Review for Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts Complete Series Collection
Practically the first Japanese word that anime fans learn is 'Baka'. It's human nature that we all use dictionaries to look at the naughty words first, and 'Baka' is an epithet that flies in many an anime. Incidentally, if you're ever in Japan, and approach the country with an 'Everything I know about Japan I learned from anime' attitude, there will probably be one of those jackets waiting for you that tie at the back. It's even become an anime trope, that most foreign tourists in Japan are foreign otaku with an anime form of Tourettes. Baka means idiot by the way, or moron or imbecile as the mood takes you.
This preamble brings us to the new offering from Manga Entertainment, Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts - Season 1. It's the latest fan oriented mish-mash of tropes and clichés, designed to appeal to the otaku demographic. On the surface it looks like it has a piece of everything in there. It's a high school anime, there's a harem set up of sorts, the protagonists operate in world where the rules demand that they summon avatars to do battle for them, there are tsundere and moe characters, there's a pervert, cross-dressing, there's comedy gay and lesbian themes, there's fan service, panty shots, booby bounce, and nosebleeds galore. It's like it ticks a checklist of everything that could make a hikkikomori venture forth from his mother's basement long enough to spend unrealistic amounts of yen on DVDs, Blu-rays, body pillows, and associated merchandising. But once in a while, mixing and blending elements of the old can result in something new and original.
Fumizuki Academy is a prep school with a difference. It has instituted the latest theories in education, which results in a social stratification of the students along the lines of academic results. After the first year, there is a placement test, and depending on the scores, the students are placed in class A-F. Those in class A get all the privileges, the equipment, the cushy furniture, the free food, the laptops, the works. Those in class F get broken tables, worn out tatami mats, a dusty classroom with the wind whistling through the holes in the windows. The quality of education gradually increases up the class system.
Yoshii Akihisa is an idiot. One of the rules is that if anyone leaves during the placement test, they automatically fail, and when the exceedingly cute Himeji faints during the test, he gallantly stands up for her. Which is how he ends up in Class 2-F. But there is a way to work his way back up the academic league. A class can challenge another class to a Summoner War. The latest in academic technology means that every student in Fumizuki Academy is assigned an avatar, and that avatar's strength is determined by how well that student does in exams. In an emergency, a student can sit a spot test to boost the avatar's stats. In a Summoner War, two classes' avatars do battle, the victors determined by the strength of the stats in a chosen subject, and the winners profit while the losers suffer. It's thus possible that Class 2-F could become Class 2-A through sufficient academic achievement. It's just that Yoshii's classmates don't exactly inspire confidence. Yuuji Sakamoto is a slacker who thinks he has it all worked out. Minami Shimada is tomboyish girl with an affection for Yoshii, and shows it by putting him in various wrestling submission holds. Kouta 'Muttsulini' Tsuchiya spends more time trying to peek up girls' skirts than he does being educated, and Hideyoshi Kinoshita looks so much like his twin sister that the boys in class 2-F are seriously confused about their sexual identities. On the bright side, Himeji wound up failing that exam too, and when she isn't fainting, she's a genius. And she's sweet on Yoshii.
The thirteen episodes of Baka & Test: Summon the Beasts are presented across two discs, along with some appealing extra features.
