Negima!?: Series 2 - Part 1
The second series of Negima is upon us, this time through the auspices of Manga Entertainment, and follows the Region 1 precedent of bundling the episodes in half season sets, rather than single volume releases. Of course it's not actually a continuation of the first season, rather a rebooted second series, starting again from the beginning, sort of. 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 don't have to worry about the second OVA series just yet, or the live action show, as neither has made it to the US, let alone the UK. 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). In between the two shows, they brought us the Spring and Summer OVA specials. Those are something of an odd hybrid, with the animation style, character traits and references to the second series, but set in the continuity of the first. But this second Negima!? series is very much its own animal, both stylistically and in terms of story, diverging even further from the manga that inspired it.
It's actually the second time that I have seen this show now, and the first time I'm actually reviewing the DVDs of a show that I have previewed on a legal online streaming website (Funimation's Video Portal), and I'm truly glad of the preview. As mentioned, I found the original Negima! series to be a guilty pleasure, full of fan service and silly comedy. My presumption was that Negima!? would be one of those pointless remakes that seem to typify modern pop culture, a cynical cash-in designed to part gullible punters from their cash. I sat in front of my PC screen, arms crossed, scowl on my face, daring it to entertain me, and for the first ten episodes, I convinced myself that I hated it. Then it grew on me. Now that I have the DVDs to review, I don't have to waste any energy on refusing to let it win me over, and can approach it with an open mind.
Negi Springfield is the newest member of the faculty at the Mahora Academy. It's a girls' school the size of a small city, and would be a daunting prospect for anyone, but Negi is actually a child prodigy, a college graduate at only ten years old. He can't even reach the blackboard, yet he has to teach English to a class of fourteen-year-old girls. Hailing from Wales, Negi has a secret to protect, he's actually a wizard, and his final challenge before gaining the rank of Magister Magi, is to teach at the Japanese school. However, under no circumstances must anyone find out who he really is, or he will be recalled back to Wales, stripped of his qualifications, and worse, turned into a small animal. At the same time, he has to deal with blood-sucking vampires, rogue robots, magical forces of darkness, trying to find out what happened to his father the legendary Thousand Master, and a perverted ermine named Albert Chamomile who is trying to get him to lock lips with every girl in his class.
The first thirteen episodes of Negima!? are presented here across two discs courtesy of Manga Entertainment. And… not the catchiest of episode titles.
1. What! 31 students right off the bat?!
15 years previously, a battle took place between a vampire and a wizard that left the vampire cursed and trapped behind a magical barrier. Now that vampire waits for the wizard's son, so that she can drink his blood and free herself. Negi Springfield has just graduated from magic school, and his first assignment is to teach English to a class of fourteen-year-old girls in Japan. That means saying goodbye to his sister Nekane and friend Anya, but he looks forward to the challenge in the hope that he will one day be as powerful and skilled as his long lost father, the Thousand Master. The one thing he simply must do is keep his magic abilities secret, not easy when the first thing that happens when he arrives is that student Asuna Kagurazaka sees him heal the broken tooth of his talking ermine Chamo.
2. No Way, That's what you do for a probationary contract?!
A vampire is loose around the precincts of Mahora Academy. The adult form of student Evangeline A.K. McDowell wants to escape the magical barrier that is keeping her trapped, and she needs Negi's blood to do it. Meanwhile, erasing Asuna's memory of his magic doesn't work, and instead she learns more about Negi's abilities. With all the bloodsucking that is going on at the campus, Asuna's convinced that there is a Chupacabra on the loose, and the hunt begins.
3. Oh-ho, so that's how a probationary contract card is used?
Evangeline's plan to escape unfolds, and she has created enough familiars to keep the staff busy while she preys on Negi. She hasn't counted on Asuna's shoes, which carefully aimed can fell a vampire at a significant distance. Asuna may be coming to Negi's rescue, but she hasn't counted on Eva's magic. Chamo advises a probationary contract, a pactio to confer some of Negi's abilities on Asuna, to enhance her natural strengths, and to create a team capable of taking on Eva and her robot Chachamaru. But first, Asuna and Negi have to lock lips.
