Friday, October 10 2008

Great Anime: Magic Girls and Rich Boys

Continuing with my list of five recent anime series I consider to be great, I present my reasoning behind the next two series, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (including it's first sequel, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's) and Ouran High School Host Club.

Along with Mecha and Giant Robot series, the Magical Girl subgenre is a long-time staple of anime.  The long-established generic plot formula is as follows: seemingly ordinary schoolgirl has encounter with cute and fuzzy magical being that grants or unlocks magical power via a magic item that is used to save the world from the forces of darkness by fighting monsters and recovering lost magical artifacts, often with the help of similar-powered friends;   ultimately the powers of love, peace, and friendship are what see the heroine(s) through to the end.  Often, following the basic tenets of a genre leads to a derivative series indistinguishable from others like it; the greatness in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha is that the series manages to redefine the genre while remaining true to the basic genre plot elements.  There have been three iterations of the series so far.  Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, taken on it's own, is good but not great, due to a slow start.  When added to it's first sequel, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's, the series becomes great.  (The third series, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Strikers, is somewhere between mediocre and good; it's a distinct enough series in setting and type that I'm not including it here.)

The Plot is where the series really ends up standing out.  The first couple of episodes of the first series are setup, and fairly standard explanation for the genre.  Nanoha runs into Yunno, the cute fuzzy mage, who tells her she's got magical power, asks for her help in recovering the lost magic jewel seeds  which can magically mutate things into monsters which might people and gives her her magic weapon, and Nanoha, the good little heroine accepts.
Nanoha proceeds to defeat some monsters and recover some lost seeds, and everything is standard for the genre.  And then, with Nanoha "battling" a giant cat, out of nowhere comes the voice of another magic weapon...  "Photon Lancer - Full Autofire"...  and we meet Fate, and nothing in the series is ever the same.

Rival opposed magical girls are not a new idea, but the execution in this series goes well and beyond what is expected; while Nanoha is clearly the heroine, it is obvious right from the start that Fate is definitely not evil.  The fights are often described as being choreographed as if for a mecha anime, with rapid midair combat.  Behind it, of course, is still the genre exemplars of "love, peace, and friendship" but the series unofficial motto is definitely "shoot first, make friends later".  Add in the Time-Space Administration Bureau (basically the magic cops), and their Magic Boy, and the fact that Nanoha's mundane friends and family notice somethings amiss and are worried, and you have a surprisingly complicated plot, with a satisfyingly emotional ending.

With the second series, Nanoha and Fate are the heroines, presented almost right from the start with a no-holds-barred fight with two superior, hostile and aggressive opponents with a nasty and painful conclusion.  Again, more of the spectacular and dramatic fights.  Again, the plot is complicated by our knowledge of the opponents motivations, which are not necessarily evil.  Big spoiler:

The Characters feel right for the series.  Nanoha begins the series in many respects as the archetypal magical girl, but there is enough depth in her relationships with her mundane friends, her family, and her enemies that she goes beyond the stereotype.  Fate always seems a little too emotionless, but she fits the role in the story.  The other supporting characters are fleshed out and likable.  One character deserves special mention, though it is a major spoiler:

The Setting is well done; Nanoha's home, school and town are fleshed out.  The Time Space Administration Bureau facilities have a very 'sufficiently advanced technology' feel, which goes with the designs for the magic weapons.  There is a major magical disruption in the course of the first series which gets rapidly forgotten despite causing significant damage, and there is a very noticeable section with a different animation style in the first two episodes, but by the latter half of the first series and throughout the second, things tend to work better.

Ouran High School Host Club is also in many ways an advanced member of an established anime genre, the Shoujo Reverse Harem genre.  (For those of you who don't speak Otaku, that means it's a show meant for girls / women, which features a girl and her collection of potential boyfriends).  I was introduced to it by a fellow early-thirtysomething male Otaku, and I quickly figured out why; it's an excellent satire of its own genre.  The screaming anime fangirls that idolize this sort of series are also one of the objects of its humor.

The Plot is a twisted take on Shaw's Pygmalion.  As Eliza Doolittle, we have Haruhi Fujioka, token commoner at the richer-than-rich Ouan Academy, who accidentally breaks a valuable vase belonging to the aforementioned Host Club, which consists of six of the richest, handsomest, and most... unique... male students at the school and whose sole purpose is entertaining the school's female population.  Haruhi is eventually drafted as a stand-in host to pay off the debt to the club, unfortunately before all of the club members are aware that Haruhi is a girl, not a boy.  The club, then, must pass off a poor girl as a rich boy so that she can pay her debt (and because at least one may be developing a crush on Haruhi, the one female immune to the club's charms).  Cue the legion of screaming fangirls.  There is no coherent series plot until near the end, but the character development in between sets up a dramatic conclusion, while the character development is well handled and evenly spaced throughout the series.
The Characters are what make the series great, in part because of their depth and because of their interactions and development.  All but one of the main characters are very much showing one face to the world of screaming fangirls and another face towards each other and us.  Haruhi is trying to play the part cast for her by the club, and at the same time, struggling to manage with the wealth and cluelessness of most of the other club members.  Tamaki Suoh, the club president, is very much the only person in the series true to himself, as the charming, outgoing, impulsive, optimistic and ultimately likable driving force behind the club and most of the subplots that make up the story.  More importantly, the story itself makes light of its own duplicity with characters as well as that of the genre as a whole.  There's a fun episode where the club's hopelessly obsessed and somewhat nutty self-proclaimed manager attempts to fit the club as the cast in her own vision of what the club members should be like, only to run straight into the vast concealed depths beneath a few of the characters.

The Setting is well executed.  Of the three recent anime series featuring high schools for the rich and famous, Ouran Academy brings out the most vivid version, with the elaborate gardens, fancy architecture, and myriad details into how the very wealthy could live.  At the same time, the series often wanders far afield, into such exotic but detailed locations as the supermarket or the local shopping mall.  Of the five series listed, Ouran does spend the most time on comedy touches like exaggerated facial features, comedic lighting and backgrounds, dream sequences and looks into the character's imaginations and the omnipresent charm effects like sparkles, but the effect to me does enhance the satirical feel of the series.

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 08 AM | No Comments | Add Comment
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