1. Idiots, Classes, and the Summoner Test War
2. Lilies, Roses, and Health and Physical Education
3. Food Budget, Dates and Stun Guns
4. Love, Spices, and Boxed Lunches
5. Maps, Treasures, and Striker Sigma V (Five)!
6. Me, Pools, and Swimsuit Paradises... and...
7. Me, Shouko, and Kisaragi Grand Park
8. Loss of Control, Labyrinths, and the Avatar Instrumentality Project
9. Kisses, Breasts, and Ponytails
10. Prep Tests, Mysterious Thieves, and Love Letters
11. Rivals, Love Letters, and Blitz Tactics
12. Love, Courage, and Our Battle Has Just Begun! (Temporary)
13. BAKA and TEST - Summon the Beast!
Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer that courtesy of Australia's Madman Entertainment has had the native PAL conversion applied. That means the prerequisite 4% PAL speed up of course, but it does deliver slightly higher resolution images, free of ghosting, judder, softness, and the usual issues associated with the bad old days of NTSC-PAL conversions. Baka and Test is a show that deserves a good transfer. In the US, it got a DVD and Blu-ray release (apparently Region A and B) but in the UK it is DVD only. It's not a show that asks a lot in terms of resolution, but it is very imaginative, colourful, and dynamic, with pleasing character designs, and a well-realised world, and it looks very nice indeed on this DVD. Silver Link takes a leaf from studio SHAFT, in terms of throwing everything at the screen. It's full of bizarre camera angles, fast cuts, interesting compositions, and a wide variety of animation and design styles, all to enhance the comedy. There are also plenty of sight gags and in-jokes that will require a quick finger on the pause button to appreciate. As SHAFT shows have shown, this approach can be hit and miss, but in Baka and Test, it works a treat for studio Silver Link.
You have the option of DD 5.1 English and DD 2.0 Japanese, with optional translated English subtitles, and a signs only track. I was as happy as a clam listening to the original Japanese audio. The dialogue is clear, the characters are cast appropriately, and the humour comes across well. I began to give the English dub a cursory sampling, and instead wound up watching an entire episode. This is one of the very few English comedy dubs that I have enjoyed. Rather than going all screechy trying to emulate the original characters, the humour has been shifted, and rewritten to engage more fully with a North American vernacular. The characters sound different, but are just as appropriately cast, while the comedy works differently to the original but is just as entertaining. This is one of the few shows that are actually worth watching twice, in both English and Japanese, as both languages offer different viewing experiences. Incidentally the Eurobeat theme songs are utterly annoying, and just as catchy.
The jokes fly thick and fast in this series, especially the text captions and sight gags, and there's a whole lot of fast paced subtitling going on. Even a die-hard sub fan like me would be hard pressed to keep up, and even I resorted to skipping back and pausing to catch what had been missed. It makes it all the more useful that the English dub is as good as it is in Baka and Test.
Both discs get static menus, and jacket pictures to be displayed when the discs aren't spinning.
All of the extras are on disc 2, and they are quite choice indeed.
Most notable are the short animations, which feature more antics with the characters from the show, often highlighting their more extreme personality traits. You have...
Mission: Impossible: Baka Preview (1 min)
Baka Only Cross-Dressing Contest (4 mins)
Mission: Impossible: Baka Mission 01 (3½ mins)
Mizuki Himeji Girls' Meal (3 mins)
The King Game in Fumizuka Academy (5 mins)
Special Christmas Footage (4 mins)
While Baka and Test Tales (4½ mins) offers some fairy tale adventures for the students' avatars.
As you can see, there is more than another episode's worth of material here, running to 25 minutes in total.
You'll also find 3½ minutes of promo videos, about 40 seconds of Original Commercials, and 40 seconds of Original DVD spots. The textless credit sequences are here, the textless opening, the first textless and the second textless closings, although the final episode textless closing isn't. Incidentally, you can't call a credit sequence truly textless if the player's subtitles are locked on for the duration.
That will teach me to be snarky! I admit that it's easy to get jaded and cynical about a lot of the current anime output from Japan, especially when you see the majority of the shows streaming to the world all have the familiar tropes and clichés designed to appeal to that audience, which spends most money on the content and the associated merchandising. I read up about Baka and Test, and found that all of those clichés and tropes were present and correct, and instantly passed judgement on it without even having watched it. It just goes to show that everyone has their prejudices that need to be challenged every now and again. Baka and Test: Summon The Beasts is the funniest anime I have seen in many a year and I was laughing uproariously throughout.