4. Teacher.. It's my first time.
Nodoka Miyazaki is a shy, bookish student who from the first moment that Negi saved her from Evangeline, has developed a powerful crush on him. Which is why she has her head buried in a book about magic and love when odd things start happening at Mahora. There is a darkness spreading about the school grounds, prompting Asuna to gather a few friends and form the Chupacabra Research Society. While they investigate, Negi and his mentor Takamichi actively hunt down the darkness and magically vanquish it. The odd goings on summon a couple of envoys from Negi's magic school to observe, and they take the form of Motsu and Shichimi, a badly drawn frog and a badly drawn cat in student Haruna Saotome's sketchbook. They have bad news. The Star Crystal, the ultimate magical amplifier has been stolen, and it is probably causing the outbreak of darkness in the school. Suddenly the darkness opens up a parallel world in a school bathroom, trapping Negi, Asuna and Nodoka in what look like the forests of Wales with an irate fairy. They'll need brains not brawn to get out, which means Negi will have kiss Nodoka.
5. Deposits and key fees are expensive in Tokyo. Wait, that's not what the probationary contract's about?
It looks like the darkness has been defeated, although Negi is concerned about the fairy that's apparently behind what happened. Meanwhile he helps Nodoka get used to her new magical powers, only what she uses them for is hardly constructive. They'll need to stop fooling around when Asuna's roommate Konoka is kidnapped... by a tree. The probationary contract is pretty random, once invoked, the magic-user chooses a card; a power card or cosplay card is good, but a dud card is bad, reducing the partner to a cute animated stuffed animal, with no power whatsoever. All of a sudden, Negi is pulling dud cards.
6. Pardon me. Might I not be excused with either the forehead or the cheek?
Uh-oh, the darkness and the fairy are back, and this time she has minions. Students Kaede, Yuna, and Chisame have been ensorcelled, and are battling against Negi and his friends. But with Konoka, Nodoka and Asuna in cute cuddly mode, he and Setsuna will have to escape and find refuge with their friends in tow. There's nothing else for it, Negi will have to pucker up and lay one on Setsuna to increase his chances of pulling a power card, only she flat out refuses?
7. Um, I thing there are good things about not being seen, but I thing there are times when it's better to be seen, too.
Asuna's obsession with Chupacabras has taken on a new dimension, and she's taken delivery of Chupacabra T-shirts (henceforth known as Chupa-Ts) for the members of the society. Only they had a discounted bulk offer, and she now has thousands of the things to get rid off. It's time to go around the dormitory, trying to find gullible, I mean interested buyers. Someone else who is wandering the dormitory is Sayo Aisaka, class 3-A's sole ghost student. No one else knows she exists, but ever since Negi found out about her, he's been trying to help her remember the regret that's tying her to this world, so that she can move on. She thinks that there may be an answer in the girl's dorm, but no one is prepared for the havoc that will ensue.
8. Professor, please make us adults.
The twins Fuka and Fumika have a problem. Everyone treats them as children. They want to be more adult, and the answer may lie on Library Island, Mahora Academy's massive library complex. It's so big that they will have to explore their way to the secret of maturity. At the same time, Negi needs some information on that fairy that they recently vanquished, and how it all ties in to the missing Star Crystal. Together with his partners Asuna, Konoka, Setsuna, and Nodoka, they too venture into the library, avoiding traps and pitfalls, hoping to find out more.. But they are being watched. A dark, mysterious figure appears, makes an enigmatic statement and then vanishes. Could the Black Rose Baron be...?
9. You hide the 'heart' with a 'sword' and read it as 'ninja.' It is a little different than how you write 'serious' and read it as 'for real.'
