Sunday, March 29, 2015

Anime Review No. 98 (Maria Holic)

Maria Holic (Winter 2009) and Maria Holic Alive (Spring 2011)
Directors-Akiyuki Shinbou (with Yukihiro Miyamoto and Tomokazu Tokoro)
Writers: Masahiro Yokotani and Miku Ooshima

Well, here we are, something that I am sure most people would not expect me to cover. I was not entirely sure that I would get around to covering this show, but circumstances brought it back to my attention and so here it is. This is Maria Holic.

Maria Holic the anime is based off a manga series written by Minari Endo between 2006 and 2014. It is about Kanako Miyamae, a new transfer student to a private all-girls school. She is secretly a closeted lesbian hoping to find her first true love and a bit of a misandrist, well more in that respect due to her condition where she breaks out in hives when men touch her. She gains a new roommate in Mariya Shidou a nice and gentle ojou-sama but turns out to be a male sadist who is forced to crossdress due to the wishes of his dead grandmother who was also a former headmistress of the school. Thus Kanako is blackmailed into keeping Mariya’s secret. In the process she ends up in a series of unfortunate but comical misadventures at school.

What I like about Maria Holic is how twisted the whole thing is. The whole breadth of creative decisions for this story are made in the opposite way that they would normally trend. Be it Kanako who is basically a girl with a male pervert mindset, Mariya the sadist disguised as the nice and kind ojou-sama and her maid Matsurika who turns out to be a deadpan snarker. The rest of the supporting cast are like that and all fit a basic stereotype (tomboy, megane babe, genki girl, etc) and then taking them to a rather unexpected places.

This is quite fitting as Maria Holic is a rather black comedy at its core. The humor is prevalently dark and its funny mainly due to that. Granted there are some laugh out loud hard moments, but most of the time the comedy is met with a nice dry chuckle from yours truly..There is the semblance of a story/plot but Maria Holic relies a lot on gags and sketch comedy segments. What story is there is an interesting parody. This is very related to my previous review, OtoBoku. Whereas that was a gentle soothing parody, Maria Holic is a bitterly tinged parody and a satire of not only yuri but school slice of life and otokonoko sub-genres as well. Of course, at times it openly embraces the conventions it is joking about. The second season is more of the same, except it seems to double down on everything from the first season and it is even more strange and ridiculous.
The animation production certainly helps this out in spades. If you can’t tell from the first episode alone, this is a pure Studio Shaft/Shinbou directed show. All his trademarks are here and in spades, and it is oddly fitting for such a surreal and dark satire show. This includes the various off-point references, use of text in scene, head tilt, art shift (this show has 3 main art styles). The 2 non-consecutive seasons came out during what I consider the peak of Studio Shaft/Shinbou productions (same era as the Zetsubou Sensei, Hidamari and Arakawa series). There are the seeds of other Shaft productions lashed in the people involved in the production of this series: Yukihiro Miyamoto, future co-director for Madoka and ED for Season 1 done by the future production designer for Madoka and the OP was done by the guy who helmed the Bakemonogatari series. The main thing to take away is that it suits the story and characters, supplementing it as opposed to recent Studio Shaft productions where those same tricks are employed only the story and characters aren’t as engaging-cough cough Monogatari, Sasami-san, Meh-kaku cough cough, but moving on.
S1 OP S2 OP2
S1 ED             S2 ED

Now, onto the english dub, which is a treat especially for those of us waiting for it. The series had its 2 seasons released by Sentai Filmworks (S1 in 2010, S2 in 2012) but sub-only bare-bones releases. But then in late 2013, they announced that they were doing dub re-releases of some of the shows they had done sub-only treatment earlier. I was a bit concerned but then the dub cast came out and I did a sigh of relief. I bought both seasons with the dub in early 2014 and it was worth it. Thankfully Christopher Ayres helms the dub and as usual he doesn’t disappoint. He assembles a great cast with some of his regulars sure but he topped it out with 2 great if not perfect casting choices: Jessica Calvello and Monica Rial. I feel that Jessica Calvello’s career doing more dubs again has its origin point with this dub. She is in true comedic form asa Kanako and I have to say this is her funniest performance since Excel Saga and I can’t imagine anyone else in that role now. Of course she is complemented by Monica Rial who plays Mariya and its the surprise in the dub, always fantastic. The rest of the cast is very spot-on if littered with Ayres’ regulars (Carli Mosier, Brittney Karbowski, Meg McDonald, Shannon Emerick, etc). Another honorable mention has to go to George Manley who does the narration (old ADV fans might know him as the narrator for the ADV redub of Gatchaman a decade prior). The dub script, written by Clint Bickham (who plays a minor role in S2), is nicely done adding in some stuff to punch the already comedic material. Overall a great dub that is highly recommended by yours truly.

