Negima!? Spring & Summer Special OVA
When did anime get so complicated? You'd think that just putting a series out there would be enough, but all of a sudden, I'm seeing franchise expansion and diversification on scales that would make Hollywood blanch. It's nothing new of course, but I thought it was a phenomenon confined to Tenchi Muyo and it's endless iterations. Not even anime is spared from the terror of remakes, reboots, sequels, spin-offs, feature films, side-stories, mini-stories, parodies and the like (Stay tuned for the reimagined and retold Full Metal Alchemist, starting in April). Negima is a case in point, one that we are about to experience in the UK. Negima is the Ken Akamatsu manga that came to the UK in anime form in 2007 courtesy of Revelation Films. But there is more than one Negima to be aware of. There are two distinct series, OVAs, and a live action series, and keeping them and where they tie into the continuity straight, causes me headaches. We're about to catch up to Funimation in the US, so we don't have to worry about the second OVA series just yet, or the live action show.
Negima is a sort of perverted Harry Potter. If you've seen Ken Akamatsu's Love Hina, then you should be aware of the harem genre, the single, wimpy male, surrounded by a bevy of beautiful girls. It's a concept somewhat neutered in Negima, as the protagonist Negi Springfield is a ten-year-old, and the girls are fourteen, so it's relatively safe, if you can call inappropriate teenage crushes, compromising situations, panty shots and mild nudity safe. It's Carry On level humour basically. Negi is a newly qualified wizard, who as part of his training has to teach English to a class full of teenage girls in Japan, while keeping his magical nature secret. That doesn't last long when his sneezes can blow the underwear off a girl at twenty paces. He's also looking for his father, The Thousand Master, and gets into various magical escapades with the students in his class.
The first attempt at the anime came in 2005 from a company called XEBEC. They made a 26 episode series called Mahou Sensei Negima (Negima! in the West) that began by following the manga, but when it became clear that they wouldn't catch up to Akamatsu's ongoing epic, they fashioned their own ending. It's a guilty pleasure of mine, full of saucy comedy and pleasant silliness, while the animation is fairly pedestrian. Not everyone was happy with this series, so in 2006/7 a company called SHAFT had a crack at it with their series called Negima!? (Note the extra question mark). They're the company that made Moonphase, and they applied the same impressionist style to the animation here. I've sneaked a peek at this show courtesy of Funimation's website and it's basically a reimagining, starting from scratch, divorcing the story almost completely from the manga, adding a more supernatural element, and toning down the panty shots and boobies, although still keeping it saucy. Manga Entertainment have the rights to distribute this second series, and it will be released later in the year.
Now here's where things get complex. SHAFT have also made the OVAs, most recently the Mahou Sensei Negima! ~Shiroki Tsubasa Ala Alba~ three episode series, which has yet to be licensed in the West, as well as these two Spring and Summer specials which I write about now. The OVAs have nothing to do with the second series that SHAFT made. Instead they return to the manga storyline, and in that respect can be said to be more closely associated with the first XEBEC series. In fact, the Spring and Summer Specials, which were made prior to the second series in 2006, can be said to have elements of both shows in them. It has the fan service sauciness and closer adherence to the manga of Negima!, while the animation style and a recurring Chupacabra gag come straight from Negima!?
The $64000 question is… Is it really worth burning out brain cells on this scale for these two 25 minute episodes?
As has happened recently with Manga Entertainment's Funimation acquisitions, instead of receiving the UK Region 2 check disc, I have instead been sent the Region 1 retail release from Funimation. Expect italics for sections that don't apply to the UK disc.
It's vacation time, and Class 2-C hitch a ride when class-rep Ayaka wants to take Negi to her family's exclusive holiday resort. Prepare for fun on the beach, with teenaged girls in swimsuits and bikinis. Negi can't appreciate this though, as he's had an argument with Asuna, and she's giving him the silent treatment. The girls need to repair their friendship before Negi's depression brings them all down.
Nodoka has read of a legend, that an invisible red string that's tied to their pinky fingers links true loves forever. She's also discovered a magic spell that will make this string momentarily visible, and she's hoping that her crush on Negi will be realised. Only it's the wrong spell. It's actually a prank spell that ties two people together, and leaves them stuck that way. Now she and Negi are attached, and everyone's going to the preview of Ayaka's family's new resort spa, with teenaged girls in swimsuits, towels or just plain naked.
Manga Entertainment have sourced the Australian Madman masters for this disc, but looking at the specs, it looks to be identical to the US release for content. Expect an NTSC-PAL conversion for the UK release, as the Funimation disc is NTSC quite naturally. The image is clear and colourful, although I did notice some rainbowing at times, and detail levels could have been sharper. I also found a glitch in the Region 1 disc at around 34:58 into the main programme, where the sound dropped out for a second, and the anamorphic flag briefly switched to a zoomed letterbox flag on my player, distorting the image for a couple of frames. I doubt this will be on the UK disc.
The immediate difference is the aspect ratio. The first Negima! series from XEBEC was 4:3, but the OVAs and the second series from SHAFT are in 1.78:1 anamorphic. If you've seen Moonphase, you'll be familiar with the animation style, which is imaginative and varied. Expect plenty of odd angles, curious camera placements, and plenty of sight gags going on in the background. Split screen is used with impunity, and the plethora of styles can make it a chore to watch at times. The animation is OVA quality, vibrant, expressive and fluid, and you can see the effects of a higher budget. I wasn't too keen on the excessive use of eyecatches though. Most shows have one in the middle, signifying an oncoming ad break, Negima's OVAs have an eyecatch every minute or so, sometimes two or three in a row, and they really do break the story up and slow the pace down.
