and “holy milk.” Then I noticed that one of the images had copyright data from something called “Lost Worlds,” and it all fell into place: I was looking at some sort of RPG system! Yep, I'd discovered the magic of Queen's Blade.
Queen's Blade has taken an interesting path to its widespread success. As mentioned above, it started as a series of weird hybrid artbook/RPG game products (the original Lost Words tomes are called “gamebooks”). I tried out the original Lost Worlds books back in the 1990s during my college Sci-Fi Club days, and they're simple affairs—two players each select a character book (barbarian, wood elf, or whatever) and square off. The player pulls out a character card/matrix from the book, and hands the book to their opponent. Then, the two players each select an action from their character card, throwing it down simultaneously. As the action progresses, each player flips to a corresponding page in the book to observe the effects of the actions; since you've got your opponent's book in front of you, it's supposed to be like you're watching the battle from a first-person perspective. These are fairly neat books, brewing up an odd hybrid of rock-paper-scissors and choose your own adventure for a brisk game that's usually over in minutes. But the thing is, the original books featured heroes and villains like these luminaries:
It's OK fare if you're a huge RPG nerd, but not the kind of thing to attract casual gamers, is it? Hobby Japan took a novel approach to marketing this battle system—they just supplied existing character books and matrices with new artwork of a variety of sexy battlin’ warrior ladies, and started turning out book after book. The high-quality artwork, from anime and video game pin-up luminaries like Kuuchuu Yosai, Hirokazu Hisayuki, and Katsuzo Hirata, attracted plenty of attention from the otaku target audience, and so books were turned out in pairs (you need two books to play, natch) on a regular basis between 2005 and 2008. Fans weren't just satisfied with the books, though—other character goods followed, including posters, pillowcases, manga, and those little figurines with removable clothes that our former Astro Toy scribe Rob Bricken immortalized in this lurid, incredulous article. I have to assume that these tiny plastic girlfriends sell hilariously well, because the avalanche of Queen's Blade bishoujo figures started back in 2007 or 2008 and hasn't even come close to stopping. Happily, the sourcebooks are still quite robust as well; spinoffs Queen's GATE, which allows you to enter the tabletop arena as video game girls like King of Fighters’ Mai Shiranui, and Queen's Blade: Grimoire, which introduces new original characters, are still being printed. Perhaps most interestingly, the daughter of original Lost Worlds creator Alfred Leonardi, Jill Leonardi, still creates new character matrices for Queen's Blade books. Given all of that, I'm honestly a bit surprised we haven't seen any publisher take a stab at releasing the gamebooks here. Vertical did take the plunge on the series artbook, which is apparently a strong seller.
But this bit of writing is leading up to something beyond the books, and that something is the Queen's Blade anime. Because of course there's a Queen's Blade anime, you big dummy. I was actually angling to create a column based around a viewing of the first two seasons of Queen's Blade last spring. “No,” said a bunch of my readers in unison, “don't do that! Wait until Queen's Blade: Rebellion comes out, because that shit is essential!” So I did. And now, having seen it all, I'm well prepared to rain down nothing but scorn on this cheap, trashy, misogynist pulp fantasy crap!
Well… there's not a lot of intellectual meat on Queen's Blade's bones, but it's not so bad that I'd dismiss it out of hand like that. Actually, it would be completely dishonest of me to say that I didn't get any enjoyment out of watching Queen's Blade; I have no problem with totally ridiculous, sensibility-defying nudity, and I like dumb sword n’ sandal adventure stories. At first glance, Queen's Blade, which unites all of the stereotypical warrior maidens from the gamebooks into a single narrative, comes off like the amazing adventures of all the metal bikini ladies from those Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta paintings. So let me embrace the relative weaknesses of this franchise and sniff out its merits. Kind of like a hog, angling for truffles.
Queen's Blade takes place in the far-flung kingdom of Gynos, where it is apparently nice and warm all year round, because the girls hardly wear any clothing. The viewer is introduced to Leina, a pretty blonde with rudimentary armor who's swiftly vanquished by a shrieking pink nightmare of a slime-girl with corrosive breast milk (yep) and captured by a flame-haired lady bandit. “I could've won if I had the right equipment,” grumbles the trussed-up Leina, echoing the complaint of every single vanquished D&D player ever. The bandit, Risty, is a refreshing change—she's tall, quick, and seems to handle a variety of weapons well, bringing to mind capable fantasy heroines like Xena and Red Sonja. She brings Leina back to the capital (naked, of course), where we meet her sisters, Elina and Claudette, who also wear easily-dislodged metal bikinis, and their father Count Vance, who is the Burger King.