It isn't because it's original, and it isn't because it delivers anything new. In many ways it really does live up to my prejudices. It's a show steeped in tropes and clichés. Its setup and story has been so well established in other shows that it's even been spoofed. The first show that I thought of while watching this was Kujibiki Unbalance, the in-story franchise that was specifically created for the characters of Genshiken to gush and squee about. We have a high school setting, a tournament, with characters to suit every fan persuasion, and generic storylines to tick off on the anime fan 101 checklist (the swimsuit and bathhouse episodes are efficiently combined into one here); it is the epitome of predictable and safe comedy anime. Except that Baka and Test is anything but. What Baka and Test does is take all the accepted character clichés, all the familiar situations and goes all Spinal Tap on them. Everything is turned up to eleven. The intensity is manic to the point of insanity. The characters in this show embody their clichés to epic proportions, and when you combine them in this story, the results are entertaining in the extreme.
The story focuses on Class F, the class of idiots, and idiocy is the order of the day for most of them. The main character Yoshii is the usual, likeable comedy lead, except that he's incredibly dense when it comes to reading between the lines, and he's apt to say the wrong thing. His friend Yuuji on the other hand is laid-back, self confident, and usually overestimates his own abilities. It wouldn't be much of a comedy without a harem situation, and Yoshii has two girls giving him their special attention. Minami is the flat-chested tsundere tomboy that is apt to fracture every bone in Yoshii's body if he mentions it, and he inevitably does. Otherwise she is sweet on him. Himeji is the polar opposite, the epitome of moe, and for whom Yoshii is liable to melt, except that she likes to cook. She's no good at it, which is why every time she prepares a treat for Yoshii and his friends, it becomes a death lottery. Then there is Muttsulini, so named as it's a Japanese pun on voyeurism (he's just plain Voyeur in the English dub), who is always trying to get a picture of girls' panties, but almost dying from nosebleed blood loss every time. For a show you'd think would be steeped in fan service, Baka and Test is remarkably restrained, focusing more on Muttsulini's reactions than his objects of interest.
To confuse matters, there's Hideyoshi, who looks so much like his twin sister that he also becomes the object of lust for many of the boys in the class, Muttsulini starts trying to catch photos of him, and Yoshii keeps trying to contrive situations where Hideyoshi has to cross-dress. Of course there are characters in other classes and outside the school as well who play a part in the show, teachers and other students. Yuuji quickly picks up a Bunny Boiler in Shouko, the smartest girl in class A, who insists on marrying Yuuji at the earliest opportunity, and will blind him if he even looks at another girl, or Hideyoshi. Yoshii becomes the object of affection for Kubo, one of the boys in Class A, while a girl named Miharu lusts after Minami. If that isn't enough, Yoshii's older sister Akira shows up halfway through the run of episodes, and reveals an incestuous attraction to him that adds another layer of terror to his everyday life.
These are just the character interactions. We still have the everyday school life to deal with, in a school where Pokemon like battles determine academic placement, where the strength of the avatars sent into battle is set according to exam scores, and where the quality of your education depends on how well your avatars do in battle. It makes for an interesting school year when failing academically reduces you from a school desk to a cardboard box to work on. Scheming and battling isn't all that happens, as there are the usual school issues to deal with as well, dates and first loves, dwindling allowances and subsisting off cheap food in the case of Yoshii. While the first three episodes deal with the first major school battle, subsequently we have Himeji's cooking and Shouko's stalking, a school scavenger hunt, the aforementioned swimsuit episode, the theme park date, the big sister audit, the love letter blackmail episode, and the final school war.
Baka and Test: Summon The Beasts doesn't work despite its clichés; it works precisely because of them. The creators know that they aren't delivering anything original or groundbreaking; they know that we have seen it all before. They succeed by making every clichéd element that goes into Baka and Test, as good as it could possibly be. The characters are at the peak of their archetypes, the situation comedy is written extremely sharply and timed perfectly, and every beat hits you with another gag that just works. You may have seen it all before, but you haven't seen it done as well as this. It makes me look forward to Season 2 to see just how much further they can push the envelope.