Monday, 3 October 2011

バカとテストと召喚獣/ Baka to Test to Shoukanjuu / Idiots, Tests and Summoned Beasts / Baka and Test (seasons 1&2)

Baka to Test has carved itself out a strange little niche. I never would have expected it to be one of the most successful comedy series of the last decade, but it’s struck a chord with an Internet audience, spawned a huge fandom and numerous derivative works and is likely to continue beyond these two seasons (+OVA). And really, it’s a great example of a series not having a great premise, but surviving and thriving on the strength of its cast.

In Fumizuki Academy, academic prowess is directly linked to rewards. Class A, the high achievers, live with all the amenities the school can lavish upon them, from free laptops to a complimentary snack bar, while Class F make do with cardboard boxes. It is possible to improve your class’s facilities by taking part in battles using virtual avatars, essentially cutesy holograms representing each student, their strength proportional to their prowess in their exams. Thus, while higher classes will have better scores in general, one who is in a low class but excels in one particular area may be very strong in battle.

It’s not an elegant set-up, nor is it particularly important, but it provides a hook to early episodes. The extremely intelligent and sweet-natured Himeji falls ill in her first exam, and thus gets placed in Class F. There, she meets the simpleminded Akihisa, a good-hearted but idiotic boy whose ‘summon’ has been chosen by the faculty to be unique in that it has a physical presence – but will transmit any physical sensation to Aki himself. Along with Aki’s friend Yuuji, a one-time prodigy, the perverted voyeur nicknamed Muttsuriini, the oddly androgynous Hideyoshi and the classic tsundere Minami, they set out to defeat Class A.

The set-up is convoluted, even more so than can be expected from an anime based on light novels, but it soon becomes apparent it’s only an excuse for fun character interaction. Aki is an idiot, but attracts those around him, and a shy love triangle soon forms when both Himeji and Minami develop feelings for him. This is overlaid by joke homoeroticism, as Aki and Yuuji often find themselves in situations that make them look like lovers, and every male openly finds Hideyoshi incredibly attractive, being what seems to be a perfect ‘trap’. Muttsuriini, meanwhile, can’t get enough of taking secret shots of girls undressing – and of the boys when they end up cross-dressing, which is remarkably often. Other minor characters help spice things up, from the tomboyish tease Kudou to the over-dramatic Kubo, a serious male student who develops a crush on Aki - from Yuuji’s psychotic ‘fiancée’ Shouko to Shimizu, the slightly terrifying drill-haired girl who worships Minami.

All these exist to make the character interactions fun and compelling, and all can carry their own storylines. The first season attempts to put the battle system centre-stage, but episodes mostly consisted of ways to have Aki in a lot of pain, either because he got on the wrong side of teachers or because he made one of his many admirers jealous. The second season, Ni! (meaning ‘two’ and nothing to do with any knights), starts out with what seem like very typical OVA plotlines (a beach episode; bathhouse episodes), but then focuses on relationship drama and some clever strategies to abuse the school’s combat system.

This seems to be studio Silver Link’s first stab at a full series of their own, but it has definitely been a success. The director, Ounuma Shin, came to the project having worked at Shaft, and there is much of their aesthetic here, including some brilliant repeated style changes and pastiches. I loved the experiments of the credits sequences, and the full-episode pastiche based on Yuuji and Shouko’s backstory was a real highlight.

The series may well be remembered for all the porn of Hideyoshi it spawned and for the cutesy little avatars, but there really is something here for just about any anime fan, and some extremely clever writing too. Well worth watching – and I hope there’s more to come, too.

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