The Count himself establishes another trend for the show—he's one of the only male characters, period. And aside from occasional advice for his kids or grumbling about the pushy queen, Aldra (more on her soon), he barely says a word. The balance of male characters in Queen's Blade consists of would-be rapists (who always get their asses kicked—so at least Queen's Blade backs off from that angle), scummy gamblers, a talking cudgel, and this guy.
But hey, what can you do? The show is called Queen's Blade, after all. The errant Leina is attempting to train for the Queen's Blade, a tournament that grants the winner the right to rule over the kingdom until the next tournament, kind of like how the tournament in G-Gundam works. The current queen, Aldra, is a crafty magic user who's won the whole shebang twice in a row, so knocking her off the perch won't be easy. Leina's the appealing girl-next-door type. As the show progresses, she's joined by Tomoe (busty shrine maiden), Shizuka (busty ninja), Echidna (busty pantsless snake woman), Melpha (busty cleric), and Airi (busty maid). Most of these characters find common cause, though a few of them work for the Swamp Witch, who is basically Sosai-X from Gatchaman.
See what I mean? Jesus. Anyway, these exciting Queen's Blade fights, which happen once or twice per episode, are brokered and broadcast on heavenly big-screen TV by actual angels. For the purposes of this series, the angel is named Nanael, because that's all you need to do to make a character sound like an angel, add “-el” at the end. I'm named after a Biblical angel myself, so I know these things. Nanael is probably my favorite character to watch, partly because she's goofy and sassy and has a cute bob haircut, and partly because her outfit makes even less damn sense than the others (ahh yes, the fashionable and functional strappy dress/steel greaves combination!). Also, her fancy special move is called Holy Dive, and any lady that names her ultimate attack after an awesome Dio song is OK in my book.
But after watching Queen's Blade for a spell, even typical flaws get more and more difficult to overlook. Many of the girls have weirdly similar faces, and the usual body type—big hips, tiny waist, huge boobs—is standardized to the point that about three quarters of the characters seem like girl versions of those old He-Man action figures from the 1980s. When characters deviate from this template, it's usually to the extreme—Nowa the elven ranger is only somewhat more slender than her leader Alleyne, but she's offset by the tiny, Lolita-tastic Ymir (see, she's actually dwarven and in her 50s, so it's totally OK to lust afte-- uuugh) and the preposterously bodacious Cattleya. We're supposed to be taken with Cattleya's brawn and earth-mother figure and mannerisms, but every time I looked at her I just thought of boob sweat. Completing the image is her young son, who she tows around like a pet monkey. I don't get it.
You can see it coming a mile away, but that's the root of Queen's Blade's problem—just like a lot of similar shows, this series doesn't work in the service of creating great animation or a compelling story, but simply to satisfy a rote series of fetishes. As I watched episode after episode and discussed it with my pals, they kept asking me why I was watching this crap. Aside from simple morbid curiosity, one reason sticks out: it's that the Queen's Blade franchise, which has been pretty successful, is part of a greater trend of shows that tilt hard in the direction of fanservice for fanservice's sake, fare like High School DxD and Freezing. I'm also curious because productions like these are de facto OVAs. They air on TV in Japan and on services like Crunchyroll, but for the most part, the copious nudity is pretty heavily censored, leaving the TV broadcast to serve as a sort of infomercial for the uncensored home video version. I wonder about the sustainability of such an approach, but for now it seems to be working.
And so Queen's Blade seasons 1 and 2, which make up a single narrative concerning Leina's struggle to improve herself and compete in the tournament, passes in a hurricane of hot spring scenes, naked oil wrestling, and the occasional—you know, let's not kid ourselves, the frequent slashed-open bustier. Most of the girls have a noble ulterior motive for competing; Leina wants to prove herself to her more accomplished sisters and father, Tomoe wants to seize the throne and wipe out corruption in the show's weird version of Japan, Ymir wants to make her clan of weaponsmiths famous, and Cattleya is searching for her missing husband. When these details emerge, the show becomes painfully earnest, with the camera lingering on the girls’ steely, determined gazes, fantastical music swelling in the background.
