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Idiots and Tests and Funny Anime

Sometimes I like my comedy subtle, and sometimes I like it stupid, broad, and equipped with a big stick.

Idiots, Tests, and Summoned Monsters (or, as Funimation is apparently titling it, Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts, though they’ve already changed the title once on Hulu) is in the latter category.  The setup looks exactly like a generic “school battle” series, or a parody of one, depending on how much you assume that that genre is already a parody of itself. There’s a crazy school in an unspecified future that includes a violent form of motivation in its curriculum: The students are divided in classes from A to F based on their test scores, with correspondingly posh or miserable class conditions. Each student can also, when given permission by a teacher, summon a digital avatar with a power level based on their own academic test scores to do battle with another student’s avatar. If the representatives from one class challenge, and beat, those from another, the classes swap classrooms.

That’s the setup, and the first couple of episodes look like you’d expect:  Challenge a higher ranking class to move up in the world.  Except they fail, and that’s pretty much it for duels—at least through the next eight episodes the entirety of it is standard school hijinks/silly school romance stuff. Right there it gets points for dodging expectations, even if it dodges straight into another cliche.

There’s nothing creative or unusual about the characters, setting (there is zero explanation or backstory), or gags, so what it really comes down to is whether it’s mean enough to be funny. The comedy is of the “kick the guy when he’s down” sort, so honestly, the meaner it is, the funnier it is—when you’re doing slapstick, the stick had better be a nailbat.

And, overall, it’s kept me laughing pretty hard. The series pretty much had me when the main character spent almost the entirety of an episode with a table glued to his hand on account of a superglue mishap. Good ongoing gags are said protagonist’s lack of money for food (Zeno’s Ramen, divided in half every day down to 1/67 of a block… because he sucks at math), the studly class leader’s creepy, stalker-y “girlfriend” (multiple times per episode he’s writhing on the ground screaming “My eyes!” when he makes the mistake of looking at another girl, and if there’s anything that’s going to get a laugh out of me, it’s someone screaming “My eyes!” at random—see Hot Shots), and the requisite feminine-looking male classmate who, despite his repeated protests and all evidence to the contrary, the main character is 100% convinced is a girl who likes dressing like a boy (an ongoing joke that’s nice and offhanded). Oh, and lots of good yaoi jokes, too—it isn’t particularly dirty overall, but it does push the comfort boundary just enough to stay out of kids’ territory.

On the note of offhanded jokes, the other strength, aside from its loathing of its own main characters, is a very good sense of comic timing in most parts. Not Jubei-chan awesome, but it knows when to take a nice long pause for a gag, and when to throw in something offhanded without stopping for the rimshot.  Also pretty good about setting up and following through on comic build up—for example, the requisite “avatars gone crazy” episode in which every new screwed-up avatar is worse than the last.

Oh, and on that Avatars Gone Wild episode, nice in-joke references. The phrase “Instrumentality Project” was in the title, and it doesn’t disappoint, loading up on the EVA references, but there were nods to 7 other anime and video games that I recognized specifically, including an awesome little Code Geass throwaway.

I also like that the main character isn’t particularly annoying—he’s neither a goody-two-shoes nor a complete loser. Not even incompetent—just not too bright when it comes to academics. Oh, and its consistent about that—with one clearly-rationalized exception, Class F is full of idiots. Not bad people (well, not ALL of them—there is the creepy cult), just none-too-bright underachievers.

Art style is also… weird.  It’s very much like a cross between Maria+Holic and Best Student Council, in that the backgrounds are a little on the abstract/weird side (not full-on Zetsubou Sensei abstract, but in that general direction), and there’s the combination of bright colors and random patterns and embellishments like Best Student Council. It works for me—not so abstract that it breaks up the continuity of the show (which is just the right side of the “coherent world” versus “resets repeatedly for comic effect” solidity line), but also out-there enough to be memorable and take some of the pressure off the otherwise totally generic setting and setup. Character designs are cute, also.

Weaknesses:  Lacks a little bit of solidity, most of the jokes are pretty obvious, totally generic characters, and it keeps waxing weirdly sentimental at the end of episodes.  That last one is particularly odd; it’s going along with a total parody, then will suddenly pull out something mildly touching/dramatic at the end, with none of the setup that either explains it or makes you care. Seemed wholly unnecessary, and kind of deflates the build to a comic crescendo that most episodes try for.

Funimation deserves a vigorous congrats on their handling of the license on this—it got licensed before it had even finished running in Japan, and Funimation had episodes up on Hulu immediately. I had watched the first two episodes fansubbed when it was licensed, and I had to wait all of a week before episode 3 was up and available streaming. The subtitles are also nice and accurate, although for some bizarre reason they subtitle a nonsense “A-ia-ia” vocalization in the intro song as “Ah! Ear, ear!” No idea what the translators were thinking on that one. They’re pretty good about onscreen text (which is used a lot in both the humor and pop-up test fragments), although sadly they’re not translating the large blocks of text (test questions) that appear at the eyecatch and end of episodes.