It's hard for Negi and his partners to find some valuable time to practice magic, until Konoka suggests a Chupacabra Society Camp as a cover for their activities. But there's darkness in the forest, as well as the Black Rose Baron, and Negi's hard at work dealing with it all, so hard that he collapses from exhaustion. Fortunately there is a Ninja Princess Charming in the woods, and if Kaede wakes Sleeping Cuteness Negi with a kiss, the Chupacabra Society will add to their fighting strength.
10. Professor Negi went behind my back?! I shall never condone such a thing.
After defeating the fairy and sealing it away, all that was left was a red crystal, analysis of which reveals that it is a soul's cry, that someone has been captured by the Star Crystal. Class rep Ayaka is miffed that the Chupa Soc stole Negi away for a camping weekend, Negi's still trying to do everything alone, despite his growing harem of partners, and when the Black Rose Baron makes another appearance, Negi asks the question that has been tormenting him ever since they first met. Before he can get an answer, the darkness returns with a vengeance, abducting several unsuspecting students to use as minions, and pulling Negi and his partners back into a parallel world, with a new fairy to defeat.
11. Huh, so the Baron is a kind of a rose. I thought it was a kind of potato.
Asuna's Chupa-Ts aren't selling, and coming home to find the Black Rose Baron eating dinner, and using one as a napkin doesn't help. This means war, and Asuna vows to capture the fiend. The solution? A chupacabra trap. While all this goes on, Haruna and Yue witness Negi and Nodoka working some magic, and it looks like the game is up. That's unless they can quickly work out a pactio threesome. But at the last minute, when it comes down to the all important kiss, Yue chickens out.
12. After much quibbling, in the end all it comes down to is how you feel.
It looks like the elaborate tissue of lies is all about to fall apart, as Yue knows about Negi's magic, and she isn't part of the secret circle. When Motsu and Shichimi find out, all they need is the evidence to strip Negi of his powers and turn him into a small animal. The chase is on, Negi and the Chupa Soc to find Yue and complete the pactio, while the two officials try to find her and get the proof they need. But Yue has some searching to do herself, just how does she feel about Negi?
13. Rather than a question of you being the enemy, the issue is really whether or not you are a nuisance to the Master.
The worst has happened, the whole of class 3-A has found out that Negi is a wizard, worse, the observers Motsu and Shichimi witness this, so the inevitable happens, Negi is stripped of his powers and turned into a small animal. He's turned into a chupacabra (there was a point to that after all). If that isn't enough, the darkness returns and pulls all of class 3-A into an illusory world, taking them to an ancient castle from Negi's past.
The immediate difference is the aspect ratio. The first Negima! series from XEBEC was 4:3, but the OVAs and this 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. Watch out for Asuna's hair, which is prehensile in this version of the show, and a useful indicator of her state of mind. You'll be using the pause button quite often for the on screen captions that translate little snippets of writing on black boards, placards and the like. It's a practical in-joke minefield. The animation is of high quality, vibrant, expressive and fluid, and you can see the effects of a higher budget, but I do find the character designs are a tad flatter than in the first series. As you would expect, the transfer is an NTSC-PAL standards conversion, but it's a pretty good one. Pans and scrolls are relatively smooth, the image is well defined and not prone to excessive softness. It's a pleasant enough viewing experience.
Except for the compression artefacts. It would be easy to put the blame on episode count per disc, but I've seen the same on anime discs of just four episodes. The problem is fast and frenetic motion. When there is a lot happening on-screen, and there is a high frame rate, animated lines and edges tend to break up, resulting in pixellation and mosquito noise. It's most prevalent here during the opening credits, taking place in a stage filled with countless CGI school desks and fast camera movement. It does crop up during the show as well on occasion, and in that respect this isn't the most robust of transfers. It is still watchable though. Oddly enough, the digitally streamed episodes suffered from exactly the same issue, making me wonder if it isn't a problem with the source material.