Overall, Maria Holic is an interesting high concept comedy show that excels in being fun and entertaining. Granted the flavor of comedy might not suit everyone’s taste but that’s ok. I like it quite a lot and its certainly up there on my list of funniest anime I have ever seen.

So that closes out March 2015 aka Guilty Pleasures Month 2.0. Will I do another series of review like this? Hmm maybe next year, but it will be under a different title for sure. April 2015 marks the release of my 99th and 100th reviews. I am keeping the subject of those 2 reviews a secret but in due time you will all find out. Review No. 99 due out on April 12th.

Til next time dear readers…..

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Anime Review No. 97 (OtoBoku)

OtoBoku: The Maidens are Falling for Me! (2006 TV Series)
Director-Munenori Nawa
Writer: Katsumi Hasegawa, Masaharu Amiya, Masashi Suzuki and Tomoyoshi Nagai

Some guilty pleasures are so due to just trashy and full of fanservice. Agent Aika from last time is like that. Yet others are so due to being far out and weird/surreal they are and that you are surprised that anyone would like this, much less give it the time of day. The other 2 entries this month are like that. Let’s talk about OtoBoku.

It is an original story by Caramel Box, based on an eroge visual novel that came out in 2005. The anime adaptation came out about a year after that as OtoBoku came out at a time when visual novel adaptations were king (the Key VN adaptations). The story is a simple setup. Mizuho is a young man who gets roped into going to an all girls school by his grandfather’s last will. Lucky for him he is so androgynous that a simple makeover by confidant/childhood friend Mariya and bears a resemblance to his late mother. With only his teacher knows and headmaster knowing who he really is, he strives to do the best he can at the new situation he has gotten into. He meets various other girls at the school, be it the redhead tsundere Kaichou and her Vice Prez megane babe Kimie-san, the mysterious dark haired beauty Shion and 2 kouhai, the genki Yukari and the cutie Kana among others.
Yesh thats a boy (FFWL i guess xD)
Essentially OtoBoku is a rather gentle, soothing and laidback slice of life school story but with a gender bender twist. Yes this is a sub genre of anime called Otokonoko which is basically pretty pretty boys ending up in situations where they must dress up as girls for some reason or other. Yeah a very high concept idea I know. Of course Mizuho takes it in stride and use the opportunity to become a better person and improve the lives of the other students as best as he can. There are also elements of yuri anime as well here, like the senpai-kouhai pairing and emphasis on female on female relationships as per Strawberry Panic. At times certain elements of the show downright copy Strawberry Panic, not surprising considering this came out right after Strawberry Panic-Elder election is pretty much a ripoff of the Etolie plot line from Strawberry Panic except not as drawn out.
It-its not because I like you or anything gosh -blush-
In fact OtoBoku starts out a bit like Strawberry Panic in that it does little story arcs for the first half with Mizuho coming into his own given his weird situation and real light and fluff. Whether it’s dealing with the rivalry between Takako and Mariya, winning over the student body by becoming Elder or helping Ichiko, a ghost girl, come to terms with her untimely death. Then episode 6 brings in a more coherent storyline that extends to the end, giving the show more a dramatic and serious edge. Granted its more situational stories but there is more cohesion between the episodes. An interesting love triangle develops between Mizuho, Takako (Kaichou-san) and Mariya, though it is mostly due to misunderstanding and lack of proper communication. Yet, the Takako route is the prominent one in the anime series which reveals the the VN origin of this show but I find it works very well. Takako, next to Mizuho, is my favorite character of the show. That comes to mainly how well she is written, though she does start off as a tsundere and rigid authority figure but as the show goes on she softens up to and develop feelings for Mizuho. I feel that the series has a predictable yet satisfactory conclusion. There is an episode 13 that is just a silly chibifest rendition of Cinderella that is really hilarious and full of laughs.

