13 January 2014

#2LR Too Late Reviews -- Rosario + Vampire

#2LR review: Rosario + Vampire

Most nights, my daughter is the one to broach the subject.  "Want to watch some anime tonight?" is her usual request.  Some nights, she'll ask to watch old archived Strong Bad emails, but it's typically anime that she asks for.  Other than the current dislike of MST3k, I've trained her well.

My wife and I usually get the younger two boys off to bed by this time, and more often than not we're trying to get through a series.  We can't devour one as quickly as my daughter, who's probably watched the vast majority of Full Metal Alchemist through a couple weekends over the past few weeks, but we try to get two or maybe three episodes in of whatever current series we're watching.

My daughter is exceedingly lucky... paying for Netflix and Hulu Plus is perhaps $20 or so a month, and there's quite a bit of choice for streaming options.  Before having this option, I had resorted to three other tactics to watch anime.  One was renting it from specialty stores, which was hit-or-miss considering how many times we've moved.  At one point, I joined a campus anime club, which had a limited library.  And when I say limited, that meant that they would have the first few tapes of a series *but not all of them*, so you had to figure out other ways to finish most series you borrowed.  And as always, your last recourse was purchasing the whole darned series, which ran into the hundreds of dollars for a single series from a publisher (Pioneer, Viz) who cheaped out by putting only two episodes per videotape.

Now?  Well, the two services will end up being a couple hundred per year anyway, and you don't get to own it after you're done.  But that means that if you've really tried, you will have watched more than a few series by the end of that year too.

Why is this important?  It's because I'm now watching series that I probably would not have given a second thought to starting in the old days.  And Rosario + Vampire is one of those series, for a couple of different reasons.

First, a rundown of the plot.  No spoiler space warnings here yet, but just wait...  Tsukune (or, as the English actors kept saying it, "Skoo-nee") is a human who is just getting out of middle school.  His poor grades ensure that no local high schools accept him, so he ends up finding a private school, "Yokai Academy" that will accept him.  Shortly into the first episode, he runs across the main female protagonist of the series, Moka, who happens to be a vampire.  He then finds out that the rest of the school is a collection of monsters that runs the gamut from traditional Western monsters like vampires, witches, naga, witches, female demons -- succubi, to Japanese monsters like kasa-obake, and even into Hindi mythology (example, the Apsara).

One of the first student rules is that no humans are allowed at this monster school.  However, Tsukune feels safe because the kind and sweet Moka has an alternate form that is activated whenever Tsukune takes her seal of power from her.  Moka's alternate form kicks some major butt, though also with a personality change from caring to blunt, slightly egotistical, and self-serving.  It turns out that the barrier that keeps humans out of Yokai Academy would be threatened if there were too many strong monsters there, and Moka's alternate though true form would cause the barrier to weaken. Both Moka types seem to care for Tsukune, but in the beginning of the series it's pretty clear that the blunt (inner) Moka is happy to have him around as a food source compared to the kind (outer) Moka, who likes him as a friend, her first human friend.

This is a harem anime with heavy doses of fanservice, and as such the first four or five episodes introduce all of the other female members of Tsukune's harem.  They include the succubus Kurumu, who like Moka is attracted to Tsukune because he's a human, and wants to breed with him to ensure her line.  To that end, she is forever flaunting her large breasts in and around Tsukune to entice him.  There's a witch, Yukari, who happens to be a genius and was skipped a couple of grades, so she is therefore a couple years younger than the rest of the high-school freshman friends. She gets to be Tsukune's flat-chested lolita (and the brunt of many Kurumu body-image jokes).  There's the "snow woman" Mizore, who has power over ice and cold and also doubles as a creepy stalker for those who want their girlfriends so interested in them that the girlfriend moons over them incessantly.  And by the way, Moka gets to have a transformation sequence every time she's called into battle.

Ultimately, I'm sure you're pretty much guessing what the show is and probably know a good 80% of the plot if you're familiar with the genre.  It's certainly understandable.  You may be surprised to hear me report though, that both my eleven-year-old daughter and my wife enjoyed watching the show, through both seasons one and two (a total of twenty-six).  I was kind of surprised as well, especially since my wife is not exactly a fan of the fanservice in general.  I'm generally not a fan either, because typically the fanservice means that writers are hobbled in trying to get their creations in body-baring situations.  For the same reasons, I'm usually not crazy about harem stories either.  So, what could make this series worth watching?

I would like to think that the characters do a good job of it, surprisingly enough.  When they're not engaging in fanservice, they seem at least slightly realistic, and while there's certainly more than a bit of cliche abounding, it's not... overwhelming, nor particularly painful.  The series does engage in breaking the fourth wall, and between that and keeping the tone mostly light, it's pretty funny.

There are times that the protagonists find themselves in danger, and the main character Tsukune does a decent job of not making himself insufferable.  The plottish parts of the story always seem to raise the overall level of the show.

I felt that they did a decent job balancing the characters in this show... there are some that introduce as harem shows that end up relegating other characters in the background, which always seems a weird choice.  (If you didn't want to write a character in or couldn't make it work, why did you attempt to adapt that manga then?)  They hand lines and conflict to all characters in fairly equal portions, so it feels at least more realistic to storytelling.