Although the production shifted companies, the same Japanese cast was maintained, and Funimation in turn has used the same English language actors as well. You have a choice of DD 2.0 English and Japanese, with optional translated subtitles or a signs only track. As always my first choice is for the original language, and I found nothing to complain about. The dialogue is clear, the subtitles legible, and the music suits the show well. Just like Love Hina, the script has gone through a significant alteration for the English dub. The saucy and ribald humour has been toned down, the character interactions altered slightly, and minor plot points and jokes changed completely. The English and Japanese versions offer completely different experiences, although I prefer my humour on the raw side. Unlike Love Hina however, this dub is actually a good one, with the character voices working well for the most part. That's with the exception of Negi and his family. He's Welsh, so he gets a generic Dick Van Dyke English accent. Aimed at the American audience it doesn't matter of course, but to UK ears it's Daphne's brother all over again.
The Region 1 disc comes in an Amaray case with a reversible sleeve. Manga are keeping the same artwork, but going for generic packaging, so I wouldn't expect a reversible sleeve in the UK.
The same extras appear on both the US and Australian discs, so I'd expect them to appear in the UK version as well. You'll have the textless openings and closings for both the episodes, which for Spring is well worth watching as it's a memorable sequence.
The Schoolgirl Commentary alongside Summer features ADR Director Jamie Marchi (also voice of Haruna), alongside Greg Ayres (Negi). It's a lightweight track, a fair bit of gossip, plenty of shouts out to other actors and actresses, but there are some points of interest worth noting when it comes to the show, the animation and some of the sight gags. Greg Ayres drops into his Negi voice a little too much for my liking, but there's little else to fault here.
Trailers on the Region 1 disc that you probably won't see in the UK include the unskippable autoplaying Shuffle, and the menu accessible trailers for School Rumble, Ouran High School Host Club, Suzuka, Peach Girl, Save Me! Lollipop, Rumbling Hearts, Sasami and Negima!?
It's not worth losing sleep over where these two OVA episodes fit into the continuity, how they relate to the manga, and just which series they are part of, it really isn't. They're supposed to be saucy, seaside humour, fun with an emphasis on seeing animated teenage girls in various degrees of disrobement, and the unexpected sight of a ten year old wizard getting into situations he's ill prepared to handle. It's disposable, light nonsense, and you can expend your time and energy on more fruitful pursuits instead. These OVA episodes aren't very good, certainly not as entertaining as the XEBEC series, and not even as charming as the second.
As I mentioned before, they sit somewhere in between the two, filled with fan service like the first, but using the art style and sight gags of the second. They also wind up being the worst of both worlds. As OVA episodes, they don't have to comply with strict broadcast standards, and as such they are even more faithful to the manga. That means that nudity is more common, odd camera poses, a fascination with panties, and plenty of boobs. At one point in the first episode, Negi gets trapped in between four pairs of breasts, the filling in a veritable boob sandwich, and fans of the manga will no doubt be pleased to see the lechery quotient increased. However, being OVAs they only have their short run time to tell a story, and they really just adapt manga interlude episodes instead of major plot lines. There's not a lot of development and heart to them, just working around a single gag or plot point. Spring has Negi and Asuna's argument to resolve, while Summer plays with the oft-quoted red string of destiny trope. It's just an excuse to get the girls in skimpy clothing, or naked. There's no heart or centre to the episodes, they just are. They're a sort of fan service gift to the fans and nothing more.
The art style comes from the second series, and in my opinion falls flat in these two OVAs. The surrealist style has been used to great effect in Moonphase, and you'll also see it effectively applied in the forthcoming Negima!? series from Manga later this year. The reason it works well is that both those shows have supernatural overtones, little spooky moments, and mysteries that are enhanced by odd camera angles, silhouettes and shadows, odd contrast and split screen devices. These two episodes aren't spooky, they are out and out comedy shows, gag fests, and the surrealist style only gets in the way of the gags. Speaking of which, a couple of the gags and plot points come from the second series as well, with the Chupacabra joke falling flat here, while there are cameos from a couple of characters who will later appear in the series. The second series also plays heavily with the Sapphic subtext between Konoka and Setsuna, something that was completely underplayed in the first season. But here in the OVAs, it's hardly subtext at all. A running gag in the first episode is Setsuna being fixated with Konoka's backside when she puts on a skimpy swimsuit, with increasing levels of blush each time we see them. In the second episode there is a bath sponge gag that is a little funnier, but again, the humour doesn't quite click.
Of the two, Summer is the better episode, as the story is stronger, and it feels to be more than just a 23-minute collection of character cameos. The attempt to get a class of 31 girls on screen is admirable, but misguided when it means that you don't have a story. Spring has an amazing opening sequence, so good that it was revisited in a different form in the middle of the second series. However, aside from Asuna and Negi's communication problems, it's really just a collection of gags. Summer on the other hand has more of a focus on Nodoka and Negi. Shy Nodoka is one of the sweeter characters in the show, and having the two of them together is guaranteed to appeal to fans. There's also a wonderful shadow puppet moment in this episode that is breathtakingly enchanting, and if you are a fan of Negima, I'd say it makes up for the rest of the episodes by itself.
It's racy, saucy, and full of seaside humour, just what would appeal to a fan of the first series, but the problem here is that the characters are not the same as the ones in the first series, they are the re-invented versions that will appear in the second, most obvious with Setsuna and Konoka, and if you are buying this off the back of the Revelation release of series 1, it may just stop you in your tracks for a minute. I think Manga would have been better served by releasing the second series first, and leaving this for later, simply because it just isn't that good. It's watchable though, and it does make me smile. It's the sort of show where I would say 'try before you buy', and thanks to Funimation's Video Portal, you can. Both episodes are available to be streamed, and while you're there, you can get a preview of the second Negima!? series as well.