We are soooo blitzed right now xD
Animation is mostly solid if a little unimpressive. Like Strawberry Panic, it has a look not too different from the source material it is based on and goes its intended job without derping or excelling at it. It does have an unique chibi design which I termed ‘fugly chibi’ which whenever it shifts from the more straightforward character design art to this I burst out laughing but given that this was intended for the more LOL moments that is to be expected. The music feels like leftovers from Ouran and the voice acting (in japanese, no dub) is rather solid if predictable in terms of casting and performance, except for one. Mizuho is voiced by renowned seiyuu Yui Horie who isn’t quite adept at sounding more like a boy then as a very girly girl at times. As I mentioned, this is was released by Media Blasters around the same time as Strawberry Panic when they just churn bare-bones releases without a dub. Its so bad in fact that the edition I have contain discs with no artwork on the discs themselves.

Now there is Futari no Elder, a 3 episode OVA made in 2012 with a different director and studio, based on a spinoff manga of the original story. It is a somewhat more somber and serious story granted and has a slightly similar initial incident to OtoBoku but feels enough like a natural sequel and separate story and not a mere copy/paste job of the original series. It is also a nice, short and self-contained story which proves to be a bit more emotionally resonant with me at least then the TV series. It also looks a bit better than the 2006 series, naturally. It gets a recommendation from yours truly though good luck finding it as this hasn’t gotten an official release and I doubt it will but hey a guy can dream.

So yeah Otoboku is a guilty pleasure that fortunately has enough charm and amusement to it to be somewhat enjoyable, even given the weird and off-putting premise. Next time, won’t be such the case.

Til next time dear readers

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Anime Review No. 96 (Agent Aika)

Agent Aika (1997 OVA, 7 episodes)
Studio Fantasia
Director: Katsuhiko Nishijima
Writers: Katsuhiko Nishijima, Kenichi Kanemaki, Katsumi Terahigashi and Noriyasu Yamauchi

Ok, so Guilty Pleasures Month 2.0 kicks off with an infamous classic of the vaulted halls of ‘90s schlocky anime, Agent Aika. Or as I would like to call it, Crotch Shot the Anime. This brilliant ‘masterpiece’ is from the mind of Katsuhito Nishijima, who is also behind Najica Blitz Tactics, Kirameki Project, Labyrinth of Flames and oddly enough Project A-Ko. Also, the lack of screenshots in this review is due to the fact that no one wants 6-12 pictures of nothing but crotch shots because who really wants that? Yeah that’s what I thought. Also spoilers because I don’t care.
Anyway, Agent Aika takes place in the far future where Earth turned into WaterWorld basically. The world is mostly underwater with small pockets of land here and there. Underwater salvaging is a prime business. Aika is one such salvager, working for some guy named ‘Boss’ and his annoying daughter Rion. She is hot 90s anime babe who is both hot, attractive and can kick ass by using a special underwear that turns her into a dark skin Amazon that can kick more ass. Anyway, Aika and Rion run afoul of a madman villain Dr. Hargen and his legion of miniskirt hottie minions and a plan involving wiping out mankind with a super weapon or something like that.

One of the big problems with Agent Aika is that there is not really much to it, not even enough for a redemptive reading. There are two stories if you can call them that: episodes 1-4 and then episodes 5-7. The first four episodes feel like their own self-contained story while the last 3 episodes feel more like a series of loosely connected one-off stories as some sort of follow up to the main story from the first four. This is seriously just plots constructed by action pieces, some pseudo-science BS and background sets glued together by fanservice and some rather troubling and bizarre content. Like did the incest really have to be here?, for instance. Like Amazing Nurse Nanako, there are a few interesting, even good ideas (a waterlogged future) but the people behind the production aren’t interested in that, but in the fanservice. However, the fanservice in Aika is so pervasive to the point where it becomes dull and tedious. I would have done a drinking game with how many fecking crotch shots the director inserts into every single fecking scene, but I would wound up in a coma. Add to that Nishijima’s tendency to linger on every crotch shot FAR longer than need be, and the show becomes so ludicrous its funny. It is also so bad its good quality in the visual presentation. Plenty of corners cut in the production just so the ‘money shots’ are extremely well-done. The OP, ED and the BG music is so 90s it hurts.

