Sunday, May 15, 2011

Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts (anime TV series), via Hulu

It's been a while since I've written a synopsis this long, but the Summon system stuff is complicated enough that it felt necessary. The amount of space I devoted to explaining the system is a little misleading, though, since the show actually focuses primarily on its one-note characters and over-the-top humor.

Synopsis:

This series takes place in a special school where students are placed in classes A through F after their entrance exams. Students in A class scored the best on the entrance exam and get fabulous equipment and a lovely, spacious classroom. Students in F class scored the worst on the entrance exam and get a rundown classroom and must sit on the floor at rickety, breakable tables.

During the latest entrance exams, one of the girls, Mizuki, passed out due to illness and therefore automatically failed her entrance exam. Akihisa, who tried to argue on her behalf, failed the exam as well, probably due to idiocy. Both of them end up in F class, along with Minami, Yuuji, Hideyoshi, and Muttsulini. Minami spent most of her life in Germany and therefore has difficulty reading kanji, so her best subject is math. Yuuji is Akihisa's best friend and the class representative for F class. Hideyoshi is so pretty he's often mistaken for a girl - in fact, Akihisa collects racy photos of him. Muttsulini is a pervert who is always on the lookout for an opportunity to catch a glimpse of (and take pictures of) girls' panties (or whatever else - and also, Hideyoshi counts as a girl). He sucks at just about every subject, but his skills in Health and Physical Education are unmatched. F class also includes the FFF Inquisition, a group of F class students who severely punish any guys who get a lot of attention from girls.

The special thing about this school is its Summon system (I think that's what it was called). This system allows students to battle each other in various academic subjects. It is to a student's advantage to battle in a subject he or she is good at, so it's not uncommon for teachers in preferred subjects to be kidnapped or tricked into being in the right place for the battle, but the teachers don't seem to mind much. Battles are fought by students' avatars, adorable, chibified RPG character-like versions of themselves. A student's hit points and attack ability are determined by how well they did in their last test in the subject. Classes may declare war on each other every three months - if a lower-ranked class wins, they get the higher-ranked class's equipment, but if the lower-ranked class loses, they get worse equipment than before. F class ends up with cardboard boxes by the end of the first episode, I believe.

At any rate, F class causes a stir by declaring war on higher-level classes immediately after the entrance exams - Yuuji hopes to prove that academic ability isn't everything, while Akihisa feels it is unfair that Mizuki ended up in F class and wants to at least give her a chance to use better equipment. Although F class ultimately fails, they turn out to have several hidden strengths. The next few episodes focus on humor (particularly in relation to Yuuji's relationship with A class representative Shouko and Akihisa's love triangle with Mizuki and Minami), although the series eventually introduces some very slightly serious stuff (still with great big gobs of humor and over-the-top weirdness) involving the Summoning system, the lengths that some students will go to to advance academically, and F class's next attempt to beat A class.

Commentary:

Two episodes into this show, I almost gave up on it. Even though I pushed on, I could have quit at any time and I would hardly have felt a twinge. I can't really say why I kept watching, other than that I don't like starting something and not finishing it. It helped that this show was really short, only 13 episodes.

Why did this show strike such a mediocre note with me? Part of that was due to its jokes. By the end of the second episode, viewers were treated to lesbian jokes, jokes about a guy who looks pretty enough to be a girl, and jokes about a perverted student whose hobby involves collecting panty shots. I think that, by this point, the show has also made jokes about the one male A class student who misunderstood Akihisa's obsession with food for barely hidden romantic interest. Basically, in only two episodes the show heaped on the pervert, gender, and sexual orientation jokes. I don't necessarily mind a little of this in a series, but I didn't like the heavy-handed way it was executed in Baka and Test.

When the show wasn't basing its humor on all of that stuff, it was making jokes that involved the usual cliched anime situations - girls fighting over a guy, the cute girl who comes on scarily strong, the male character who has to figure out how to live off of nothing much after paying for a date, girls who strive to make the perfect lunch for the guy they like, and that cute girl whose cooking is phenomenally terrible. Baka and Test takes all of these things to the height of ridiculosity, but that doesn't really negate the fact that all of these things have been done to death in school comedies and harem anime. Some of these jokes come up multiple times in Baka and Test - how okay you are with this depends on how much you like the jokes the first time around.

I thought the show's humor worked best when it involved the girls torturing the guys in various ways. I had fun watching Shouko's "dates" with Yuuji and the suffering Akihisa went through because of Mizuki and Minami. Although it was all fairly one-note, I looked forward to seeing what kinds of horrors Yuuji and Akihisa would be put through next. Akihisa, for instance, starts the show on a diet of a single package of ramen per day. After spending nearly his entire food budget on dates with Mizuki and Minami, he eventually has to live on a single bite-sized square of ramen per meal - and it just gets worse. By the time Akihisa's sister arrives, Akihisa is living on nothing but bowls of salt water.

