Until she was six years old, Hikari was the best at everything she did. Then she met Kei, who effortlessly beat her in a wrestling match. From that moment on, Hikari became determined to beat Kei at something. However, Kei is so unbelievably good at everything that Hikari may be doomed to be Ms. Second Place forever. That doesn't matter - Hikari is sure that all she needs in order to eventually succeed is hard work and determination.
In the present day, Hikari and Kei are in Special A (S.A.), a special group composed of the top 7 students in their high school. From what I could tell, students in Special A don't even need to attend class, as long as they do well enough on tests and assignments to maintain their school standing. Kei and Hikari are the number 1 and 2 students, respectively. Other students in S.A. include:
- Tadashi - a goofball who likes exploring dangerous places
- Akira - likes serving fancy teas and snacks, enjoys beating up on Tadashi, and would like to monopolize Hikari
- Jun - very young-looking, but otherwise not very interesting until you learn that he's got something of a split personality
- Megumi - the older twin sister of Jun. Her singing voice could be classified as a weapon of mass destruction, it is that powerful. In order to protect her voice, she does not speak, but rather communicates via writing on a sketch pad.
- Ryuu - acts as Megumi and Jun's surrogate parent when their parents are gone, and loves and is loved by a variety of exotic animals
However, will her feelings about the status of their rivalry and relationship even matter in the end? Hikari may think hard work and effort can accomplish anything, but the fact remains that Kei is from a wealthy family and practically runs his family's empire on his own. The other members of S.A. are used to money and status playing a part in who they are supposed to talk to or even marry, but how will Hikari react when these outside forces start to separate the members of Special A?
I first watched a fansub of this show a few years ago. When it first came out on DVD in the U.S., I wanted it, but didn't get it, because the price was way too high and my bank account was still suffering from my long period of joblessness. I got this complete series boxed set on sale, at a price I still think was a bit high for a series that includes no dub and hardly any extras. If this had been put out by FUNimation, I probably would have waited even longer, until an even cheaper edition was released. However, I'm not sure Sentai Filmworks does that kind of thing.
This series isn't really all that original, and it's not good enough for me to rank it as one of my top favorite anime. Considering the price, there are several other anime I'd recommend to shoujo fans before I'd recommend this one. That said, this series is a bit like an eager puppy - it's got the same overall warm, happy, and positive feel to it that attracted me to anime like Fruits Basket and Ouran High School Host Club. It's fun, sweet, and full of energy, and, even though the humor, romance, and drama all felt like something I'd seen in several other anime, I didn't mind because it somehow managed not to feel tired and overdone.
Like I said, the last time I saw this series was several years ago, in fansubbed form. When I first started watching my newly-purchased DVDs, I thought maybe my overall positive memories of the series were faulty. Kei and Hikari's competition in the very first episode, in which they jump over progressively higher stacks of boxes during gym class (the only class at their school that they are ever shown attending), reaches ludicrous levels and is painfully silly. The series has a fairly large cast of characters (the members of the S.A.) who each seem defined primarily by one or two outlandish traits. What was it that had me liking this series enough to remember it and want to buy it years later?
One part of the answer to that question is Kei's semi-secret feelings for Hikari. I have a soft spot for romantic stories featuring guys who seem to be in control of their lives, possibly to the point of seeming cold and over-controlled, but who are in fact completely mushy over the heroine (who is often the one thing in the hero's life that doesn't just fall into his lap, figuratively speaking). It's one of the things that grabbed me in J.D. Robb's In Death series, and it's why I own several of Jayne Ann Krentz's books.
Another part of the answer is how likable the characters are. Although Hikari is usually the catalyst for various events in the series, such as a competition in which she, Kei, and the other S.A. members race each other to determine who is the fastest (it shouldn't come as a surprise that, even with a significant handicap, Kei is still first and Hikari is still second), the fun and energy of the series comes not just from watching Hikari compete with Kei while completely oblivious to Kei's feelings for her, but also from watching all the members of S.A. interact with one another.
All those likable other characters come in handy, because an entire 24-episode series featuring nothing but Hikari competing with Kei and not noticing, or explaining away, all signs of the romance developing between the two of them might have been a bit much. Instead, the series occasionally focuses on other members of the S.A. Ryuu's hidden brilliance, the tough time Megumi and Jun have had around other children their age, the problems Akira and others have had with people befriending them only because of their money and social status - I don't think any of that would have been nearly as interesting if I hadn't liked all the characters so much.
While I did find myself wishing more time had been spent on Kei and Hikari in the second half of the series, I did enjoy a lot of the romantic storylines that popped up. I would have preferred it, though, if some of the time given to Akira, Tadashi, or Jun's romantic storylines had instead been given to Megumi's romantic storyline - Megumi's romance started off on shaky ground, but it developed into something surprisingly sweet that I would have liked to see more of.
As far as romance goes, this series has something for just about everyone. There's romance between a heroine who is a likable and genuinely nice person and a hero who is essentially emotionally saved by the heroine. There's a surprise romance between two people who never expected to even like each other. There's romance between childhood friends, and romance that appears, at first, to be unrequited. True, there are times when the romantic development is skimpy. The girl who falls for Jun, for instance, doesn't know him well enough to love him for more than his looks, and yet viewers are expected to believe she is so madly in love with him that his apparent rejection of her is a crushing emotional blow. Still, all this stuff somehow manages to work as long as you don't think about it too much.