Just as in the first series from Revelation, 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, with a couple of toe-tapping tunes accompanying the credits, unwisely re-recorded in English for the dub version. Once again, the arrangement of the opening theme and this time the closing theme, changes every few episodes. There are subtle differences in the credit sequence animations as well to reflect this. As with a fair number of series, the Japanese voice artists also sing the theme tune, and with a cast as extensive as Negima's, it's the only way to get them all involved.
One of the selling points of this second Negima series is that they have managed to retain both the English and Japanese language casts from the first series. Simple enough for Funimation who dubbed both series, harder in Japan, where the production companies changed, and it is such a large cast. I'm very happy with the Japanese version, there are a couple of quirky and memorable characters, particularly Konoka and Kaede, whose voice actor performances I adore. I'm not too keen on the English dub though, and it seems that despite the cast continuity, it sounds harder on the ears, with the incongruity of thirty-something voice actresses providing voices for fourteen year old girls all too apparent. And Greg Ayres still sounds like Negi Van Dyke.
A simple static menu with the theme tune playing, a jacket picture for when the disc isn't spinning, it's all par for the course for your average anime discs.
When each episode ends, you get a little skit with some of the characters, whether it's a Baka Rangers mini-animation, some Chupacabra silliness, or Chao's Ambition.
The extras are all on disc 2, beginning with both of the textless closing songs, although not all of the sequences.
'Notes From The Classroom' offers translations for those little background text jokes that your DVD wasn't fast enough to offer subtitle translations for. There are some from each of the episodes.
There is a commentary to go with episode 12. Jamie Marchi hosts, and as well as ADR directing some of the episodes (not 12), she also worked on the script translation, as well as providing the voice of Haruna. Joining her are Brina Palencia (Yue and Shichimi) and Greg Ayres (Negi). It's another one of those Funimation commentary gigglefests that inevitably has me rolling my eyes, but there is a fair amount of substance in between all the chortles. There's a look at the ADR process, and more interestingly, a comparison between this and the first series. It turns out to be quite a useful track.
I have a confession to make. I prefer the first series. It's closer to the Ken Akamatsu manga, which means that there are a whole lot of awkward situations, crossed wires, and Negi winding up in compromising situations which invariably result in a slapping from Asuna. It's comedy fan service, harmless lechery in the Carry On mould, and given that Akamatsu's Love Hina sparked off my second love affair with anime, it's understandable just why I would feel that way. But it wouldn't take too much arm-twisting for me to admit that in almost every other way, the second series is by far the better product. The animation is better, the story is better, it's a cornucopia of visual gags, utterly stylish and atmospheric, and with a left field sense of humour that while it takes some getting used to, is actually more entertaining than a wizard accidentally sneezing someone's clothes off. This Negima is more surreal, bizarre, and totally unexpected. I also managed to enjoy it from the first episode this time, rather than be offended at its existence for seven or eight episodes before it worked its charms on me.
There are two types of remake in this world, the pointless remake, and the remakes that actually do something different and fresh. Negima!? is one of the latter. It also means that you don't necessarily need to have seen the original series or read the manga, although I find that it does help in giving you a little insight into the characters and their relationships. That said, the characters are sufficiently different that you can do without. In fact everything about this anime is different, it's a different story, taking place in a parallel universe, completely unrelated to the original, and offering something completely unfamiliar.
It does look for a few episodes that it will be a widescreen rehash however, as the first three episodes cover the Evangeline story again, albeit with a much more atmospheric approach to the animation, and faster paced too. But there are subtle differences in the way that the characters are handled, and that storyline unfolds in a different direction. That's really just to set the stage, to lull existing Negima fans into a false sense of security, before the story jumps forward in time to the next school year, and we head off on a completely different tangent, with a strange darkness afflicting the school, and the wizards on staff, Negi and Takamichi trying to deal with it discreetly. The cause can be traced to the theft of a magical artefact, and as the story unfolds, the situation gets more and more perilous, as the darkness first spreads, and then begins to draw victims into illusory worlds. Negi's desire for discretion takes a back seat, as being sucked into a fairy realm is a pretty obvious indicator that magic exists, and to increase his abilities, he has to enlist more and more partners with the pactio.