Only problem: The video quality on Hulu (and Funimation.com) is terrible. Not low rez, but there’s some bizarre horizontal waving business that appears to be a severe artifact of deinterlacing gone wrong (that’s the only cause I can think of, anyway). Whatever the cause, it looks embarrassingly  awful and amateurish—I wouldn’t put a video of my cat on YouTube that looked like that.  Funimation is already selling episodes for download for $1.99 each, which I haven’t bought to check, but if they look anything like that I’d be seriously cheesed off having paid for it. Not like their record isn’t fine with other shows, either.

Anyway, I’m down to the last few episodes and it’s remained consistently vicious enough to keep the laughs coming steady, and you don’t care enough about the characters for it to matter if it blows the end, so it’s a comfortable if not ecstatic recommendation. The whole series is streaming free on both Hulu and Funimation.com for a while, so if you’re in the mood for some simple, entertaining, mean-spirited schoolyard comedy with unusual art, have a look.

Spice and Wolf Season 2 Thoughts

Normally, when something has been licensed but fansubs are available, I’ll just wait for the proper release—I make a point of buying the video of anything I watched in fansub if and when it becomes available anyway, so what’s the hurry.

Spice and Wolf season 2 made me break that rule—the moment I’d finished season 1 I ran out to find a download. Which I don’t really feel bad about, because I’m sure as heck buying it as soon as Funimation lets me, preferably on blu-ray.

As of the first four episodes, very engaging. More merchanting, more fun, realistic customs, more smart, flirty romance, more lovable Lawrence and Holo.  In episode four it also shakes things up—it finally gets to the first time in the series something emotionally pops loose.

This is a touchy point, though; for a series that’s run on realistic, guarded, low-key interactions, pulling out some more honest and strong emotion runs the risk of screwing the whole thing up. In particular, the blowup is dangerously close to out of character, though I think it had established just barely enough to make it believable (part of the blame for the close call may be on lack of trying—it hadn’t spent quite as much effort setting up the tinder as it could have, and the novels maybe did). I’m reserving judgement until the end of the story arc, either way. And either way, it’s certainly successful at being potent—you’ve gotten into the characters enough that when something big happens, you feel it.

Which brings me to the second rule Spice and Wolf may make me break. I have a weekly anime-viewing get-together where I get my fix, and in part due to some masochistic friends we only watch and episode or two of each series each week (Spice and Wolf is solidly in the two-per-week category, proof that it’s not just me that loves it). We occasionally end up on self-induced cliffhangers, but I have to date never broken and watched the next episode before the next get-together.

This one, I’m having trouble holding back on, and it’s only been a day. I seriously doubt I’m going to make it the other six without at least finding out what comes of the big shakedown.

I forgot to mention in talking about season 1 that another great thing about the series is the playful music; the backgrounds consist of light, chamber-music style European fare that perfectly fits the setting and playful mood. In particular is a little penny whistle tune that accompanies some of Holo’s more endearing emotional victories. The opening of season 1 is a lovely, melancholy balad, and the closing a wonderful little nonsense song in English that fits perfectly (though I do wonder, given how good the lyrics are, why they didn’t get a singer who could manage a better accent—the quality of her voice fits fine, but the Japanese accent was a needless distraction from the quality wordplay).

Season 2 has new openings and endings, both of which remain good. The ending isn’t quite as smile-inducing, but is still quite good, and the opening is almost as lyrical and beautiful as the first season’s.

On an entirely unrelated note, the voice cast is another area that caught me off guard with this series. Lawrence and Holo are both voiced (in Japanese) by Code Geass cast members—Lelouch and Karen, specifically. Which is sort of mind-breaking, given how much different the characters (particularly Lawrence) are. I didn’t even realize Lawrence was Lelouch until halfway through the first season, when I finally caught a familiar tone, and I doubt I ever would have pegged Holo if I hadn’t looked it up. Both also very good, too, in this different set of roles.

Holo in particular has an odd speech pattern—informal but very old-fashoined—that comes off remarkably well, without seeming gimmicky. Partly good writing, I think, though I’m not the best judge of Japanese-language writing quality, and partly good acting, to make it seem natural and comfortable. I’m a little disappointed the subtitles (neither Funimation’s translation nor fansubs) don’t try to capture this—it  would have been perfectly accurate, if a little hard to read, if she’d been using Elizabethan English, with lots of “thou”s and such (in fact, she specifically uses “nushi,” the almost-never-heard non-honorriffic of “onushi,” an old word for “you” that translates quite well into “thou”).

Not having finished a story arc yet, the one other thing that remains to be seen is whether they’ll correct my only complaint about the first season—that they twice set up food-related things Lawrence had promised Holo if things went well, then ended the arc without showing one way or the other. Presumably he did treat her, but it was up in the air enough (not to mention just fun to see) that it was disappointing, and odd, not to be more specific. Not like there’s a lack of time—the series is quite leisurely.

Here’s hoping against hope that my all-too-often-true rule of good anime — “they’ll probably screw it up at the end” — won’t apply to season 2. I’m also inclined to hope that my rule of “Given enough rope” also won’t apply and they both make a 3rd season and it doesn’t suck, but that’s just getting greedy.