Finally, the English dub is not very good but that’s par for the course when it comes to US Manga Corps dubs for the most part. Angora Deb, who plays Aika, is the only one manages to do a consistent job in the dub and I feel that even in the bad/mediocre stuff she starred in, she does a better job than required which should be commended. However, the rest of the cast is wildly inconsistent-ranging from ok/decent to downright cringingly terrible. At times the dub manages a very OTT style with one scene in episode 3 pretty much is so terribad I couldn't help but laugh at the incompetence on display with this dub.

So yeah not really worth your time, not even for the fanservice. Which makes the second part of this review that more inexplicable…..

Aika R-16 Virgin Mission (2007 OVA, 3 episodes)
Studio Fantasia
Director: Katsuhiko Nishijima
Writer: Kenichi Kanemaki

So yeah, this exists. It is a prequel in ‘celebration’ of the original OVA’s 10th anniversary, because that seems like a good idea. I will give it this, it is a nice look into Aika as a teenage girl and salvager in training. So she apparently joins an Adventure Club run by rich girl Eri Shingai and meets a mysterious quiet cutie Karen with a butterfly on her bosom. Anyway, they go on cruise to a treasure spot for some reason that actually has a (stupid) point. But their advisor (hottie Ms Risako) turns out to be EVIL (what a twist) and has some plot involving Karen. The treasure spot site is a site tied to Karen’s past and then it gets WTF weird, even more WTF weird than the original.  

There are still a lot of crotch shots and fanservice. except its more amusing and hilarious here than in the original OVA. Luckily there is some sort of a story that is going on that actually incorporates the fanservice a bit better. Granted much of the story still is riddled with cliches and contrivances but it is there rather than not as is the case with the original OVA. It also has an awkward habit of reincorporating character elements/details that appear in the original OVA.

The production values look a lot more slick and digital, i’ll give it that. Of course the true mark of quality comes when the ED contains footage of the episode itself, yes really. Granted the whole OVA feels like a sad artifact of the 90s just looks a bit better in the visual department slightly. It is full of the same shortcuts (speed lines, obvious CG, etc) just so the Nishijima-san can focus on the ‘money shots’.

Now the English Dub is slightly better than the CPM dub for the original OVA but that’s not saying much. Its a 2008 Sam Regal-helmed Bang Zoom dub probably made on the cheap considering the quick turnaround between the initial airing of the OVA episodes in Japan and its subsequent Eng dub release and how small the cast is. Main stars include early-career Cristina Vee and Kira ‘Rina-chan’ Buckland among some other regulars of the LA scene at the time. The dub can be best described as competent, decently casted and acted but rather dull and procedural, which can best sum my feelings on modern day LA/California dubs anyway.
There is another prequel, Aika Zero, that came out in 2009 which is a mid-quel of sorts but since its not out officially I won’t talk about it. I imagine Bandai (who re-released the first OVA and then dubbed/released the prequel OVA) and hoped that it would make money so then they could then release the Aika Zero OVA here in the States. But that didn’t happen, and since Bandai is no longer in the game, I highly doubt this will get a Western release.

And what of Nishijima-san? Well he recently worked on an OVA titled Nozoki Ana, which someone on my Twitter feed was watching a few days back. Based on the screenshots it seems he is still up to his usual shtick. I suppose some old dogs can't learn new tricks. Though he has shown up working on another shows, notably as a key animator on an early episode of Kill la Kill, which is a quite interesting tie-back to the era of anime Nishijima-san was a part of.

So yeah this isn’t so much a guilty pleasure, because I don’t feel pleasure from watching it. If I want to watch something with just crotch shots, I’d just watch hentai or porn. I do feel a bit guilty in buying both of these though at a slight discount granted so I didn’t waste much money on this. Is the Aika series one of the worst? No, I have watched far worse anime that actually insult my intelligence. All that the Aika OVAs do is irk my sensibilities but only that as its not that deep or self-aware enough to read any further into it. Then again, that irking/shaking of sensibilities is what anime partly appeals to people I suppose.

Luckily, the other 2 entries this month are actual guilty pleasures and I will have more to talk about with those. Til next time dear readers.