Usually, the humor worked for me at least a little, even when it annoyed me, although some jokes did get a little old. The "Hideyuki is his own gender" joke was better the first time. Some jokes fell completely flat for me, though. For instance, I loathed the "Akihisa's hot older sister wants an incestuous relationship with him" jokes. Eww. Just eww. And I think being around Muttsulini would probably make me feel dirty by association, although I thought that having his best subject be Health and Physical Education was a clever little detail.

The show wasn't 100% humor. Strangely, there were attempts to wring emotion out of Shouko and Yuuji's relationship as well as Akihisa's relationships with Minami and Mizuki - I found these attempts to be only slightly successful. I mean, are we supposed to forget Shouko's creepy abusiveness and say "aww" when the show emphasizes the "childhood friends/sweethearts" aspect of her relationship with Yuuji?

The premise of the show was essentially more stupid than awesome. I kept thinking, "Ok, so we are told that the Summon system is used to try to give students lots of incentive to study more, but all it really does it encourage students to work harder at kidnapping teachers who teach the subjects they are best at." Yuuji tries to claim that his declaration of war on the higher level classes is an attempt to prove that academics aren't everything, but it's clear that strategy isn't everything either - in order to stand a chance at beating A class, the F class students really do have to study to get their hit/attack points up. I had assumed that the headmistress just enjoyed seeing Akihisa suffer, but, as it turns out, the show was actually trying to teach a lesson - Akihisa was supposed to be an example of the greatness that even an idiot can achieve when striving for the sake of someone else, and not just for one's self. Pff, whatever. Although the show makes an occasional stab at seriousness, it's at its best, however mediocre that "best" happens to be, when it focuses on stupid, high-energy, over-the-top humor.

That said, one of the more interesting aspects of the show, for me, was Yuuji's Summoner war strategies. Some of his strategies were completely unexpected, mostly because it's hard to predict anything when anything goes. For instance, F class's initial plans are foiled, and it looks like they'll be crushed...at which point a math teacher is tricked into joining the fray by an announcement over the school's intercom that an F class student would like to meet with her, not as a student and a teacher, but as a man and a woman. It worked, and, yeah, I totally didn't expect that development. I also didn't manage to predict Yuuji's planned use for the favors he collected from the B and E classes.

Overall, this was one of those shows that made me feel like I was actually getting dumber just by watching. I continued watching because the humor did, at times, hit the correct note with me, but the show's humor and attempts at seriousness and emotional impact have all been done, and done better, in other shows. The Summon system premise was vaguely interesting, but there were so many holes that I found myself questioning it more often than I was probably supposed to. If you haven't watched a lot of comedic school anime, if you can turn off your brain, and if you are not annoyed or offended by large amounts of humor based on gender and sexual orientation, you might like this show. I didn't think the show was a complete waste, but if FUNimation had yanked it from Hulu before I could watch it all, I wouldn't have been particularly upset. I'm certainly not planning on buying this series.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Special A (manga) by Maki Minami; Special A (anime TV series) - While Baka and Test is aimed more at a male audience (or so I assume, based on the kind of fanservice it contained), this series is aimed more at a female audience. It, too, relies on cliched humor and situations. It also contains much more romance than Baka and Test, romance which could at times have been better developed, although I still prefer Special A's execution of it all. In this series, an elite high school's 7 most academically gifted students are part of a group known as Special A, which has privileges other students don't. The number 2 member of Special A has been obsessed with beating the top member of Special A since the day they first met, when they were children. What she doesn't know is that the guy she views as her rival is actually in love with her.
  • Ouran High School Host Club (manga) by Bisco Hatori; Ouran High School Host Club (anime TV series) - Another romantic comedy school anime which, unlike Baka and Test, is aimed more at a female audience than a male audience. This one has a little more off-color humor than Special A (a couple twin characters with an implied incestuous relationship, cross dressing, etc.), but I think it's still more lightly done than in Baka and Test. Like Baka and Test, however, although romance is a part of this series, the main focus (especially in the anime) is the humor. In this series, Haruhi is a scholarship student at an elite high school. After she breaks an expensive vase, she must pretend to be a guy and be part of the Ouran High School Host Club in order to earn the money to pay the club back for the vase.
  • Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei (manga) by Koji Kumeta; Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei (anime TV series) - Like Baka and Test, this series derives humor from the usual school cliches and from Japanese society. Also, the characters are basically one-note jokes. That said, this is a darkly hilarious series. It stars a teacher who is so depressed that he wants to kill himself. When his latest suicide attempt is prevented by the most cheerful and optimistic girl in the world, he ends up having to teach a class full of weirdos. His overwhelming despair finds its way into class assignments and activities. 
  • School Rumble (manga) by Jin Kobayashi; School Rumble (anime TV series) - I've only read some of the manga, and that was a while ago. I don't think this series was as off-the-wall weird as Baka and Test, but if you'd like another comedic school series that stars idiots and features fairly surface-level romance, you might like this. Tenma, one of the main characters of this series, is secretly in love with a guy who, she learns, is about to transfer to a school in America. She wants to try to somehow confess her feelings to him so, rather than telling him directly, she comes up with all kinds of schemes to get close to him and let him know how she feels. Tenma has no idea that the school delinquent, Harima Kenji, has a crush on her and is also afraid to directly confess his feelings.

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