Incidentally, this is the weakest aspect of the show, taking a leaf from Pokemon and the like, as he collects partners and creates something of a harem. The magic card device reinforces that, with every magical contract invoked by drawing a card, and depending on which one is drawn, the partner will gain certain powers for a brief period of time. It also becomes clear that this series has considerably more fan service than the first, as it also follows the magical girl staple, established by shows like Sailor Moon and Cutey Honey. Any transformation of a girl from normal to powered up is accompanied by a costume change moment with lots of bright lights and flashy animation, and the girl will be naked for a good portion of the magical transformation sequence. This is nudity on the level of mannequins before you get too incensed (or excited), all curves and no bits. But, they are fourteen-year-old girls, and it probably explains the age rating to the show. In this first half, it does occasionally feel as if it's more focused on Negi collecting kisses and partners, as well as showing off abilities, and booby cards, than it is on developing the story, but that feeling is rare, and more than counterbalanced by the comedy.
One thing I have mixed feelings about is the way that the characters are presented in this version of the show. One of the biggest problems with the first series was sheer character overload. With 31 girls in a class, it was inevitable that some would fail to register, while only a few would get development. The second series tries to remedy that, and as the show progresses, more and more of the girls get screen time, especially with the aid of random comedy sketch diversions, as well as the skits that follow the end credits on each episode. It's a lot fairer, and I got to know more about characters like Chao Lingshen, Satsuki, Chizuru, and Zazie Rainyday than I ever did with the first series. But the characters are subtly different from their manga and first series counterparts, most are warmer and more likeable, some personality traits are altered (Ayaka is more of a Negi groupie rather than just indecently lusting after him), and some are completely different. My biggest regret here is that Asuna is an idiot. She was a little short of IQ in the first series, but her character was a central part of the story, and she did get a lot more emotional development, as did her relationship with Negi. Here she's just a Chupacabra fanatic, pretty one-dimensional, and not as central to the story as before. Even worse, her eyes are the same colour. Gone is the heterochromia that was so distinctive originally. Actually that is another nitpick I have with the show. While the animation is on a different order to that originally, and SHAFT have applied all their quirky tricks to make the look of the show individual, distinctive, and full of neat surprises to keep your eyes out for, they have altered the character designs, and they do look more 2-dimensional and not quite as detailed as before. It had to be done to fit in with the animation style, but I do prefer the original designs.
The good news is that this Negima isn't a remake, it's something completely fresh and new. The bad news is that the animation style is pretty marmite. SHAFT have a habit of throwing everything at the screen including the kitchen sink, so it can look cluttered and over-egged at times. It can also look quirky, stylish and individual, depending on your tastes. I happen to think it works best with spooky and atmospheric tales, which this second Negima!? series certainly is. It pointedly didn't work in the Negima OVAs that SHAFT animated, and were released here earlier this year. You get a different story, a show filled with a quirky, off-beat sense of humour, replete with puns, visual gags, sight gags, in-jokes and general weirdness, a show with more fan service, but nowhere near as ribald or cheeky as the first series, and a story, which while it isn't an instant grab, is enough to keep you interested in the show. The better news is that the show actually gets better in the second half, indeed my favourite Negima episode of all is up next, which makes the cliff-hanger at the end of this set all the more infuriating. But I'm still left with a niggling question, if this show is better than the first series in almost every respect, and it is, why do I still prefer the first series? I'm also pointedly reminded that watching a show on DVD is far more enjoyable an experience than watching it streamed online, even if that stream is a legal one from the studio.