Then the camera meanders down to their cleavage, and the spell is utterly, hilariously broken.
Even when characters flop over on the ground, unconscious or worse, boobs go flying everywhere. The big tournament battles never seem to result in actual injury, just nudity. This approach is exacerbated further in the bonus OVAs, 3-minute affairs meant to show the Queen's Blade girls hanging around in school uniforms and getting into trouble. These OVAs are uniformly terrible; characters stray off-model constantly, and the animation is squirm-inducingly awful. When Media Blasters first acquired this show, fans vociferously demanded that these episodes be included, which strikes me as hilarious after seeing them. They're fuckin’ dreadful! The show would've been better off without them.
If Queen's Blade has a tournament system weirdly reminiscent of G-Gundam, then it's only fair to describe Queen's Blade: Rebellion as being kind of like the Zeta Gundam to the original's First Gundam. The heroines of the original are scattered, and the charismatic few who've remained at the seat of power have been corrupted by their newfound royal duties. Along with some returning characters, Rebellion boasts a whole cast of new fighters, including a busty pirate queen, a busty armored knight, a busty royal inquisitor, and a busty housewife. The housewife is my favorite, because she's a character from the original show who's lost her memory, just like Goldie Hawn in Overboard. Another highlight: pint-sized alchemist Yuit is backed up by a robot maid with huge fists who yells”Gao!” a lot. Yes, it's a Gigantor reference, right down to the frequently-stolen control box.
Rebellion looks a little better than its predecessor, but improbably, its narrative is weaker. The show struggles to get its large cast screen time, and is constantly shuffling in new faces right up until episode 10. There are also large gaps in the story meant to be filled by the Queen's Blade: Beautiful Fighters OVAs, which aren't present on Sentai Filmworks’ DVD set—they're probably a separate license. Most confusingly, the commercial release includes the show's audio soundtrack on CD. Does anyone really want the music to this show? Are any of you psyched to rip this disc so you can rock n’ roll to Queen's Blade BGM in your car?! Actually, one aspect of the music throws me for a loop: the opening tune is sung by a powerful-voiced lady named Naomi Tamura. You may remember her from the opening tune to Magic Knight Rayearth, which was almost 20 years ago. Feeling old yet?
One thing I've noticed about the reception for Queen's Blade over the past few years is that its animation is often praised, or at least not damned. This seems like an oversight to me. Queen's Blade does one thing very well with its visuals—it almost never goes off-model. Whoever's drawing the girls, director Kinji Yoshimoto absolutely does not permit mistakes to slip through. But the animation itself lacks fluidity—it's stodgy and workmanlike, where even simple swordfights and walk cycles look weird and stilted. If I wanted to stack Queen's Blade up against a contemporary to expose its visual flaws, I'd probably go with the first Samurai Girls series. That show is about as plotless and gratuitous as Queen's Blade, but it's got genuinely impressive fight animation and high quality art direction. If we're going overboard on fanservice, I'd prefer it to go that way.
So, at the end of the journey, after consuming hours of Queen's Blade, I'll leave you with his final thought: I may not mind hilariously gratuitous nudity and crass sexualization, but I think I'm ready to see this trend settle down a bit. It does nothing for the perception of anime, especially considering that, at least until recently, Queen's Blade was front n’ center on Netflix, right at the top of the most popular anime listing. There's a place for shows like this, it just ain't at the top of the mountain. I also really want shows like this to look better—while the current Kill la Kill's insane fanservice is balanced expertly by having a top director like Hiroyuki Imaishi on board, these shows have no such luxury. And don't think I'm begrudging Queen's Blade—it was a fun, if sometimes creepy, skeezy, or outright gross ride. I don't begrudge a show like this one; I just wish it tried a little harder. At least it acknowledges its faults/strengths!
What do you think? Had enough of shows like this, or are you jonesing for the new Vanquished Queens animation? Do you think shows like this are just fine being thinly-plotted exercises in titillation, or do you think I'm not giving this stuff a fair shake? Which of these fightin’ ladies is the best one? I still say that Nanael, who cannot carry a glass of milk across the room without spilling it all over herself, is still the most competent. Have any of you tried playing the Queen's Blade books against another person? And does anyone think that boobs actually bounce around crazily and independently of each other in real life? You see a lot of that in shows like this, and the flagrant lack of realism always takes me out of the story! Let me know in the comments.
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