Of course, with this show there is a however.  The however is that the fanservice ramps up in season two.  I won't make a catalog of perversion, but suffice it to say that the animators drew big bouncing breasts plus a metric ton of panty shots in season one, and they drew big bouncing naked breasts with a metric ton and a half of panty shots in season two... and they included bringing Moka's transformation sequence into adult territory.  More profane language also crops up in season two, many instances rather unnecessarily.  If you're watching with younger ones already (why?) make sure that if you're going on from season one to season two they're prepared for these things, and if the fanservice or coarse language is why you watch, then you'll want to rewatch season two more frequently than season one.

I have another however though, and that will come with COPIOUS amounts of spoiler space.  (Now comes the spoiler space warning!)

Season one's ending was the possible death of Tsukune, which you knew full well wouldn't happen.  Season two's setup for the ending was that the sweet and kind Moka may not make another appearance again, as Moka needs to use her power seal in order to keep the barrier between monster and human worlds intact and can't use it to make sure that the "outer" Moka is around anymore.

So, the real inner, flawed, self-serving yet unused to people Moka comes out.  And it is clear, she's grown to like Tsukune as a person rather than as a meal.  I'm loving this turn of events for a couple reasons... one is that one of the characters has "grown", and is now even showing her real self rather than the mask that the writers have had her under for the better part of twenty episodes.  I loved it because I thought it was a challenge to Tsukune... and how often do the protagonists of a harem anime get a challenge?  It's not a challenge to fake-kill a protagonist who you know is going to recover, but would the writers be bold enough to change the equation?

I thought that this could bring this show into very interesting ground.  Within the harem-anime setup, you've got multiple female protagonists all revolving around a male antagonist, and there's always a pretty clear method to figuring out which one will "win", aka gain the affection of the male protagonist.  In this show, it was the number of mushy "moments" that Tsukune and Moka would repeat each other's name in the throes of LUUUUV.  To me, Tsukune started off in the series having feelings for Moka based on her personality and her actions... but the Moka he had feelings for really was a mask, only in effect because of a magical artifact that she willingly gave up.  The real Moka came forward, ironically enough through an action of self-sacrifice and love of others, and the real Moka really did have feelings for Tsukune.

So, how does Tsukune respond?  Not by taking Moka as her true self... not by learning to expand or grow his love, knowing that the Moka he has feelings for is inside the Moka that is now there.  Not even by rejecting her and going with one of the other three girls who do have unrequited feelings towards him.

Tsukune's response is to "try to get the old Moka back".  There's no room in his love for a person to change.  Nor is there any room in his love for a person to grow, or for his own love to change, or for him to even have to make an uncomfortable choice.  The ending does show that Tsukune's dedicated to "the one he loves"... he takes on Moka's father, who is set up as pretty much one of the strongest monsters ever, and ends up not getting killed.  Ultimately though, life has messy choices, and in Tsukune's case the one he loves is not really a true person, just a half-a-person, and he's uncomfortable around the other half of the person.  So... what is love?  (baby don't hurt me.)

At any rate, the ending for season two could have set up a fascinating hook for a season three.  The series uses the ten-minute resolution rather than the season-three five-hour resolution that could have made this into a fascinating show in its own right.  It would have allowed this series to grow just as much as it would have shown its characters growing, but that was not in the cards (nor storyboards).

As it is, and in utterly no surprise, the ending brings everything back to the status quo of about four episodes previous, with the added bonus that Tsukune tells us that he's "not grown up enough" to make his choice.  It's too bad that the girls all didn't say, "In that case, we'll find someone grown up enough to stop stringing us along and who's mature enough to handle a real relationship", but that would have ruined the harem just as much, I suppose.  So, the ending reinforces the same escapism that you probably came into the series with, at least.

(spoiler space over)

And the discussion about the ending colors my final review, because I do feel cheated if there's a fascinating avenue that the writer(s) could have taken their creation but didn't.  As you may or may not recall from all of my Twilight movie reviews, I had quite a few complaints about the movies in general... but I was not truly incensed and annoyed with the storyline until Stephenie Meyer took the amazing opportunity that she wrote herself in the end of Book Four (which was movie 4-2) and squandered it completely.  Same as above... the ending to Rosario + Vampire could have catapulted this series into *rewatchability*, to become more true to life than it was before, to explore things that the typical harem anime does not... to grow into something to contemplate and think about deeply, and to maybe even glean a message or three from....... and completely wrote them off.

There was one previous review where I wrote that the ending completely screwed up watching the show, which was Code Geass.  I can't get down on the ending to Rosario + Vampire as much as I can get down on Code Geass's ending though.  On the surface, this series' tagline is "Japanese Twilight as a harem anime with fanservice".  If that's what you're looking for, with the once-an-episode fight sequence and characters that aren't completely brainless, then this is your show.  And as long as you know that what you see is what you're going to get, that there's nothing underneath the surface, then you will probably enjoy watching this show.  I know that I would not have minded the ending as much had I been warned not to raise my expectations, at least.  It's funny, the characters fight, pine, enjoy each other's company, get mad, and generally have fun, and end up at the beginning.  And most viewers will say the same.

Final review for Rosario + Vampire: 2.6 (stripey pairs of panties)

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