Lest you think this series is all about the romance, I should also emphasize that there's also plenty of humor. Following a pattern similar to that of shows like Ouran High School Host Club, the series starts off focusing mainly on humor, with touches of romance, then delves more deeply into romantic storylines, and approaches its end with more dramatic developments that threaten to tear everyone apart. There are some fantastic humorous episodes and moments that I had completely forgotten about, like Hikari's Rice Ball of Doom and the short period of time in which Hikari is deliriously sick. There are also some things that I consider to be misses - I wasn't as big of a fan of Special A's humor when it went into the "make Hikari look goofy" direction. I'm sure that the episodes where Hikari spent time dressed as a dog or an incredibly ugly rabbit where meant to be funny, but I just found those parts painful to watch.
I didn't like watching Hikari be unwittingly humiliated by being asked to dress in ugly animal costumes, because I liked her and thought she was actually kind of awesome, aside from the idiocy it would have taken not to notice how Kei felt. For the most part, Hikari doesn't need Kei to save her. The bad thing is, Kei often doesn't seem to realize that and tries to protect her, even in situations where she can more than handle herself.
In fact, the only male character in the entire series who doesn't overprotect the female characters is Tadashi, who has no doubt that Hikari can defeat anyone who challenges her to a fight and that Akira can handle the truth about her friendships with those outside her social circle. I think most of the male characters start to trust the female characters to take care of themselves by the end of the series, but I do wonder what things would be like for some of them a few years down the line. I can't help but imagine that Hikari would find life as Kei's wife horribly constraining, unless he and others in his family just relaxed and let her be herself, even if she committed faux pas in the process.
This series has some weak points and isn't all that original, but it's still fun and enjoyable. I'd certainly recommend it to fans of good-natured, mostly light-hearted romantic comedies like Ouran High School Host Club and Fruits Basket. It's too bad some people might pass this one by because of its lack of an English dub track and relatively high price tag.
The only extras are clean opening and closing animations (2 openings, 2 closings) and trailers for other shows. Sad, I know, especially since the retail price is $59.98 (the series is available at Right Stuf for $44.99 - still high, but slightly more bearable). This is the kind of thing that prompts people to succumb to the temptation to get free or cheap bootlegs instead. On the plus side, I can at least say that the subtitling is pretty good.
Oh, one thing I should note about the packaging: all four discs are one a single spindle (or whatever it's called). I hate this style of packaging, because there is no way to get at discs 2-4 without having to remove the discs that come before them, and I always worry that I'll manage to somehow break the plastic spindle off. I was not expecting this kind of packaging when I ordered this. Although I don't like this packaging, knowing about it wouldn't have affected my purchasing decision - others might feel differently.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Ouran High School Host Club (manga) by Bisco Hatori; Ouran High School Host Club (anime TV series) - In this series, a scholarship student at an elite high school ends up having to pretend to be a guy in order to pay for a vase she broke. She earns money as a member of the Ouran High School Host Club, a group of handsome, rich guys who cater to the (entirely innocent) fantasies of the rich Ouran High School girls. This series has a similar overall structure (humor, hints of romance, a bit more romance, drama), a similar bright, clean look, a similar bevy of attractive, likable characters, and also deals with the troubles of the uber-rich. A word of warning, though - the hint of romance isn't resolved in the anime, leading to a somewhat unsatisfying ending in terms of the romantic storyline. I don't know if the manga is the same in this regard - I've only read a couple volumes.
- Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya; Fruits Basket (anime TV series) - After her mother's death, circumstances lead to Tohru living with several members of the overall attractive and mysterious Sohma family. Several members of the Sohma family are cursed to turn into an animal from the Chinese zodiac whenever they become weak or are hugged by a member of the opposite sex. The anime is bright, fun, and has humorous and romantic elements that occasionally delve into darker and more dramatic territory. It's one of my favorites and what I watch when I need a pick-me-up, but its lack of resolution might put some people off. The manga is also good, but it drags a bit at times and is very long.
- Skip Beat! (manga) by Yoshiki Nakamura; Skip Beat! (anime TV series) - The main character of this series is a girl who has spent her whole life trying to please others. She leaves her hometown with her boyfriend, to help him follow his dream of becoming a big-time star, only to be crushed when he dumps her after he no longer needs her. She decides to get revenge by becoming even more famous than him. I've only read the first volume of the manga, but I saw all of the anime on Crunchyroll. Like Special A, this series has a kick-butt heroine (who is unfortunately a bit too focused on her jerk of an ex-boyfriend) and great energy, humor, and romance.
- Wildest Hearts (book) by Jayne Ann Krentz - I've haven't read this particular book, although I have read several by Krentz. I don't actually mind her newer books, probably because I haven't read many of her older ones, but long-time Krentz readers seem to prefer her older books, so I thought I'd list this one, which appears to have been well-liked over at All About Romance and was published in 1993. If you liked the Kei/Hikari pairing and would like an actual novel instead of anime or manga, you might try this or something else by Krentz (who also writes under various pseudonyms, depending on the kind of story: Amanda Quick for historical romance, Jayne Castle for futuristic/paranormal romance). Her books tend to feature tightly controlled, seemingly cold heroes (similar to Kei) and chipper, energetic, optimistic heroines (similar to Hikari).